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James R. Stout

A Red-Headed Stranger

            I was looking at guitars in a Parker Music store in the summer of 1974. It was a low point in my young life. It shouldn’t have been such and it was really my own fault. Nobody else to blame. Now, it wasn’t like I was destitute or strung out on drugs or something like that. It was simply a matter of things had not turned out quite like I thought they would. I had graduated high school in May of that year and for the past two years the duet I was in with my friend Lonny Schonfeld had seen some early success. We had performed for some fairly large crowds, had recorded a 45-rpm record, and had been courted by the largest booking agent in the Southwest earlier that spring. Things had looked like they were going to really take off. They didn’t.

            So, there I was in August of 1974 on my own and wondering what to do. I had spent two years making plans that suddenly seemed unreachable. The duet split-up (for stupid reasons looking back on it now), I was feeling insecure after feeling the sky was the limit just a few months before, and I was out of money. I ended up taking a part-time job at a convenience store. It barely paid for gas money. I had to sell my good guitars and I was saving to buy another one and trying hard to figure out what to do next. But despite all of that, I still had all the hopes and dreams that any 18-year-old has. My songwriting was getting better all the time and I started to form some plans for a new endeavor. But I would need a decent guitar before I could get things going again.

            So that’s how I came to be in that Parker Music Store on that day in late August of 1974. I was trying out new guitars. They had the really expensive ones hung up high on a long wall. You couldn’t just go pick one up and play it. They had to get it down for you. But the truth was I couldn’t afford one of those anyway. I was looking at the mid-priced guitars. Good for a lot of things, but not the big brand names such as Gibson, Martin, or Guild. I was aiming for something better than the cheap stuff like Yamaha and Ventura though. I was standing there looking at a nice Alvarez acoustic that I had just tried out. Great action, warm tone, good feel, not unlike my girlfriend! I had noticed this old man a few feet away from me looking at some nylon string guitars. He reminded me of some of the homeless men I had seen in the downtown area. Unkempt, longish hair, scraggly beard, and a funny smell. He smelled kind of like he had been out burning leaves. Now, I never smoked pot, but I had smelled it before during the midnight movies we showed in a theater that I worked at a year or so before. I figured the old man was what Pigpen from Peanuts would turn out like some day! Only instead of a cloud of dirt trailing him it would be a cloud of pot smoke. But as it turns out it, he was a friendly guy. He looked over at me and gave me a big grin and pointed at the guitar I was holding.

            “Nice guitar, but you should save your money and buy a good Martin and then you’ll never have to buy another guitar.” He said.

            My immediate thought was, “If that’s true, then why are you here?” But I didn’t say it. He seemed like a guy who had been around the block a few times and probably knew a lot that I hadn’t had a chance to learn yet.

            He picked-up another guitar and suddenly just broke out singing. It was country music. I now know the song that he sang was an old 1950 hit record by Lefty Frizzell called, “If You’ve Got The Money”. At the time, I didn’t know the song. Frankly, I was a tad embarrassed by his sudden performance. But I had been raised right and I smiled and appeared to be enjoying the impromptu recital. Some of the other customers were looking at the old guy like he was a circus performer. Some snickering was going on and the store manager didn’t appear too pleased. But the old man belted it out and despite his quirky timing he sounded pretty decent. I figured he probably had been pretty good in his younger years.

            Well, he finished the song and we talked a bit more and then I said goodbye. I figured I would never see the old man again. That’s partly true. I never have seen him face to face again. Fast forward to September of 1975. I was still living with my parents and one Saturday afternoon I walked into the den where my Dad was watching TV. That’s when I got a shock. Suddenly on the RCA 19” TV screen the face of that old man came on. They were advertising his new record and they were saying that he was “the new sound of country music”. Say what? Somebody cleaned him up a bit, trimmed his hair and beard, and made him presentable. I wondered how on Earth this could happen. What I didn’t know yet was the guy was already an accomplished songwriter long before that day in Parker Music. I can only guess at what brought him to that store. But then, he’s just a guy like anyone else. Within a year EVERYONE would know who he was. EVERYONE still does. That hit record? “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain”. The artist? Yea, it was Willie Nelson. The funny thing is that every time I hear him on the radio, see him in magazines, and on TV I think of that day in 1974 when I had no idea who the beery old man singing “If You’ve Got The Money” was. On that day, I had no idea that the guy who wrote some of the songs that my parents listened to and walked around the house singing was that old man. Songs like “Crazy”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”, and “Hello Walls”. I guess if there’s a moral to this story, then it’s that you never know who some stranger you meet might be. Perhaps even a red-headed stranger.

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