The Guitar Pull

Making music the old-fashioned way — on the porch

Illustration: Illustrations by Jessica Roux

The best moments in my life have often come about by chance or accident. And so it was, on a cool early summer evening some twenty-five years ago, when a handful of friends gathered after supper on my front porch. We brought out our chairs, not knowing that we were about to join in one of Nashville’s richest traditions—the guitar pull.

No one really noticed when George Ducas, a young songwriter, slipped away into the darkness until he reappeared before us, guitar in hand, saying, “I didn’t come to Nashville just to talk, I came to play music.” Before long, as if it had always been the plan, Steppenwolf’s John Kay, John Hiatt, and a handful of others were “pulling” that guitar of George’s around the porch.

Most of us had heard seasoned music veterans reverently speak of guitar pulls, back in the days when there was little, if any, slickness to the business. With no money and way too much time on their hands, songwriters would gather on porches and in backyards, at boardinghouses, and in poolrooms to pass a guitar around into the wee hours. There was really no audience and few opportunities for unknown songwriters, drawn to Nashville by the beacon of the Opry. None of us out there on the porch that night had ever actually been to a guitar pull before. Yet, by the end of the evening, it was clear that this would not be our last.

From then on, I began to host pulls regularly, bringing together a solid mix of established singer-songwriters and folks who dreamed of someday getting a cut. They remind those at all levels of “the business” that it is music and not business that first lured them into it all. That said, there are more than a few Nashville A-listers who have bowed out over the years rather than endure having to sit next to someone not on the charts. But that’s okay, too.

T Bone Burnett, a sometime attendee, once told me a story about how, in his early days in Los Angeles, a few regulars would gather at some guy’s house. One night, T Bone got invited; when folks grabbed a seat to play, Johnny Cash came over and sat next to him. There he was, T Bone, a completely green young songwriter, sitting next to Johnny Cash. “You know what the best part of it was?” T Bone said later. “It wasn’t that I got to hear Johnny Cash; it was that Johnny Cash got to hear me. When I finished my song, Johnny turned to me and said, ‘That was a good song.’ I’d like to hope that I can be some kid’s Johnny Cash someday.”