In 1963 my dad asked what I wanted for my 12th birthday. In a flash I answered “I want a guitar.” I’d been playing snare drum in the grade school band for a year and secretly lusting after a chocolate Gretsch Tennessean with a Bigsby bar just like the one George Harrison held in The Beatles at the Palladium poster that hung in a place of reverence over my desk. It clashed with the cowboy scene wallpaper but I didn’t care. I only saw The Beatles and that guitar, the cowboys on their corrals and broncos meant little to me anymore.
I had my eye on a similar guitar in the Western Auto catalogue. At least it looked similar in the funny, saturated illustration. It was a wild aqua blue colored single cutaway Kay electric guitar and for some reason I assumed this was the one dad was going to buy for me. On the morning of my birthday dad proudly handed me a Kay guitar. It was an ugly thing, acoustic with a faux sunburst finish and a white stenciled pick guard in the shape of a musical note. The neck was fat and the strings so high off the fretboard it played like a cheese cutter. Dad paid a hard earned $45 for it and I didn’t have the heart to act disappointed. It was a guitar and that was a start.
I had no idea how to even tune the thing let alone play it so I just held it and strummed at the cold metal strings abhorred by its homeliness. It was nothing like the blue electric dream I’d been hoping for. It was barely an instrument at all. Still I began falling in love with it, so much so that I slept with it next to me that night. Next morning was chilly and gray as I walked the few miles to Western Auto to purchase a small Mel Bay guitar book. It was important I get to the store as soon as it opened. They may only have one book left in stock and Mel Bay held the key to the mysteries of the guitar. I believed it, and it was true.
There were illustrations on how to hold the guitar and the plectrum along with basic chord diagrams and a handful of songs to actually play. No cool songs, although I did like When the Saints Go Marching In and Red River Valley. She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain I could do without, but it was a familiar melody and it gave one a sense of accomplishment to play through. That was a while coming though. Painstakingly I began trying to play chords, pressing down as hard as I could but still getting very little in the way of notes.
Within a couple of days I broke a string just trying to tune. Damn. Someone told me Rexall Drug Store right across from Western Auto sold guitar strings. So off to Rexall I trudged. The sour lady with red ratted hair rummaged under the pharmacy counter and slapped a package down before me. The paper was red and the printing in flat black ink read Black Diamond String, National Musical String Company, New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA, Tested and Warranted, none genuine without this trade mark, Heavy Gauge.
I fumbled around attempting to replace the broken string with the new one. Threading it through the hole in the tuning post I managed to poke the sharp metal end into a couple of fingertips before eventually wrapping it as it stretched and slipped. Then I realized I was turning the tuner the wrong direction and had to begin again. Drums seemed a lot easier.
Somewhere I got my hands on a pitch pipe and began the long trek of tuning the guitar. Hidden away in my room at the back of the house I quietly clutched at the strings stretched along the fat neck pressing down to the distant frets until my fingers turned blue and numb, then bled. One day the pain lessened and the notes began to actually resound. I played through She’ll Be, and When the Saints, and Red River, singing along where no one would hear me.
Then I discovered a music store in Kansas City 18 miles away. I rode the bus downtown to be met with racks and racks of sheet music. Every song you could imagine right there for anyone to take home. I never learned to read music except to read the melody and follow the chords. So I did that until I could play a song all the way through.
For a year I took that Kay guitar to school and stashed it in my locker. End of the day, after I helped the school janitor, Bill, clean the building, the empty school was mine alone. I pulled the Kay from the locker and carried her to a stairwell. This was the liveliest spot for the music to echo down through the first floor and basement halls. I’d sing every song from West Side Story a cappella, play and sing my first few original songs and my favorite Beatles, Stones, and Kinks songs.
One day Brenda Twoey hung around and asked me to sing for her. She was a freshman and I was a sophomore and she had a mad crush on me. I was perplexed but flattered and she started lingering after school when she could. I saw what no one else seemed to. Behind her tortoise shell glasses she had the brightest blue eyes. Her copper hair was thick and wavy, her skinny legs pale and freckled, her smiling face fanned with freckles too. So happened she owned a Gibson acoustic that she insisted I take in trade for my Kay.
I could only refuse so long when she said “you will actually play my Gibson while it doesn’t matter what kind of guitar I have. I never play and you’re so good.” Well, I didn’t feel I was all that good. But I wanted to be. And what I needed most was a real instrument. So, much to her father’s dismay, Brenda Twoey and I struck a deal. Next day she brought her Gibson to school and at day’s end we pulled our guitars from our lockers and traded right there in the hallway. I also handed her $50 in cash to make the trade more fair. Next day her disgruntled father encountered me outside the school accusing me of fleecing his naive daughter. I managed to convince him that I had resisted and that Brenda had insisted.
That is when I got serious about songwriting. Having a quality guitar made playing and learning easier and led me to increasingly more creative song ideas. All those songs have led me here. I have lived a joyful life writing and playing music and I find there is still so much to learn. It has also often been a struggle carving out a living with my music, starting and restarting my career countless times.
Fast forward to today. I have written hundreds of songs and recorded 30 albums to date. The newest is called “I Can face the Truth” and it is being played on over one hundred radio stations around the world. Now that the CD is out in the world I am too. Yet again I am starting over. We all are, I suppose.
April is coming with its promise of new life, another birthday, and a tour of Texas. It’s an inspiring time of year and I am excited to return to one of my favorite venues, Austin Acoustical Cafe, for a very special concert on Saturday, April 9. A wonderful Austin songwriter, Shawnee Kilgore, will open the show with some of her lovely music. I will perform songs from the new CD as well as some old favorites.
That little Gibson guitar that I acquired from Brenda Twoey I wound up trading in on a 1967 Gibson Heritage, which I still play today. My dad, George, co-signed for the difference after the trade so I got a job and paid it off in three months. More than likely I will bring the ’67 with me for the show at Austin Acoustical Cafe. Her name is “Her” and she is the guitar that has been with me the longest and given me most of my songs. Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been without that Kay guitar, Mel Bay, Brenda Twoey, and my dad George. I think of my dad every day, and every time I play music I feel him with me. And, funny thing is, sometimes I kind of miss that Kay guitar.