I remember a time when the only thing I was concerned about as a guitarist was Heavy Metal. Where to hear it, what bands were best at it, and what guitar was best for playing it–those were pretty much the only things about the instrument that resonated with me. Everything aside from that and classical guitar–which is basically just metal you can play unplugged–was just plain lame.

Then I remember going off to music school–which I’m very glad I did, even though it meant moving from New Mexico to Texas, which is a sort of cardinal desert sin–and at the age of seventeen suddenly the only thing I was concerned about as a guitarist was Playing Jazz: Where to hear Jazz (the wilder the better), what guys were the most (preferably obscurely) awesome at Jazz, and how to find a way to stop playing all those “guitar licks” that made me sound like I wasn’t really Jazzing very well. It was an important move for me because I am naturally a very creative person, but struggle constantly with the fact that I am not naturally a very inquisitive person. I was raised by a master educator and music theorist who had no actual education but his own, and it became clear to me fairly on that, because of the way my brain works, this was absolutely not to be my path.

So music school was an amazing thing for me. Thanks to my college education I learned the fingerboard in a deeper way, began to learn to improvise outside of the blues-rock tradition, got my reading on point, and developed a skill set that I had no idea would be come invaluable to me over the next decade or so in terms of keeping a roof over my head. I had no idea, at that point, what was in store for me. What studying, what I was doing…jazz as a ‘genre’ seemed like a whole universe (it is). But little did I know, it was just the tiniest part of MY universe as a guitarist!

One of the firmest memories of my late teens is this: Coming home for a holiday fairly early in my studies I made a joke to my father, who was my first guitar teacher, about how some gig or other that he was doing would ruin his ‘jazz cred’ if anyone found out about it. He gave me a long look and said “you know, since you left for music school, I’ve been thinking about it. And I really don’t care whether I’m credible at all!”

I didn’t get it at the time. In fact, I was kind of hurt by the statement. I was working SO HARD to elevate my playing, and it’s not that my father isn’t credible. My pops has the sharpest ears and one of the sharpest musical minds of any guitarist alive, and I learn new things from him about the instrument every day. So I didn’t get it. I could never do what he does! So if he’s not credible, then what am I??

I didn’t get it, and when I moved to New York I continued not to get it, and went only to hear elite jazz composers and performers because, in my mind, I WAS an elite jazz composer and performer and I wanted to be among ONLY others of my kind…and I had been taught in my nascent years of education that, in order to be among them, I had to deny the other parts of the guitar that made me excited about being a guitarist in the first place.

That first Led Zeppelin riff. Those amazing one-note Neil Young solos. The first time I heard ‘Battery’ by Metallica or ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ by GnR. Or, to be fair, the first time I heard the opening to ‘Meeting of the Spirits’ by the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the ending of ‘In A Silent Way’ by Miles Davis, the opening notes of basically any record by Bill Frisell. And the first time–I’ll admit it–I heard Kerry King play that crazy solo near the end of that Slayer song, Angel of Death. I mean, that stuff is crazy. It’s ALL so crazy, it seems inhuman. This is what Guitar Heroes are for.

When I was growing up in New Mexico, my father gave lessons to roughly 70 students a week and then spent his evenings doing session work (before ‘music licensing’ was a thing, he’d been the guitarist in so many auto commercials and on so many obscure Mexican pop records it now kind of blows my mind, played on some of the earliest documented surf records, and somehow also managed to be a studio tech for Buddy Holly down in Lubbock TX, which is way more interesting than anything I’ll probably ever do). My mother never worked, and we were a family of surprisingly reasonable means, so in order to make this happen he also played most weekends and many weeknights, which means I usually only saw him when he was at work.

His gigs were basically as follows:

-Klezmer band that played largely bar-mitzvahs, the occasional wedding, the only yearly Jewish Heritage event in New Mexico, and for some reason a really amazing annual chocolate festival at a casino way out in the middle of nowhere, that he apparently still looks forward to every fall.

-Several blues and gospel singers that nobody has ever heard of, who are all awesome, and one of whom fired him for taking a really great solo while playing an outdoor festival at the local zoo. I still remember that solo, and the crowd’s reaction to that solo, as if it were happening to me now. He played so well, it offended the bandleader. He was so happy coming offstage. It still breaks my goddamn heart.

-Assistant musical director at a local Lutheran church, contemporary service ONLY (the cultural distinction in the Lutheran church is important; in fact, one of the not-contemporary attendees was at one point so offended by the presence of a Guitarist in the House of the Lord that they attempted to ‘tithe’ my father into retirement by paying the church $20,000 to fire him. He’s a wonderful bandleader and will have his 15th anniversary as the assistant-MD this summer.)

-Various bar bands, one of whom is a classic rock band called the Great Blue Whales because, much like the actual whales, they believe the Dire Straits, Police and Jimi Hendrix catalogues are in need of thorough and enthusiastic preservation tactics. “Protect Endangered Music” is their slogan. (This would be a good time to point out that, being from New Mexico, I was basically raised by bikers and hippies.) They are a very earnest, and very legit rock and roll band that can’t really write a lick of their own music. In fact, the GBW contingency still exists, and I subbed with them while my father was in the cancer ward last year, which is an entirely different and kind of amazing story. Another of these bar bands was called the “WDC Band,” and they all wore silk-screened t-shirts that said “WDC” in giant block letters, and I found out through much investigation that the abbreviation stood for “We Despise Country,” which they all apparently did. This band was also pretty serious about Jimi Hendrix, and EXTREMELY serious about the Dire Straits. I have seen my father play the solo at the end of ‘Sultans of Swing’ well over a hundred times. He plays it beautifully.

So anway…because when I was a little girl, I liked Slayer so very much….I took the “WDC” motto fairly seriously, and without much consideration as to why. This was easy being an ex-metalhead, an ex-Texan, and a self-proclaimed avant-garde jazz enthusiast. Despising Country was pretty much the easiest thing in the world. Only meatheads and lowlifes dig country music…right?

So when a fellow avant-gardist-turned-realist asked me to join, record for, and subsequently go on tour with his emerging country band I surprised no one more than myself by immediately saying yes. The way I was raised had, somehow, managed to shine through. I spent the better part of the next three years driving around the US in a Ford E-350 Econoline passenger van with 5 other guys, slowly figuring out that the Telecaster was one of the many loves of my life, and hanging out in every small town in America that had a honky tonk or even just a bar with a PA. (Hint: small towns in America are amazing and a lot of really wonderful, hip, creative people live in them.) It was a beautiful way to ride out my latter 20s. And an alarmingly desolate one.

The desolation gave me a chance to grow into myself, to play onstage every night for a LONG time even though the journey to every town was generally exhausting, and to meet a lot of people I wouldn’t have, most of whom still mean the world to me. I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.

In the end, I returned home to New York with little more than a heaping pile of street smarts, some really cool Gram Parsons tattoos, and some amazing photos of Marfa, Texas that I am still getting around to printing and putting in frames. While I was out and about in AMERICA, Brooklyn was like a mirage to me–a place I would return to like a war hero, where I would be taken out for drinks, struggle to find work, and then find a place to hunker down for a short while, exhausted but thrilled to be completely committed to the instrument, exhausted but hungering right away to be back out on the road. In AMERICA. With my guitar. Nothing is better. Nothing will ever be better. I’m okay with that.

On one of these stints at home, my father (of ‘no-credibility’ fame) dragged himself out of the desert and up to Brooklyn for a rare visit. It turned out this was largely to grill me about the gig. Musically. With a guitar in hand.

You kind of have to picture it…me (hung over) with my Tele and cowboy boots and belt buckle and (new) Grievous Angel tattoos and my pops with whatever happened to be lying around–which happened to be a sort of cumbersome classical guitar in need of a setup–trading country licks in an historic old brownstone in Crown Heights (definitely before Crown Heights was cool), and me just totally getting my little butt kicked. No question. Hands down. Story over.

“Can you do this?” He played some crazy-looking melodic thing with a bunch of open strings between the fretted notes, without really moving his fingers much at all.

I couldn’t.

He played another entirely convoluted but incredibly beautiful little country line. “Can you do this?”

Nope.

What followed was probably the best chickin-pickin’ lesson I’ve had in my life, from a guy I lived with for seventeen years and who (no joke) FORCED me to go to jazz school instead of committing to a life of rock & roll, who fairly often switched my mom’s EmmyLou records out for Miles Davis when she wasn’t paying attention, who regularly wore a “We Despise Country” t-shirt onstage, and who also introduced me to Metallica, John Lee Hooker, Deicide, electric Miles Davis and John Scofield pretty much all in the same breath before I had turned fourteen.

“Well then, why on earth did you play in that hating-country-or-something band when I was a kid??” I asked. Fingers still fumbling.

He kind of shrugged and noodled some more awesome country licks out of my (classical) guitar and said “Well, you know. A gig’s a gig.”

This moment has in a lot of ways completely crystallized my outlook on life. Which is to say, it pretty much crystallized my outlook on the guitar.

It all comes down to this, and nothing more: For me, Dimebag Darrell and Stanley Yates and John McLaughlin and Albert Lee and Steve Howe and Slash and Dave Mustaine and Bonnie Raitt and King Buzzo and Bill Frisell are all basically classical musicians, and I thank them SO MUCH for this. Because they are all just indisputably awesome at what they do. And none of them is like the other. I study them ALL as deeply and thoroughly and with as much reverence as I can because, to me, this is the TRADITION of the GUITAR. None of these players are more relevant than the other because, if it weren’t for the rest of them, their individual contributions to the cult of the instrument, MY CULT, probably wouldn’t matter as much. And I have definitely been a convert since I was old enough to have an allowance, and knew what a record store was, and could find someone to drive me there.

We all make mistakes, because this is how we learn. But the worst damage I ever did to myself as a player was to imagine that I was too good or too smart or too professional or too COOL for certain kinds of music, or that I was learning more from studying one thing than I was from studying another. Good music just…works. It’s a law unto itself. The best thing I’ve done with my life so far was jump in that goddamn van, knowing nothing about what I was getting into, and find a way to become a law unto myself as well.

The second best was having my pops point out that I STILL had no idea what that means. And admitting that is when my adult life began.

Years after the fact, I can see where my pops was coming from, and why he was so casually dismissive of the teenage ‘me;’ the only REAL value (for me, personally) in going to jazz school was not so much in learning to play jazz (which I love, and which I honestly wish I was able to do more often). It was in learning to learn. And in LOVING learning to learn. Loving it enough to make it not just a vocation, but a way of being.

Now I get it. Why be so serious about BEING CREDIBLE? Why not have FUN attempting to get better, with a sense of humor, and possibly with a lot of failures along the way?

A gig, after all, is a gig. And what a gift, to be comfortable enough with yourself to attempt to take them all, and make them work.

Next week I will write about why guitar heroes are kind of all horrible and wrong. But for right now, let’s just take a minute to recognize that every one of these ‘heroes’ is a treasure, even if some of them toiled away in hip jazz cafes in New York and others are from Bakersfield and some others might have ill-advisedly walked onstage in little more than leather chaps. What other instrument can lay claim to all these things in a single breath? And that’s just the beginning. What a wonderful thing to play.

My pops just discovered text messaging and this led to us having a hefty argument about the various virtues of playing slide guitar. We both admit we’re pretty terrible at it. I’m working at it because I took some gigs playing it and I don’t want to embarrass myself. Pops is nearing 70 so he has no reason to work on his slide playing, aside from this: I am creative, and he is inquisitive, so I will always be trying new things but he we always be figuring out how to get better.

Here’s what he texted me, which is amazing in his own way:

Pops: “Well, I’d better go teach. Have to change strings on my 12 string in prep for a slack-key guitar lesson”

Me: “Always something to get better at!”

Pops: “The instrument’s capabilities are vast.”

I mean, who actually texts that to someone??

What an amazing instrument. What a wonderful life.

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