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Steel Guitar News November 19. 2012

Bobby Lee asked me via email when I was going to write a newsletter. I thought never would be an appropriate timeframe. However, a chance encounter last evening after leaving work triggered some memories.

I stopped at Publix grocery store to pick up a few things and saw Bill Anderson pushing a cart past the seafood section. I said, “Excuse me sir, but I just want to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed your music through the decades.”

He stuck out his hand to shake mine and said, “Thank you.”

Then he grinned, leaned in and whispered, “Just don’t tell anybody how many decades.”

If I see a star and don’t know them personally, I generally don’t say anything because I respect their time off and their right to privacy so I went about my shopping. As I walked away an old memory came back to me.

I was 16 years old and had my first part-time job at G.C. Murphy in the Harandale Mall in Glen Burnie, Maryland. It was a Saturday and during my lunch break I treated myself to a meal at the restaurant right outside the mall.

For those old enough to remember those fifties diners, every booth had its own little jukebox about the size of two cigar boxes taped together. I put the first nickel I ever put in a jukebox and played the first song I ever played on a jukebox. “Still”. I loved that song so much I put a quarter in and played it five more times.

Then that memory brought back the memory of the girl I was madly in love with at the time. She was something, endowed with all the beauty that God bestows on a sixteen year old girl.

That started me musing about the power of music and how it makes me feel when I listen to a song.

I’m coming from the perspective of a non-player, non-performer. I’m a listener. I’m part of your audience. This is a perspective that you guys can never have simply because you are players. You are no longer on my side of the fence.

The power of your music is in the emotion you draw out of me. Do you make me want to jump up and dance? Do you make me laugh? Do you make me sad? Or make me think? Do you fascinate me with your technique? Do you bore me and make me wish you’d get off the stage?

I came to Nashville hoping to become a successful songwriter. Didn’t happen. Oh well, at least I gave it a shot. I’ll never have to wonder what might have been. That question has been answered.

So let me tell you about an experience I had knowing that many of you will be insulted by what I have to say. I spent two days in a studio with six musicians with the intention of demoing a dozen of my songs. I had worked out the exact tempos I wanted, charted out every song and came to the session as prepared as I knew how to be.

The musicians had absolutely no interest in what the songs were about. Someone asked me, “Who do you want it to sound like?”

I said, “I don’t want to sound like anybody. I want the music to say the same thing the lyrics say.”

This confused them. When I passed out lyric sheets someone said, “We don’t need the words. We just need the chord changes.”

One of the musicians said, “Let’s do that Dwight Yoakam thing.”

Another said, “Let’s pick up the tempo.”

It became clear to me that the musicians were there to get the demo done as quickly as possible and get on to the next session. They were there to take money but not earn it.

At the end of two days I had a dozen tracks that sounded absolutely fantastic. The musicians were very pleased and congratulated themselves on how well they had done. However, I didn’t have even one track that would fit the lyrics I’d written.

Several months later the producer asked me when I was coming back to finish the demos. I simply told him I was fine tuning the lyrics.

So here is what I’d like to say to you guys. When you approach a song, listen to what the song is saying and at least try to get a feel for the emotion of the song. There is power in music, but only if you put the power in your performance and you can’t do that if all you do is play mechanically.

Jimmy Day put power in his performances. When I hear him I’m compelled to listen. It’s not the way he plays the notes on the beat, it’s the way he wraps the notes around the beat that makes me feel the emotion of the song. I don’t know how many of you will understand that subtle difference.

Terry Crisp is another one who can move me. I told Terry one day while he was out in the showroom, “Terry, I hope you don’t take this wrong, but you’re not a steel guitar player, you’re a musician.”

He looked at me real serious for a minute as he thought that over and then said, “Thank you.”

If you guys would approach a song as musicians first and steel guitar players second and put as much energy into the emotion of the song as you do the mechanics of playing, I think your audience would appreciate you more.

To me, I’d rather hear you play with passion than play with precision. Stir my emotions if you want my attention.

All this came out of me because of a chance encounter with Bill Anderson at the grocery store. I guess he’ll never know how much he influenced me, then and now.

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