My name is Jake Smithers. When I was eleven or twelve years old there was this guy next door who sat on the front porch with an electric guitar and small amplifier. He played hillbilly music every Wednesday night. Folks in the neighborhood showed up in his front yard every time he’d start playing.
His name was Dexter Turley. He was a skinny guy, not too tall, and hands with long thin fingers. He had a milk route and played in a hillbilly band on the weekends.
Folks gathered and listened for a spell. It wasn’t like there was a big crowd; maybe twenty-five at the most. Some folks brought lawn chairs, a wooden crate, or sit on the grass. When he’d play something familiar, folks might join in.
It was the poor side of town but for an hour or so on Wednesday nights, everybody had a pocket full of twenties.
Down the street lived this old lady (she was a lot younger than I am now). She wore a long housedress, three/quarter heels, and a bonnet. She was a widow and too religious to have a good time.
Every time Dexter started playing. she’d come marching down the street like she was about to barge into a salon and bust open every keg of beer and smash every bottle of whiskey. The closer she got to the music you could almost see the righteous indignation strip off her like boys shedding their clothes heading for the swimming hole on a hot summer. She’d get up on the wooden porch and do some barnyard clogging that angles tapped to.
She’d do two or three songs and smile like a man ‘on the wagon’ who just had a nip. She departed the same manner in which she arrived. Clothing herself with righteous indignation the further she got from the music.
The Wilson girls would get up on the porch and sing a couple of songs. They were hefty gals. They always said we don’t overeat, we overcook. The honest truth is neither girl was much to look at. Most generally you can say a person has pretty eyes when nothing else looks right. They didn’t even have good smiles or teeth. But when they sang together they were the most beautiful girls in town. It’s funny what music does to the person who sings it and those who listen. However, you can’t sing all day long, and ugly is a permanent fixture.
Lester Crowly lived in a little house in the alley. He worked at a local laundry. Usually, he’d mouth the songs, never singing out loud.
One night Dexter cleared his throat and started singing an old standard, In The Pines. He hardly got through the first verse before Lester stood up. He grabbed the wooden kitchen chair he brought with him and sat it on the porch. Dexter stopped playing. Everyone stirred around and uncomfortably cleared their throats.
“Ya got a good voice,” Lester said, “but it’s never lived the song your singin’.”
“Touched you deeply, didn’t it?” Dexter said to Lester.
“In places men can’t talk easily about,” Lester said, “so ya got to sing about it.”
“Lester,” Dexter said, “I’ll start playin’ and you start whenever ya feel it.”
Lester sung. At times his voice sounded like a wounded dog near death. Everyone listened without a twitch but there were a lot of hard swallows and a few sniffs.
When Lester was done he nodded politely to Dexter and returned to his seat.
“I don’t know if I can go on,” Dexter said.
Lester smiled. “Sure ya can. How ‘bout The Wabash Cannonball?”
“That’s a good one,” Dexter said and began to play and sing.
Seems as if I was always the first there and the last to leave.
One night when everybody left and Dexter played his last song, he unplugged his guitar and asked me to carry the amplifier inside. I sat it down next to a chair.
“Sit down, boy,” he said.
I sat in the chair.
“Would you like to learn how to play guitar?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
My heart was about to burst out of my chest I was so excited but I tried to hold back my exuberance.
“Reach around the chair, boy,” he said, “and bring me that guitar.”
So I did.
I handed him the guitar.
He tapped it on the floor and dust kicked up from it. He tuned it. "There, she's ready."
He held the guitar and said, “Watch where I put the fingers on my left hand.”
So I did.
“Finger here and the other finger there,” he said. “And then you strum.”
“That’s called E minor,” he said. “Sit down.” He handed me the guitar.
It was awkward.
“Hold it like dancing with the prettiest girl in school,” he said and smiled. “Well, you’ll know what I mean someday and when that day comes and you're dancing with the prettiest girl in the school, hold her like you’re holdin’ your favorite guitar.”
I had no idea what he was talking about but I knew I was going to get there someday.
He helped me place my fingers and I strummed. It sounded as dead as beating the bottom of a washtub. He had me strum real slow until each string sounded clean.
“Now I’m gonna show you one more chord,” he said and this time he placed three of my finger on the strings. “That’s called C.”
I strummed a couple of dozen times. Eventually, it sounded like it might be music.
“Let’s go back to E minor,” he said.
And it was like I forgot all he taught me. He patiently helped me.
“You’re doin’ good,” he smiled. “Now take this guitar home with ya and practice those two chords for a week. Each time you strum make sure it’s better than the last. And next week I’ll show ya another.”
After a year of lessons, Dexter invited me up to sing a couple of songs with him. I was nervous. My voice cracked a couple of times. “Keep a gone,” Dexter said.
So I did.
That night I helped him put away his amplifier and we sat down for a lesson.
“Have you ever written any songs yourself?” I asked.
“Nah, not really,” Dexter said, “I’ve written a couple—that’s it. It doesn’t come to me but it has a couple of times. I’m a player. I play other people’s songs. Just can’t come up with anything on my own.”
He showed me a couple of cord changes. I heard his voice but didn’t understand the words. It was like riding on a bus; houses blur by without recognizing any of them but you know they are there.
“What’s wrong, boy,” Dexter said.
“Just thinking,” I said.
“How to write a song?” Dexter said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Someday you’ll be strumming some cords. Suddenly you’ll try something different,” Dexter said. “It will touch you in a way you never thought. From those thoughts will come the words. On another day you’ll hear some words or think of some words. They’ll be words full of emotion. And you’ll find some cords to go with it.”
I nodded and smiled uncertainly.
“You got some cords, don’t ya, boy,” Dexter said.
“Yes, sir,” I said. “I got some.”
“Let’s hear ‘em. Start playin’, son,” Dexter said.
And so I
That’s how it all started.