Joseph E Bird

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steel guitar

Texas Flood

This is an excerpt from my novel in progress. Trevor was a singer-songwriter until an accident forced him to give up his dreams of music. Now living in Nashville and working as an architect, he is with a group touring a part of the city they hope to redevelop when he happens upon a music store. The group moves on, but Trevor looks inside.

They moved on without Trevor, who was watching through the window as an old man sat playing a horizontal steel guitar. Another man sat behind the counter reading a magazine. He could hear the guitar through the glass windows. It was what he would have expected from a steel guitar, the kind of muisc he had heard before on an old country music show that he would see on television every now and then back in West Virginia. The man playing must have sensed Trevor watching and he looked up, waved, and kept on playing.

The group was a block away. Trevor opened the door and went inside.

There were about a dozen acoustic guitars hanging from the walls, another dozen electrics, a few dobros, and on the floor, maybe half a dozen steel guitars. He took one of the dobros off the wall and strummed it, more or less out of habit.

The man playing the steel looked up and said howdy, without missing a note. He was slight of frame and sat a little hunched over. He was wearing a short-sleeved dress shirt open at the collar, and on his wrist was a drug-store watch. He wore glasses with simple frames, and though his hair was thoroughly gray, he had a lively air about him that contradicted his elderly physical appearance. He could be anybody’s grandfather but most grandfathers would be sitting in front of the television watching afternoon game shows. This one was going from one song to another, his head bobbing to the beat as his mottled hands plucked the strings and slid up and down the fretboard. He ended a song that Trevor didn’t know with a long slide up, followed by a quick slide up and down that sounded more like an old whistle than a guitar.

“Yes, sir!” the man said. He looked up a Trevor and laughed, obviously enjoying his own music. Trevor smiled back. “How you doing, son?” the man said.

“Me? I’m fine.”

“You a picker or a slider?”

Trevor laughed. “Never really thought about it in those terms. I used to be a picker. Guess I’m a slider now. Or trying to be. I really just started.”


“Yeah. I bought one a couple of months ago.”

“What kind of music do you play?”

Trevor shook his head. “I’m still trying to figure what I can play on this thing.”

“Country? Blues?”

“Blues,” Trevor said. “At least that’s what I’m starting out with. Blues are kind of natural for a slide guitar.”

“Yeah, I know a little blues. Let me think. Yeah, how about this.” He started picking and sliding what sounded to Trevor like a standard blues opening.

“I know that one,” he said.

“A little Stevie Ray,” the man said.

“Yeah. I’ve heard that.”

“Texas Flood.”

He broke into the hard run just before the verse. Trevor couldn’t take his eyes off the guitar. Until the man started to sing. He could play, but he couldn’t sing. He sang the entire first verse and then started laughing.

“Now you know why I’m a guitar player,” he said. “I leave the singing to someone else.”

The man behind the counter shook his head and laughed without looking up.

“Let me hear you hit that a lick,” he said, looking at the guitar Trevor was holding.

“No, I can’t, really. I’m just learning.”

“Come on. Humor an old man.” He looked up with a smile that Trevor couldn’t resist. His enthusiasm reminded him of Jackson Little.

“Sure,” Trevor said. “I’ve been practicing playing old hymns. Do you know any hymns?”

“Goodness sakes, young man, I’ve forgotten more hymns than you’ll ever know. Lay one on me, now.”

“Ok. How about this one.” He started playing Softly and Tenderly. He was shaky at first, but midway through the first verse he found his rhythm and started to play with more confidence. By the time he reached the refrain, the man was playing along on the steel. He played the verse and the steel guitar faded to the background, but when they hit the refrain again, he was playing answer to Trevor’s call. It was haunting. Even the man behind the counter put his magazine down on his lap and listened.

By the third time through, they had found each other’s style and both were instinctively playing to the crescendo to end the song, until the last two lines of the refrain. The man stopped, and Trevor slowly picked the last line. The final note faded into the silence of the store.

The man behind he counter applauded.

“Oh, son, that was beautiful,” the guitar man said.

“Thanks,” Trevor said. “I just….I don’t know.”

The man behind the counter spoke. His voice was deep and carried resonance. “Coming from him, that’s one hell of a compliment, boy.”

“What’s your name, son?” the guitar player asked.

“Trevor. Trevor Larson. I’m an architect.” He felt silly for stating his occupation. The man laughed.

“Maybe you are,” he said, “but you’re a musician.” He stood as he reached his hand to Trevor. “I’m Maxfield Martin.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Martin. But no, I’m not a musician. I just mess around a little.”

“Mess around a little, huh. How long you been playing?”

“Dobro? Not that long. A couple of months, maybe.”

Martin studied on Trevor, looking him up and down. “You were in a fire, I reckon.”

“I reckon.”

“How long you been in Nashville?”

“A couple of weeks,” Trevor said. “How about you?”

“Me? I guess it’s been sixty years or so.”

Trevor was surprised by the answer and didn’t know how to respond.

“Let me help you out,” Martin said. “I’m eighty-five. I came here from
Abilene when I was twenty-four.”

“Are you in the industry?”

Martin laughed as he sat back down behind his guitar. He plucked the strings and moved the slide, making a sound that was as close to real laughter as an instrument could get. “Don’t you reckon I’m old enough to retire?”

“I reckon.”

“You talk like you’re from Texas, son.”

“West Virginia.”

“I’m not completely retired. I play some with Hank Willard’s band. He’s from Ashland, Kentucky, right across the river from West Virginia. We play a lot of the small places. Wheeling, Milton. Played in Charleston a few times.”

“That’s where I’m from. Well, down the river a bit.”

“And you didn’t move to Nashville to play music?”

“No. I gave up on music.”

Martin stroked the strings of his steel guitar, then whipped the slide up and down the fretboard, creating a wailing, howling song, then broke into the intro of Hot Rod Lincoln, his head nodding again as his fingers moved in a blur. Then he bounced his slide up and down on the strings, alternating with his finger picking, and created a machine gun staccato effect. He finished with another dramatic slide.

“That’s pretty good,” Trevor said.

“Aw, shucks. I’m just messing around,” Martin said with a smile, echoing Trevor’s words to him.
Trevor put the dobro back on the rack. “I guess I’d better catch up with my group.”

“I’m playing with Janelle next week at the Empty Glass,” Martin said. “You should come by.”

“Who’s Janelle?”

“I think you’d like her. She sings a bluesy, Bakersfield kind of country.”

Trevor shrugged. “I’ve never really been a fan of country. No offense.”

“You ain’t heard Janelle.”

“Fair enough.”

Trevor walked to the door, then stopped and looked back. He asked the question that popped into his mind when Martin told him how old he was. “You ever hear of guy named Jackson Little?”

Martin looked up from his guitar. “Little?” He looked down and to his right, thinking. “Little. Jackson Little.” He sat for a few more seconds, then looked up, his expression questioning. “Black feller?”


“Played guitar, mostly, I think. Maybe a little fiddle.”

“I don’t know about the fiddle, but he said he played here years ago.”

“Yeah,” Martin said. “Jacksie. Tall guy. He did a lot of session work. That was back when Nashville was country. It was hard for a black man to get work in a band, but Jacksie was good. He was primarily a studio man.”

“Did you ever play with him?”

Martin shook his head. “Have you heard of Percy Rivers?”

Trevor had heard the name. Maybe on the late-night infomercials selling boxed sets of old artists. “Sure,” he said with more confidence than his answer deserved.

“I played with him almost exclusively for twenty years. That’s when old Jacksie was in his prime. But, no, I never played with him. You know him?”

“I did. He lived in Charleston in his later years.”

“Oh. He died, I reckon.”

“I reckon.”

He didn’t tell him the story.

He plays the guitar.

There’s a guy I know named Maxfield Martin. Just met him. He’s in his 80s. Plays the guitar. But not just any guitar, the steel guitar. You know, the kind that sits on a stand horizontally across the lap. A steel slide in the left hand, picking the strings with the right.

Anybody remember Roscoe Swerps? That’s what he played way back when. Sad country songs.

But not Maxfield Martin. Man, that guy can play. I mean, yeah, he can make that guitar cry, but he can flat-out tear it up with screaming foot-stomping rockabilly phosphorescent bluegrass.

Maxfield Martin told me a story.

I’ll share it with you some day soon.

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