Hellooo, Zeeba Neighba

Sep 05, 2019
It's a dubious honor, but I've managed to live in several of the more hipster-approved neighborhoods during my nineteen years in Austin. At one of those addresses, I had Steve James for a neighbor. If you don't know Steve's work, he made a string of records in the late '90s and early 2000's that are really worth checking out. I'm particularly partial to American Primitive, although if you want your guitar-picking mind blown as quickly as possible, go straight to the title track from 2003's Fast Texas. No, I'm not sure exactly how he sings while playing that riff either, which I imagine is somewhat the point of the whole exercise.

For a time, Steve and I were colleagues of a sort, busily writing books and articles for Acoustic Guitar, and as a performer I was particularly intrigued by his seamless mix of original songs, prewar classics, hokum repertoire and instrumentals. He wasn't in town much – mutual friends once ran into Steve in Europe and reported he was particularly looking forward to his early flight the next morning because he loved spending the night at the airport. It may have been finely honed sarcasm, but at the time we all took the story at face value, feeling it was somehow of a piece with the rest of the Steve James experience.

On one occasion when he was off the road, he invited Ms. Fretboard and me over for dinner. Like a lot of musicians, Steve was a committed and detail-oriented cook, and took particular pleasure in demonstrating his cutting board technique. He chopped everything on a slab of wood that had somehow been diverted from its intended use as a Telecaster-style body blank, and demonstrated with palpable delight how trimmings scraped towards the cutaway would drop straight into the waiting garbage can below. But the real show began after dinner, when Steve began pulling pieces from his sprawling instrument collection out of cases, closets and trap doors and putting them in our hands to try. Each one was identified by a recording, genre or musician it was associated with. "Ever play one of these?" he'd say, putting some '20s Gibson mandolin or '40s lap steel in front of me. Each instrument was something I'd heard of, seen in pictures or read about. And each one I played made me say "Oh! Well...Yep, there's that sound."

Among his many writing projects for Acoustic Guitar, Steve wrote Roots and Blues Guitar, an outstanding resource for aspiring and accomplished fingerpickers alike. In it, he combines background and lore on the musicians (much of it collected first hand) with clean, uncluttered and approachable arrangements of a small-c catholic assortment of fingerstyle gems. In particular, Steve is not afraid to commingle slide guitar tunes and parlor guitar favorites, early country picking and interpretations of Texas barrelhouse piano. Among other things, his book includes Sam McGhee's "Buck Dancer's Choice," a tune I had previously only known via Taj Mahal. The Sam McGhee version is faster and straighter, but it has an undeniable drive and must have really turned heads in 1928 as something pretty virtuosic indeed.

Cool as it is, I'm still partial to the poignant lilt of the Taj Mahal take, and this week, I explain a bit about how play and improvise on the first section of this tune. You can check it out here:

Buck Dancer's Choice

As a subscriber, you can also download the tab directly, without re-entering your email address, at the link below:

Download the tab

More soon,


P.S. The first Blues Chord Substitutions Workshop has filled! Thanks to everyone who attended the various Zoom sessions; even if you didn't sign up, I hope you had fun and got something out of the impromptu lessons. If you think you'd like to join me for a future workshop (small group, live-online, lots of feedback and Q&A), write back and fill me in on where your preferences lie regarding:
  • daytime vs. evening
  • fingerstyle vs. single-note/soloing
  • beginning, intermediate or advanced material