On an August afternoon hotter than Jerry Jeff Walker’s temper, two extraordinary things transpired: I played two songs with 1,867 other guitar pickers to set a Guinness world record. And I rekindled a subliminal inner joy buried for years.
Heaven knows there were cooler, saner things to do on a Sunday afternoon than drag myself, and my old Yamaha six-string, into the dusty, 103-degree swelter of a mass guitar jam in Luckenbach. I’d never thought of myself as just a number, yet there I was, sporting a “Pickin’ for the Record” T-shirt with “No. 263” written across my chest in black marker. I’d become a true believer in a grandiose, record-breaking attempt.
My capricious relationship with this legendary Texas Hill Country burg postdates by a few years the 1976 death of Hondo Crouch. Hondo presided as the “clown prince of Luckenbach,” putting the town on the map with his satirical Peter Cedarstacker newspaper columns and zany events such as the Return of the Mud Daubers, the Women-Only Chili Cook-Off and the Non-Buy Centennial. Like most visitors to this dog-eared postcard of a town, I occasionally popped by to sip a longneck under the live oaks and to listen to the ubiquitous pickers. A different vibe prevailed on Aug. 23.
Hondo’s mischievous ghost must have whispered the wacky notion of a guitar fest to Abbey, Luckenbach’s social director, whose business card bears no last name, just her duties: “parties n’ stuff.” Her idea was to attract enough guitarists to the pastoral hamlet on Grape Creek to break a world record set by 1,802 Germans. In 2007 they gathered at the lake in Leinfelden-Ectherdingen, Germany, to play “Smoke on the Water” in unison. Abbey figured not only could the Texans kick some German dingen, but at the same time raise money for the Welcome Home Project, conducted by volunteer group Voices of a Grateful Nation. The project uses music therapy to help U.S. war veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan with traumatic brain injuries.
A lot of people thought Abbey was nuts, but working with Voices of a Grateful Nation’s Craig Hillis and Charles Gallagher, the Kerrville Folk Festival, and Cheatham Street Warehouse live music venue, her chimera began to take shape. Hundreds of pickers began signing up online. She knew she was on the right track when Texas singer/songwriters Clay McClinton, Roger Creager, Jimmy LaFave and Monte Montgomery offered enthusiastic support and agreed to perform.
That, my friends, is how I came to find myself scurrying up a hill to join friends and kindred spirits in front of the stage among the horde of pickers in white tees and wearing dogs tags, the event’s unique “ticket” of admission.
A high-voltage energy buzzes through the eclectic mélange of bandanna-wearing hippies, Kerrville Folk Fest diehards, cowboy and cowgirl crooners, boot-clad ranchers, fresh-faced youngsters, and suburbanites of all ages and sizes.
“Let’s see if I can put you back in that place,” says an ageless Gary P. Nunn, echoing Jerry Jeff’s opening line on the definitive recording of Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues.” The track is on the ground-breaking Viva Terlingua! album, which he and Jerry Jeff recorded before a raucous crowd inside the weathered Luckenbach Dance Hall 36 years ago.
“It’s a C everybody,” Gary P. says, strumming the first note as almost 2,000 guitars join in. Suddenly I’m back in Austin’s halcyon heyday of redneck rock, what Steven Fromholz derisively labeled the “progressive country scare.” It’s the late 1970s again; the days of peace, love, cheap pot, live music, chilled longnecks, and Willie, Waylon and the boys. His set-closer, “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” really does take me, and keep me, “back in that place.”
An announcement breaks my reverie. “Despite rumors we fell a little bit short,” somebody onstage is saying, “we have broken the record!” The crowd explodes in a chorus of hoots and hollers with hundreds of guitars thrust skyward.
All that remains is the actual playing of the late Waylon Jennings’ “Back to the Basics of Love” that’s become known as the “Luckenbach Song.” It comes an hour later than the scheduled 2 p.m., but nobody seems to mind.
Roger Creager, coaxing the army of pickers to strum the lead off G chord, informs us we’ll have to play for five minutes to break the record. We go him one better, playing for almost 10 minutes. Looking around at sweat-soaked, smiling faces—officially the world’s largest guitar army—I sing along with exhilaration: “Out in Luckenbach, Texas, ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain.”
As Lafave leads us in our second record-smashing tune, “This Land Is Your Land,” I realize that for one afternoon, in a special place some call the “center of the known universe,” 1,868 Texans showed each other and the world that music and a shared sense of community can triumph over our self-imposed boundaries and the world’s relentless march to madness.
Robert McCorkle has written about Texas music, people and places for 35 years. He picks his guitar in the Hill Country.