Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Tommy Crook

Written in 2002 as the booklet essay for the duo-guitar disc 110° in the Shade

One perennial truth of this country is that it contains an immense well of unknown artistic talent, hidden far from the loud hype of cities, yet every bit as skillful and profound as the big names building more flamboyant careers. The history of the arts in America has rarely given enough credit, outside folk genres, to the special talent who simply wants to make his own quiet way near home—the genius in his back yard.

Even the most ardent guitar aficionado would’ve had to pay very close attention over the last decades to run across the name of Tommy Crook (born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, February 16, 1944). Apart from a few mentions in Guitar Player, and consistent championing from Chet Atkins, Ray Benson, and former student Tuck Andress, Crook has flourished in national obscurity since his beginnings as a child prodigy. Tuck has called Tommy “magnificent, one of the most amazing solo guitarists on the planet . . . a personal and musical hero of mine” and joked that watching Tommy play in a nightclub was “as if Godzilla had walked into the room, swishing his tail.”

Tommy has specialized in solo guitar for thirty-five years, but since he rarely leaves Tulsa, and rarely records, he is largely unknown, one of those whispered myths of American music—the jazz and country virtuoso whom few have heard of, and fewer outside Oklahoma have actually heard. Along with his astonishing fingerboard facility, and an ability to sound like two fine guitarists playing with a better-than-average bass player, he also has a mind-boggling overdrive gear, with a thousand textures at his command.

And beyond the evident virtuosity and power, there are strong country roots, the rich diverse soils he grew out of, for he is an entirely self-taught “ear player.” This vein of Americana runs deep throughout Tommy’s playing and gives it much of its particular flavor—a genuineness of expression, a from-the-earth sincerity that we associate with American folk music and which lends his jazz playing a highly distinctive accent.

Of course, that’s not how he hears himself.

“Everything I do,” Crook says with characteristic modesty, “I’ve stolen from somebody. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of anything original. It may come out different, because I’ve got a little of this and a little of that, all these influences. I’m just trying to keep from having to get a daytime job. I’ve been lucky so far. I practice every day because I know I can play better.”

Tommy’s main guitar is a 1957 Gibson ES-5 Switchmaster whose 5th and 6th strings are tuned a full octave lower than standard (.074 /.080 gauges). The advantages are obvious: you end up with a fourth more range than even a 7-string guitar has (down to low E, an octave below normal pitch), plus the fingering patterns are the same—although as Tommy says, you have to keep in mind that you’re playing “a 4-string guitar and half a bass.”

“I got the idea from a Wichita friend, Bob Wylie—a wonderful guitar player and an electronic wizard, the inventor of the Guitarorgan. Back then [1968] I was working with a trio, but things were tough, so we had to cut it back to me, a drummer, and a trumpet player. I’d seen Bob using bass strings on his guitar, so I tried it. Then we had to let the trumpet go, and worked as a duo for a while. Pretty soon I ended up solo, and I’ve done that ever since.”

Until now there has been little recorded Tommy Crook available. There was a fine ’70s duo LP with a drummer and a superb 1988 solo cassette, few copies of which left Tulsa. In ’91 Tommy made another cassette with fiddle player Shelby Eicher, a frequent colleague. In 1998 he did four tracks for a video anthology, Masters of Fingerstyle Guitar—in whose otherwise accurate liner notes his improvisations are incorrectly called “arrangements.”

Grapeshot Records will be releasing at least two extraordinary solo discs of Tommy in the near future. They will, I can assure you, have been well worth the very long wait. Like this duo recording, they came about on the strength of coincidence and friendship a couple of years ago.

As a jazz and classical guitarist working around New England and New York, I’d become steadily intrigued by the Tulsa mystery. Tuck had spoken to me reverently of Tommy, whom he’d studied with in high school, but I hadn’t had any luck trying to find the legendary cassette via the usual out-of-print sources. Those cuts on the video absolutely stunned me, and made up my mind. In April 2000, en route from Boston to a gig in Flagstaff, I realized I could stop off in Tulsa, so I called up Tommy to suggest having a couple of lessons. I could tell he thought I was some East Coast crackpot, but he agreed, and one hot noon I found myself disembarking from a taxi at the Crooks’ home, watching a tall, gangly man come ambling out to greet me.

Twenty minutes later Tommy and I had hauled a huge Fender amp into his cozy, flowering back yard—his wife Glenda is a virtuoso gardener—set it on a long wooden workbench, plugged into an extension cord from his tool shed, and pulled out both guitars. Five hot minutes later I’d seen and heard it all in person. I didn’t believe it then, and I’m not sure I believe it now.

We ended up playing nonstop for the next three days. I joined him on an art museum gig with a singer, and I didn’t have to eat a single lunch or dinner at my hotel, thanks to a typical generous Crook family welcome. I returned to Boston convinced that Tommy was a national treasure, and determined to find him a record contract. Luckily Grapeshot Records founder Anton Glovsky—who happens to be an experienced engineer—was eager to be involved. Four months later Anton and I flew out to Oklahoma, laden with recording gear.

The goal was to record Tommy solo. This meant capturing him both in performance at a Tulsa club one night and spending four sweltering days using a “portable studio” which Anton set up in the house of Tommy’s late brother-in-law, on a quiet residential street. In a steaming August, it proved ideal: a small, empty room with natural reverb, central air-conditioning, a ceiling fan, and no one to bother us. We could leave all the equipment and guitars there, go have dinner up the street with Glenda and daughter Bonnie (age nine), and just pick up the next morning where we’d left off.

Amid Tommy recording a remarkable seventy-five tunes solo over five days, sometimes with multiple takes, we also gradually made this disc of duets. There were no arrangements or rehearsals. Whenever Tommy got sick of playing by himself, I’d pick up my guitar and we’d simply record what struck our fancy at that moment. We sat about three feet apart, facing each other, both recording directly into the board, and despite headphones we could talk to each other while we played, so it felt very natural and straightforward. Best of all, we could see exactly what the other was doing, which made split-second decisions easier.

For me the greatest appeal of these tracks is to hear how differently Tommy plays when he isn’t carrying the weight of the world by accompanying himself—though the astute listener will realize those very low bass notes even in the midst of his blistering solos are still him, not me. It’s also illuminating to hear what a sensitive, deft accompanist he is, with a lightning anticipation and an incredibly subtle harmonic ear—the strongest ally that anyone could ask for. The embracing warmth and ferocious energy of the man come through constantly, in every note he plays.

We think of these recordings as like an unplanned conversation between two friends who are each ready to follow wherever the other wants to go. They were done in a spirit of improvisation, and should be enjoyed and judged that way. They were also one of the happiest musical experiences of my life.

I hope we get to do it again soon, Tommy.

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