Do You Know The Guitar Man?
I know a lot of guitar players. Doc Watson is at the top of my flatpick list and Doyle Dykes is a master country finger-style player. But my favorite of all is the guitar man.
Back in the old days of the golf tour the real action went on behind the scenes. The music world can still be the same way. The old guys in golf made their real money in the Monday money matches or from barnstorming. They played the tour ’cause it was there, but didn’t have to to survive.
Neither does the guitar man. Sure, he’s played MerleFest, but the big money is at the private gigs for the rich folks up on the mountain. He can play there for a grand, but is just at home at the DAV playing for tips. He owns his guitars and his home but needs little else. All his guitars are worth more than his cars. His just acquired a ‘new’ ’53 D-18. It deserves a player such as the guitar man and I’m glad it found a home with him. It’ll be a good life for the old ax as long as the man is the player.
Most of his talk is with the guitar. You get the notion he may have known more pretty girls than one, but he is quiet on the subject. His black hair is always in place, often parted in the middle and sometimes with a hint of a ducktail. He wears red silk shirts with diamond cuff links and dark dinner jackets but never a tie. Sometimes he has a soul patch. He can morph and look a bit different at every gig. He fits in at the Country Club or the Masonic Lodge. He is mysterious and yet a treasured old friend at the same time. From filet mignon to liver mush, or wine and cheese parties to home brew at Galax, he’s seen it all.
There’s a hint of cigarette smoke, but not much because he protects his voice. “Gotta keep up with my brother, Doc.” His brother and John Cowan are the two best white soul singers I’ve ever heard. The guitar man plays with so much soul the banker’s wife in the crowd will turn to the homeless man next to her and whisper in his ear, “How does he do that?”
He can play the slide on ‘The Johnson City Blues’ so sad you’ll cry and then have you grinning like the man on a Viagra commercial when he and his bass playing brother sing “Got My Mojo Working.’ Ask him what the song is about and he’ll just flash a shy grin and shrug his shoulders. “I dunno.”
His guitar and a great mandolin man talk back and forth on ‘Russian Lullaby’ without a word spoken. He goes deep and leans in his chair until it almost falls over. His eyes roll back in his head, and you think he’s near playing in his sleep. It’s a lullaby, but you sit on the edge of your seat wide awake in anticipation of the next phrase he’ll turn or chord inversion he might choose. He never plays it the same way twice but it’s always the best take on it you’ve ever heard.
He plays for money but if you are a musician who wants to pick on a Tuesday you can drink beer and play swing tunes at his house while his cousin ties fishing lures in the den or cleans fish in the kitchen sink. Famous musicians down on their luck have crashed at his place for weeks at a stretch until they could get back on his feet.
A musician told me about him and his brother years ago, and recommended I go see them at a place called the White Horse Saloon. My wife was gone that night so I took my daughter. I stopped at the door. “Two, please,” I asked.
They carded her. “Lemme see your driver’s license, kid.”
“Uh, well sir, she’s only fifteen,” I said.
He looked at me, and then at her again. “Old man, I don’t know what you are doing out with such a young girl but you can’t bring her in here.”
“C’mon, man. She’s my daughter.” I took a different angle. “Go ask the man. Tell him Doc is here.
“You ain’t Doc Watson.”
“I know that, but the guitar man sure is.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You got a card?” I handed him one. He flipped it over and saw the Tommy Bibey logo on the back. He put it in his front shirt pocket. “I’ll go ask.” He opened the door, turned around, and then disappeared into the darkness of the room. I could hear a sound check going on in the back.
He came back in a minute. “He said you was one of us. Come on in.” He looked at Marie again. “The girl can’t have no beer, though.”
“No problem. Thanks.”
The guitar man knows every real musician in the Southeast. One well known touring musician told me he was the best he’d ever played with. I am a doc and can never play like him, but for him to consider me a musician is some kind of compliment.
If you visit North Carolina go see him play. It’s somewhere in between B.B. King, the Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters, and ‘The Black Mountain Rag’ and that’s just the first few tunes. You don’t want to miss him. Just ask any musician. They’ll know where to find him, ’cause we all know the guitar man.
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