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Will John Get His Groove Back

Will John Get His Groove Back?*I love music. I have always been a singer….church, high school chorus and special pops group called the Varitones, in the shower, and late at night in bars. I love to sing El Rey, On the Road Again, Scotch and Soda. Well yes, I’m 66. I also could play band instruments…trumpet and baritone horn, and once in a Christmas play in high school I played the xylophone. When I was about 9 years old, my mother wanted me to be an accomplished piano player, and I was forced to take piano lessons for about 6 years, while my friends played baseball outside where I could hear them yelling and laughing. I wanted so badly not to take piano lessons that I made a deal with my mother: Instead of taking piano lessons, I would wash the dinner dishes every night at home. No end date for this deal was agreed to, so I suppose if I had not moved out of the house to go to college, I would still be washing the dinner dishes. But, unfortunately, I did move out, and I still cannot play the piano.All through high school and college, I envied friends and anyone else who could play the piano, or better yet, the guitar. How I would have loved to play the guitar. But I didn’t. I tried to learn, once, but did not practice anywhere nearly enough to even progress a bit. So I lived vicariously off others, who knew how to play the guitar. This wasn’t very satisfying, because I did not have many guitar-playing friends….until I joined the Peace Corps in 1967 and met John. John came from West Virginia, and he joined the same group of future Peace Corps volunteers I was in, and we all went to Chile. When it came to music and the guitar John was everything the rest of us wished we were…he was a star. He could play anything and everything. If there was enough pisco and red wine, he could play Chilean Cuecas and tonadas (my favorites), Mexican Rancheros, Argentine Tangos, Spanish classical songs, Brazilian Sambas, and country western of all types. One of his favorites was a Hank Williams tune, “Lovesick Blues”. John spent a lot of time learning new songs, and to the amazement of the rest of us, he would start playing and seem to never stop. He lived in the Chilean campo, where others played the guitar and sat around nights playing, making up songs, and learning new songs. Chileans thought he was Chilean, Argentines thought he was Argentine, and Brazilians thought he was Brazilian when he sang songs from their countries. Gringos, though, knew he was a gringo through and through when he sang his repertoire of Elvis favorites.

John paid my bride-to-be, Ximena, and me the highest of complements in 1970, in Santiago, Chile, at Ximena’s home at 135 General Bari Street, when he played and sang for four hours at our engagement party, never repeating any song during the entire evening. After we left Chile in 1970 to return to the US to attend graduate school, John stayed on in Chile, and became among other things a cowboy and cattle farmer, an English teacher, and a Peace Corps Volunteer trainer. He kept playing the guitar and would liven up any and all events, as long as there was pisco and vino tinto….and a guitar.

Eventually, John returned to the US, got a job that took him to Philadelphia, Brussels, and then Miami, and along the way he married the very lovely and talented Blanca, who can sing better than John, and is a hell of a lot better looking. We met off and on, but not regularly enough to know for certain what it was that led to a slow decline in John’s frequency (and some would say, quality) of guitar playing. We held some early reunion of our Peace Corps group, and visited John and Blanca at their home in Miami, and they visited ours over the years, and each time we would sing to John’s guitar. But it began to be obvious that John was spending his time doing other things. It got to the point, sadly during our reunion in Vichuquen, Chile, in 2007, that John’s guitar hardly loosened up…we did (there is always pisco and vino tinto), but his guitar did not. This was a very disappointing situation, but the rest of us who had never come close to having the musical talent of John, had to remain silent. We could not express our disappointment at the realization that the calluses on Johns fingers were from something other than practicing and playing the guitar; a golf club maybe, the steering wheel of his car, or his wine glass. So when the next reunion of our Peace Corps group rolled around at Tom and Susan’s place in Clinton, New York, there was not even a guitar in the house, as I recall.However, this Chile-27 Peace Corps group does not give up easily, especially when it comes to our most talented member. We arranged to have another reunion in San Antonio, Texas, in late May of 2010. The theme: Texas food and MUSIC! We sat in bars with music, hotels with jazz, restaurants with guitar players….everything we could possibly arrange to drown our short time in San Antonio with the music we, especially John, really like. Then, and this is the kicker, A couple of us, including John and Blanca, planned a three-day post-reunion visit to Texas Hill Country, specifically Fredericksburg.

Fredericksburg hosts a small, intimate, relatively rustic Rathskeller, located in the basement of a building on the main street. We were now a much smaller group than the one that met in San Antonio, so the first night in Fredericksburg we ate at the Rathskeller, mainly to avoid the crowds and big groups of tourists at the Brewery. They sat us right next to an unoccupied stool, microphone, and two big speakers, and as we sat down John asked our waitress “There’s not going to be some loud singer ruining our dinner if we sit here, is there?” Well, right behind the waitress was the singer John feared, who smiled, acknowledged politely the admonition from John, took up his position on the stool, and sang lovely familiar songs (some would say “classic rock”) the rest of the evening so pleasantly that we ordered, ate our sauerbraten, German potato salad and sausages and lingered long into the evening enjoying the singer, his songs, and the locals who came and went while we watched. After that, I could tell John was a bit more reflective than he had been so far.

This visit to Texas Hill country was well planned. Right down the road from our very rustic B&B rests Luckenbach, Texas, where “everyone is somebody”, and where all young country singers start out and where the old ones come back to die. Willie and George played here together recently, but they are never scheduled, they just show up and the scheduled performers move over. On our second day in Fredericksburg, Ximena and Blanca wanted to go to a small town named Boerne, about a half hour from Fredericksburg, to visit some antique shops, so on our way we drove through Luckenbach just to check it out. If you have never been to Luckenbach, and plan a visit, make sure you keep your expectations of the size of the “town” low. A post office in a country store, a dance hall made out of a barn, a parking lot for motorcycles, a rough stage, a grove of trees with some picnic tables, and lots of folkloric locals, roosters and Lone Star beer. Our first impression of the place was something like muted wonderment but we drove on to Boerne with the plan to return to Luckenbach closer to “darkdown”, which someone told us is about the same time as sundown.

When we got to Boerne, I could tell something was still bugging John. He seemed a bit more nervous than before, so while the ladies shopped, John and I strolled up and down the street until we came to an antique emporium, on the side of which was a sign that read “Guitar Shop”. Clearly that is where John wanted to go, so we sauntered into the Emporium and up the back steps towards the Guitar Shop. As we got close, we heard someone strumming a guitar. We entered and introduced ourselves to Bob who owns the shop and teaches guitar there. He explained, slowly, ever so slowly, that he teaches, sings at any event he is invited to, but mostly gets his satisfaction from singing for the aged. “Otherwise empty eyes sparkle when I play my music”, he told us, “There ain’t nothin’ more satisfying than bringing that kind of pleasure to folks who have paid their dues, earned their keep, and are waiting to rest.” I told Bob that John used to play the guitar better than anyone I knew, and I told Bob how John played 4 hours without repeating a song at my engagement party back in 1970 in Santiago, Chile. Joining in the spirit of sharing, John explained how he didn’t play much anymore, given the amount of work, raising a family, and other things that got in the way. John and Bob talked about Willie, George, Hank, Merle, and their songs. We even sang a few with Bob, as he played.

It was a fun, relaxing moment, that lasted quite awhile before we were discovered by Blanca and Ximena, but as is the way things go, we were discovered, so we prepared to leave Bob and his guitar shop. He was playing the song he had been practicing when we arrived: “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”, by Otis Redding, but as we left he stopped playing, looked John straight in the eye and said “Son, if you are half as good a guitar player as your buddy here says you are, you are badly wasting a precious God-given talent. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Well, we small-talked our way out of Boerne (I could tell John was thinking, or something that looks and feels a lot like thinking), and drove back to our B&B. When we got there, John stated with a great deal of certainty that he would be departing for Luchenback at 6 PM and anyone else who wanted to go was welcome. I had told him I definitely was going, but the ladies had expressed doubts when they saw the place the first time we stopped. They had overcome any qualms they might have had, put on their skin-tight blue jeans, and we all went. The night we were there, Tuesday after Memorial Day, there were not a lot of people. But, the local performers were already entertaining a small group of Danish, Dutch, and Belgian tourists, and an eclectic gathering of music lovers and folks apparently with no other place to go. It was great. We drank a few beers, bought T-shirts, took pictures of the Luckenbach bar, and listened to a few songs, a toothless storyteller, and a young foxy lady who sang some sweet tunes so softly we could hardly hear her. All the while several roosters were crowing from the rooftops and moving into the treetops where they have to be situated, apparently, by “darkdown”.

I don’t know exactly what I was doing at the time, because every now and then it was necessary to go to the bar for another Lone Star, but I looked up and to my surprise saw my good friend John, up with the performers, taking a guitar out of the owner’s hands, and he quickly tuned up and began to play. He belted out his favorite Hank Williams songs, to the loud acclaims of the entire audience (and several rooters), gave the guitar back to its owner, came back to our table and stated, with an ear-to-ear grin, “OK, We can go now!!”

We went back to our B&B, sat together in wooden chairs out in a lovely lookout spot, and watched the sun set on Texas hill country to the tune of a bottle of good Chilean tinto. As the orange sun set over a typical scene of Texas mesquite and post oak trees, John was as relaxed as I had seen him in a long, long time.

The last I heard on this issue, several days later (and this comes from a reliable source, Blanca) is that John has taken his guitar out of the closet, and has been heard “talking” to someone named Bob. Let’s hope so.

*Most of this story is absolutely true, but not every detail. The reader is free to decide which is which.

Written on June 7, 2010, in Mclean, Virginia.

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David Joslyn
David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile. Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.
David Joslyn

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