April 28, 2018

twang on a wire

There have been times when I was so down
Mothers and lovers and preachers came 'round
No one could cheer me, not one could inspire
There's no consolation like a twang on a wire

- Kate Campbell

Both of my parents picked up guitars as children, drawn to them and quickly inseparable from their instruments.  They both played "by ear" and to this day, neither can read "a lick of music," as my daddy says.

I was late to my calling.  I didn't pick up my first guitar until I was twenty.  It was a cheap thing with nylon strings that sounded terrible but helped me build calluses on my fingertips.  We were newlyweds and pennies counted, but I shelled out anyway for the guitar and a five-dollar poster depicting a complete set of guitar chord tabs.  The poster was supposed to be decorative but for me, it was a sixteen-by-twenty holy scripture scroll.

I remember the precise moment when the bug bit me.  I had driven from the Bay area of Florida to Atlanta to spend the weekend with two never-met-before friends from the online Nanci Griffith fan group and attend one of her concerts with them (and attempt, in vain, to meet her backstage afterward).  That night, I slept in a guest bedroom in one of those incredibly comfortable, expensive beds with a mattress so thick and high you have to climb up into the bed using a step stool.  The next morning, we gathered around the breakfast table, the three of us, and one friend played the guitar well, so she played Nanci songs and the three of us sang, sometimes in unison and sometimes with lusty harmonies.  I watched her fingers gracing the frets, so easily, joy in her face.  That was the moment.  I drove home and within a week, my hands were clumsily trying to make G and C and D chords and I was wincing while typing at work with tender fingers.

As soon as we could afford it, I upgraded the guitar to something relatively legitimate with metal strings and wood pegs that didn't slip if you stared at them cross-eyed.

I learned every song on every cassette I owned.  And a year later, our fan group was gathered around a camp fire in Memphis, sitting in white plastic lawn chairs, taking turns playing music and singing together.  The friend who had played for us at that cozy breakfast table in Atlanta was astonished when I pulled out my guitar and deftly played and sang "The Wing and the Wheel" for her.  I don't know if I ever properly thanked her for the bug bite.

I took the guitar with me everywhere I traveled.  It gathered signatures ... Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky, Richard Shindell, Kate Campbell, Buddy Mondlock, Vince Bell.  The case gathered stickers from those travels.  I did not have it with me when I met Nanci Griffith because I did not expect to encounter her at the Odetta concert.  It was sitting back in the hotel room, and would have come with me to the book signing the following day.  I would have had a new, black Sharpie in my pocket.

For several years I knew the joy of playing along with friends, including a gig in a bar in Atlanta, though I was limited in my repertoire because my hands are too small to make F and B-flat chords.  I played Alice's Restaurant and experimented with alternative tunings.  My arms were strong and my fingers nimble.  And there were times I played because, like the piano, the kinetic dance of hand and ear and heart and mind, the vibration of wood and string, had a unique way of making everything all right, for a little while.

My daddy gave me his precious 1976 Stratocaster and a small amplifier for Christmas one year during this era of my life.  Later, I gave him back the 'Caster because he had lost the will to play, and I hoped it would inspire him to start again, but it didn't.  He thought I didn't want the guitar and sold it to a guy at work.  I still feel a strong pang when I think of this, one of the countless trifling tragedies that pepper life.  That guitar that I watched him play in my childhood was my inheritance.  I think I failed to communicate, or he failed to hear.

I spent five years as a guitar player.  I got pretty good at it.  But my beloved signed guitar got put into its case and stayed there after my son died.  I still have it and sometimes I dust off the case when I'm cleaning the house, but I, too, lost the will to play.

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