PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — When the music shop Chris Morton was working for closed in 2012, he convinced his fellow employees and a mentor to help set up a new shop, King Morton’s Hall of Music.
“For us, this isn’t just a job,” said Morton, who owns and manages the music shop on Main Street. The store is entering its fifth year as King Morton’s Hall of Music, offering instruments and lessons in a variety of instruments and one of the largest guitar selections in northern Maine.
The business has become a hub for music lessons and the catalyst for a number of bands, and it’s the result of a lifelong friendship between Morton and Larry Hall, a retired K-12 music teacher, as well as Randy King, a longtime guitar teacher. The name King Morton’s Hall of Music is a play on the trio’s last names.
Morton, a lifelong drummer originally from Ashland, could have moved elsewhere a decade ago to pursue a career as a studio drummer, but thanks to Hall’s advice, he stayed closer to home and found another music career.
“I started playing drums when I was about 4 years old and became very active in the Ashland band program. Mr. Hall was my music teacher, and I met him when I was in pre-k. Mr. Hall used to play guitar and sing with all of us. I had him as a music teacher right on up through high school,” Morton said.
“When I was a senior in high school, I wanted to go to college in Orono for music performance. I wanted to be a studio drummer someplace. Mr. Hall talked me out of it. He was going to write me a letter of recommendation, which he did. But he also cautioned me that I’d probably never find a job in Aroostook County. I didn’t want to leave. I’m happy here,” Morton said. “He was right, because it’s turned out really well.”
In 2004, as an English major at the University of Maine in Presque Isle, Morton was recruited by Hall to a job cleaning school band instruments and selling guitar strings and accessories at what was then Aroostook Music. Hall had been hired by the store to fix instruments in 1999, the year Mapleton musician David Paiva sold his home-based band instrument rental and repair business to Northern Kingdom Music, a network of Maine band rental and instrument stores that operated Aroostook Music first on State Street and later on Main Street.
In March 2012, Northern Kingdom’s Portland-based owner closed the Presque Isle store and sold the business (some Northern Kingdom Music shops remain, including in Bangor) and Morton, Hall and King, the three employees, were laid off, as the owner sold off the inventory.
By May of that year, Morton started a new music shop, with the aim of adding lessons and building the business in guitars — an instrument that has grown in popularity as a hobby for musicians young and old.
“I decided to go in on my own and start my own store. I talked to the other guys and they agreed to come on board as employees,” Morton said. “We just renovated this building and opened the business. We started from scratch. We took out a loan to get some inventory and developed a lesson program. That’s worked out really well for us.”
Today, the shop does a steady business in guitar sales and lessons for 50 to 70 youth and adult learners in drums, guitar, piano and, more recently, cello, flute, violin and vocals.
Heath Bartley teaches guitar at King Morton’s Hall three days a week and also recently released his first album. Randy King still teaches guitar, Morton teaches drums, Kim Keihn teaches piano and Teresa Herold, the newest instructor, teaches piano, violin and cello.
“School band numbers keep declining but we’ve been able to make up for that by searching out teachers and doing more private lessons,” Morton said. Younger generations have continued to take up the guitar, as well as piano and drums and other instruments, and new generations of school music teachers are also beginning to offer more guitar lessons, given its popularity, he said.
Though being a business owner has been a little intimidating, Morton said the business is going well and he relishes the “involvement in the music community. I’m in two different bands just because of people I’ve met here.”
One is a jazz group called The County Combo and the other is a 16-member Motown band, The Star-City Syndicate, which is playing at UMPI Feb. 4 as part of a fundraising concert for the school’s Wieden Auditorium. Both bands play at a range of venues and do regular benefit concerts.
Hall, who at 73 continues to do instrument repair at King Morton’s Hall, also helped launch a music group that’s since taken on a life of its own — the Aroostook River Voices, a group of 100 members and 12 music teachers who perform twice a year.