How I Deal with Life.....

How I Deal with Life.....

Sunday, June 17, 2012

My Steel Guitar Picking Dad....

My dad started playing guitar when he was about eight years old. I have several photos of him as a young boy holding on tightly to his guitar; a lopsided smile on his face; his skinny frame posed in a predetermined, probably practiced, manner.  Jimmy Alton Coley. 

 A very young Jimmy A Coley circa 1951

Dad was named for Jimmie Rogers, one of the first true country music stars. Jimmie Rogers died in 1933, but still carries the title “The Father of Country Music”.  My dad’s middle name is in honor of Alton Delmore, half of the performing duo of Alton and Rabon Delmore,  poor tenant farm brothers from Alabama who perfected arrangements for Bluegrass music. Music was bred into my dad’s soul (his father taught him to play him guitar at a young age) and then heightened by the names by grandfather bestowed upon him at his birth. So, I guess my dad was doubly cursed, or blessed, however you want to look at it..

Just after we returned to San Antonio in 1972 from a two year assignment in Iraklion, Crete, my dad decided he wanted to play steel guitar.  Being the type A personality that he was, and is, there was never any doubt in my mind about him succeeding. He bought an old lap steel at a pawn shop and started sequestering himself in the garage with the tired looking instrument every day. And I do mean EVERY DAY. He practiced from the moment he came home from work until it was bedtime, then all day Saturday and Sunday.  He soon gained enough confidence and a carefully practiced catalog of songs to purchase a single neck stand up electric steel  and amp.  He would pack up that steel and amp on Friday and Saturday nights and hit the local Texas honky tonks in the hope that he could persuade a country band to allow him sit in for a song or two. 

A steel guitar is not an easy instrument to master. Both hands and both feet are used simultaneously. A heavy steel bar in one hand, picks on almost every finger on the other, one foot to work the pedal, and the other knee to work a knee bar. That’s a helluva lot of coordination. More than I have.

 Dad with his first double neck steel. 1974.

It wasn’t long before dad became pretty proficient on the steel and was in demand on the honky tonk circuit in San Antonio and the surrounding hill country. His skill increased and he gained a reputation as a professional, dedicated  musician. Every weekend he was booked to pick:  Randy’s Rodeo,  Floore’s Country Store, The Crystal Chandelier, and Riley’s Tavern.  He picked his steel in China Grove, Bandera, Castroville, Kerrville. I tagged along and learned to do the Cotton Eyed Joe, Four Corners, and The Texas Two Step, long before John Travolta heard of Urban Cowboy. 

In 1974 Dad started playing steel for the very young and unknown Clifton Jansky. Today Clifton is a highly successful Christian Country singer in Texas who has won awards for the 2001 CCMA New Artist of the year, 2022 CCMA Male vocalist of the Year, 2002 CCMA Male Vocalist of the Year, the 2004 Christian Country Entertainer of the Year, and 2005 CCMA Songwriter of the Year.  But, back then, in 1974, Clifton was just a seventeen-year-old gangly kid who had a voice that didn't quite match his youth, belting out songs like Silver Wings, Your Mama Don't Dance, Behind Closed Doors, and Mama's Hungry Eyes.The band received a following of fans and Clifton even recorded his own version of Mama's Hungry Eyes. I remember once or twice manning the table to help sell the 45s at some of the gigs.

 Clifton Jansky and the Drifters August 1974. Floore's Country Store
l to r: Jimmy Coley (steel), Jerry Thompkins (bass), Clifton Jansky (singer), Dave ? (lead guitar), Glenn Drewitt (drums)

In all those Texas venues my dad was the man sitting quietly on stage behind the singer, making that steel sing notes that pulsed deep into the bones and the soles of the feet. The band somehow talked my dad into adding singing to his repertoire and assigned him one song that dad sang every gig during the second set. That song was White Lightening, and wherever I was, whatever I was doing, when I heard the opening chords of that song, my attention would divert and I would get as close to the stage as I could. Dad's singing voice is a deep baritone and when he uttered the words, "Whshhhoooh . . . white lightnin'" the bass of his voice would thump against my chest.

To hear George Jones sing this classic click: 

 And during all this "Pickin' and Grinnin'", my dad wrote songs. A lot of songs. Recently, I stumbled upon an old worn manila folder at my mom and dad's house. It was crammed full of dad’s songs. There they were after all these years: Frank and Caroline, Sweet Red Wine, When We All Sing Dixie, Little Piece of Ground....Some in his handwriting, some carefully transposed on a typewriter. They date from 1973 to 1990. 

Here’s one dad wrote July 9, 1985

A Big Singin’ Star
He stands on the stage-
and it’s really not far-
from the first row of tables
In this Honky Tonk bar-
From nine until closing his memory unwinds,
and he’s carried back.
 Twenty years in time.
‘cause he’s a big Singin’ Star,
A Singer of yesterday’s songs.
Some say a little crazy,
he’s been on the road much too long.
He’s a Big Singin’ Star,
and  fans still come around,
to see a real live legend
and hear honky tonk sounds.

He holds his guitar
and he looks at the band-
the first note he sings
and the people all stand,
he quiets ‘em down with
a one word of “thanks”.
A song of his own
Then one of ole Hank’s.


Well, it’s getting late
and it’s almost time
To close up the bar.
He’s had a really great time,
he can still hold his whiskey
and sing a good song.
But a Big Singin’ Star
has gotta keep moving on..

© 1985 Jimmy A Coley

Dad still has the music inside. I can see it when a Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard song aching with steel chords is played on the radio. Dad smiles, leans his head back, and his fingers tap out the beat in perfect time. Some things just stay in a heart and soul forever.

Happy Father's Day, my Steel Picking Dad.... I love you.



  1. Teri I just read all your blog love every minute hope everything is going good for you..I look forward to reading more ..Have fun and enjoy I lived in the Phillipines for 4 years so I know a little of what you going thru to you soon.. Sheila

  2. Hey, why didn't you tell me you had this Blog, with my picture. I think you should have used the San Antonio gorilla pic though, you know, with me squintting. I found this by Googling (slow night at work) Clifton Janskey and the Drifters. And there you are. Family is always the last to know....:) If I missed you mentioning it, sorry. Actually, now I think Samantha mentioned you had a blog. With all this flying/traveling for my job, its been hectic the last year. Good Blog. You have always been the writer in the family. And you mention Dad still has the music in him, which I see whenever he hears a good country song, his feet still stump and hand moves to the music. That's true.

    1. Family IS always the last to know that you are busy writing them, huh?? :) I wish I could find the Gorilla photo!
      And yes,the music lives on.