Warning: this book is not an autobiography. It’s more of a look at a life in progress, with strings attached.
I am standing on a stage. In front of me is a sea of people, all very close together, and most of them are staring somewhat hopefully in my general direction. Some are wearing T-shirts and jeans, miniskirts, and tank tops, ball caps, cowboy hats, and camouflage. And other than the people facing the wrong way wearing the yellow vests labeled SECURITY and a few facing the wrong way who are too drunk to know better, this mob is expecting something from me.
As a giant spotlight flashes right on my face, that dramatic glare reminds me of a strange but true fact: all of these people have come here tonight to see Brad Paisley from Glen Dale, West Virginia.
As I stand here basking in the glow of all this, looking out into the darkness at thousands of friends I have never even met, I cannot help but think back to how I got here.
“Here”—I should probably explain—is a curious kind of traveling circus that has my name written all over it. There are roughly two hundred otherwise normal individuals who are all a part of this welcoming and mobile “Village of Paisley.” Rather than stay safely in one place like most sane people do, these gypsies crisscross the country together with the help of twelve huge tour buses, as well as the occasional plane, train, and automobile.
I sorta aimed for the moon, shot right by that, and landed in the stars.
The people in our mostly happy and peaceful traveling village spend a big part of their lives on the road living out a shared dream. I’m talking about a dream so big and improbable that I barely could have imagined it growing up. But in fact, I did dare to dream it as a wide-eyed kid living next to a music town in West Virginia. I just didn’t dream quite big enough. See, in my mind, the ultimate end-all, be-all ultra-successful music career meant one thing: a bus. Not multiple buses, not lasers, huge LED video walls, tractor trailers, etc. A bus. Simply put, my dream was to travel our country on a bus with a band and play some songs people knew and loved. I sorta aimed for the moon, shot right by that, and landed in the stars.
So as I stand here tonight in the middle of this dream come extra-true, I can’t help but think about everything I have to be grateful for. You could say that music is my life, but a better way to put it is to say music has given me a life. A life with strings attached, usually six at a time. It is how I made my first dime, and therefore bought my first car. It is how I made it through heartaches, challenges, and school. It’s how I met my wife. It is how I discovered myself.
I roll the volume up on that shining electric guitar hang¬ing around my neck—the way that I have ten thousand times before—and I start to play. When my hands hit the guitar, something happens that still amazes me. A series of big resounding chords ring out and travel through the night air, making their way from the stage straight into the hearts and minds of the best fans an artist could ask for.
For all of us standing in this wide open space tonight, those guitar chords flying around create a mass vibration that we can all share together but that none of us can ever quite define. Defining it isn’t the important thing—feeling it is.
That’s what brings us all here this evening—that shared need to feel something.
And it all goes back to a Christmas gift. A guitar, gift-wrapped and waiting patiently to rock my world. So how did I get from that gift under that fake, plastic bluish-white Christmas tree to some of the largest stages in the world? One guitar hero at a time. And I don’t mean the video game.
The foremost guitar hero in my life is a remarkable man who left this world way too soon but who changed my life forever. This man lovingly handed me my first guitar and, in the process, made a real player out of me. I can never fully repay him the debt I owe him for setting me on a brand-new path and introducing me to what would be an incredibly bright future. When I close my eyes and think back to the earliest memory I can recall, there’s one that I can see in my mind as if it were yesterday: I am three or four years old and my two hands are much smaller and have none of the calluses they have now. My toddler self is standing directly in front of my grandfather Warren Jarvis, who is playing away on his beloved Yamaha acoustic guitar.
As my grandfather—or Papaw, as I called him—powers through some bluegrass music, I’m pressing my little hands onto the strings of his guitar—but I’m not trying to play a note. Instead, I am desperately trying to mute the sound and some¬how make my grandfather stop playing that weird wooden instrument he loves so much. Papaw sits there for hours at a time playing one country instrumental after another just for his own entertainment, and yet I am using all the strength in my tiny hands to try to make him stop playing guitar so that he will play something else—anything else—with me.
I think back to this moment a lot these days because, as fate would have it, I now have two boys who do the exact same thing to me. Just yesterday, my older boy, Huck, walked up to me and requested that I play the theme from Batman for him. That sort of request is pretty hard for a dad like me to deny. So I made an E chord and started that immortal semi-annoying melody—na-na-na-NA… But as soon as I began, Huck pressed his own little hands onto my acoustic guitar strings with all of the veto power of a record executive. “Let’s go play Batman!” I thought I was doing just that, but obviously my idea of playing Batman is completely different than his.
My grandfather Warren Jarvis—my mother’s dad—always picked his guitar while sitting in his favorite chair in the living room of his house. I remember that we always referred to my grandfather’s usual place of residence as “the Archie Bunker chair.” He had all the ornery irreverence of the TV character. In this case, Papaw’s chair was a comfortable old rocker with big wooden arms and a wooden frame and two pillows. My grandfather would always sit on the edge of his seat, holding that Yamaha acoustic guitar in his hands, wearing slippers and slacks—because by law that’s precisely the sort of goofy thing a grandfather is supposed to wear. Though he could be one tough customer when he was young, my grandfather had settled into a kind of down-home George Burns by the time I came along and got to know and love him. Sometimes Papaw would even wear a harmonica on a cord around his neck, so that he sort of looked like George Burns meets Woody Guthrie.
For most of the years I was lucky enough to have him in my life, my grandfather worked for the B & O Railroad as a telegrapher and dispatcher, and his shift ran from four P.M. to midnight. I’m not sure now if having that particular shift worked out that well for his sleep patterns, but from my selfish point of view it was perfect. He could spend all day with me before he left around three thirty in the afternoon to head off toward the railroad station.
And most days, that’s exactly what he did.
My parents—Doug and Sandy Paisley—both worked day jobs, and I was their only child. My mom was a schoolteacher in town, and my dad was an administrator for the Department of Highways. So instead of day care, surrounded by my own kind, I was off to the wise care of my elders. I was always surrounded by older, wiser people, which would become a recurring theme in my life, for sure.
My grandfather and grandmother always welcomed me, along with my two cousins Lisa and Christy who lived just next door. They offered a safe and loving environment with a well-stocked refrigerator. What more could a kid ask for? Inasmuch as I ever really grew up, I grew up in their little brick house.
So from a very early age I learned the value of the influence of much older people. The bottom line is that I didn’t have any brothers or sisters—though I was able to spend a lot of my childhood with two cousins, and had plenty of friends my own age. I was the odd little kid who watched Lawrence Welk and Hee Haw; listened to Floyd Cramer records; ate at Mehlman’s Cafeteria, where they had an “early-bird senior special”; and could recite from memory the dialogue from Geritol commercials. Oftentimes, I was even dressed by my grandparents, and sadly, my parents have the pictures to prove this—some of which I am loading in our fireplace to burn, and some of which are published here for your entertainment pleasure. You’re welcome.
In terms of my approach to life and my overall character, there’s no doubt that I am the product of my mother and father. My parents are both good and grounded people who taught me all of life’s really big lessons. They are decent, churchgoing, hardworking, great examples. They did the grunt work. The spankings, the groundings, the allowance, etc. They taught me right from wrong, though I still occasionally get the two confused. Grandparents, as a rule though, tend not to be all that big on discipline or administering the especially painful punishments. That’s your parents’ gig. Grandparents tend to be better at just loving you with an open heart and possibly spoiling you rotten when your parents aren’t looking.
So while my parents shaped my character, my grandfather—the man who gave me my first guitar—shaped the course of my life. Without him, I’d be standing on an empty stage. My life would be completely different—no hit songs, no sold-out concerts, no website, no merchandise, no tour bus, and absolutely no dedicated fans.
I wish everyone could have known him. Warren Jarvis had a warm smile and a hearty laugh, a smoker’s laugh that always eventually ended in a cough. Bald as an eagle, big buck teeth in the front, earlobes the size of large earrings, and never without thick bifocal glasses. He was the perfect grandpa. This all somehow made him more human, just the way a few little scratches on a gorgeous guitar make you treasure it even more.
I never knew my grandfather when he was a “young” man. That’s just the way of things. In my case, that is definitely best. While he was a warm and charming old goat later in life, he was a real hell-raiser back in the day. I wouldn’t have liked that guy, I bet. The story goes that he had to fight very hard to win my grandmother when they were two young people growing up in the same hometown of Huntington, West Virginia. It was the thirties, they were teenagers, and they came from very different backgrounds. My grandmother was a real beauty with dark hair and stunning blue eyes, and so, naturally, this local babe could have had her pick of any of the boys in town. Perhaps as a result of all her excellent options, my mamaw had absolutely no interest in dating this Warren Jarvis character.
And so it came to pass that my grandfather took a very interesting, if controversial, approach to overcoming his romantic predicament. Nowadays I believe they call it “stalking.” Or maybe “harassment.” Basically, he decided to personally intimidate every other single guy in town who tried to date my grandmother. He would follow her to a soda shop or diner on one of her dates and pick a fight with whoever she was with. It would go something like this…
Papaw: Why you datin’ my gal?
Chump: She ain’t your gal!
Papaw: We’ll see about that.
And … here I am.
Unorthodox? Sure. Obnoxious? Yes. Illegal? Well, a few times he got thrown in jail for this behavior, but you really have to hand it to the guy—there was a certain primal brilliance to his logic. Take out the competition. For the record, this is not how I eventually won Kim’s heart. By that I mean there was no fighting.
I did stalk her.
In my mind, this crazy scene sounds like something right out of a great Loretta Lynn song. With my grandfather as Loretta Lynn. I suppose all is fair in love and war, but my grandfather’s approach seemed to bring love and war a little too close for comfort. He wasn’t an especially large man, but he knew how to stick up for himself, and he was clearly ready to fight anyone for his dream girl. He had it bad. Beyond bad.
One story that got passed down concerns a time when my grandmother went out on a date with the son of the town’s fire chief, and my grandfather knocked this prospective suitor right off his stool in the local drugstore. The police were called, and soon they threw both of these young men in jail for disorderly conduct. They got to share a cell and discuss what had just transpired. Of course, before long the other guy got out of jail because his dad was the fire chief—not to mention he had probably done nothing wrong other than to also have eyes for my smokin’ mamaw. I imagine that my grandfather got to serve out the remainder of his jail time pondering just how he was going to legally win over my future mamaw’s heart.
It was the beginning of World War II. So without much else to lose, Warren Jarvis (now eighteen) went down to the local air force recruitment office and enlisted. He would fight for the air force in the South Pacific for the entire war, in the Philippines and Guam. I imagine that as a soldier it helps to have something else to fight for besides Uncle Sam. I believe he was fighting for Dorothy Douglas, as he’d shown he was all too willing to do. He tirelessly wrote a hundred or so letters to her from over there, even though she was not technically his to write to, and he always let her know what she meant to him. Somewhere, between the time he was gone and when he set foot back in Huntington, she must have actually missed him.
Because not long after he returned, she gave in and got married.
Other than the moment my grandfather somehow won my grandmother’s heart, the most important day in the shaping of my future was undoubtedly that Christmas of 1980. As I unwrapped the largest gift under the Jarvis tree, it was clear what Papaw had given me. My grandfather had wrapped up his Sears Silvertone guitar with an amp in the case. That Silvertone guitar was so ugly it was beautiful—all cheesy black sparkles with a little white mixed in.
Truth be told, this may not have been the best first guitar choice for an eight-year-old kid. At the time, that made no difference whatsoever—I quickly plugged it in and tried my little hands at playing it, thrilled to make some kind of noise of my own. My grandfather was especially excited that the amp couldn’t get loud enough to hurt my ears—or his—which he proudly pointed out to my parents. They’d be putting up with a lot of racket over the next few years. Or more accurately, the rest of their lives.
That old guitar is probably worth less than $500 today—not a lot by classic guitar standards, but to me it’s priceless.
From my perspective, a guitar is the most life-changing machine there is.
From my perspective, a guitar is the most life-changing machine there is and offers the greatest return on investment you can get. Think about it this way: you can use the cheapest guitar to write the finest song in history. A good song can cost you nothing but a few hours of your time, and it can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. Even the worst broken-down guitar can still give you a career and a very real chance to change the world in some small way.
More than a quarter century after my grandfather gave me one of his beloved guitars, I recorded my first largely instrumental album, called Play. It’s the kind of album I like to think that Warren Jarvis would have loved. In the liner notes for that dream project, I paid tribute to the man who made my dream possible:
When I was eight I got a gift from my grandpa. No coincidence that around that time I also got an identity. See, no matter how I have changed, learned, and evolved as a person, the guitar has been a major part of it, and really the only constant. A crutch, a shrink, a friend, love interest, parachute, flying machine, soapbox, canvas, liability, investment, jackpot, tease, a sage, a gateway, an addiction, a recovery, a temptress, a church, a voice, veil, armor, and lifeline. My grandpa knew it could be many of these things for me, but mostly he just wanted me to never be alone. He said if I learned to play, anything would be manageable, and life would be richer. You can get through some real tough moments with that guitar on your knee. When life gets intense, there are people who drink, who seek counseling, eat, or watch TV, pray, cry, sleep, and so on. I play.
Tonight I will stand on a stage and play a song called “Welcome to the Future” that I wrote with my friend Chris DuBois. It’s a song that sees the world through the eyes of someone my age as well as through the eyes of someone older. Sitting there in his cozy slippers and dress pants in that old chair, my papaw looked into a future that he would not live to see himself and helped to make a guitar man out of me. In the process, my grandfather somehow became my very first guitar hero.
Copyright (c) 2011 by Brad Paisley. All rights reserved. To read Chapter 16’s interview with Brad Paisley, please click here.