Sunday, April 7, 2013

Guitar Hero

I’m from Memphis. Music, along with a healthy dose of dry rub and pork fat, is in my blood. Plus, I was born into a musical family, with my Mom being a piano player and a wonderful singer, my Dad being a drummer who honed his trills and runs while Buddy Rich-ing the skins in a polka band during his formative years and my brother being a drummer, guitarist and singer-songwriter. Me … I’m a self-taught guitarist with a deep affection for the blues and guitar-heavy rock. Purely in my own mind, a guitar hero.

My brother, Tim, and I used to literally and figuratively rock the house when we were kids, with him pounding the drums while I pounded on a cheap Les Paul knock-off guitar that crunched its out-of-tune riffs through a small Peavy amplifier cranked way past its limits. We typically ran through a set-list that included "All Along the Watchtower," some Zeppelin tunes and the random Grateful Dead jam. I have no idea how Mom and Dad endured the thunder bellowing from Tim’s upstairs' bedroom, although, I do remember them taking a lot of vacations back then.

Later in life, while trying to balance grad school and a day job, I was the electrified member of a guitar-slinging duo that had a weekly gig at a dive near the University of Memphis’ campus. Steve was the singing talent and the headliner, and he graciously asked me to partner with him to provide some occasional lead guitar and backing vocals. It was pure country, and Steve was definitely the driving force in the group. We probably would’ve been more successful if I had actually ever heard most of the songs we played, but my radio dial never landed on a country station. Nonetheless, we normally enjoyed full-to-packed houses, typically consisting of Steve’s fraternity brothers and a healthy dose of pretty coeds, who were the main reason most of the guys were there. After all, I really doubt the KA's doused themselves in Drakkar and donned their finest Wranglers to come out to listen to us trudge through “The Dance.” In both sets. 

Crazy Larry’s on Wednesday nights was a big time for a while, but it eventually grew stale and like many acts, it just sort of faded away. Shortly thereafter, I did the same, when I moved to middle Tennessee to pursue a career in a cubicle. My guitars came with me, though, and provided a nice post-work release for me as I adjusted to an initially-stressful job in an initially-friendless world.

Musicians, though, are rarely friendless for long, because there's a common bond between everyone from guitarists to trombone players will reliably emerge when the opportunity presents itself and quickly blossom into “a jam.” Within a few months of moving to Murfreesboro, I met a drummer/co-worker named Elwood, and soon thereafter, our afternoons were spent rocking through a variety of cover songs and originals in the tiny music room of his house.

You’ve probably heard of the “Seven Degrees to Kevin Bacon,” in which you can name anyone on earth, and by tracing the friends and acquaintances of that person, you’ll eventually land on Kevin Bacon. It’s silly, I know. But, Elwood easily trumps Kevin. In fact, I think there are only “Three Degrees to Elwood,” and that’s probably pushing it. The guy knows everybody. Seriously, you could go on fly-fishing trip to the ultra-remote region of Kamchatka, Russia, and be able to cut through the language barrier with your bush-pilot, Yuri, by simply mentioning Elwood’s name. “Da, da, Elwood! Tennessee. Good drummer!” And if, for some reason, Yuri didn’t know Elwood, I’d bet you a stack full of Rush records Elwood knows Yuri. Or at least his cousin, Nikolai.

Elwood’s connection to the music business was predictably direct, and after a few weeks of practicing our original tunes, we were in the basement recording studio of one of his music-producing buddies, laying down tracks for a demo tape. We ended up recording eight, up-tempo rock songs, featuring lyrics and arrangements of our own design, and eventually produced a box of cassette tapes under the incredibly juvenile band name, A.M. Wood (complete with the clever “album” name, Three Chords of Wood).

In retrospect, I never did a whole lot to promote our songs (although Elwood did his part), presumably because I was more proud of the achievement than the need to see if other people would actually listen to our songs. Curiously, from those with whom I did share the tapes, their young children absolutely loved the songs. That certainly wasn't our target audience, but at least we got some positive reviews. And, maybe missed an opportunity. 

Like Crazy Larry’s, eventually, A.M. Wood faded away, too, as our careers went in different directions. Which, is a bit of a shame, as two-piece, guitar-drummer bands are quite popular these days (see: White Stripes, Black Keys). Elwood and I have to look back and realize we were simply ahead of our time. Pioneers, in a way. Jack White should be thanking us for exposing several dozen people to the merits of a two-piece rock band. 

I could be overstating it.   

There was no solo career after the band’s breakup, but I did eventually add to my arsenal of guitars. Another good friend, Randy, hooked me up with the American-made Fender Stratocaster that I count as my go-to electric guitar. My old Silver-Anniversary Alvarez acoustic has taken a beating through the years (several dents, and scrapes; even the headstock was snapped off by a stumbling party-guest several years ago, but later repaired), but despite attempts to find a more expensive, technically-better guitar, I simply cannot find one that plays as good and sounds as appealing to me as this one. It’s my Trigger.

I also live just outside of Nashville, Tenn., which means, by law, I have to be a singer-songwriter, and while it has been a few years since I last busted some rhymes, I’ve got an arsenal of embarrassing lyrics stowed away in a secret binder in my bonus room. The binder comes out on rare occasions – usually on Saturday mornings after the third cup of coffee pushes me into a weird, caffeine-induced, Gordon Lightfoot mode. God love my wife, Betsy, for putting up with me.

I play my Strat through a cracked-and-dented Ampeg tube amp that sounds dirty and mean and exactly the way I want it to, and my go-to effect is a Crybaby wah pedal that allows me to channel my inner Hendrix. While I’ve got other effects to use, I try to keep it simple. And, our three cats probably are thankful for it.

I’m almost 44 years old, and I’m pretty sure my chances of becoming a rock star fell and burned up in the atmosphere several years ago. But, as my beard turns gray and my appreciation for new music is limited to digital-remixes of classic rock albums, I’m still always looking to learn, to get better at my chops and to disappear upstairs when no one is around, to strap on my guitar, to crank the amp up to 11 and roar my way through a version of “Voodoo Child.” It’s in my blood. I can’t help it. 

But, I still hold out hope. I bet you a pocket full of rubles Yuri's got Three Chords of Wood in the tape deck of his Mi-8. His kids probably love it.