This Saturday, June 14th I celebrate my 59th birthday. But it’s a much bigger day to me, because it marks the 40th anniversary of getting my very first guitar; a Narada dreadnought my father gave me for my 19th birthday in 1974. Interestingly enough I had planned on asking for a guitar for my high school graduation the year before, but after a friend showed me how to play a C chord on a classical guitar, something I found incredibly difficult, hell, impossible, I opted for something else. And it must have been inconsequential because I have NO idea what my graduation present was.
That fall I went off to college to SMU in Dallas, TX. That year was the first year without having music a daily part of my life. I’d been active in choirs for the previous 12 years, as well as having music class as part of a daily curriculum. Those were the days. I can’t tell you how much I missed participating in making music. Listening to music for me has always played less of a role in my day-to-day existence than making music has; it was true then and it’s true now. So I felt lost. But I was lucky enough to become friends with two classmates, Bill Glass and Mike Crane, who were very fine guitarists. I would hang out with them and listen while they played everything from the Beatles to James Taylor tunes to Allman Bros. staples like Midnight Rider. Mike was also a fine fingerstyle guitarist and was doing a credible job on tunes like Duane’s Little Martha, and Leo Kottke’s The Fisherman, two tunes I still perform to this day and are recorded on my albums Homecoming and Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard respectively. The fact that I had two friends who were fine guitarists somehow proved to me that I too had what it took to play the guitar. Not sure why that was, but there’s something about watching peers do something that makes me think I can too. I started begging for a guitar as soon as I got back to my suburban Chicago home in mid-May after finals. And my dad listened.
That summer I was lucky enough to get a job at United Airlines flight kitchen at O’Hare (it’s the main reason you’ll rarely see me eat in-flight meals). I felt lucky because that was during a recession and summer jobs were scarce. I didn’t like that I had to work the 2nd shift 3pm-11pm because I wouldn’t see most of my friends whose jobs started before 7am, but looking back it got my guitar playing started on the right foot. I had so much time during the day and late nights to play the guitar that that’s what I did; 3-4 hours a day, every day, and often quite a bit more. The guitar came with two guitar lessons where I learned Gordon Lightfoot’s Rainy Day People from the TAB my teacher taught me how to read, along with a simple right hand fingerstyle pattern. These would be the first and last lessons I would receive until I got carpal tunnel syndrome in 1989.
That guitar went with me everywhere that summer. I fell in love with Cat Stevens’ and John Prine’s songs and found that they were simple enough I could play most of them, especially after I learned how to play barre chords and I could manage the B minor in Prine’s classic tune, Hello in There, and the F in Illegal Smile. When I arrived back in Dallas for my sophomore year Bill and Mike were impressed with what I had learned in 10 weeks, and they decided that I could play rhythm guitar so they could work on playing the Duane Allman/Dicky Betts double-lead guitar stuff in songs like Le Bres in A minor, Whipping Post, Blue Sky, and many others. I can still remember getting so sore playing barre chords for 15-20 minutes at a time that I’d beg them to smoke a joint with me just to stop them for a while and let my fingers rest. As I look back that was the best training I could have gotten. I learned how to hold down a rhythm-they were merciless in their criticism if I sped up or slowed down-merciless as only 19 and 20-year-old young men can be to their peers. Thank you friends. It worked. One of the things I’m best at is finding a pocket for others to solo over.
That Narada guitar was lost somewhere by Braniff Airlines over the next spring break. The airlines weren’t the douche bags they are now regarding musical instruments and immediately replaced it with a better guitar, a very fine Yamaha FG200 which would begin my fascination with OMs, and then I ‘moved up’ to a Guild D-50 which I then traded for a Norman steel string that I sold to Andy Pfeiffer in 1979 to fund my first great guitar, a 1936 Martin 000-18 for $450. All this over a five-year period. I was totally hooked on the guitar, and knew then what my life’s work was. It took me another 15 years to fully commit, but the die was cast. I was a guitarist.
As I look back over the last 40 years that gift of a guitar from my uber conservative father was the kindest, most generous gift I’ve ever received. On his 88th birthday May 23rd this year his children, 2 sons and 2 daughters-in-law all offered toasts. In my toast I thanked my father for that life changing gift he gave me 40 years ago this coming Saturday which makes it fitting that the very next day, this Sunday the 15th is Father’s Day, where I will again thank him for his generosity and his, at times, grudging support for my choice in livelihoods. All of the music at my concert in Maine this Saturday will be dedicated to my father, because 40 years ago he truly gave me the greatest gift of all, the opportunity to follow my heart, and a father just can’t do anything more important than that.
So, Gordon, Happy Father’s Day; I hope I’ve made you proud and I hope this Father’s Day is the best one yet!
I love you with all my heart.
Your Loving Son.