Friends From Another Life
Reprinted from the March edition of PineStraw magazine.
There are just three of them left now, old friends from another life.
One is a big country girl. Another a pure classical beauty. The third just wants to sit and play the blues.
Most of the time they sit patiently in a corner of my home office, gathering dust, waiting for me to notice them.
When visitors see them, they often say with surprise: "What beautiful guitars. I had no idea you were such a serious musician. Do you still play?"
Here I draw a breath and slowly release it, a little embarrassed.
"Yes, well - not much anymore, I'm afraid. It's honestly been years. I've forgotten so much. I just play for fun."
It's well-deserved modesty. But the gospel truth.
Once upon a time, in another life that feels ages ago, it was my deepest passion, the first thing I felt would drive and shape my life. My first guitar, a junior Harmony, arrived when I was 5. We lived in Gulfport, Miss., where my father owned a small newspaper and my mother - a former West Virginia beauty contestant who once made a record and was offered a Hollywood screen test - sang Cole Porter songs to my brother and me in the bath and at bedtime.
To manage his paper's loading dock, my father had a man everyone called "Blind Jack," impossibly old but supposedly the best guitar bluesman between Mobile and New Orleans. He'd been to jail and made records. On warm afternoons Jack would sit on a rickety dining room chair on the loading dock and play his guitar, which he called Miss Betty. I decided I wanted to be like Jack, a man who played the Delta blues on a Stella guitar. That Christmas, Santa brought the Harmony. Jack showed me my first chords.
In Florence, S.C., where we lived for one strange but wonderful year and I started the first grade, my mother was recovering from a late-term miscarriage, and a black woman named Jesse May looked after us in the afternoons. She ruled us with an iron fist, shopped and cooked and always played the transistor radio while she was preparing supper, favoring a gospel music station and - on very rare occasions - a local DJ who played what she called "roadhouse" music.
It was mostly black rhythm and blues artists with a little Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis thrown in. Among other things, she showed my brother and me how to dance by making us stand on her feet as she did the steps to the "shake and shimmy" in our kitchen. She called this "feet dancing." I loved Southern gospel and sang in the junior choir at the Lutheran Church but oh, I wanted to play music at a roadhouse.
Weeks after we moved home to Greensboro, I received a new Stella for Christmas. I took my first formal lessons and learned to play hymns, the kind of Baptist hymns that made my Grandmother Taylor smile and nod - "Blest Be the Tie That Binds" and "Old Rugged Cross" and others. That next Christmas I accompanied the junior choir on "Silent Night."
By then I was addicted to the "Flatt and Scruggs Show" on weekends, live from the stage of Ryman Auditorium in Nashvile, Tenn., home of the Grand Ole Opry - and fell hard for bluegrass music. The other show I never missed was the "Porter Wagoner Show," which featured mainstream country stars like Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours and a very young and talented Dolly Parton. I taught myself to play every song on Johnny Cash's "I'll Walk the Line" straight off the album.
My dad was friendly with the general manager of the Greensboro Coliseum, which meant I'd sometimes go backstage and meet visiting artists after a performance. In this way, I got to meet Peter, Paul and Mary, the Dave Clark Five, George Jones, Roy Orbison, Eddie Arnold, Ray Charles and even the great Johnny Cash.
By junior high I was playing classical guitar, and by my sophomore year in high school, I was working for Mr. Weinstein at the Lawndale Music Shop, giving guitar lessons on an Aria for the princely sum of four dollars an hour. I quit playing organized sports then because the money was so good and I planned to be a professional guitar-picker anyway.
Stick to Writin'
Somewhere about that time I went to see a pretty UNCG nursing student named Emmylou Harris perform at a coffeehouse near the college. I spoke with her briefly and clearly remember her telling me she was heading to Nashville. By this point, I owned a secondhand Gibson and a new 12-string Yamaha, and thought I might go that same way myself. After all, I sang in an award-winning school choir and the Madrigals and played guitar in a well-known quartet called the "Queen's Men." We performed all over the Piedmont and once went to Atlanta for a concert. I was frequently asked to perform before school assemblies, doing my own covers of James Taylor, Dave Loggins and Gordon Lightfoot.
About this time, I purchased a brand new Alvarez Yairi guitar from Mr. Weinstein, a gorgeous jumbo model with amazing sound, mother-of-pearl inlay, and a finger action that was like touching velvet - the same guitar David Crosby and Graham Nash played in Crosby, Stills and Nash. With my employee discount, it cost me close to $300, a lot of bread back in 1971.
This guitar thing went off to college with me, where I grew my hair and worked on the student newspaper but played for beer money with a couple of other fellows at a popular student hangout. I wrote several songs and entered a songwriting contest that netted an encouraging letter from a Nashville music publishing company.
Two very different directions seemed to be opening up - that of a cub reporter following in his father's footsteps into journalism or that of a country music musician who had a little bit of every kind of Southern music in him.
After graduation, I'd made up my mind to head for Nashville and find work as a studio musician, but went home to spend the summer writing new songs and work my second stint as a newspaper intern. I enrolled in the graduate writing program at UNCG figuring that would give me a little more time to figure things out and produce some fresh songs.
One day an editor from the paper offered me a job and I took it.
Not long after that, a good friend named Jim Jenkins said he wanted to introduce me to Dolly Parton after one of her big concerts in Greensboro. She invited us into her trailer and pulled off her wig. We sat and had the most delightful conversation and I let slip that I'd just been offered a job on the same magazine where Margaret Mitchell had worked - which meant I would probably never chase my dream to play guitar in Nashville.
Dolly Parton slapped my knee. "Oh, honey," she declared with that infectious down-home laugh of hers, "you made the right decision. Stick with writin'. This racket will make you do the craziest things to your body and make your hair fall out!"
Please don't feel sorry for me. Perhaps you had another life too, one that gives you both comfort and a bittersweet twinge to think about.
Chose Right Life
In my case, a wonderfully diverse and rewarding career in journalism led me to a family in New England and literally took me around the world - probably much farther than country music ever would have.
But the music stayed in me and my guitar love was always there. During my years in Atlanta I got to tour with a famous gospel choir, meet Gladys Knight, James Brown and Jimmy Buffett, hang out with the great Mac MacAnally (the brilliant Mississippian who wrote many of Alabama's greatest hits) and have a rib dinner with the Rev. Al Green and friends. I even got to jam with Ernest Tubb and his Texas Troubadours.
A few years after that, a national magazine sent me to live in New Orleans for a month and write about the city's love of jazz and blues. Another time, also on assignment, I spent all night riding with Isaac Tigret in his private rail car from New Orleans to Memphis. We sat up all night drinking bourbon and listening to blues music, talking about the rock 'n' roll stars he'd known who inspired him to create the first Hard Rock Cafe.
We finished the evening at B.B. King's blues place on Beale Street, talking to the guitar legend between his sets. At one point he even invited me to play Lucille, his famous guitar. I was a kid again.
My wife, Alison, gave me a lovely 40th birthday present, a beautiful Takamine classical guitar. Our children grew up listening to this little beauty, learning songs off Disney films and hearing the bedtime folks songs I grew up with. When they began singing in school talent shows - even on the radio at a Portland country station - I was pleased to be their guitar accompanist.
Not long after their mom and I divorced, I purchased a beautiful blue Dean guitar for my daughter, Maggie, a real Sweetheart of the Rodeo instrument with a pearl inlay of leaping dolphins, and also picked up an Ibanez Fender knock-off for her younger brother, Jack. Because I signed them up for lessons, and the store owner caught me eying a ruby-red Ibanez hollow-body number that reminded me of King's Lucille, he made me a deal I couldn't refuse. I took her home and named her Ruby.
Last year, following my daughter's college graduation, I drove her great-grandmother's poster bed, my favorite leather chair and Maggie's Sweetheart of the Rodeo guitar up to her in Vermont. I'd been caretaking it for several years and often found myself reaching for it instead of my three surviving guitars, probably because it made me feel closer to my daughter, who was hundreds of miles away. She says she's finally ready to learn to play it, but meanwhile is heading to New York to hunt for a job.
"Everything has a season," I like to say to her. "You'll make beautiful music when you're ready to learn." I picture her someday playing folk songs from her childhood to a flaxen-haired child.
Brother Jack, meanwhile, may be the family's true guitar man. He took up playing at about age 14 and has never looked back. Within a year of starting he was better than his teacher and today can play almost anything - jazz, blues, anything by a rock group.
I listen to him play and just marvel, and then I reach for one of my three old friends, realizing I chose the right life after all.
Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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