A Guitar Prodigy Learned the Hard Way
by Josh Williams
photography by Amanda Shelley Ledbetter
Every once in a while, a person comes along and teaches you something that you might not have known. Maybe it’s something about a certain artist. Maybe it’s something concerning yourself that you were in denial about. Maybe it’s the fact that there is a 22-year-old prodigy sitting next to you who might be the next great blues guitarist. My last thought was confirmed by the fact that right in the middle of our interview, a stereotypical biker came up to Grayson and basically called him a guitar god. The biker said, “Dude, I saw you playing the other night and I have to say you’re the baddest guitar player I’ve ever seen, man. And I’ve seen a lot of guitar players in my day. Keep it up, you’ll get there.” I assumed when he said “there” he meant rock- god status like Jimi or Stevie Ray. By looking at Grayson, you certainly would think he’s older than 22, with his scruffy red beard and long rust-colored hair flopping around everywhere, plus at 7:00 in the evening, he looked like he just woke up—artists, you know. Whatever knowledge was to be gained, the journey to obtain that knowledge was going to be entertaining.
Professor Tele is a blues outfit based in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Vocalist/ Producer Shane Simanton, drummer Brian George, bassist Kenny Tillery and lead guitarist Grayson Goff could possibly be the greatest blues band you’ve never had the pleasure of hearing. Ok, they might not be the greatest ever, but they’re pretty darn good. And their lead guitarist is incredible. All of these guys have years and years of experience playing music, but it’s the lack of education, or the inexperience of the lead guitarist that makes these guys so interesting.
Grayson Goff received his first guitar when he was eight years old. Seriously, I know most stories start off by focusing on a moment when the subject was eight years old, but really, that’s where this story starts. And it ends almost immediately. Well, it doesn’t really end. It just sort of goes on sabbatical. Grayson said, “I got my first guitar when I was eight years old, but I barely touched it.” Which is kind of weird because his older brother Dustin was a good guitar player, and you know how kids look up to their older siblings. “I listened to Dustin playing and I said yup, I wanna do that,” Grayson said. “But, I was distracted by other things-football, kid’s stuff…I just put my guitar down and stopped playing. It’s my biggest regret.”
Grayson didn’t pick up his guitar again until he was 15 years old. He took it seriously this time. He met a guy by the name of James Vanderburg who had a band called The Vandals. They released one album on vinyl entitled First Offense! James has played with the likes of country mainstays like Gene Watson, Ray Price and Doug Kershaw. Grayson said, “James is the inspiration for Professor Tele. I learned most of what I know from him, he played from the depths of his soul. He battled some demons and told those stories through his music. He brought us all together, sort of like the band grandpa. I practically lived with him for months. I’ll always be grateful to him.”
Surely a guy this talented will make the big time, right? He’s got what it takes. But not everybody wants that kind of life. “I’d love to be a true working musician, but I’m not going to compromise,” Grayson said. “The band seems to be happy with playing local gigs and making a modest living in the Ouachitas. I think the bigger the city, the more the artist tries to live up to these huge expectations. I love it here. I love sitting out on my porch and gazing at the river and mountains. It’s so relaxing. That’s actually where I do most of my writing, the landscape is incredibly inspiring.”
When he was challenged about taking his talents to the big markets and getting out of here, Grayson responded with, “Not unless my boys can come with me. I love playing with these guys because they care about playing the music, not playing the game. Plus, it’s really Kenny’s decision. He’s the glue of the band. Most people don’t realize it, but they can feel his presence. We wouldn’t exist without Kenny.” I laughed and asked Kenny if that was the truth.
Kenny said, “Man, I’m just riding Grayson’s coattails as far as I can. I’ve played in a few bands over the years, and he’s the best I’ve ever played with. He’s so quick and natural on that Telecaster, he makes an extremely difficult thing look easy. Plus, that guitar sings when it’s in Grayson’s hands.”
I started talking about another guy that can make a guitar sing by the name of Derek Trucks.
Grayson laughed and said, “It’s awesome you mention his (Derek Trucks) name because he is my favorite contemporary guitarist without a doubt. He’s an innovator and pioneer melodically. Not only is he a slide guitar prodigy, but he also plays a sarod, a lute-like fretless stringed instrument— kind of like a sitar. I mean, the guy plays most of his solos on one string. Are you kidding me?”
So, we have a 22-year-old guitarist who has only been playing for seven years and self-admittedly watches more Nurse Jackie than he should. He has complete strangers walk up to him and tell him he’s the greatest thing they’ve ever seen, and other, more experienced musicians saying they’re just riding on his back like barnacles. I’ve seen Grayson play guitar a couple times myself, and I have to say that sometimes the best education is not seeking it out, but putting it out. Kenny said, “He’s (Grayson) so into it, watching him, you just believe what you’re hearing. His emotions seep out of his fingers and leak all over those guitar strings, and his passion for music is felt physically by anybody watching him.”