When the Band Plays the Last Song
Two weeks ago, John Payne, my friend of twenty years, and fellow bandmate was laid to rest. The last song was played, Happy Trails closed the show and JP has left the building.
Our story started two decades back when my old friend Danny Goode, and former bandmate from the 60s, called me after a thirty-year gap and wanted to have lunch.
The next day, over Whataburger’s, he asked me if I would be interested in playing with a rock band that he and two other friends had put together. I said I might be interested, but I didn’t own an electric guitar, an amp, a strap, or even a guitar pick and had not touched an instrument since 1990. He made a call on his cell, and after a brief muffled conversation, he told me everything was arranged. We were to meet at Jordan’s house on Saturday.
That Saturday, I met John Payne, lead guitar, and Jordan Welch, percussionist. John apologized for not having much time to put together the loaner equipment, and he hoped it would be alright. In my spot was a vintage Fender Twin Reverb amplifier with guitar picks and a cold beer sitting on top. The loaner guitar was a 1960s Gibson Les Paul. I told John that I think this gear would be more than adequate. I knew then, that John probably had more vintage gear than Guitar Center.
We played half a dozen songs, and I knew this grouping of four had something special. We all had been playing for decades and the musicianship was there. What was surprising, is our three-part harmonies. We sounded like the Ethel Murman Tabernacle Choir; it was borderline scary. We took a break and consumed a cold one to calm ourselves. We all sat in Jordan’s den, grinning like a Raccoon caught in a trash can.
The three amigos asked if I was in? Well hell yeah! I was then told there was a gig in North Richland Hills on Saturday night; be there at 7 sharp to set up. John said It was sort of a supper club and bar situation. And away we go.
Arriving at the “supper club,” I noticed the sign on the building read “Tuckers Catfish Café.” Okay, so it’s a seafood restaurant. After parking in the back, I give the secret squirrel knock on the rear door. A series of four or five deadbolts unlock the door parts, and I see Johns’ face peering through the door crack. He asked if I paid that guy holding the paper bag a few bucks to guard my car; if I didn’t, it would be wise to do so. So I did. The paper bag held a 40 oz Miller, and I paid the nice fellow five bucks.
It took a few minutes for my eyesight to adjust to the darkened conditions of the room, but I made out the obligatory small stage in the corner stacked with equipment, the wood parquet dance floor, a trash can full of dancing sawdust, a ceiling-mounted disco ball, shuffleboard, numerous vintage neon beer signs, and a cardboard streamer reading Happy New Year 1965. The place was also one living, breathing ashtray.
John comes over and says, ” well, what do you think of the place?” I should have been more diplomatic, but I blurted out, ” John, this place ain’t no supper club, it’s a beer-joint.”
John is smiling ear to ear, ” yeah, I know, ain’t it cool.” In a way, yes, it was cool. I hadn’t played in a beer joint in decades, so this would be my homecoming of sorts. John clearly dug the place to his bones.
The gig went much better than we expected, and the next few weeks were spent kicking around a name for this outfit. Finally, Jordan comes up with ‘The American Classics Band,’ taken from the brand of drumsticks he uses. Sounds good, everyone’s happy, and we become an official band.
That night, I had no idea what my time with these three amigos would bring, but I was up for the ride; and man was it a ride.
John requested that I call him JP. I did, and we eventually became good friends. He and I loved country and bluegrass music. Not the new stuff, but the classic 40s and 50s songs. We knew many of the same country pickers, and he was a fiddle player, like my father was, so the two of us had things in common, which carried over into the band’s dynamics.
We practiced every Thursday night for ten years, and became such a tight band that we read each others minds like little Yoda. There was not a song we couldn’t play or put our spin on.
Eventually, the practices became more about friendship and less about the playing. Sure, the music was always there, the bonding agent that kept us together, but many nights, there was more fellowship than picking. A bit of beer and some bourbon always appeared from a paper bag.
We helped each other through hardships; the death of a spouse, the death’s of two sons and other problems that happen in families, but the music and the friendships were always there, always strong and enduring.
Twenty years fly by, and Danny, Jordan and myself find ourselves without our friend John, and we know there will be no more music for us. It’s not in our bones, and somehow it wouldn’t seem right without John. We are old men now, all of us in our 70s, but we well remember when this ride for the four of us started, and how it has effected, and shaped our lives.
Play on JP, play on.