Passing the Torch

A little nostalgia has come to roost as of late. I grew up around music. My father and Uncle Jack, who was married to my mother’s younger sister, were always either playing in bands together or in separate bands. My father played drums, and was quite a good drummer, Uncle Jack played guitar and sang, and was quite good at both.

Both primarily were always in bands that played a variety of music consisting of old rock and roll, country, and country rock. When I mention “old rock and roll”, it is the likes of Elvis, Chuck Berry, Ike and Tina Turner, and similar. Of course this was back when country was country and not the current whimsical pop rap amalgamation prancing around in jeans and cowboy boots.

I started off at a young age thinking that I wanted to be a drummer like my father. I even started learning rudiments on a practice pad. That was until one day I found my ear and really began to listen to music.

Music like BB King, Buddy Guy, Hendrix, Nugent, and the myriad of axe wielding six string ripping giants of the guitar changed my direction. The possibilities of the instrument and the sounds one could elicit from it really caught my interest.

I began to ask for a guitar and mimic the movements of the great players with various items, shovels, brooms, toy rifles, and even the air guitar. One never materialized, because as I was told I didn’t follow through with the drums, so it would just be a waste of time and money.

One day at my grandparents I noticed an old acoustic high up on a shelf. It belonged to my Uncle Ken, my father’s brother. After a year or so of seeing it sit there idle I got up the nerve and asked him if he was ever going to do anything with it and he replied with the omnipresent “why?” I replied that I had some money saved up and would like to buy it.

He ended up giving me that acoustic. It needed work as it was missing a bridge, a nut, and of course it needed strings. I set about getting these items all resolved with some direction from Uncle Jack.

When it was finally setup and ready to go, it was off to Uncle Jack’s house I went to get started. The first time there he showed me the basics of an old instrumental called Honky Tonk and a handful of chords.

I went back a week later and asked him if he had time to show me some more. He looked at me skeptically and asked if I could play what he had already showed me, adding that I should practice and learn those things really good first. I iterated that yes, I could and needed more things to work on, still skeptical he said, “Okay, bring your guitar over” at which time he had me play everything he had showed me.

I ended up leaving with more chords and a new song to work on. A week later and I asked for more, this time there was no skepticism, but I still had to play what I had learned.

Not long after arriving home from this session the phone rang. It was Uncle Jack who spoke to my father for a bit. I didn’t find out about the topic of conversation until later, but there were suddenly some big changes.

A few days later I was drug around to some music stores and pawn shops. I ended up going home with a new electric guitar and amp. It was a Bentley Les Paul copy and a little Peavey amplifier. A little shocked at why and how this came about I never said a word for fear of screwing it up. Not long after, I was taken to a local music store and signed up for lessons.

I questioned this, because I liked learning from Uncle Jack and was told what had transpired behind the scenes.

Uncle Jack had called that day and told my father that he thought I had some talent. That he needed to get me a real guitar and get me to a real guitar instructor, someone who really new what they were doing.

I ended up taking lessons for about 6 months from a local guitar instructor, John Metz. If I recall, John left the music store and continued providing lessons out of his home for a while, but then he stopped altogether. I took it from there with a good basis gleamed from John at the age of 12.

Fast forward a few years, my father’s band would practice at our house in the basement. The times that I was home, I would go in my room, keep the volume low, and play along with them making sure to stop before they did making them none the wiser, until one day they stopped and I heard my father coming up the stairs. He came to my room threw the door open in a way that I figured I was in trouble.

He said “get your guitar and amp and come downstairs, Jerry wants to hear you play.” Jerry Edwards was the singer, lead guitar player, and pretty much the leader of the band. A well driller by day and a really good musician the rest of the time.

I went downstairs, got setup, feeling a little awkward, and Jerry says “I been hearing you up there, let’s see what you sound like down hear”, he looks around and says, “let’s try South’s Gonna Do It Again by Charlie Daniels“. I proclaimed I had never played the song before, asked for the key, and they jumped right into it.

Jerry sang the first two verses and pointed at me to do the guitar solo. I ripped it up and when the song ended he said “he’s in”, looked at my father and said, “if that’s okay with you?” Apparently it was, as I spent the next couple practices with them and started learning the songs.

I was 15 years old and the first gig I would be playing with them was approaching. It was at American Legion Hall 347 in Saint Clair, Missouri. I remember thinking to myself at the time that it was just a little bar in a legion hall that would have a handful of people in it having a few beers. Boy was I wrong!

Arriving there I saw a lot of cars and thought to myself all those folks are probably next door. Nope. I walked in and the entire hall was filled with people! Like tons of people! Needless to say, my nervousness went from 0 to 200 miles an hour, faster than a top fuel funny car. I went to Jerry Edwards, surely looking nervous, proclaiming that he did not tell me there would be that many people here! He just chuckled.

I was so nervous that I could hardly tune my guitar. I also learned a good lesson, never change strings right before a gig! We kicked into the first song, “Long Hard Ride” by Marshall Tucker and it all just fell together. I was 15 years old, up on a stage overlooking a jam packed hall thinking okay, this isn’t so bad.

Interesting times back then as I played out over the course of several years. While other kids in high school were in band class, I was in a band playing out on weekends and making money.

One day, in my twenties, while working in a factory my right arm was crushed by a 2600 pound roll of steel when a maintenance guy walked up to chat and bumped the lever engaging the hopper.

I was feeding the end of the steel roll into the hopper rollers and as soon as it started my gloves were caught, feeding my arm through the rollers. If I had not been wearing gloves I would have been able to pull my hand back, however once the glove was caught I could not get out of it fast enough.

Amazingly, no bones were broken. I did end up having significant soft tissue muscle damage and nerve damage. My thumb, forefinger, and pinky had no feeling on my right hand, my picking hand. This made holding onto a pick nearly impossible and eventually I stopped playing altogether.

They say that nerve damage sometimes heals. It took my hand about 12 years for the feeling to come back and eventually I began to pick again. Contrary to what anyone might say, it has not been easy relearning after all this time.

My brain still remembers, however getting the fingers to follow instruction is entirely different. After playing heavily the past year it seems I am on the cusp of almost being where I once was, not that I was ever great or anything of the like. This regenerated interest has come back just in time it seems.

My 9 year old son has now started to show interest. He is starting off like I did, with an acoustic and learning the same Honky Tonk as his first song, the same one that Uncle Jack taught me. I would have preferred he had been around to teach it to him, now that would be some nostalgia!

Unfortunately, Uncle Jack has been gone for several years now, however I am sure he would be tickled with my approach as I pass on the torch. He always said, “there’s tons of guys out there that can pick a guitar, but not very many that can make one talk and sing”.

I do know one thing, it would be awesome to jam with my son someday! His latest song is a simplified version of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom boom”.

I don’t know what this boy will do with it. He may lose interest, however I hope he turns out better than me in all things, especially with the guitar.

We’ll see how this turns out, maybe he’ll learn to make it talk and sing…

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