“It was somewhere in the ’60s, probably the last time Johnny Cash appeared at the Bostonia Ballroom,” says Jim Soldi. “And he decided he wanted a new guitar. He was playing an old Martin D-28, and it was all scratched up.” Back then, the Bostonia at Broadway and 2nd Street in El Cajon was still a fixture on the West Coast country-music circuit. “My dad, Cactus Soldi, opened up the music store at 2 a.m., and Johnny traded in his old D-28 for a new guitar. My dad handed him a nail, and then he asked him to sign it.” Cash did.
Valley Music shuttered after 60 years in business on Saturday, September 15. But some say the spirit of the music store died in 2008 when the building was sold and Soldi and his sister, Andrea Soldi-Long, were forced to relocate.
“I gave it absolutely everything I had,” emails Soldi-Long. “I just ran out of credit cards. It probably would have been smarter to have closed sooner, but I just couldn’t bring myself to.”
The music store, which opened in September 1952 on Main Street in El Cajon, is rich in history and myth. For example, there’s a story about a young Frank Zappa buying a record player from Valley Music in 1953 or ’54. “Chris Hillman says he bought his first mandolin from my dad,” says Soldi. At 17, Byrds cofounder Hillman also played his first gig at the Bostonia Ballroom. “That guitar of Johnny’s sat under the bed for a while,” says Soldi, meaning at his parent’s Pierce Street home in El Cajon. “It was an old guitar. It played well, so I toured with it later, and it was stolen out of our fiddle player’s van.”
Jim Soldi now lives in Ramona. A cofounder of Montezuma’s Revenge, he spent four years as a member of Johnny Cash’s band, two years with Ricky Skaggs, and is currently a member of the Eve Selis band. That Cash guitar, the old Martin D-28, eventually surfaced in a pawn shop. But by then, the thief had sanded off the famous autograph. Soldi identified it by the serial number. “I had Johnny re-autograph it,” he says, “with the scratch awl from my Swiss Army knife.”