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Around The Fleet

The Sweet Sound of Retirement: Life After the Navy

Retired Master Chief Musician advises Sailors on how to live a full and happy life outside of the military.

Nestled away in the little town of Edgewater, Maryland, a retired Navy musician's mate is doing the only thing he's ever known how to do and ever wanted to do, work with music.

Whether it's playing music or repairing and making guitars as a luthier, which is a maker of stringed instruments, former Master Chief Musician's Mate Jim Cunningham, who run this business out of his garage, can do it all. Since first joining the Navy as a young man graduating from high school in Iowa, he has been planning for this moment.

While Cunningham initially only stayed in for one enlistment, two years in the civilian world gave him the insight he needed to rejoin the Navy and never look back.

When he came back into the Navy, he auditioned for and received a rare spot in the Naval Academy's rock band, which focuses mostly on Navy recruiting and does extensive touring.

"We were pretty much like a little family," said Cunningham. "We spent a lot of time together and developed long term friendships. Even today, most of my closest friends were other Navy musicians that I spent a lot of time with."

Despite the rigorous touring schedules there was a big draw to playing for the Naval Academy's rock band. For Cunningham, the bonus was that for the rest of his career he would be at the same duty station in Annapolis, Maryland. This gave Cunningham the opportunity to build a reputation for himself. It also allowed him time to focus on what he would do once leaving the Navy, which was start a business repairing guitars and playing for special events.

"I retired from the Navy on a Friday and the following Monday morning I started my luthier business," he said. "I suspected that there was a market for my abilities as a luthier, as well as a player..."

...but I had no way of knowing whether that would be successful or not until I tried it."

Armed with a Navy pension, he was able to avoid the struggling artist phase he had seen so many go through. He was able to start Cunningham Guitars without relying on it as a sole source of income.

"Although it's something that can be done, even today I have lots of civilian friends who do nothing but play music for a living, but I think it's much harder," Cunningham said. "And they don't have the benefits that I enjoyed as an active duty musician. Certainly, they don't get paid vacation and they don't have any type of retirement program unless they set it up for themselves. Health insurance has to come out of whatever money they're making."

Taking what he has learned in his 30 years in the Navy, Cunningham is establishing a solid second career path that allows him the security and flexibility he dreamed of in retirement.

Being a retired master chief, Cunningham has tips for those who are currently in the Navy with his biggest tips being to take advantage of all the Navy has to offer and focus on the good things, because every job will have its ups and downs.

"There's times, I don't care what job you have, there's going to be days when you think what you're doing is stupid, or it's demeaning, for whatever reason you're not happy that day, that will happen in any job that you have and it's something important to remember."

For Cunningham, he was able to do something he loved for the Navy, which also allowed for a perfect transition into a second career he is equally passionate about. If you ask Cunningham, in the 30 plus years he's had a job, he's never really worked a day in his life.
Retired Master Chief Musician's Mate Jim Cunningham. Photo by MC2 Jason Kofonow.

Retired Master Chief Musician's Mate Jim Cunningham. Photo by MC2 Jason Kofonow.