GUITAR 101: The 4th of July

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This year I was blessed with having an entirely new role to play on Independence Day. An old friend asked me to be the “music director” at his annual family get-together. He even said there was a Talley back in the family tree — a fiddle player. Hmmm…

My friend’s family loved to sing at these events, and the problem was, everybody played and sang in different keys that were not necessarily compatible. My job, should I choose to accept it, would be to transform this harmonic Tower of Babel into a smooth-running sing-along. When Aunt Sue would start to sing “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in B, I would either say “capos on the 4th fret, play in G,” or gently steer Aunt Sue to the key of C. I thought about the responsibility, the pressure. What if Aunt Sue could not be coaxed into another key? What if everybody forgot their capos? What if there was no fiddle-playing Talley in the family tree? I accepted, having made no plans for the holiday.

It looked kinda cloudy the morning of. Main Street in Franklin, Tennessee, was closed again. Every holiday there’s something going on Main Street. As I took the Natchez Trace Parkway over hills and green valleys, the clouds disappeared. I soon found myself crunching down a gravel road to a remote “holler” between Ashland Springs and Pegram—a place called Sullivan’s Ridge, the definition of the middle of nowhere. It was beautiful. The house and grounds looked like a lodge in a state park. There was a creek, a lake, a house on the hill, flowers, a vegetable garden, a friendly dog. It was paradise! But I had a job to do. I was armed with my Santa Cruz OM guitar, a tuner and four capos, just in case. I didn’t bring any song books.

After a tour of the grounds and a beer, we sat at the Tiki Bar on the deck and I met lots of people. Aunts, uncles, cousins, lots of kids. The musical part didn’t start for a while. But when it did, the girls began singing “Blue Skies,” the old Irving Berlin song. Dang! This song’s got some chords in it; this song ain’t “I’ll Fly Away!” What key are they in? Luckily, they’re in G, the most guitar-friendly key. Whew, made it through the chorus, but the verse goes… where? Didn’t catch that chord. Woops. OK, the song is over and I give myself a C. Not an auspicious start.

Cousin Butch joins in on guitar. He has a nice guitar. He’s got a thumbpick tucked into his sock. Uh-oh. Now we’re doing Chet Atkins and Doc Watson stuff. My bluegrass flat-picking is not up to snuff. I used to be able to do this stuff. The clouds are rolling in. I hear thunder. Dang, that’s a lot of 16th notes in a row! How many bluegrass songs do I remember? “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Blackberry Blossom” or was that “Soldier’s Joy?” I’m lookin’ up in the family tree for my fiddle playin’ ancestor but I don’t see him. Now it’s raining hard. All our guitars go way sharp, because of the moisture in the air. But we have electronic tuners, so we correct that soon enough.

What’s next? Oh, good. Willie and Waylon. I can coast through “Luckenbach, Texas” and “Don’t let your Babies….” But now somebody wants to sing “Crazy.” Sure, I know that one. But I never played it in C#. Oh, my, God! No time to reach the capo…oh, good…she forgot the lyrics. Then my ego is fortified, because I can play “Always on My Mind” all the way through without a mistake. Good thing they could sing it in D. Then we launch into Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans.” This is no three-chord song and I’ll bet I haven’t played it in 25 years. “The train pulls into Kankakee”…whoa…YES! It’s a 6m chord, then a 3m, and voila! I’m safe!

I glance around and see everybody is smiling. A lady blurts out, “Play that first one again!” We conveniently forget that the first one was “Blue Skies” and do “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” again. Hey, my solo is much better this time. Oh boy, this is fun! I was feeling kinda down this morning, but now I’m feelin’ good. I’m the only professional musician there, so I’m “the ringer.” I guess I’ve been “the ringer” before, but this is official. Everybody knows it—one kid even “Googled” me. I cannot suck.

Then, I began to loosen up a little. I could actually play faster and easier than ever and all I’d done was sit there for a few hours and play guitar. I wasn’t practicing, but it did me more good than any lesson or practice session I’ve ever had. Seeing Uncle Clarence smile when I played that old Doc Watson lick meant a lot to me. And the little kids even loved it. It brought back memories of holidays at home in Memphis, with my parents and brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles, friends, and neighbors singing and playing along. Thinking that the same kind of thing is going on all over the world makes me feel kinda good.

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