Music and memories fill Garver’s life
GASTONIA, N.C. (AP) — A visitor to Darrell Garver’s home in west Gastonia is faced with an immediate choice: A taste of his remarkable music or a sampling from his treasure trove of stories.
The visitor asks for music and Garver, 74, is more than happy to oblige, picking up his Gibson electric guitar and weaving a tapestry of sound with his thumbs and fingers as he rips through an old Glenn Miller favorite, “Woodchopper’s Ball.”
At its finish, the visitor, rendered speechless by the artistry he has just heard, can make the only response that seems worthy — a one-man standing ovation.
Garver, thankful and gracious, accepts the compliment with an “ah shucks” grin and then settles back to share some stories — all of which are a part of his story.
“I was born at the right time and I was very fortunate,” he tells his visitor, the right time being 1945 and the fortune coming in being a part of a golden age of country music — pure country performed by artists such as Ernest Tubb, Carl Butler, and his own personal idol, Chet Atkins.
Growing up in east Gastonia, Garver began playing different instruments at an early age, but it was first hearing Atkins — “the greatest guitarist in the world” — on an old radio in the winter of 1958 that transformed his life.
“I would get out of school, run home, grab my guitar, put on a Chet Atkins album, and do my best to play along with him,” Garver said, his eyes shining with the memory. “His style of play was so complicated, so intricate, that I had to work and work and work to capture it.”
Garver had but one guitar lesson. The rest, he taught himself.
By 1960, at the tender age of 15, Garver was playing Friday and Saturday nights at a popular music and dance hall in Lincoln County’s Cat Square.
He was a member of The Merry Makers, a country band in which he played lead guitar, his dad E.L. Garver played bass, Darrell Bumgardner played drums, and Royce Lazenby was on rhythm guitar along with Charlie Gibson.
For their services, each member of the band received $2 per night, roughly 17 bucks in today’s coin.
This band played together from 1961 to 1965 at Cat Square and at other venues around the region.
In 1965, Garver moved up to the band backing Bill Hefner on his “Country-Style Roundup” show which aired each Saturday on Charlotte’s WBTV.
Hefner was so popular he later ran for Congress and, despite having no political experience, ended up serving 24 years in the House, representing North Carolina’s 8th Congressional District.
It was exposure on Hefner’s TV show which prompted an invitation from Carl and Pearl Butler to join their touring band on a swing through the Northeast.
“You can bet it didn’t take me long to say ‘yes,’” Garver recalled. “I was 21 years old and just couldn’t imagine that this was happening. They asked me to drive some. We were in their 1966 Cadillac El Dorado. That was living.”
Garver’s stories of life on the road and of the people he met could easily fill a book — one his visitor urged him to write -- but a few stand out.
—The night in Wheeling, West Virginia, when, driving the bus for the group he was then a member of, The Nashville Addition, he nearly ran over rising star Waylon Jennings.
“Waylon was coming out of the Sheraton, not playing any attention, and stepped out right in front of our bus,” Garver recalled. “Luckily, I got it stopped. I told him I did not want to be remembered as the man who killed Waylon Jennings.”
—The time he was invited to audition to back Hank Williams Jr. on a new album. He didn’t make the cut, but he did get to play “Your Cheating Heart” and “Sweet Home Alabama” with the country legend.
—And, the night in December of 1967 when he was invited to ride on Ernest Tubb’s tour bus — The Green Hornet -- through a New York blizzard along with Tubb, Porter Wagoner, and Dolly Parton.
“Tubb laid his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘How you doing son? Glad to have you with us.’ You can’t imagine how good that made a kid like me feel,” Garver said.
Life on the road had its fun and had its memories, but in 1977, at age 32, Garver decided those positives did not outweigh the economic insecurity that such a transient existence entailed.
He went to work as a tool and die maker at a Ranlo machine shop and worked there until his retirement in 2007.
He has never abandoned his music, however, continuing to play around the region.
“I practice every day,” he said. “I think about the men whose music I love most — Chet Atkins and Earnest Tubb — and I like to think that I am keeping their memory alive. That’s what keeps me going.”
(If you’d like to hear Darrell Garver work his magic on a guitar, he plays each Saturday morning at Gastonia’s Howren Music, 929 E. Gaston Blvd., usually arriving around 8:30 a.m.)