We were in a tiny dive called The Sand Bar, two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean on Tybee Island, Georgia. Ten or so people filled the stools at the bar. They were drinking and talking when I strummed the opening chord on my acoustic guitar and opened my mouth to sing.
“She packed my bags last night, pre-flight, Zero hour, nine a.m …”
Talk stopped. Heads and bodies did synchronized 180s toward the makeshift stage. The bartender smiled.
“And I’m gonna be hi-i-igh as a kite by then …”
Pedestrians on the street slowed and stopped at the open door, arrested by the falsetto on “high.” Women at the bar raised their arms and swayed as they sang along to the chorus.
“And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time Till touchdown brings me ‘round again to find I’m not the man they think I am at home Oh, no, no, no. I’m a Rocket Man …”
Planting a seed
I can’t sing like Elton John, and I don’t know if I’ll ever write lyrics like Bernie Taupin.
But maybe the biggest lesson I’ve learned in the four years of my personal “Reinvention Tour” is to refuse to let what I’m not stop me from being what I am.
I spent 42 years as a professional newspaper journalist. All but two of those were in sports departments, the last 31 at the Journal Star. It was a wonderful life, filled with bucket-list experiences that I got paid to live.
But there is another part of me that relatively few people knew.
I started playing guitar when I was 11 years old. It was the mid-1960s, and pretty much every guy I knew wanted either to play pro sports or be The Beatles. Or both. Most of us achieved neither fantasy and moved on.
Still, some flames continued to flicker.
I’d been raised on Beethoven and Broadway musicals. My mother is an accomplished organist. My younger brother played every instrument set in front of him – piano, violin, brass, drums, more – and spent decades performing and teaching music. His wife is a mesmerizing cellist. My little sister plays piano and flute and sings like an angel. Their kids – my nieces and nephews – run the gamut from international barbershop star to Nashville performer/composer/producer.
Meanwhile, I took guitar lessons for one year from a guy who was more interested in showing off than teaching. I quit and tried to find my own way up and down the fretboard. My efforts ran hot and cold, with predictable results.
Intimidated by the abundance of family virtuosos, I played alone in my room – although during college, I occasionally co-led singalongs for youth groups.
After I got married, my wife and I joined the praise band at our church in Missouri, and God used that time to build my confidence as a Christian man and musician. After returning to Peoria, MaryFrances and I were asked to coordinate and lead music for a recurring spiritual renewal weekend known as WATCH, an acronym for We Are The Church. And we are members of the praise band at Christ Lutheran Church in Peoria.
Still, I had this itch.
One of the great blessings of my childhood was growing up across the street from Robertson Field House on the Bradley University campus. About the time I started playing guitar, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles performed there. Due to the proximity as much as anything, my parents gave me permission to buy a ticket and go.
I was blown away. Over the next decade, I attended more concerts than I can remember – Chicago, The Association, Foghat, Beach Boys, Guess Who, Charlie Daniels Band, Rare Earth, to name a few. I sat on our front porch and listened to Jethro Tull.
Then there was Harry Chapin, the singer-songwriter who pulled up a stool, sat down with his guitar and gave three-hour shows that were more like a friend having a good time in your living room.
One night with Harry and the seed was planted: I want to do that.
Making it happen
When I left the Journal Star in September 2018, I had two goals for my sudden abundance of free time: Write my own songs and play solo in front of people. In my mind, that meant playing a couple of tunes at open mic night.
My friend Ryan Knox, guitarist for the band Highway J and a former professional baseball player, advised me that there are two ways to write songs: “Tell a story and find music to fit the words, or paint a picture with music and write words to fit the tune. Given your background, I think you’re a storyteller.”
It was great advice, although it took a while to transition from newspaper columns to lyrics.
While I worked on writing, I started to check out open mic nights at the Red Barn on Glen Avenue. By “check out,” I mean listening, trying to get a sense of whether I had the chops to get up there on stage by myself and not suck.
I previously had become personally acquainted with the Tuesday night host, Sarah Marie Dillard, and her husband, Brandon Mooberry, as a fan of their jazz-blues trio, Sarah & The Underground. About the third or fourth time I showed up at the Red Barn, the list of performers ran out before the time slot ended. Per her custom, Sarah asked if anyone in the audience wanted to perform.
Sarah repeated: “Anybody here who wants to do this?”
Now she stared at me, eyeballs to eyeballs: “Does anybody here think they’d like to play? We’d love to hear you!”
I raised my hand and said, “But I didn’t bring my guitar.”
Sarah pointed to hers: “You can borrow mine.”
And so it began.
One open mic led to another, then another. I began taking songwriting “lessons” from Sarah and now have written more than 20 songs. She also helped strengthen my voice and stage presence, answers my music business questions and is leading me through the process of recording an album of several original tunes.
I frequently play my own gigs at venues around the Peoria area. I’ve performed shows in Champaign and even in Wisconsin. I also do private parties. (Follow my Facebook music page, Homestyle Acoustic by Kirk Wessler. You can contact me there via Facebook message.)
I still like open mics. They’re a great place to try out new material, to hear what other musicians are doing and to support artists who are just getting started with the same encouragement I was given.
And when I travel these days, my guitar always tags along. My wife and I spent the month of June in the southeastern U.S. I did a couple of open mics on the trip, including the Sand Bar on Tybee and a memorable evening in Asheville, North Carolina, where three of the performers – a banjo, a fiddle and another guitar – asked me to hang and jam with them when the show ended.
I’m still not sure who they think I am back home in Peoria, but I’m not touching down. I’m just getting started.