Raised in Boulder, Colorado, Steve moved to Bozeman, Montana to study Architecture at MSU in 1972. His passion for banjo playing led him to opening a music store, “The Backporch Pickin’ Parlor” in 1976. At that time there were numerous quality guitar brands available; Martin, Mossman, Gurian, Taylor, as well as quality banjo brands; Ome, Stelling and Deering. The Pickin’ Parlor became well known throughout the northwest for the many high quality instruments in stock, and people would drive all the way from Seattle and Denver just to pick on, and from, the banjo selection . . . but there was no such thing as a quality mandolin available . . . which was quite frustrating for Steve.
In the summer of 1977 Steve and his wife Maxine went to their first bluegrass festival, the Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival at the Adams County Fairgrounds in Henderson, Colorado. It was at that festival that Steve came upon a card table vendor setup with two little mandolins that sounded just great. Steve thought these mandolins would be a great addition to the Pickin’ Parlor and he immediately bought both of them, taking them back to Montana. Over the course of the next year Steve had sold and reordered about 10 of these mandolins and then the maker, Chuck Morrison, informed Steve that he would not be making any more mandolins. It was just not profitable for him to continue. Chuck was a guitar maker and did repair work for a local Boulder music store. Steve, frustrated with the thought of losing this great mandolin for his store, quizzed Chuck about how hard it would be to build these mandolins (and being extremely entrepreneurial Steve had considered that; since he had sold 10 of these mandolins in the course of a year, in the little town of Bozeman, then surely every store in the country could sell them). Chuck seemed to think it would be possible to learn so Steve convinced his friend Dennis Balian to partner with him to setup and build these little mandolins. For $200 Chuck sold Steve and Dennis a single page plan/drawing of the mandolin and a list of the tools they would need. They bought a bandsaw, drillpress, belt/disc sander, and a spray gun, but despite best efforts, it seemed they could not get past the dovetail joint. Steve was always busy with lessons and Dennis was busy playing music and skiing. Mandolins were just not happening.
In December 1979, the Carlson’s were visiting Steve’s folks in Boulder for Christmas, and they met up with Chuck for lunch at the Boulderado Hotel. At that time Chuck’s desire was to leave Boulder and move to Vermont where he wanted to live and build classical guitars. Steve still wanted to build mandolins so he convinced Chuck to move his family to Montana and build mandolins first, for at least a year. Vermont wasn’t going anywhere, so why not build some mandolins on the way? Steve bought out Dennis from their partnership and Chuck and Steve became partners in the new ‘Flatiron’ mandolin company. Early sales continually outpaced production which became a source of contention between Chuck and Steve, and while remaining friends, the partnership never really worked all that well. After a year was up, Steve bought out Chuck, who then moved on to Vermont.
With Chuck’s departure, Steve’s role in the Pickin’ Parlor diminished as he dove headlong into retooling and fixturing the fledgling mandolin company. First help and insight into jigs and such came from Dave Brough, a local violin maker. It was however, a chance meeting with Bob Taylor at the summer NAMM show in Chicago, probably 1981, that really changed the course of things. Steve was sharing a booth with Greg and Janet Deering and all three; Flatiron, Deering, and Taylor were staying at the same $34/night motel about 30 miles north of the McCormick Convention Center. After setting up their booths they all went out for pizza. For some reason Bob really got a kick out of listening to Steve talk about different problems with production and he offered up an endless stream of suggestions. Things he had gone through at Taylor Guitars, things he had tried, what worked and what didn’t. Steve and Bob developed a fast friendship and for years their conversations would go something like this. Steve: “We’re having a problem with ‘A’, and this is how we currently do it.” Bob: “Yes, we used to have that problem, and we fixed it by doing ‘B’. But I’ve thought about it a lot and if I had the time I think I would try ‘C’.” Steve: (2 weeks later) “Bob, man you’ve got to set up and do ‘C’. It works great! Just perfect! Now our problem is ‘D’, and this is how we currently do it.” To which Bob would reply: “Yes, we used to have that problem, and we fixed it by doing ‘E’. But I’ve thought about it a lot and if I had the time I think I would try ‘F’.” Steve: (2 weeks later) “Bob, it’s fantastic!” . . . well you get the idea.
Steve is probably first and foremost a puzzle solver. He likes asking questions, and excels at finding the answer. He is a romantic who likes to think through the possibilities of ‘why not?’ He simply loves making great stuff. With the purchase of ZETA he’s now put himself back in the instrument making mode, something he loves to do and excels at. With his first 44 new Zeta’s nearing completion he can’t wait to jump into the next batch; buckeye burl, redwood burl and macassar ebony. The 1st new Zeta Upright Bass and Cello are going together now and Steve is looking forward to building a custom matching set of instruments.
“The path leading to what one finds merit in doing is most often found by taking a step forward”
Read more at “It’s been 21 years”