Music & Me

I don't claim to be a master musician... I barely claim to be a musician at all. But I have had a lifelong attraction to live music and instruments. Now living in Tennessee, I'm able to enjoy that pastime even more. There's a bluegrass/country jam every day of the week within 30 minutes drive of here.

Back in the day, my mom had an old nylon string classical guitar that she bought with Green Stamps. I don't know when she bought it, but I always remember it being at the house, and I remember being told I couldn't "play it" until I was at least as tall as the guitar itself was. When I was 10 my dad took me to Murray's Department store in downtown Peoria and bought me a cheap acoustic guitar for $12. In 1969 -- for our family -- $12 was a lot of money. I think that guitar is still around somewhere, maybe at Smitty's house. By high school I had acquired a Yamaha acoustic and also bought an electric guitar for our band "Rock-It." We played one (non-paid) gig at Kelly Avenue Grade School in Peoria Heights, and I think we knew 10 songs total. Stairway to Heaven was a crowd favorite, especially the slow part for dancing...

In 1979 I went to a Steve Martin comedy concert at the University of Illinois in Campaign. I remember that he was funny but what I remember more was he did a bit with the 5-string banjo and rolled out a killer rendition of Foggy Mountain Breakdown. The next day I spent my life savings ($300) on an Iada 5-string banjo. I still have it. I tried to teach myself, but it was pointless. I hooked up with Dick Applegate (Applegate & Company) and my lessons were $5 each. Within 6 months I could play Foggy Mountain Breakdown, albeit somewhat slower than Steve Martin.

My mom's family was from Kentucky and I remember going to a family reunion and the whole affair turning into one large bluegrass festival. I thought I was pretty hot shit, you know, playing both banjo AND guitar. Uncle Tom pulled me aside and informed me that "playing guitar was just just the price of admission to the family.. EVERYBODY played guitar and another instrument... maybe a couple other instruments."

In 1983 I was laid off from Caterpillar, had a whole year to noodle around the house and go to school, so I bought a used fiddle from A-Z Pawn Shop. I think A-Z might have even been in the same building as the old Murray's Department store where I got my first guitar... I took 6 lessons from a local orchestra teacher, practiced a lot in the barn (it sounds awful for the first 6 months) and spent Saturday mornings in the pawn shop playing with the owner who had a little band on the side. I learned Faded Love and Boil 'Em Cabbage plus a couple other standards. Even sat in with the Flying D'orito Brothers band at Leonardo's Pizza Place. Years later I had the fiddle appraised and it came in somewhat higher than the $200 I paid for it at A-Z. It's a 1920's era Czechoslovakian Guenarius "copy", whatever that means.... In 2016 I took a fiddle course at Steve Kaufman's Akoustic Kamp and my teacher was Bobby Hicks. Bobby was the fiddler for Bill Monroe in the 1960's and for Ricky Skaggs in the 80's. He is THE Legend of Fiddle. Anyway, he signed my fiddle, thereby doubling it's value, if not tripling it. In 2017 Michael Cleveland -- another legendary player -- signed my fiddle on the other side. I still have and play this fiddle every day. I have a couple other fiddles: for travel or cross-tunings or just cuz they looked cool.

In 1988 Elmore Music was going out of business, so I bought a Kentucky A-Style mandolin. A mandolin is just a fretted version of a fiddle that you pick like a guitar. There are some other style differences, but basically any song you know on the fiddle, you know on the mandolin. So now I was a mandolin player as well.. sorta. In 2012 I donated my original Kentucky mando to a church in Connecticut and bought an Eastman MD615 from Wayne at Kenny's bluegrass barn in Oneida, TN where we play on Thursday nights. I still have and play this mandolin.

Once we decided to move to TN, playing music began to get more of my time. In 2010 Brenda surprised me by buying a Fender round-neck resonator guitar off craigslist. It's a beautiful instrument, but I've mostly played it tuned as a guitar (EADGBE) rather than open G tuning. "Round necks" are basically guitars with steel inserts to give them that resonator sound. I then bought a 1979 Dobro original, which is a "square-neck" version resonator. The Dobyera Brothers (DoBro, get it?) invented the resonator guitar back in the 1920's, trying to "amplify" guitars naturally to compete with the Big Band sounds. The Dobro brand was bought by Gibson in 1985, so if you have a pre-85 model like me, you've got one of the better models. It has strings about 1/2 inch off the fret board and is played with finger picks (like a banjo) on the right hand and a steel bar slide in the left hand. Pedal steel and lap steel guitars are the electrified versions you often see in country bands.

I also have a nice electric that I bought from Greg Jetton in Dunlap on a whim , and an Ovation round-back that plays very nice (at m yson Nick's house). My original Yamaha guitar is long gone, replaced by a Sigma (Japanese Martin) that Brenda bought me as a wedding present in 1982. I sold that to Nick Pompa, who sold it to Dan Farmer, who gave it to his son. That was a nice guitar. Finally, for our 25th wedding anniversary Brenda bought me a true Martin guitar, which I love. It's a DC Aura cutaway with electric pickup built in.

So, I've added a few instruments lately.... a five string Knilling fiddle with integrated pickups, a Red Line Acoustic resonator guitar (matte black, sounds GREAT), a Chinese fiddle with Dragon Head at the scroll just cuz it looks cool, an Autoharp, and a Hudson 6-string pedal steel guitar. I travel with an Composite Acoustic-brand guitar and a Gayford Carbon Fiber fiddle because they're impervious to temperature and humidity swings.

So now, in addition to music jams all around here, we also have a neighborhood "band." In polite company we call ourselves The Spruce Creek Ramblers, but when we have a naughty crowd we play as Bastard Flatts (like Rascal Flatts, but edgier). If you're in our neighborhood and sing or play, YOU'RE IN THE BAND. Sometimes we're just a two-piece with acoustic guitars. Sometimes we have 8 players and saxophones, harmonicas & a PA system. We don't get paid. Will work for beer. Or food.