My music muse — that grizzled, gruff, cigarette smoking, gnarled being — has been scarce of late. It’s not like there wasn’t plenty of time to pick up my guitars and play while I was essentially housebound this past year. For whatever reason, although out, tuned and ready, my guitars languished, my calluses diminished, my music writing dried up. I wrote so much for a living, the idea of applying myself creatively seemed exhausting.
But deep within, the stirrings of a re-emergence have been making themselves known, a sweet, familiar feeling to accompany the longer days and fair weather. During a recent family visit, Brother Jeff suggested we make a pilgrimage to Action Sound in Hawkins, Texas. He’d spoken of his first visit with something that approached awe. I was deeply intrigued. Yes, let’s go. I needed to be around musicians and guitars.
Located 20 miles north of Tyler, Hawkins is a dot on the map, with just a little over 1,200 souls calling it home. Action Sound occupies an unassuming little storefront on Beaulah Street. Its non-fussy face belies the wonders contained within. It’s a shotgun of a shop, lined from floor to ceiling, front to back, with guitars, amps, drum gear and more. It smells like wood and wire and sawdust and soldering. Workbenches occupy the back left side of the space where craftsmen bent their heads over various axes. A standup bass poised on an out-of-reach shelf was once Bill Black’s, Elvis’s bassist in the Blue Moon Boys. I have no doubt in my mind that Action’s proprietor, Kelly Barber, would somehow get his hands on such a hallowed instrument.
Barber is a live wire of a man, a retired oilfield worker with a ponytail, whose bright, grey eyes miss nothing and whose tales I could have listened to for hours. Jeff was interested in picking up a 1970s vintage Fender Precision bass he’d put his name on just before the pandemic put an end to life as we knew it. Now that things were loosened up a bit, the time was right for making the trek to Hawkins. Jeff had been thinking about that bass all year.
As it turns out, a year is a long time. I sincerely doubt the shop ceased being busy. It’s a magnet for touring musicians from around the world, local church group giggers and living room kings from the city like my guitar-slinging brother. Sometime in the endless goings-on of the shop, the P-bass managed to disappear. Perhaps. Try as they might, Barber and Action’s front of the house man, Mikey, could not locate it. Seems Jeff’s name became separated from the instrument. Thinking he’d return sooner than life allowed him to, he couldn’t exactly recall what it looked like.
The vintage, really valuable stuff is kept in a room upstairs that’s off-limits to regular folks. We heard much thumping and banging from above as they searched for the elusive bass. Though it didn’t have Jeff’s or anyone else’s name on it, they did produce one remarkable instrument that played like a dream. There was much speculation about how the name might have been lost and an assurance it never would have been sold if it did have a name. This pretty baby looked like it had barely been played since its manufacture in 1973. Jeff offered a few hundred dollars less than they were asking. Barber acted like he didn’t hear him.
While Jeff noodled on the bass, Barber regaled us with stories from his oilfield days and his utter delight to be retired and working fulltime with little pay at Action Sound. “This is a destination,” he said. Musicians came in and out of the shop with regularity that afternoon and occasionally an electric guitar would crackle to life, charging my neurons with a sound I hadn’t heard in too long.
Between Barber’s rapid fire patter and my brother’s unhurried drawl, it was decided they’d put his name to the bass they found and wait and see if perhaps the other bass magically appeared from the room upstairs — a room I was aching to explore. As they hashed out a plan, I chuckled over a work tag on an amp turned in for repair. “Made noise and smoked,” it read. Sounds like my amigos and me during a living room guitar sesh.
After a few glorious hours at Action Sound I felt energized. I realized on the ride back, watching as country churches and dense pine groves gave way to the box stores and traffic lights of Tyler, that the visit had restored the burning desire to pick up my guitars again, maybe pen a tune or two. It’s time to make some noise.