STATE OF THE ARTS
Bob Tedrow talks Homewood, music, photography,
and everything in between
by Sarah Campbell photos courtesy of Bob Tedrow
Musician. Photographer. Husband, father, and grandfather. Longtime local businessman. As a child growing up mostly in Colorado, Bob Tedrow aspired to be something else entirely: an old lady. “The woman who ruined my life was my [maternal] grandmother, a jazz piano player in the 1920s,” he remembers. She taught him the ukulele (his gateway instrument to the guitar and banjo), and she was also a landscape photographer and an oil painter who drove sports cars. “That’s why I wanted to grow up to be an old woman,” Bob says.
There’s also family history behind Bob’s own locally famous set of wheels, a 1928 Model A Ford. His other set of grandparents had a Model A in the barn, and as a little kid, “I would get in that car and pretend like I was driving all over the world.” That grandfather, his father’s father, was a mandolin player.
In other words, for Bob Tedrow, it was only a matter of time.
Though he gravitated towards music, even forming a touring bluegrass band in college, “I thought that I had to get a college degree because I couldn’t play the banjo for the rest of my life.” He married Klari, the sister of the band’s guitar player, and earned a degree in occupational therapy from Colorado State. With a baby on the way, he took the first job offered to him: working at a North Carolina mental hospital. “I had no experience with that at all,” Bob says. “I did not know what I was getting into.”
Then life working inside the asylum led him back to music. With patients, “we spent a lot of time with tools and leatherwork and pottery and weaving, because it was old-school occupational therapy. I didn’t really care for it. So I thought, ‘Well, I’ll learn to repair instruments.’ So I bought an instrument repair manual. The only one I could find was written in the 1930s. I just started following the directions, put tools in my drawers, and on my lunch hour I would take apart flutes and clarinets and put them back together again.”
By the 1980s, when the Tedrows moved to Birmingham so that Klari (now an immigration attorney) could attend law school at Samford, Bob had taught himself instrument repair. He put his tinkering to work repairing instruments for pawn shops, the Birmingham City School system, and for the educational division of the symphony. “I bought a big city map and traced lines from each elementary school to pick up their musical instruments,” Bob remembers. He learned the area’s geography by driving his Model A to collect instruments.
At about the same time, Bob opened Homewood Musical Instrument Company, renting space on the corner of Oxmoor Road and Central Avenue across from Homewood Central Park from the original Nabeel himself for $365 a month. Bob moved the store to a new location further down the road but still waxes poetic about his decades across from the park: “That shop was the original Hamburger Heaven in the 1940s. It was a beauty parlor at one time, it was a comic book shop, it was a place called Sundaes at the Park, it was an upholstery shop, Southside TV Repair, and probably several other businesses that came and went. But it was always a focal point of the city of Homewood; when it was Hamburger Heaven or when it was my shop it was always a special little building.”
As the years passed, Bob became well known for his hand-built concertinas (what Gepetto plays in Pinocchio, or Bashful in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). He has built about 100 of them over the course 15 years, but now he’s transferred that enthusiasm into old-school photography techniques, an offshoot of a childhood interest in photography. “We had a family camera, and my mother was good enough to buy me rolls of film,” he remembers—his work at 10 or 11 focused on his friends and his friends’ toys. These days he curates three Instagram feeds, mostly a mixture of instrument, dog, and human portraiture. It’s partly a business decision since “people spend their time on their phones looking at pictures of things they want to buy,” but part of it, of course, is fun: he started the Humans of Homewood Instagram, inspired by Humans of New York. “Now I’m not attributing it to myself, but I’ve been trying to keep Homewood cool, make Homewood cool for a long time,” he jokes. “The change in Homewood itself over the 30 years since I’ve been paying attention is remarkable. We have become far more cosmopolitan.”
And that’s another way Bob Tedrow is leaving his mark on Homewood. For the past four years, he has served as a member of the Homewood Arts Council. Jazz in the Park, Pickin’ in the Park and Handmade Art Show, a festival of musicians in October along with a craft fair, and the art gallery in City Hall—these are all initiatives undertaken by the Arts Council with a nod to Homewood’s next decades. “What we’re trying to do is make sure that the projects that we start are tended to, and that they sustain and last and become part of our community’s heritage rather than a little one-off show,” he says. For Bob, who does not believe humans are supposed to retire, thinking about the influence of the past on the future gets a little more personal. “I hope I have an impact on my grandchildren,” he says. “I hope that I have a measured impact on my grandchildren some day.”