My Musical Life by Bill Bairley — (As Told to B.K. Momchilov)
“There are no such things as wrong notes, there’s only the look on your face.” — Bill Bairley 2010
(Bill’s played the guitar since he was ten, he’s played for money and he’s played for friends. He’s played for women that have no soul, but now he knows the ropes. Here Bill shares — in his own words — a little about his life in music, some memories of times passed and what it’s like to be a musician with a gift.)
I started noodling on guitar and piano when I was about 8, but didn’t get serious until I realized that chicks dug it, around 12 yrs old. I would sit in the field across the street from my house with Russell Milano and play for hours.
I always say I never took a lesson in my life, but that’s not true. Because I always wanted to play guitar, Mom took me at age 8 to Cousino High School one evening to a guitar class in the band room. 31 of us (I counted) sat on the risers. The teacher said, “This is the high E string”, and plucked it. Suddenly I heard 31 out of tune E strings. It was scary. I never went back. I already knew some chords from a book I swiped from brother Paul, who was really my first influence. I learned by ear. The neighbor behind me, Jim Fox played, and I’d hop the back fence and we’d jam in his breezeway. A lot! That was my first band. “In Memoriam” named for the little banners we stole out of the Mayville cemetery near where Jim’s folks had a cabin. It must have been Veterans Day.
The first song I learned was either “Funk 49” or “Take A Look Around” from Cleveland, Ohio’s hometown favorites, the James Gang off of their first album (Yer’ Album), or ‘How Blue Can You Get’ from B.B. King’s 1971 album, “Live in Cook County Jail.” (“I been downhearted baby!”) I wore that record OUT. On “Yer’ Album” I played guitar for all songs except one called, “Take A Look Around”, I learned the organ part on piano.
(In May 1968, the James Gang played a concert in Detroit at the Grande Ballroom opening for Cream. At the last minute, guitarist (and founding member) Ronnie Silverman informed the others that he would not be joining them at the show. The band desperately needed the money from the gig, so they took to the stage as a trio. In 1969 the band (now consisting of Jim Fox (no, not the same Jim Fox that lived behind Bill), Tom Kriss and Joe Walsh) released its debut album, “Yer’ Album”.)
(B.B King’s, “Live in Cook County Jail” is truly one of the greatest concert recordings ever. King’s guitar rings out in definitive blues authority and this virtuoso performance is one for the ages. It’s not hard to understand how Bill was hooked for life after hearing B.B. bare his soul for this “captive” audience.)
My first live performance that I remember was at the Sun City campground somewhere in west Central Florida. My dad, a schoolteacher took us camping every summer. Either the Smoky Mountains or to Florida. They had a talent show at the campground and I played “Mississippi Queen”. I was too shy to sing, but I played okay. They nicknamed me “Mississippi Fingers”. I got to be a minor celeb at the campground at age 13. I fell in love with Florida. They had colored floodlights highlighting palm trees and I thought that was magical. Later I left home at the age of 15 and hitchhiked to Key West with a crappy acoustic and a sleeping bag with some clothes rolled up in it. I got a job playing for tips at a bar called The Bull (it’s still there) and lived on the streets for awhile before returning home. I remember playing a band gig at Wolfe Jr. High, but the details are sketchy. I think John Goddard and Tony Bork were in the band, but I have no idea what we played. Probably some Robin Trower, James Gang, Mountain, Cream, etc., Cream was the only Eric Clapton music I could stand.
Before I quit school in 10th grade, I played at a talent show in the then new auditorium with the Bruce Gosh Blues Experience. I think Jim Kasperek was in on that one, too. We played “I Cant Wait Much Longer” and “Bridge of Sighs” by Robin Trower. We were stoners, dude.
(Bill was one of the few guitarists in our school who played often — in front of many — and early on mastered hammer on’s; pull off’s; arpeggios; scales integrated into improvised solos, as well as ripping unique feedback from his electric guitar. It was obvious to many of us that Bill was one of a kind. His adventures in wayward fretboard fingering were always fun to watch and a journey for your ears.)
No one knows my quitting school story. I told my dad (a mathematics teacher in the same school system) that I didn’t have enough time in the day to go to school, work, play gigs and sleep. I figured school had to go. He said, “I’ll tell you what, Einstein, you pass a G.E.D. and you can quit school.” So I went downtown to the Naval Center, which is where they tested in those days, and I was awarded my G.E.D. My dad almost passed out when I proudly reported the results to him, but he kept his word, and I went to Macomb Community College at age 16 to learn some theory and music notation sight reading. And they had wimmen there, too! Lots of pretty wimmen!!
I’ve done tons of solo work and still do. Also duos, trios, quartets, big bands; you name it. Large Marge is a 3-tet, I did the folk thing, played in a progressive bluegrass (nuegrass?) band in Alpena called “Reverend Zak Static and the Dog’s Breakfast”. I was part of the breakfast. Playing multiple instruments keeps me circulating more than just playing guitar. I seldom turn down a gig, so I have worked with some of the best and some of the absolute worst.
Even Lady Elvis.
(Bill has written many of his own songs and they are personal, inspiring and always enjoyable to listen to. Although much of his life in music has been spent playing covers, his own music is well developed, often highly personal and always entertaining. The songs on his CD “The Rain Tree” are top shelf and some of my favorite music to listen to — worthy of airplay on any radio station around, in my humble opinion. His musical talent is matched in spades by his talents as a producer. I asked him how he creates his own music, what he uses for inspiration and how the process works for him.)
Whew, where to start? Okay, for the record, at the time of this writing (August 2010) I am finishing up a bunch of originals for (his trio) Large Marge, and my writing technique has changed over the 10+ years since I did “The Rain Tree”, but I’ll focus on that period. While I can write “throw-away” stuff like blues tunes, or music for pop stars, I just don’t care about it, even if it means income. I wrote most of the tunes for The Rain Tree in a 2 month burst, after getting little ideas both lyrically and musically for years. I will let ideas gel, sometimes for years before a tune comes out. I don’t know why.
Sometimes I hear a musical phrase, could be a TV commercial or a bird call, and it relates to or triggers a feeling or a memory. That tells me that there is a deeper reason for fleshing out an idea, whether I realize it at the time or not. Eventually different bits adhere to others in my mind, and idea/story/feeling start taking shape, but I can’t push it. My songs eventually write themselves when they’re ready. That’s why they can be a little weird, but I’m not thinking of hooks or licks to build a song around, or where the bridge should be, or even if it should have a bridge. The honest story always tells itself.
(Bill’s father, Robert “Bob” Bairley was one of our local school system’s better known and well respected teachers. He taught algebra and other related math classes, coached both tennis and basketball and enjoyed talking politics. Some would say he was eccentric, but most of us knew he was hip and always a step ahead of the uncool. His topical comments and one-liners were the stuff of legend and an hour in Mr. Bairley’s class never left one disappointed.)
The title song of The Rain Tree was written when my father passed away suddenly, and that tune went from some sad noodling on the keyboard to a song with lyrics in maybe 30 minutes. It was effortless, yet incredibly painful to make. I don’t think I should get a writing credit for something that jumps out because it needed to be said for some reason in my mind. But like I said about writing in bursts, I have groups of songs like The Rain Tree every 2 or 3 years or so, stretching back as long as I can remember. I give the groups names to remember the tunes. I do like to layer in subtle sonic surprises when I’m recording a song, hoping that I, and ultimately you, will hear something different every time. I really enjoy my tunes when I haven’t heard them in a while, but I rarely play them live. Not sure why. Probably because they are logistic nightmares with all the added stuff. I also have a bunch of fusion stuff under the name Bill Francis (my middle name) floating around out there somewhere that I did maybe 15 years ago. I sometimes hear it on the Weather Channel (I know, right?) or Rhapsody’s music service for businesses. Strange where these tunes go. I’d love to delve into the individual songs on the Rain Tree, because that collection has some great stories behind it.
I should add that I rarely use anyone else to record. I guess the songs are personal enough to me that I need to track every instrument myself, even though it’s hard to avoid the sound of ‘sameness’ when other humans aren’t involved. I just have to get into different attitudes for different instruments. I did use my old friend Dave Jones to play horns on “I Play For The Blues”. So see, I’m not a recluse!