Author: Martin, George

Folsom pickin’ blues

Sometimes writing a monthly welcome column is an absolute piece of cake. I flip
the page on my wall calendar for a new month and within a few hours a topic
comes to me, and I start thinking about it, working out the start and the middle
and the end, and a few days before the second Thursday I sit down, write an hour
or so, let it sit overnight, edit and e-mail it in.

Then there are months like this when I didn’t have a clue what to write about
until yesterday morning when I went to get my teeth cleaned.The dental hygienist was a chatty young woman who asked me what I did, and I
replied that I was retired, but played in a band. And that led to some talk
about music, and to something that happened to her mother 40 years ago. It
seems the then-young woman was at a Janis Joplin (probably Big Brother and the
Holding Company) show, and when Janis went on stage she handed the hygienist’s
mother-to-be a wooden staff Janis liked to carry and asked her to keep it for

Then after the set, Janis forgot the staff and took off, whereupon the young
woman chased her down and returned it.

“She told me if she had known how famous Janis Joplin someday would be she might
have kept it,” said the hygienist.

And that reminded me of my great adventure with Johnny Cash’s guitar pick.

Back in 1959 I was learning to play guitar, and Johnny Cash was a big hero. His
first two albums were full of great self-written songs, not just “I Walk the
Line,” “Hey, Porter” and “Folsom Prison Blues” but a bunch of others that have
mostly been forgotten.

Also, Cash’s arrangements were very simple, a big deal for us novices trying to
copy the licks. His guitar player was Luther Perkins, a childhood friend, who
(I believe) came up with the distinctive beat and simple breaks because he
wasn’t a conventionally “good” guitar player. I remember a line in the movie,
“I Walk the Line” where the Cash character is talking to the June Carter
character and he says, “If we could play better, we would.”

But less truly was more, and those old records with just Cash, Perkins and
bassist Marshall Grant still sound great.

Cash regularly played the Dream Bowl, a huge country dance hall between Vallejo
and Napa that served as a weekly guitar lesson for me and my friends. We would
plant ourselves right in front of the bandstand and watch and listen carefully
to the house band, the Black Jack Wayne and the Roving Gamblers, and whatever
guest stars were on the bill.

The Gamblers’ lead guitar man was a unique player named Roy Hammer, who had an
old (even then) Fender Stratocaster with the only warped Fender neck I have ever
seen. I got to play it once (I think he was flattered at the teen hero worship)
and the strings were way up off the fingerboard and really hard to fret. Plus
he tuned the guitar down about a step and a half, which meant he had to
transpose everything. But he got tone out of that thing I have never heard
before or since.

Rose Maddox sang with that band frequently and when Roy took a solo you could
see the satisfaction on Rose’s face. Rose’s brothers had mostly retired by
then, although they did an occasional reunion show. I expect she got a lot of
pickup bands that didn’t make her sound good, but the Roving Gamblers were
actually way better musicians than her brothers, and you could read the pleasure
on her face as she performed with them.

When I heard Johnny Cash was coming to the Dream Bowl I mentioned to my friend
and guitar mentor Nowell MacArthur that it would be really cool to have a guitar
pick that Johnny Cash had used. I was thinking about bringing a pick to the
show and asking Cash to trade. Nowell said, “Well, I’ve seen him play and he
uses those big triangular kind.”

I haven’t seen such a pick in years, but back then they were in every store: a
plastic equilateral triangle about an inch-and-a-half on a side. I dutifully
bought one and took it to the Dream Bowl.

I stationed myself at the side of the stage where the stairs led down to the
dance floor. Artists usually exited there and signed some autographs on the way
out. Cash approached and I held out my big plastic pick and said, “Trade picks
Mr. Cash?”

“Oh, sure, kid,” he said and pressed into my hand a brown Nick Lucas hard pick,
almost identical to today’s Fender Heavy.

The style of pick perplexed me but I took the treasured object home. These days
I use the very same guitar (and banjo) pick(s) for years, but in those days I
lost them regularly. Alas, instead of gluing the pick into a scrapbook or
hiding it in a drawer, I played with it and lost it within months if not weeks.

So, flash forward about 15 years when I was writing for a little country music
newspaper called Western News operated by a man named Ray Sweeney out of the
town of Richmond, where I lived. Sweeney managed a stable of small-time country
singers. He had helped Stoney Edwards (“She’s My Rock” was his one hit record)
break into the big time, whereupon Edwards left him for bigger management.
Stoney’s career soon flamed out, mostly I think, due to problems with liquid

But one year about 1975 Sweeney threw a Christmas party and my wife and I were
invited. There was a dance band and the lead man was Roy Hammer formerly of the
Roving Gamblers.

I went up and reminded him that I was one of the kids who used to watch him at
the Dream Bowl until the show was over then go back to Crockett and play until
dawn at the home of my friend whose mother worked the graveyard shift.

He remembered us (or he said he did). We chatted for a while and I told him the
story of Johnny Cash’s guitar pick.

“That was my pick!” Hammer exclaimed. “He showed up at the show without a pick
and I had to lend him one! And he didn’t give it back.”

That made the fact that I had lost it doubly painful: a pick used by two of my
musical heroes and I had left it somewhere, or dropped it.

I’m not surprised about Cash’s lack of a pick though. Back then I didn’t know
what methamphetamine was, but I do remember Cash was skinny as a rail, had very
intense black eyes and was jumpy and maybe over-energetic in his moves.

I don’t think his mind was on guitar picks much.
Posted:  6/9/2011

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