My name’s Sam Kirby and I could walk into a Texas bar deaf and blind and still know I was in Texas. Bars smell different there. The sweat is harder, the dust is sharper, traces of neatsfoot oil roll up from beer-stained floorboards.
I don’t spend much time in Texas, usually only when I line up three or four gigs in a row before I have to catch the bus back to Memphis. But in spite of those infrequent visits, there’s a reason that smell has stuck with me.
About six years ago I walked into a bar north of Austin. The bartender sized me up as stranger, but he didn’t seem to care much — I was income.
“Shot and a beer, Bud?” He reached for the bottle before I could respond, drew the beer and slapped the glasses down in front of me. I tossed back the ounce of cheap rye, took a sip of the beer, took a longer pull and looked around the bar. The only other customer was slumped over on his stool, either asleep or passed out.
The saloon looked pretty ordinary. Lone Star Beer in neon at the window. A mirror behind shelves of bottles. Brass rail at my feet. Scattered prints of horses and cactus.
A guitar hanging on the back wall caught my eye. It looked nearly new, which was curious — wall hangers are usually beat up beyond their playing years. I slid off my stool and walked back to get a better look at it.
If there’s one thing I know about, it’s guitars. I started playing 18 years ago, professionally for 12, and have played everything from Sears plywood clunkers to custom jobs crafted from exotic tonewood that’d be illegal to harvest today.
This one seemed somewhere toward the high end of that range. There was no brand and the headstock wasn’t familiar to me, but the top was clear wide-grained spruce and the fretboard looked to be ebony. It was in great condition — no visible scratches or dings, although clearly not as new as it had looked from across the bar.
The bartender, a gravel-voiced man somewhere north of sixty, spoke up. “You play?”
“Uh-huh. Okay to take it down and get a look?”
“I gotta ask Bobby. Hey, Bobb-e-e-e! You awake? Got someone here wants to pull the axe off the wall!”
No response for a few seconds. Then a cough. The sleeping man raised his head and opened his eyes. He was older than the bartender, his skin and beard a chronicle of decades spent in the dust and sun of central Texas.
“Whoozatt?” he breathed, as if making even small sounds was a chore.
“This here’s —.” The bartender paused to let me fill in the blank.
“Kirby,” I said. “Sam Kirby.”
The old guy’s eyebrows twitched a bit and I thought I spotted a little upturn in his lip.
“Lots of folks named Kirby,” he said to the bartender. “Lots of folks named Sam Kirby, come to think of it.”
Turning to me, “Bobby Barton. Kin I do for yuh?”
“That guitar yours?”
“Could be. You wanna get it down and play it, right.” The “right” was more a declaration than a question.
“If it’s no trouble.”
“Might be some trouble, might not be. We’ll just have to see, won’t we?”
He got up, dragged a chair across to the wall, stood on it and lifted the guitar from its peg with a gentleness that belied the roughness of his hands.
He ran through a couple of country blues riffs, checking the tuning and showing off his chops. He was good; a little rusty on the bass lines, but competent.
When he handed it to me, it felt warm to the touch. Not fires-of-hell warm, just a nice warmth in the air conditioned coolness of the bar. From the first chord I struck, I knew I was playing something special. The action was light with no dead spots around the eighth and ninth frets, and a bottom end that boomed without overpowering the treble.
I pulled a pick from my pocket and launched into a medley of Irish reels and bluegrass numbers. It was almost as if the guitar anticipated where my fingers were going and positioned itself exactly where it needed to be. Impossible? Probably.
Still, I was in a groove I had never felt before. That guitar felt as comfortable and right as any instrument I’d ever held. The grimy bar disappeared in a world of triads, arpeggios, brand new scales, and harmonics I’d never known existed, let alone come from me. It seemed like hours later when I put the guitar down, letting the last notes hang in the air like a bridge back to reality.
Bobby scratched his beard.
“Whaddya think, Jerry?”
The bartender stopped wiping down the bar with his towel.
“Mebbe,” he said, “this one could be right.”
Then, turning to me: “Hey, Bud. How do you like the guitar? How’s it feel to you?”
“It’s incredible,” I said. “It’s like it was made just for me.”
“Sam Kirby,” Bobby said, “how old are you?”
“I built that guitar almost 50 years ago. I cain’t tell you how many people have come in here and played it over the years. But nobody done with it what you just done.”
I was almost afraid to form the question, fearing the wrong answer.
But I did: “Any interest in selling it?”
Bobby and Jerry both started chuckling.
Bobby said, “Naw, I cain’t sell it to you.”
It struck me as something approaching cruelty not to have this marvelous instrument with me forever. My world would be a darker place without it. Any other guitar would be just a chunk of wood.
Jerry and Bobby were still chuckling. How dare they laugh at the prospect of sending me away without it? My gut tensed and I felt an angry dampness forming in my eyes. It would be like a death if I had to leave that creation behind.
Jerry said, “You wanna tell him now?”
Bobby’s face kept its smile. He said, “How can I sell you something that’s already yours? Jerry and me, we just been holdin’ it. Didn’t know for sure it was gonna be you — we almost been fooled a couple times. Exactly how long have we been waitin’, Jerry?”
“Exactly? Well, let’s see — a long time, give or take a few minutes.”
“Right. Sam Kirby, this here guitar has took up enough of our time. I got an old case for it. Lemme go get it for you.”
Bobby ducked through a curtain at the right of the bar and emerged with the case, laying the guitar in it and snapping the fasteners slowly. He handed it to me, wrapping my fingers around the handle.
“Are you sure?” I asked. Bobby looked me square in the eye.
“You think it wants to spend its life on that wall? You play it, son. Give it a good home, hear?”
“The only thing I can say is thank you. I’ll be thanking you for a long time. So long, both of you.”
The door had nearly closed behind me as Jerry called out, “Not so fast, Bud.”
Uh-oh. Here we go. I stepped back into the gloom of the bar and saw Jerry glaring at me.
“You didn’t pay.”
I knew it had been too good to be true. Now they were going to squeeze me for money and threaten me with attempted grand larceny if I didn’t meet their price. But I still had to have the guitar.
Sweat formed on my upper lip. “Look, I’ve only got about two hundred on me. Let’s figure something out. I can get more in a couple of days.”
“We run a high class place here, but we’re not that pricey. You didn’t pay — for your drink. That’ll be five bucks.”
Jerry’s face broke out in a broad grin. Bobby’s hand covered his mouth, but I could see his eyes crinkling up.
I slapped a twenty on the bar and walked out with a shake of my head and another thank you. I could still hear them laughing two or three doors down.
So, last week, after playing that guitar in every rehearsal, every gig and every studio session for the past six years — and feeling that same magical connection every time I picked it up — I had to take it into the shop to get the frets dressed.
Tony, the set-up guy, suggested giving the guitar a thorough checkup. I told him it had always felt perfect to me so I’d never seen the need. It had never been in the shop for anything. But sure, OK, why not get it looked at?
That was on Wednesday. On Friday I got a text from Tony that my treasure was ready for me.
In the shop 20 minutes later, I told Tony how happy I was with his work on the frets and asked if anything else needed tending to.
“Not really,” he said, “the body’s rock solid and the mechanics are in great shape. But I found something a little weird. Didn’t you tell me you’ve never had this guitar worked on?”
“Yeah, it’s been with me ever since I got it. What’s up?”
He picked up a telescoping mirror from the counter and inserted it into the sound hole.
“Shine that lamp down in here.” Moving aside so I could see the reflection of the inner top of the guitar, he said, “What’s that all about, Sam?”
It took me a few seconds to see it, being backwards in the mirror. But there, inked in a fine hand, were the words “Sam Kirby” and a date fifty-five years in the past.
And in that moment in the shop with Tony looking on, I caught the faint aroma of sweat, dust, stale beer and neatsfoot oil, accompanied by the even fainter sound of two old codgers laughing on a hot Texas afternoon.
For the past 50 years or so, Fred Wish has written and edited newsletters, speeches, government and business regulatory documents, short stories, poems and even a few songs. With his wife, Loretta, he co-moderates the Writers’ Room at the Princeton Public Library and plays guitar and bass in a classic rock band.