Essays: On The Road (And A Little Off)


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Amsterdam, December 20, 2001 - - Had it not been for my
brother Del I probably would not have been either afflicted
or blessed, depending on how you look at it, with guitar.
Or with country music, for that matter. Among my earliest
memories are those of Del singing and playing, a strong
baritone doing "Philippino Baby" or "Riding Down the
Canyon", one melody line and one set of changes that would
later stand me in good stead.

He was, I know my two surviving brothers would agree, the
best one of us. Of us all, he had the most of our mother's
natural wisdom.

By the age of twelve I had been fooling around with guitars
in one form or another for more than half my life. I had
been abetted in this behaviour by my cousins, the Hazeletts
and by my Aunt Juanita's brothers the Adkinses, who got me
hooked early with the melody line to "Poison Love". But
the biggest contributor to my delinquency was my brother,
Del. When he went to Germany he left at my mother's house
a factory-second Beltone guitar that I sanded and scraped
the finish off and painted with shellac. I still don't
know why.

In 1957, when I was twelve, my brother Del came home for
Christmas from Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He had scoured a
pawn shop or two around the base and was bringing me a
present: a used Gibson Les Paul Junior sunburst-finish and
a Marvel amp.
He had meant to give it to me for Christmas, but I guess he
couldn't wait. It was only the 12th or something, and he
couldn't stand not giving it to me right away. So in the
cold, feet crunching in the snow, he walked me around to
the trunk of his car and opened it up and showed it to me
and said,

Now, Danny. I have to take this guitar back with me when I
go the day after Christmas, but you can play it until then.

Intending to give it to me for Christmas, but not being
able to hold out, he told a little fib.
I was ecstatic. I mean the day after Christmas was TWO
WEEKS AWAY!!! So I jumped up and down and took the guitar
in the house and turned the strings over because by now I
was a dedicated left-hander. And for the next two weeks
anytime I was home that guitar was in my hands, that little
old tube amp was cranked to distortion.

But a funny thing began to happen. As the alotted two
weeks grew shorter and shorter, I became more and more
despondent. Having tasted the power of a good guitar, I
was loath to give it up. I was just hitting my stride
here. The thirteenth was easy; I still had nearly two
weeks left. But by the time the 22nd arrived, I didn't
want to eat. I had begun to mourn the coming departure of
this miracle from my life.

My brother Del watched me with growing alarm. This was
definitely not what he'd had in mind.

So on the 22nd, he came and sat down with me and said,

you know I was going to give you that guitar for Christmas
but I couldn't wait to see your face when you got it. And
so now, even though it's only the twenty-second, I want you
to know that that guitar is what you're getting from me for
Christmas. It's yours, Danny.

Throughout his life, whenever he could encourage me he
would. He took a great amount of personal pride, sometimes
more than I did myself, in what he saw as my
accomplishments in music. He knew along with me the
loneliness and abstraction a musical life can bring. He
shared, quietly, my successes and failures in music, of
which there were a few, and of which there were many.

And that was Christmas in 1957. But the really beautiful
thing is that the gift that Del really gave me, that of
music, is one that I'm grateful for every time I put that
strap around my shoulder. And every time I do, I remember
Christmas in 1957 at 508 Bridge Street...

May all your Christmases be so bountiful.