My Horse I Call Music

I suffer from amnesia.

It’s a disease I have had for awhile.

It’s a spiritual disease of forgetting the hard lessons that I learn. It means that I tend to have to relearn things that I already know, but for whatever reason, I have forgotten them. So I have to repeat my learning process again, relearning a vital principle that I swore I would never forget. But…..there I go again, forgetting. It’s an onerous process, one that I have found myself repeating.

In my process of grieving for my friend, Chris, I was reminded of a basic component of my Self, and that is music. Music has functioned in so many ways in my life, but I sometimes finding myself taking it for granted. You would think that would be impossible as I am surrounded by my instruments in my study.

There’s my D-18 Martin that is an unfortunate reminder of the downturn in workmanship at the factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. It also heckles me for selling my original D-35, bought for me at my graduation from Emory as a peace-offering from my mom for banning guitars from my hands when I was growing up. Something about “rounders” she had known. I won’t follow that rabbit in this piece, but it’s a hell of a trail. I bought a cheap Yamaha my first year away from home. So much for protecting her baby. It’s in the genes.

It also taunts me for selling the custom J-40 I had ordered from the Martin Custom Shop, the sweetest sounding rosewood ever birthed from the messianic cradle of Nazareth,. It’s what the Indigo Girls played, although I learned that later in Decatur.

There’s my Gibson Mastertone Grenada banjo. I met both Early Scruggs and Bill Monroe one afternoon my freshman year in a celestial bluegrass moment in the courtyard of my dorm, I was fascinated by the three-finger style of Earl, “had to” buy a banjo like his, although destined to be mediocre at best, And my F style mandolin is made by the master, Steve Kaufmann, who owned Flatiron before he sold it to Gibson. It’s a treasure. Ricky Skaggs once told me that it has an amazing tone for the high lonesome sound of bluegrass.

And my electrics are less memorable, And old Blackie Stratocaster which is beat to hell, and my black Precision Bass by Fender. George Coates, who sold it to me, told me it was owned by one of my heroes, DeDe Vogt, but George was selling. Black seems to be a theme, don’t you think.

Finally, a National Guitar, which shines like the one mentioned in Graceland. I bought it, not in Memphis, but in Dahlonega, Georgia at the closing of a music store, always a sad but screaming opportunity, a moment when you come face-to-face with the reality of mark-ups.

So, these mythic figures sit in my office, or on a good day, my study, and they mock me for being a half-ass musician. I have perhaps a tithe of my son’s proficiency, since he put the necessary time in the woodshed, learning the mysteries of the fretboard. But his love for music can only approach my long-time passion for its power. Truth is, he’s working on it, but I have a few years on the boy.

Allow me to waltz you down my music trail.

I remember sitting with my grandfather on Sunday mornings, listening to the Gospel Jubilee on WSB TV, with the Florida Boys, the Dixie Echoes, the Happy Goodman Family, featuring Vestal on piano, and the new-fangled electrified Hinson Family. I also remember going to Bremen and Waco in west Georgia, to Gospel singings, where I was injected with a love for four-part harmony.

As an elementary student, I remember “waking up” to a protest song by Buffalo Springfield, which told me to stop, and look around, and see what going down. It was my first intimation that things weren’t as they appeared to be, Better pay attention…and I have. That advice is no less true today.

I recall shooting hoops in the backyard of my friend, Danny Hall’s house, listening to a cheap transistor radio offer up a lament, I Can’t Get No Satisfaction. I remember intuiting that satisfaction had something to do with something I shouldn’t be thinking about. After all, I was raised up South of God. But the driving beat, caught me, snared me.

In high school, my best friend, Paul McCommon and I were the officers of the Junior Class, which meant it was our responsibility to choose the band for the Junior Senior. In my mind, I had an image of Keith Melton, Dick Brandes, and Danny looking disapprovingly at me if I screwed this up and got a bad band. Actually, I thought Melton would simply beat my ass. So Paul and I got serious when we went to a “showcase” of bands on the celestial Northside of Atlanta….it was on Roswell Road, speaking of wasted brain cells. No amnesia there.

There we picked a band, Threshold, who has a horn section that could mimic Chicago but also deliver the Stones. I did not know it at the time but “Wild Horses” would be my ticket to ride. The band was a huge success, as I passed one of my initiation rites into young adulthood. I later booked the same band twice into Emory.

In high school, my next door neighbor, who was six years older, was in a rock band. Later, he emerged as a major entertainer in Atlanta, and a life-long friend, Elgin Wells. Elgin is the most talented guy I have ever known, including my Austin buddies. He even built his own electric violin which he used in a variety of jazz songs in swanky clubs in the ATL. He introduced me to jazz, namely Horace Silver, Grover Washington, and Les McCann to mention a few.

In college, I hung out at Underground Atlanta, listening to Piano Red tear up a piano at Muehlenbrinks Saloon, and sing some old time blues. But my “go-to” was Dante’s Down the Hatch. There, the Paul Mitchell Trio play nightly in the hold of the boat-shaped club. I got to know Layman Jackson, the lion-bearded bass player who have me a few lessons on the use of a melodic bass,

I had been introduced to trio jazz by Tom Greenbaum, one of my fraternity brothers from Shaker Heights, Ohio. Tom had been hyperactive as a child, and his wise parents put him on piano rather than Ritalin. He knew the entire Sinatra catalog which he slowly taught to me and Mark Jones, our drummer. So many nights in the Sigma Chi house parlor playing until the wee hours. Tom loved Broadway songs, unsurprisingly, and we learned the entire score of Pippin. “Magic to Do” became our opening song, which still inspires me, as we all have magic to do in this amazing life we have. But, “Corner of the Sky” touched me most as it seemed to express the wanderlust that was at the heart of this trio: got to find my corner of the sky.

But, the real gift from Tom was an intro to the genius of Oscar Peterson, and Ray Brown. The Trio Live album became my life for a couple of years, with the driving melodies and intricate jazz embellishments. That album remains my secret place in which to retreat in moments such as this.

Willie Nelson and Jimmy Buffett made an odd entrance into my heart and soul, while in seminary, living with a few divorcees from the Baptist Church. We called our odd collection of folks living on several acres in the middle of Decatur, Menagerie Farm, because we were. When people asked me about life there, I reported that we drank a lot of beer, listened to Gordon Lightfoot, and got depressed. Pretty accurate description if you add Willie and Buffett to the mix.

When I went to Texas, I was blessed to expand my mind by adding the whole Texas/outlaw repertoire to the mix. Thanks to my friend, Andy Shaw, who was the news director at the local NBC affiliate, I got a gig going to “report” on Willie Nelson’s 4th of July concerts for four years in a row. The first concert was in Luckenbach, where else would it be? The last one, I was allowed a private interview with Willie on his bus. That, my friends, was epic.

Which brings me to Austin, where I got to know a number of artists, spending time in their houses and in studios, getting to know their music and souls. Which brings me back to Chris Wall, my friend that I wrote about last week.

My grief sent me to my old horse, Music. And my horse spoke to me, inviting me to ride her through the night into the dawn of a new day. That is what I have doing for the last week, evoking memories, tears, laughter, a few regrets, but finally a wide smile.

It has been a reminder of how important music is to me, even in the middle of clients to satisfy, projects to complete, and articles to write. It is to my great advantage to line the bed of my life with music, to build in time to practice, to listen, to play. So, it’s Chris’ last gift to me, a reminder of my beloved horse, Music.

The Poet may not be in today, but my steed is saddled and ready.

Let’s ride.

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