I’ve always allowed the musical instruments of my life to influence me more than I did actual people. Then at one point I thought to maybe somehow join the two, to adhere the human influence with the tone wood. When they are all put together like this I feel that they tell an extra-dimensional story to and beyond me, which affirms in it’s own biography, of what I have been pointing myself at, and into, as far back as I can even remember, that maybe, just maybe, all this is not a fluke.
When debating with long time friend John York about the subject of what we ourselves are actually doing in the arts, we kept coming back to the same conclusion, that what we do is plain and simple “beauty recognition”. There is no higher job, nor one more transparent to the ego. Just even the story of the history of the luthier’s craft here, and the voice given to a sawn tree, should be enough in itself. But I like layers and layers there are. For me, it’s not just the fact that they represent periods of American history, they are embedded with my own particular time phases, and then, not to mention the songs I’ve written on them, which there contain little head-of-a-pin portraits of threadbare family and foothill friendships, swaying naturally, because no one is watching. All this ending in, or bottoming out, in a sort of mythological lore.
Sometimes I was inspired by the shear humor of it, like getting author Joan Didion to sign my Dan Electro Longhorn bass. Still profound, perhaps diamond witted, but it was worth it just for the devilishly sweet cut-eye look in her eyes.
Ray Bradbury wrote The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451, and The New York Times once heralded him as “the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream.”
I first met him at UCR in the 70’s, in awe, i was taken aback by his coke bottle glasses, pebbled skin and friendly demeanor. When we met again in the 1990’s I convinced him to sign my Peruvian Charango on a bird sunny day at UCLA. He didn’t bock once about it after I told him that the backs of the instruments were often made of armadillo bodies. He then launched into a lengthy reflection about early violin lessons, which irked his restless assistant to no end, and then he related to me of how much he treasured his own Greta Garbo autograph. Before parting he asked me what kind of instrument it was. I told him it was a charango. I said, “I’m perhaps the only one in this big flat world with a Ray Bradbury charango, man, you can’t get any more sci-fi than that.” The last thing he said, to his assistant, in parting was “the lad might just have something there”. He passed in 2012.
Writer William Gibson is best know for being the “noir prophet” of the cyberpunk sub-genre, and that of coining the phrase “cyberspace”. The phrase appeared firstly in his short story Burning Chrome in 1982. In an earlier literary correspondence with mushroom psychonaut philosopher Terrence McKenna I received back from him a note that just read, “You’ve got to read William Gibson’s Neuromancer, it’ll give you something to grapple with!”. Gibson signed my Del Vecchio Brazilian electric mandolin at an appearance at The Los Angeles Festival of Books.
Mickey Spillane was the John Wayne of hard-boiled fiction, selling an amazing 225 million books in his lifetime. I was in Los Angeles for some far less important reasons when I saw a poster nailed up that said that Spillane was appearing at a mystery bookstore that very day. I didn’t have any of his books with me, so I just drug my fiddle in. I was being pretty brave for me, because if you were to believe the reputation of image that you got from his fiction, if you came waltzing in, seemingly fresh from a snot nose violin lesson, you were almost sure to be slapped around like a palm tree in Key Largo, and given a derogatory flat top as a signature. But of course he was as sweet as he could be. In fact he remains to me, square headed, the spitting image of about every Texas born football coach at Fontana High School where i grew up. Those coaches never once called me by my name, but rather by their name for me, Flower Child. But I could tell that they were just jokingly acknowledging the obvious fact that we were both proud outcasts on either end of the spectrum. They humored me with the same strength that I did them when they would just drop a santa-esque sack of soccer balls at our feet, ditch work, and head for the racetrack.
The low strung inscribed fiddle in question was one given to me by fiddle great Stuart Duncan (a longtime friend of fifty years), so I am sort of haunted with stereo unworthiness with the combining of these two figures for life.
For your homework check out the movie, The Girl Hunters, where Mickey got to portray one of his most popular characters, Mike Hammer. After that watch Duncan in The Goat Rodeo Sessions DVD. Very similar plots.
“Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.” Mickey Spillane. “
Don Helms (1927-2008) Helms, from a southern farming family in Brockton, Alabama, was eighteen years old in 1945 when he first joined up with Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys. He played on over 100 of William’s classic songs up until Hank’s tragic passing. His death made a rasping crooning martyr of him upon my birthday in 1953. Helm’s sound on the double-neck 1948 Gibson Console Grande steel guitar was quintessential to our ears as an equal counter-voice to Hank William’s voice of hound dog mourn. We corresponded for a while when he agreed to sign my six string Tonemaster lap steel guitar. He gave me his phone number and said that I could call anytime. I was so much in awe of him that I never mustered the nerve to infringe upon his godliness. As i once mentioned before, that i can only hope that over time what appears of my life as hardheadedness will appear in time as integrity. In so i hope that my cowardliness will someday be seen for what it just might be, the deepest respect. Let’s face it, it is just too much work, if you worry, to emerge authentic.
I bought the Tonemaster from a pawn shop in Fontana ran by a couple of old time country music singers named Woody and Lena Hix. What caught my eye at first about their store was that they had an autographed picture of Lefty Frizzell nailed behind the counter. When I asked about it Woody launched into a story about the time when they once opened up for bluegrass greats Flatt and Scruggs in the 50’s, and about how they were performing at a drive-in theater where they had to perform up high on a platform in front of a behmoth screen between movies. Woody and Lena once recorded a 78 RPM record for Nashboro records as The Dixie Ramblers, and later on had one of their songs covered by Wanda Jackson on Capital Records, “Please Call Today”.
All of this for me was a frantic search for influence, and I’ll have to say that I had pretty good taste in pointing myself towards the proper power, if nothing else. But ultimately, to quote one of my favorite comedic influences, Richard Lewis, which sums it all up, “I don’t know what the fuck is behind any door!” I can never be bored, for I’ve chosen a never ending story. Surround yourself with greatness. Will it make you great? No! But it will make life more meaningful. If you’re not looking for meaning then i can’t for the life of me figure how you’ve read this far.
A big influence on me, a woman I like to call “the queen of fierce intelligence”, author Joan Didion, is one of the true blue greats in the field of literary journalism. She wrote perhaps the best karmic scraping descriptions of my childhood hometown in her 1968 essay about steeldust, murder, and marriage, titled Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream. It appeared in her most praised collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Check out the link and then go and buy a copy.
Another supplement to your deeper Fontana education would be to devour, Junkyard of Dreams, the final chapter of Mike Davis’ book, City of Quartz. The book was on the best seller list for a good amount of time, and the photos included with the text were done by a good friend of mine, yet still a genius, Robert Morrow.
To complete your University of Slag course in Fontuckyism consider reading Jack Olsen’s, Salt of the Earth, and Sammy Hagar’s, Red.
This swimming pool colored Dan Electro Longhorn Bass was graciously signed by Joan Didion at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
Scotty Moore is best know as the rockabilly guitarist behind the advent of earth-god Elvis Presley. On the year i was born, 1954, they recorded their first 78RPM record for Sun Records in Memphis Tennesse, That’s Alright Mama. It was backed on the flip side with what was then considered a surreal version of Bill Monroe’s, Blue Moon of Kentucky. Rolling Stone Magazine voted Moore #29 in their top 100 guitarists of all time, and he was then inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the year 2000.
I met Scotty Moore in Los Angeles in 1991 along with my friends Chris Darrow, and Harvey Kubernik (rock journalist). I got Scotty then to sign my Epiphone Triumph Regent. I obtained the instrument from The Goodwill Store in Fontana, California for fifty dollars. I was so broke at the time that after seeing it I had to scamper out and borrow enough money to purchase it. It has been a trusty companion ever since.
My pal Alison Krauss had invited my family and myself out to a show at the Greek Amphitheater in 2015. Why? Basically, because if there is actually one, and it’s rootin’ tootin’, she is the Sweetheart of My Rodeo. It was one of a series of concerts which was part of a package tour with country music’s Moses figure, Willie Nelson. That’s of course exciting in itself, but then i think, hey!, since I’m probably never going to get to see Willie again in my life (if he’s lucky), why don’t I try to get him to sign my garage-sale Gibson tenor guitar. He was an even more heroic figure to my wife Holle, whose family, in her youth, would constantly play Nelson’s music in their barbecue restaurant in L.A. (lower Alabama). So, i emailed Alison a question about the signing. She wrote back that she could try, but that she doesn’t actually see Willie that often. And that is just how naive i am. Me, I’m assuming that at this very moment they are all going down the highway together in Willie’s bus, prairie scrub sailing by the window, playing a heated laugh-soaked round of canasta through a blue-gray veil of hookah smoke. It’s not even a stretch for me to believe that they might even have horses on the bus, and a few cattle. Well, thanks to her, she did manage to convince him to do it. I think that she understood that to me as a songwriter he was as close to a living Hank Williams figure as one could get. I of course didn’t have the nerve, but if i did, i would have wanted him to add an inscription that might read, “After second thought, it really isn’t that funny how time sips away”.
This is the signature of my late father Ralph William Brayer which is currently housed on the peghead of my Lowden guitar. Lowden is an Irish made instrument. My father had this Sacred Heart Auto League plaque papally displayed beside the speedometer of his 1973 Chevrolet Caprice Classic. It was a Catholic organization dedicated to protecting you in your car. Below is a picture of him as it appeared in his senior yearbook 1940 attending Marshfield High School in Wisconsin.