At fifteen I started learning guitar chords from my grandmother who was a "finger picker" ala Chet Atkins, Merle Travis. She only picked in the key of "G" and as far as she was concerned that was the only key I needed to learn. Sure enough, it wasn't long before I found that 99% of the country songs only had three chords. I sounded kind of funny trying to sing all of them in the one key but a buddy across the street taught me a few more chords and this stopped the strain on my voice.
My first guitar was a Gene Autry acoustic mother had paid three dollars for and it looked it. The rusty strings were set about a half inch above the frets and I could only practice about an hour before I had to start wiping blood off the neck. (I might as well clear something up here. Amateurs "practice." Professionals "rehearse.")
As luck would have it I met a used car salesman named Ray who picked. He was looking for someone to form a three piece fiddle band and after a quick audition on his Gibson J-45 Flattop, I was hired. Our fiddle player turned out to be an elderly gentleman named Jesse who carried his fiddle around in a flour sack. I had seen him at First Mondays, two or three day growth of beard and a weeks worth of tobacco juice running down the sides of his mouth. No matter, he could play what he called old time breakdown fiddle and could take a short ride on some of the songs that Ray and I sang. Our first paying gig was the VFW in Weatherford, no sound system. Jesse and Ray only needed the gallon of "Sweet Lucy" they had purchased. The crowd suffered until they got drunk and then they loved us. No one mentioned anything about bringing us back though. Before the word got out, we booked the American Legion which was a repeat of the VFW. I will say this, it took the Legion people a little longer to start liking us. The Country Club turned us down for their Christmas Dance but we kept honing our skills and started playing at some of the musicals held every Friday night around the county.
Ray and Jesse couldn't make it one night and this turned out to be a blessing. One of the bands needed a picker, POP WHITAKER AND HIS YOUNGUNS. Pop was a good fiddle player and taught guitar and fiddle. No one in the group was over seventeen. Pop also believed in rehearsals once a week before we played the musicals. They only let you play thirty minutes but Pop insisted they be the best thirty minutes we could provide. We got so good they hired us as the house band for a live radio show every Saturday in Granbury, Texas. With Pop's help, I had managed to purchase a Silvertone arch top with a small practice amp, about 40 watts and started to learn some single string melody leads.
I moved out to Lamesa to live with my dad for a while and met up with a Pentacostal piano player. Now those folks know how to make a hymn swing! A year there added to my education. In 1953, I moved to San Francisco where I joined the union and met a piano player who was really good. We formed a jazz combo with sax, piano, guitar, drums and bass. The gigs we played gave me the first real money I had ever made with music. I didn't read music, still don't, but the piano man came up with a way to chart the songs. No ad lib, I had to play the charts. As I look back now, it was good training.
Don't give up, we are about to get to the good part. Guess I better go there now before I lose you.
Uncle Sam, bless his heart, sent me to Wiesbaden, Germany in 1955. Sitting in the barracks one afternoon, I heard a guitar that sounded exactly like Chet and I went looking for it. I found Joe Foster from Lake Charles, Louisiana or "Lock Charse" as he pronounced it. I don't recall the details but before the day was over we had a band. Bobby Nutt from Trees, Louisiana on fiddle and mandolin. Bobby said he was from Trees but since no one knew where Trees was, he changed it to Vivian. No one knows where that is either except the people who live there. Dale Sonier from Houma, Louisiana or it might have been Vinton. Dale played good rhythm guitar and sang. The last member was C.J. Crawford from Lufkin, Texas. C.J. sang and made us an offer we couldn't refuse. If we would help him buy a bass, he would learn how to play it and join our band. Best investment we ever made.
Since we were an antiaircraft outfit, we called our band, THE TRIPLE A RAMBLERS. Bobby or Dale one knew a little gal named Pepper who ran the talent at the USO Club. We were hired to do a show and packed the house with Cajuns. We were on our way. We won several talent shows, played the enlisted men's clubs and a couple of gasthaus'. As I recall we even had an offer to make a USO tour but someone's CO wouldn't release them.
One day a major called me from another outfit. He was in charge of entertainment for a barn dance to be held at the big Officer's Club located on a hill overlooking Wiesbaden. Fancy place. I gave him a price and his only stipulation was we had to stay sober.
We arrived early, set up and played an hour. All the officers and their wives were dressed in "country outfits" and were really having a good time. The major didn't arrive until we were about half way in to the second set. He came in with a woman, drunk, and was carrying a riding crop. As he passed the band stand, he hit C.J's bass with it. Now C.J. was right proud of that bass and I had to grab him to keep him from taking the major out. We finished the set and headed for the bar. Before we could order a drink, the major came up and started yelling about us not getting drunk. I mean, if you looked in the dictionary under "obnoxious" there would be a picture of this guy. Joe Foster didn't help matters any when he said, "Wait a minute sarge." (Joe called everyone sarge if he didn't know their name.) Well, that set the major off again. DON'T CALL ME SARGE! A man came over who I recognized as the battalion commander and the major's boss. He asked us to get our drink and keep playing which we did. All this time the major kept acting like a jackass but they kept him away from the bandstand.
We had agreed to play until midnight and when the clock said twelve, we stopped. A captain from Texas A&M asked us to play another hour. They had passed the hat and collected a pretty good sum. I told him four hours was a pretty long gig and under the circumstances I thought it better if we collected our money and left. The rest of the guys agreed. We were standing at the bar having this conversation when the major appeared and demanded we play another hour. I told him the same thing and asked for our money. He said he wasn't paying unless we played another hour. His boss, who had gotten a little drunk also, told me he was ordering me to play another hour. I informed him that he was out of uniform and out of line and told him what he could do with his direct order. [A physical impossibility as I look back.] I asked the major for our money again and got the same answer. I stepped behind the bar which was stocked with high dollar spirits and started setting bottles on the counter. I said, "No problem gents, we will just take it out in whiskey." The captain from A&M saved the day when he told the major to give us the money, now! He didn't have it, he would have to send a check. No way Jose, cash was our deal. With the money in the hat and some more pitched in we had our money and went on to some serious honky tonking down town.
I didn't think much about it until the following Monday when my battalion commander called me to his office. This man was a prince, West Point Bird Colonel. He asked if we had played a dance at the OC and I told him yes sir. Then he wanted to know if there had been a problem being paid. Yes sir. Did you tell a colonel what he said you told him? [The physical impossibility.] No sir, I told a civilian who was drunk and out of line what he could do. Hmmmn. Well, that puts a different light on the subject. Dismissed.
Now I don't know for sure but I think my colonel told that other colonel what he could do with his complaint. [Another physical impossibility.]