Steve Yarbrough’s heartfelt essay about his lifelong love affair with the guitar (see page 64) accompanies a gallery of photographs and paintings depicting the importance of that instrument in the cultural life of our country. Reading the essay, I kept thinking of James Szalapski’s 1970s documentary Heartworn Highways. The film profiles some of country music’s so-called outlaws—Guy Clark, David Allan Coe, Rodney Crowell, Townes Van Zandt, and others—through recording sessions, conversations, and performances held in a wide range of venues. It’s intimate and raw and revelatory, and deeply affecting in parts, particularly the scene in Van Zandt’s kitchen, with the singer-songwriter interviewing his friend Seymour Washington. After Washington, the son of slaves and nearly 80 years old, reveals the secret to living a proper life (moderation in food and whiskey and gratitude to the Almighty), Van Zandt takes up the guitar and performs the song “Waitin’ Around to Die,” its haunting lyrics of ache and despair moving Washington—who has surely seen it all—to tears.
My favorite scene, however, and the one that kept coming to mind as I read Yarbrough’s essay, takes place in the workshop of Guy Clark, who was not only an extraordinary artist but a skilled repairer of guitars. It’s nighttime, and Clark is hunched over his workshop bench, a cigarette in his mouth, wisps of smoke rising around him, as he takes apart a guitar and puts it back together again. On the crowded table before him are his woodworking tools, a can of lacquer thinner, a container of glue, a glass of wine. A row of chisels hangs from a rack in front of him. As he sands, saws, and works on the guitar’s bridge saddle, he is the picture of concentration and precision, a beguiling intensity in his eyes. Watching a man quietly at work—how boring that must sound. I assure you it is anything but.
After Clark finishes stringing the instrument, he proceeds to tune it. That’s when his young son enters and assists him, plucking the open strings of a second guitar, already tuned. As the father turns the tuning pegs of his instrument, arriving at one correct pitch and then another, a look of sheer delight crosses the son’s face. The entire sequence is magical, both lyrical and profound. No wonder it’s lingered in my memory for years.
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