Sit In’s

It’s funny how a few drinks will make some people think they can sing. Hence the popularity of Karaoke.

It’s funny how a few drinks will make some people think they can sing. Hence the popularity of Karaoke.

I was playing bass one night at the old Rose Room in Nashville and a chick singer got up and wanted to do a song nobody in the band knew. That’s always a risk and could end up in a train wreck, and I’ve never understood why some singers insist on doing a song the band doesn’t know. “We know a couple thousand songs, do one we know”, I told her. “The other band knows it”, she said, pooching her lower lip out petulantly and frowning. “Well, get the other fuckin’ band to come out and back you up, then,” I said, pooching back at her. You know how to tell if there’s a chick singer knocking on your door? She forgot her key and doesn’t know when to come in.

A lot of pro musicians don’t like to back up bad singers, like it’s beneath their dignity or something. You know what? I’ve backed up a bunch of wannabe singers, maybe thousands in 39 years of playing, and it doesn’t bither me a bot if they can’t sing. That’s because I usually don’t even listen to them. I listen to the song – the beat, the chord structure, what the bass is doing. If I remember some signature licks in the song I try to play a version of them, and if I know who the steel player on the session was I might try to get a little whiff of his sound. But singers… I don’t give a shit, most of the time. But then, I always set up as far away from the monitors as I can get. Nobody’s gonna come wandering in and do “A Way To Survive” better than Ray Price or “Wine Me Up” better than Faron Young, so I’m just not interested. I do like those songs, and I’ll play ‘em with anybody. I just ignore the bad singers and have a good time.

Indianapolis

It was in Indianapolis that I heard my first live steel guitar player, and that would be Joe Tippie, who played a Marlen at a club called, I think, Nashville North.

Cal and the Gretsch guitarI went to college in Indianapolis, at an art school, from 1968-1972. The students – and some of the teachers – had long hair and did a doobie now and then, and so did I, but I was the only one who had any appreciation for country music, except for the guy who drove the lunch wagon that came around the school every day. He always had country music playing on his radio whilst he sniggered at the hippies milling around buying junk food, and I remember hearing a Conway Twitty song one time.

It was in Indianapolis that I heard my first live steel guitar player, and that would be Joe Tippie, who played a Marlen at a club called, I think, Nashville North. They were playing “The Other Woman” the first time I walked in the door. Abso-fucking-lutely staggering! A real in-person steel guitar player, after I had only seen ‘ em on TV, guys like Hal Rugg, Don Helms and Don Warden. I mean, I was ga-ga.

There was a club called the Sherman Bar, or some such, that had a jam session on Saturday afternoons, and I would usually show up and play a little guitar. This was before I ever had a steel guitar. It was my first experience ever playing live country music with a band; heretofore I had been a rock’n’roll guitar player in my high school band. Let me tell you, I was pretty fucking brave, walking into a red-neck bar at that time with hair down to my shoulders, weighing only 150 pounds, but I just wanted to pick, and I never had any more trouble than I could handle, even though I was considered kind of weird. The chicks with the big hair would point at me and say, “Honey, you might be kinda cute if you’d get a haircut.”

Norm Whitmer was the bandleader at the Sherman, and Joe Jackson was the guitar player, and he was very kind to me. He’d show me guitar licks and explain stuff about music, and one time when the drummer was in jail for back support he hired me to play drums, even though I didn’t play drums until then.

The local country station, WIRE, played some great music back then. I nearly drove my car off 16th St. one afternoon when Johnny Bush came on singing “I’ll Be There” and Dickey took his solo. Wow! What was I doing in Indy-fucking-apolis? I should be in Nashville. Well, I would be in a few years.

I was at a “pot party” one night. “Pot Party” was what straights back then called a bunch of hippies getting together. Like their frame of reference was a “Cocktail Party”, I guess. Anyhoo, I sat on the floor in front of the record player for a long time listening to “Don’t Bogart that Joint” over and over on the “Easy Rider” soundtrack. Red Rhodes, I think. I’d never heard steel guitar in any other context than stone country, so that seemed to be the nexus of country music and my preferred life style, and I staggered home that night feeling a little better about things. I knew I’d have me a steel guitar some day.

Loud musicians

I was in a band with a loud fiddle player, and sitting at the steel guitar put my head about at the level of his amp. Ouch

I was in a band with a loud fiddle player, and sitting at the steel guitar put my head about at the level of his amp. Ouch. So I stood my case up on its end, put my cowboy hat on top of it and draped my band jacket over the whole thing and had a baffle. He was offended. Oh, well. Studio baffles are pretty heavy, but a small, portable one that you could take to a gig would be a real handy thing to have.

Tuning

What’s the first thing you do when you get to a gig? Even before you grab a beer?

What’s the first thing you do when you get to a gig? Even before you grab a beer? You unpack or uncover your steel guitar so it’ll acclimate to the temperature of the room and stay in tune. You should also play it for a few minutes before you think about tuning. Keep you damn left hand on the bar, and leave the tuning wrench out in the car if you have to, but DON’T TUNE YET! Be patient, grasshoppers, let your guitar breathe. I’ve gone for a couple weeks without having to touch a Kluson. If you’re playing outside, though, screw it. Go get a beer.

The Beast From the Back of the Bus

So while playing with Jimmy Dickens, Stonewall Jackson, Faron Young and a few others I wrote a mystery/suspense novel called “The Beast From the Back of the Bus”, based on my road experiences. It’s been in the works for 25 years, and now it’s now available in eBook format.

Cal Sharp When I was in about 2nd grade I didn’t know if I wanted to be a writer or a steel guitar player (joke, I didn’t know what a steel guitar was then), but I was all into Poe, Twain, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Arthur Conan Doyle. Hadn’t heard of Buddy Emmons yet, even though he lived nearby.

At the Catholic grade school I went to the nuns were very complimentary about all the compositions I wrote, and they always gave me A’s.

Cal Sharp Fifteen years later I thought maybe them nuns knew something and, yeah, maybe I could be a writer. So, what should I write about?

Well, how about I do something interesting for 20 years and then write about it? By then I’d taken up steel guitar, and I figured I’d have some interesting experiences to write about after doing that for 20 years.

Cal Sharp So while playing with Jimmy Dickens, Stonewall Jackson, Faron Young and a few others I wrote a mystery/suspense novel called “The Beast From the Back of the Bus”, based on all the fun I had being a road dog. It’s been in the works for 25 years, and now it’s available in eBook format at Amazon. Or you can check it out first here. If you don’t have a Kindle or an iPod you can read it on a computer with the free Kindle app.

Gig attitude

Sometime when you’re setting up your rig to do a big gig and play a jig and smoke a cig ask yourself why you’re doing it. What is your attitude, and why are you even on the bandstand, and why should you expect anyone to even listen to you?

Emmons steel guitarSometime when you’re setting up your rig to do a big gig and play a jig and smoke a cig ask yourself why you’re doing it. What is your attitude, your motivation, and why are you on the bandstand, and why should you expect anyone to even listen to you? Chicks? Free beer? Money? Social interaction? Love of music? All, or none, of the above?

I knew a fiddle player for the “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”, and he played the same parts every night from the sheet music. That could be boring, I suppose, but he went into every gig with the attitude that he was going to play it better than he did the night before. He made it interesting for himself.

I approach most gigs with two things in mind: play in tune and play with taste. I really don’t worry about my tone; it’s just there, and I credit my guitar for that. But sometimes, just to make it interesting, I’ll try to play like I was doing a session, or I’ll try to play some amazing shit that’ll make somebody in the band sit up and take note, or I’ll see if I can not play my favorite lick all night, or I’ll try to come up with something I’ve never played before, or I’ll use the first finger instead of the middle finger for single string stuff, or I’ll play a whole song without using the bar (you mighta/shoulda heard Julian Tharpe do that), or I’ll pretend I’m playing with Ernest Tubb instead of Ernest Hemingway. If it’s a casual bar gig I like to go for it sometimes. Wouldn’t try any of this on an artist gig at the Super Bowl.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with some amazing musicians who blew me away every night, but I’ve also worked with some slugs who play the same shit every night, and I don’t know how they stand it. I get so bored with my own playing; I’ve heard it all before, too many times, and I’m always trying to play something new, even if it means going out on a limb and playing something that’s not as good as my normal stuff. Normal is boring, right? I might fuck up (might?) sometimes, but at the end of the night – or the month, or the year, or the career – I’ll emerge a better player, or so I’m thinking. Anyway, that’s my story, and if it gets you fired don’t pay any more attention to me.

When I tried to quit the music business

I got kind of burnt out on steel guitar once, years ago, and thought it might be a good idea to quit the music business and get a regular job.

A Steel Guitar Player
A Steel Guitar Player
I got kind of burnt out on steel guitar once, years ago, and thought it might be a good idea to quit the music business and get a regular job. I liked playing steel guitar better than just about anything, but I was so tired of all the bullshit I had to put up with just to do it. You guys know how it is – loud drummers, arrogant front men, out-of-tune guitar players, niggardly club owners, long road trips, stars that keep reminding you that you can be replaced with a couple phone calls. And that’s just the short list. And, to be frank, I was also a little disappointed in my playing – it seemed like I’d hit a wall and just couldn’t play the shit I heard in my head, even though I was playing that Emmons every night.

So I turned down gigs with Johnny Paycheck, Royal Wade Kimes and the Flying Burrito Brothers and went to work at Kinko’s as a computer guy. My gigs dwindled down to just 3 or 4 a month, where I used to play 5-7 nights a week. Hell, I went once for about 6 months without a night off.

Surprisingly (not!) my playing went to shit, and I could hardly play anything when I did do a gig. That’s when I started to worry. Did I make a major fuck-up? Kinko’s was no fun – offices in general, I found, were no fun. There was just as much bullshit to deal with, if not more, in an office environment than there was being a steel guitar player. Office politics, time cards, domineering department managers, obstreperous customers. Another short list. And, would you believe it – you couldn’t even have a beer or two on the job! How annoying.

Quitting the music business didn’t quite work out, and I’m still picking away. I don’t have a day job now, and don’t want one. They just suck. I ain’t Dilbert, or even Calbert. I play, develop web sites and write books. I’m Mr. Freelance, and I depend on my questionable skills in these areas to pay the bills, so buy my book, damnit! And click on the Donate button to your immediate right so I can go see Bobbe and get some new strings.

I still like playing steel guitar better than anything else. I’m just a steel guitar player, that’s what I am.

A little old man on Broadway

I was working the Music City Lounge on Broadway one cold, rainy night back before Broadway was “revitalized”. The crowds were thin, the tip bucket was nearly empty, and the bartender was playing tiddly-winks with beer caps.

I was working the Music City Lounge on Broadway one cold, rainy night back before Broadway was “revitalized”. The crowds were thin, the tip bucket was nearly empty, and the bartender was playing tiddly-winks with beer caps. A little old man, shabbily dressed with rain dripping off the brim of his shapeless hat, wandered in the door, looked around hesitantly for a few moments, and then shambled toward the bandstand and took a seat at a rickety table in front of me. A waitress brought him a beer and he fumbled in his pockets for enough loose change to pay for it and sipped it slowly and watched us play with cloudy, red-rimmed eyes. A faint smile lit up his wrinkled face and he settled back, gathered his tattered grey overcoat closer around his thin body, coughed, and lit a cigarette. He didn’t look like he was gonna be a big tipper.

When we took a break he motioned to me with a gnarly hand and I stopped by his table and listened to his story.

He was bad sick and on his way to a VA hospital up North somewhere. He had an hour or so to kill before catching a Greyhound at the terminal up on 8th Ave. He loved country music, and wanted to hear a little of it before he began his journey. He said we were a great band, just great, and he especially liked the steel guitar. He hadn’t been able to get out much lately, because of his illness, and he didn’t have many friends anymore. Family? Oh, a sister somewhere that he hadn’t heard from in years. He didn’t think he’d be coming back to Nashville anyway, and he didn’t know anyone where he was going. His hand trembled when he raised the beer to his mouth, and he had a faraway look in his eyes as he talked.

He left when we started the next set; he had four blocks to walk in the rain. I never saw him again.

Lick redundancy

I’ll hear some steel lick live or on a record that sounds pretty cool, so the next time I sit down at a steel guitar I’ll try to play it, and I get it on the first try and then realize that it’s something that I already knew and that I’ve been playing for years.

Here’s a weird thing that’s happened to me a few times. I’ll hear some steel lick live or on a record that sounds pretty cool, so the next time I sit down at a steel guitar I’ll try to play it, and I get it on the first try and then realize that it’s something that I already knew and that I’ve been playing for years. Huh. I guess when Buddy plays something it’ll sound different when I play the same notes. Kinda the same deal with classical music. Guys like Chopin and Mozart composed music that musicians play today from the sheet music and they all sound different, or so I understand, and some are considered masters and others just pretenders. So there ya go, given the requisite technical competency, it’s mostly in the heart and the head.