Memories of a Guitar Picker

Willie Nelson called him a show off, Charlie Pride and Jim Cullen both asked him to join their bands, and Hank Williams, Sr. was a close personal friend.

April 2010By Comments

Bill Gautney on guitar (right) with singer-songwriter Lefty Frizzell.

William A. “Bill” Gautney is just like any other grandfather—parked in front of a tiny TV playing AMC and surrounded by family photos. He has a black trucker cap perched on top of his head proclaiming his service in the Air Force, and there are no less than four tape players within arm’s reach. Which is where they better be, because he’s not getting around too well these days. He pops a tape into the nearest one the second I walk into his kitchen. It’s the same song my grandfather plays every time I visit, a scratchy old Chet Atkins number that sprints across the guitar strings. But on this tape, Gautney’s the one doing the picking.

“Chet Atkins said he used to watch me and Merle Travis,” says Gautney. He speaks with the same crackle and pop as his tapes, putting his singing days a ways behind him. Before he lets himself get too puffed up by Atkins’s praise, he throws it back at him “Chet Atkins, I think, is one of the greatest guitar players I’ve ever heard.”

Humble though he may be, there’s no way to hide the natural ease in those old recordings. He was one of the best, and Chet Atkins isn’t the only one to say so. Willie Nelson called him a show off, Charlie Pride and Jim Cullen both asked him to join their bands, and Hank Williams, Sr. was a close personal friend. The 92-year-old Gautney was one of the best guitarists of his generation, but only the stars he played with knew it. Now he’s one of the last of his generation—the old country guitar pickers that built the genre. “All the musicians, even the ones here I knew, have died off or moved away,” he says. He’s not lonesome about it, just matter-of-fact. “There used to be a lot of musicians around San Antonio. Now it’s just rock and roll, and they’re young.” And Gautney, recovering from a broken hip, is no longer young.

Gautney learned guitar from his mother when he was eleven, and he followed it quickly with harmonica, banjo, steel guitar, and bass. His grandfather was a Scottish music teacher in the Von Trapp vein, who turned all of his kids into musicians in his children’s choir. Gautney took to the family business like a fish to water, and by sixteen, he was playing for a radio station near his hometown of Sylacauga, Alabama. He had more talent than guitarists twice his age. “I didn’t have no trouble getting work,” he admits.

But despite his talent, Gautney never wanted to be more than a working musician. When his friends reached for fame, Gautney joined the military. When his best friend, Sonny Norred, joined Hank Williams, Sr.’s band, Gautney turned him down to make more money playing in Alabama.

When the money from radio and shows wasn’t enough, Gautney took a side job. He pushes himself to stand up and find a picture of a tiny toylike yellow plane. “High-speed, 94 miles an hour, which is good for acrobatics. And that’s what he taught me to fly in a little air show they had.” Like most of his admissions, he throws it out there like it’s nothing, his former work as a trick pilot. To him it’s such a non-event he didn’t even bother mentioning it to his daughter, Michelle Moorad, until recently.

“They actually did the barnstorming, like people walking on the wings kind of thing, like Waldo Pepper–style,” says Moorad. “I’m like, ‘Whoa, Dad!’”

To Gautney, it was just an easy day’s work, a trick he picked up from an old colonel friend. He’d fly the county fairs during the day and play guitar at night. “We’d dive at each other like we were going to hit. And then the war came on and gas rationing came on in 1940 and that ended all that.”

Already an accomplished pilot, Gautney enlisted in the Air Force in 1942. His year of active combat in WWII is the only time he was without a guitar. He kept busy, earning six air medals, a Purple Heart, and a Distinguished Flying Cross. At the time, all he knew was that the Purple Heart came with shell fragments in his shin and the Flying Cross came with a three-bucks-a-month check. He wasn’t home long before he found out that the Distinguished Service Cross is the second-highest honor the military can give.

“I couldn’t understand, when I got back to my hometown, people were inviting me on radio shows and all that stuff, and I was like, why me?” he says. “Of course, I said, okay, I’m probably the only one you know that’s come back from overseas now, which I was. But it was because of that cross.”

The cross was another thing Gautney failed to mention to his daughters. “I didn’t even know he had one,” says Moorad. “He was the first man in the state of Alabama to get one.”

The award didn’t do too much for him. “He was really aggravated,” says Toni Baron, his youngest daughter, “He only had like two weeks of leave and they kept wanting him to go to all these places and he wanted to go hang out with his friends.”

He ended up sticking with the service for 25 years, bringing his guitar with him. Wherever he was stationed, the local promoter would snap him up to lead the backing band. Celebrity singers would make their rounds and Gautney would be there plucking out the harmonies. “The Air Force encouraged me to do it,” he says. “I stuck with good musicians. And they said that it was good publicity between civilians and military.”

He came to San Antonio in 1950, and by 1951 he had formed his own band, the Vagabonds. Wherever he went, a band was waiting. Three years in Hawaii, San Antonio for a year, then back again to Hawaii for another three. A year in Germany, a year in Alaska, and always back to San Antonio, where his band was waiting. He’d get off the plane and assume his proper place at the front of the stage.

When Gautney was stationed in Birmingham, he says, “I met a guitarist that I idolized. He’s the best I ever heard, and he took me under his wing and taught me advanced guitar.” The man, Sonny Joe Wolverton, “taught Les Paul everything Les knows.” Paul cited Wolverton next to Django Reinhardt, the famed Hot Club of France guitarist, as his influences.

“[Wolverton] told me if I could come to where he was that he’d show me everything he knew,” says Gautney. Whenever their paths crossed—in Alaska, Memphis, Hawaii—the two partnered up to play. “I didn’t have time to learn everything he did, believe me. I wish I did. I can’t do it as well as he did and Les Paul can’t either.” Wolverton asked him to move to Las Vegas and join his band but Gautney wouldn’t do it, not even for his idol. Wolverton still looked out for him and he had his first prodigy, Paul, pass along one of his signature guitars. “He sent that to me, right out of the blue,” says Gautney, pointing to a yellowed picture of himself laughing and leaning on a black guitar.

In Hawaii, Gautney had the chance to practice what he did learn from Wolverton. With 32 military bases and California next door, Hawaii drew dozens of stars for Gautney to play with each year. “I can’t remember half of them,” he says. The local promoter would give him a tape, and Gautney and his band would learn it cold. One week it could be the Carter Sisters. The next, Tex Williams. “That was one of the best jobs I ever had.” By then the Department of Defense had drafted Gautney into an elite Cold War code-breaking unit because of his I.Q. He was able to pick the hours he worked around his gigs.

When he finally retired from the service, it was to free up more time for shows. But rather than take one of the touring offers he’d acquired over the years, Gautney came back to San Antonio, where he picked up with the Vagabonds yet again. It wasn’t for lack of support. Moorad says her mother was furious that Gautney wouldn’t take up with one of the famous friends. “Mother goes, ‘He’d rather be a big fish in a little pond then be part of this really, great band.’”

Gautney stuck with the Vagabonds, even when the decline of big bands forced them to downsize. “Not enough venues could afford to pay a five piece band,” he says. They went from quintet, to trio, to duo, with Gautney on lead guitar and his buddy Chester on rhythm and drum and bass machines to fill out the sound. “That’s how we did it,” he says. “We were going good.”

The two gigged constantly, according to his daughters. “We had a running bet whether or not he’d give up his gigs to walk us down the aisle,” Moorad says. He did, but he also played her rehearsal dinner.

He was forced to give up the gigs in 1991 when a combination of bronchitis and emphysema called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease stopped Gautney’s singing and ended the Vagabonds. Then arthritis forced him to put the guitar down. “I can’t do a damn thing now,” he says. “Too old.”

Of his friends, few are left. “I’ve outlived everybody. My whole class, my high school class, the only ones that’s living besides me are two girls,” he says. But he doesn’t get morose. Cranky, sometimes, and irritated by the effects of his age, almost always. But he’s not a sad man. He is, like Willie said, a bit of a show off. Whether flying stunts or plucking tunes, he does it with flair.

Baron remembers him having one riff that she had to listen to over and over again as a child. “He did have this little ending thing that he used to always play,” she says. It was his signature, a way to make everyone else’s songs his. She hums a few combinations, then her eyes light up as she finds it and she sings, “Da da-da, da-da da.”

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