I heard about Caffey from a friend and thought he might have some good stories to tell. We started talking and he joked about the stories his guitar might tell if it only could. It sounded like a pretty good hook for a narrative, and so this column was published Jan. 4, 2013.
STAMFORD — So what if that old guitar really could talk?
“It would tell you a lot of things,” said Curtis Caffey. “It would probably tell you a few things I wouldn’t want it to.”
If the measure of a man’s life might be reckoned through the tales he spins on an idle winter morning, would the same hold true for his Gibson acoustic? Caffey’s had that guitar so long, he can’t remember when he bought her.
She’s been stolen twice, the love of his life, though the guitar always comes in second to his wife, Dorothy. The six-string wasn’t brand-new back in the early 1950s when it came to him.
He was 17, climbing telephone poles then for the phone company, just making his way in the world. In Colorado City, the job took him to an alley for a while splicing cable and brought a visitor, too.
“An old black man came down the alley and he would stop to talk,” said Caffey.
The man was gifted with a weathered face, wearing a cap over his brow and clenching a cigar in his teeth. Caffey remembered the visitor’s love of music.
“When he would talk to me, I could tell he enjoyed music to its fullest depth. It was just something in his soul,” Caffey remembered.
The man loved the blues, but Caffey was a country boy. Even so, the old bluesman gave what advice he could.
“He said, ‘Sonny-boy, if you put a rattlesnake rattler in your ‘git-tar’, it’ll make it sound really good,'” recalled Caffey. He had never heard such a thing before.
So he returned to Abilene that weekend and got a rattle. He tossed it through the sound hole to let it roll around inside the guitar’s body. He couldn’t tell a difference, but he kept it in there until it fell out.
If that guitar really could speak, maybe it would talk about music. It might remember how Caffey played it in his room at Abilene’s Drake Hotel, now The Grace Museum. When Caffey wasn’t playing, his roommate listened to the coin-operated radio on its stand in the room.
“You put a dime in and it would play,” Caffey said, then chuckled. “But he found out that if you lifted it up and dropped it, it played without the dime.”
No music, however, at Colorado City’s Baker Hotel.
“It was right there close to the railroad track and I guarantee you I couldn’t sleep, absolutely. That train sounded like it was coming through the room!” he said.
Caffey worked in civil engineering for 43 years. But his passion was music, and he toured with his own band all over the state. In 1968 he opened his own club in Stamford called The Stagecoach Inn, selling it in 1992.
Caffey’s guitar and the band were there to pick up the slack if needed. At other times, he and Gibson just sat in. Artists such as Ray Price and Earnest Tubb were regulars at the Stagecoach.
The first time Willie Nelson played, he arrived in an old Dodge pickup.
“Willie is one of the best song writers I’ve ever heard,” said Caffey. “I think the reason why is because he writes about things he did.”
The Gibson would surely remember the time she and Caffey were backing Nelson on “Half a Man.” When it came time in the song for the instruments to take the lead, Nelson started negotiating with Caffey over who was going to take the lead and who was going to play harmony, using the guitar to mirror Nelson’s voice.
“If I only one arm to hold you/better yet if I had none at all,” Nelson sang, turning over his shoulder between lines to whisper at Caffey.
“Curtis, can you play harmony on this?”
“Then I wouldn’t have two arms that ache for you/there’d be one less mem’ry to recall.”
“Willie, I can’t do it!”
“If I’d only had one ear to listen to the lies that you told to me.”
“Then I more closely resemble the half a man that you’ve made of me.”
“I don’t know the song!”
“If I’d only had one leg to stand on then how much how much truer picture you’d see.”
“OK, fine. You take lead.”
Caffey remembered the last time Willie played for him.
“He said, ‘I never have told you this before, but the first time I played for you I had to borrow money to put gas in the old Dodge to come up here.'”
Unlike B.B. King, Caffey never named his guitar. His daughter Rhonda did name the shotgun, however. It traveled with the band, too.A sheriff had advised Caffey to arm himself since it was known he usually carried money from his club or other gigs. He had an old sawed-off, pump-action shotgun but he couldn’t just stroll around with it. So he stuffed in a banjo case.
“One night down at Lake Proctor I went in with the boys to set up the band,” he said. “This old guy comes walking up and he says, ‘Hey! Man, I’m glad to see you’ve got that banjo. I sure do like banjo music.'”
“Oh, is that right?” answered a worried Caffey, stomach fluttering.
“Yeah, I’m going to look forward to hearing you play that,” the man replied.
Thankfully, no banjo request ever came. But some stories did benefit from the Gibson’s silence, especially when it came to telling his wife.
Caffey owned a big finned Chrysler and was returning from a gig near New Mexico with his booking agent, Pat. The band had just played a three-night show for an oil company and Caffey couldn’t keep his eyes open.
“Pat, I’m just so tired, I don’t feel like driving,” Caffey said.
“Son, get in the back seat and go to sleep. I’ll drive us home,” he responded.
So Caffey climbed in back with his guitar and dozed. But after a while, something wasn’t quite right.
“I raised up and looked around, he was going between 95 and 100 miles an hour,” Caffey said. “I thought, ‘Good Lord!'”
Voice a little shaky, he asked, “Uh, Pat? Reckon you ought to slow down a little bit?”
Caffey lowers his voice, imitating his agent’s booming speech.
“Don’t bother me boy, I’m sleepin’,” Pat responded.
Ah yes, the stories that Gibson could tell.