By: Jim Hannaford

Andy MacDonald has a particular vision for his guitar shop in Stapleton, the iconic Picker’s Paradise. It should have a warm and welcoming vibe, for sure, and a strong focus on vintage instruments and traditional music.

“I want it to be the kind of place that I would like to visit somewhere when I’m in another city on vacation.,” MacDonald says. “If I’m traveling, I will ask around to find out where the store is that’s kind of bluegrass-y, and then I’ll go there and ask where the music jams are, and then I’ll go to the jam.”

He’s describing a valuable local business that functions as a kind of community for like-minded musicians, and Picker’s Paradise certainly does. There’s a problem with his scenario, though – anyone who knows Andy also knows he’s a relentless multi-tasker who’s almost constantly on the go. So even though he claims to have spent a couple of days and nights in the mountains of Mentone a while back, it’s almost impossible to imagine him slowing down long enough to do some sightseeing, much less lingering for very long inside someone else’s retail establishment.

First of all, there are the back-to-back-to-back music lessons he gives on multiple instruments. Day after day except for Sundays, Andy does this for half-hours on end, most of them from the same cozy space that he has occupied since 2002. 

Even he finds it hard to believe that he’s been affiliated with Picker’s Paradise for 22 years, the last seven as its owner. He had come over from Mobile to perform at their weekly bluegrass gathering and something in his manner suggested to the store’s original proprietors, Jim and Lyle Ball, that he had what it takes to be a good instructor. 

They were right. He teaches up to 30 hours a week, most of them inside the distinctive, oddly shaped wooden building that’s almost smack dab in the middle of Baldwin County. About half of the lessons are on guitar, which he’s best known for, but he also shows the ropes on mandolin, banjo, bass guitar, violin, and piano, which was his first instrument. He employs three other instructors, as well, and is proud to say that all of them, himself included, are also professional performers.

“I personally keep between 50 and 60 students on the books a week, but when you have that many it’s no big surprise when almost a quarter of them don’t show up,” he says.

This can actually be a good thing. When a student doesn’t appear for his or her lesson, he quickly pivots to another part of the shop to assist customers, return phone calls, or shift into repairman mode, fixing or adjusting the many acoustic and electric instruments that await. To acquire these specialized skills, he says, he learned in part by observing two of the area’s experts, Jim Ball of Picker’s and Eldon Bryson of West Mobile, both sadly now departed.

If everyone is in place at the appointed times, that’s great for the credit side of the ledger but it may mean putting in extra hours playing catch-up with those repair jobs. And there’s another effect: “It’s exhausting,” he admits. “Giving lessons is the hardest work I’ve ever done because you do 30 minutes and then you immediately have to reset to the personality of the new student. It takes a while to get used to that.”

A native of Laurel, Miss., Andy took up the guitar himself at age 14 after a couple of years of piano lessons that didn’t quite resonate at the time. After just a few short days with a guitar in his hands, he was hooked for life. He then took up bass and found some regional acclaim as part of an alternative rock band called Adley Madidafus. 

After developing talents behind the scenes in television news at WDAM in Hattiesburg and WALA in Mobile, he moved to Southern California and worked as a video editor for a company that customized movies for airlines. While out west, he unexpectedly found a powerful new passion in bluegrass music, which he had earlier dismissed as being hokey before realizing the depth of its musicality.

Andy returned to Mobile and Channel 10 and started playing regularly with his high-energy string band, Fat Man Squeeze, which features longtime friend Cliff Fulkerson. His offer to start teaching part-time at Picker’s came just as that TV job was being phased out, so he threw his heart and soul into the new gig, recruiting as many students as possible.

His workload at Picker’s would be plenty for most people, but there’s more. Andy is also a husband and father to three sons, so he has a busy family life and is active with his church, All Saints Episcopal in Mobile. He performs in public frequently, in various configurations, at bars, restaurants, and special events. On top of all that, he’s also the informative and entertaining culinary editor at the Mobile-based Lagniappe Weekly. It may seem like a dream job to chronicle your memorable meals but keep in mind that those writing deadlines have come without fail for going on 15 years.

Seeking more responsibilities to juggle, Andy is in the process of opening a second location that will be called Picker’s Midtown, which will be close to where he lives. Look for it soon in the corner space of the same small strip shopping center that is home to Mobile Records.

Don’t step into either shop bracing for an aggressive sales pitch. Aside from his love for making music, Andy is also a practical businessman, but he’s somewhat philosophical about his smart but casual approach to making a sale. 

“Trying to sell something just for the sake of just moving it out the door doesn’t work,” he says. “If you’ve sold it to the guy who doesn’t need it, then you don’t have it to sell to somebody else who does need it, and he’s going to have to go somewhere else.”

Further, he adds, there’s a bit of a do-unto-others ethos in play. “It’s not just a karma thing, but I’ve seen people that screw people over and I’ve seen people that never screwed someone over,” Andy says, “and the people I’ve seen that never screwed anybody over, I’ve never seen them get screwed over. When you’re in the mindset of screwing people over, you’re going to get screwed over. That’s it.”

Stop and check out Picker’s Paradise the next time you head up to Stapleton. Or call (251) 937-0511. Tell Andy, hello and keep up the good work. He will shoot you straight every time!

Apr 24, 2024
People & Business Profiles

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