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Will Ackerman: Six-String Explorer

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I don't know if I've met anyone else whose life has been such a mix of extreme highs and lows. Will Ackerman is a guitarist, producer, and founder of Windham Hill Records. He built a globally-recognized music label, and is generally credited with creating the "New Age" genre. (He hates the term, by the way.) On the other hand, he survived a traumatic childhood, including the suicide of his mother; and the success of his company precipitated a personal crisis that nearly killed him. The sale of Windham Hill left him with more than enough money, but he maintains a busy schedule of performing and recording, and operates a music label and studio under the name Imaginary Road. The beginning of Will's career was a series of happy accidents, including this account of how he cut his first record.  

It's a common thing in college, if you fancy yourself a guitarist, to find a public space with great acoustics, sit down, and play. Dormitory stairwells can be ideal -- for sound, if not elbow room. When Ackerman was a student and even after he dropped out, he could often be found playing his guitar in campus stairwells. 

 

After a while, small crowds began to gather. So he looked for a bigger space with good acoustics, and found a set of arches. "It provided almost a venue," he recalls. "It was out of the rain if it was raining. No one was invited, it's just that they knew this thing existed." It became a weekly event, with Ackerman and a few other guitarists playing the archway. The crowds grew, from a couple dozen to a few hundred.  


"So I had this audience who kept saying, 'How come you don't have a record?' I didn't have a good answer for that, so I finally said, 'Look, anyone who wants a record, put a five-dollar bill in this basket here and give me your name, and when I'm done recording it I'll bring you a record.'  And a bunch of people did, and I got just enough money to go into Mantra Studios in San Mateo, California, and record my first record in two afternoons."  

 

He almost canceled the whole deal when he was told that the minimum order was 300 copies. "I was certain that I'd have 150 of these in my closet for the rest of my life." 

 

That album, recorded in 1976, was In Search of the Turtle's Navel. It's still in print today. Not only did it launch Will Ackerman's musical career; it also launched the Windham Hill label. 

Read the rest of Will Ackerman's story in my book, including his extremely troubled childhood, his struggles to cope with the sudden fame of Windham Hill, and his post-Windham Hill career as a musician and producer. 
 
Click here to read extended excerpts from my interviews with Ackerman, including: how he met George Winston, the health crisis that nearly killed him in 1984, and his approach to composing on the guitar. 
 
Listen to my first interview with Ackerman, originally broadcast on NHPR's The Front Porch on September 8 and September 9, 2004.
 
Visit Ackerrman's website for information on his music and his recording studio.  
 
 

Contact me by e-mail at john (at) johnswalters (dot) com.