His name was Nelson Carson.
I was a young, white kid. He was an older African-American gentleman. While the evening news was filled with stories of protests related to bussing and school integration, the two of us came together once every week. He to supplement his income, and me to learn from him.
It was the mid-1970s and Mr. Carson was my guitar teacher. He wasn’t my first musical instructor. Mike Hubrel took me as a student for a couple of years when I was 8 years old. But, Mike was in his late teens and had moved on with life, and I took a break from taking lessons.
When I was around 11 or 12, I was ready to study again and needed another instructor. My buddy Scotty mentioned this older man that he and other friends took lessons from. Like Mike, Mr. Carson only gave guitar lessons in his home.
So, phone calls were made and soon, late one afternoon, I was at the doorstep or Mr. Carson’s home.
When you’re a kid, it’s always awkward going into new situations, especially if you don’t know any of the people involved. But from the minute his family met me at the door, I was put at ease. They reminded me of my own family.
“Can I get you something to eat or drink?” “Please, sit down! Be comfortable!”
I liked them immediately.
We went to the back room where Mr. Carson gave lessons and both took a seat.
I looked around. It was a stark contrast to Mike’s room. Absent were the rock band posters and other typical things you’d see in a teen’s room. This room was nicely furnished with pictures and decorative items hanging on the walls.
My hour had begun, so we got down to business.
I pulled out the three, one dollar bills and handed them to him. He thanked me and said, “Now, let’s see that instrument of yours.”
No one had ever referred to my guitar as ‘an instrument’ before. That should have been the first indication that we weren’t going to play, “Smoke On The Water,” or “Takin’ Care of Business.”
I got out my old red and black acoustic, which my grandparents had bought for my father when he was a boy. It came from Sears and Roebuck in the 1950s and was a typical guitar for the era. Mail order. Not well made, but not a high-quality instrument, either.
My dad was gifted the guitar with a promise that a relative would teach him. That never happened, so the guitar sat in our hall closet until I showed an interest in learning to play in 1970.
“Oh, what a fine instrument,” Mr. Carson said. “May I see it?”
I handed it to him and he rested it on his lap. He took a moment to tune it, and the next thing I knew, sounds were coming out of it that I not only had never heard, but never imagined could come out of my guitar.
He began playing and singing, “The Girl From Ipanema.”
Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking
And when she passes, each one she passes goes – ah
The sound of this mid-60s, bossa nova hit record flipped a switch in me. It was the first time I saw the guitar as something other than a loud, rock and roll instrument.
Mr. Carson was all about maximizing the sound of a guitar. And he did it effortlessly. His guitar was a large, electric hollow-body. It may have been a Gibson ES335. I wish I could remember. But, what I do recall is that I had never seen anyone, at least not in person, who could play like that.
“It’s all about the scales,” he would say. “The scales will take you anywhere you want to go.”
Mike had given me what I needed to play a guitar. He taught me the basic chords, rhythm, and timing. He showed me how to sing and play at the same time. Mr. Carson showed me that music was like art – the starting blank canvas was the same for everyone , but there are many different ways to paint.
The kid who had previously only cared about learning “Smoke On The Water” and “Takin’ Care of Business,” suddenly was ready to expand his musical horizons.
I would return each week to Mr. Carson’s home, pay him three, one dollar bills, and spend an hour gleaning all that I could from his many years of mastering the instrument.
As I reached my teen years, I gave up guitar lessons and formed a rock band with three buddies. I would play in other bands over the years, rock and country, but I was now willing to listen to just about anything.
And in all of the different types of music, I would notice that what Mr. Carson taught me was true. Everyone starts with the same canvas, but how they paint gives us beautiful variety.
It was because of him that I became willing to try and appreciate other music. Sure, most of my 8-tracks that were stacked on top of my Soundesign stereo were Jimi Hendrix, BTO, and Grand Funk Railroad, but I give him credit for taking me from being a musically narrow-minded kid and helping me to be accepting of something other than Rock and Roll.
I still love Classic Rock, but it is likely due to Mr. Carson that today, my favorite singer isn’t Frank Zappa, it’s Frank Sinatra.
The short time that he taught me guitar impacted the rest of my life. And, in a good way. He helped me to see that there is value in all music.
Thanks, Mr. Carson, for helping to tip the scales in my favor.
©2018 John Moore
John’s book, Write of Passage : A Southerner’s View of Then and Now, is available on Amazon.
Email John at John@TheCountryWriter.com.