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Egyptian Theatre to welcome Grammy-nominated bluesman

There was a time when Grammy Award-nominated blues guitarist Guitar Shorty (David Kearney), who will play the Egyptian Theatre this weekend, loathed the six-stringed instrument.

He was living with his grandmother and Uncle Billy in Houston, Texas.

"I wanted to be like my Uncle Billy, who could take anything, it didn’t matter what it was, a make up a song on his acoustic guitar," Shorty said during a phone call from a restaurant in San Angelo, Texas. "I had my own guitar and used to have these baby tantrums, laying on the floor and screaming, because I couldn’t play like him."

Shorty’s grandmother, who raised him, would come into the room and ask what all the screaming was about and he told her that he hated the guitar, because he couldn’t play like his uncle.

That changed one morning.

"My uncle was going to work and my grandmother met him at the door and said, ‘Willie, will you do me a favor and teach this boy how to play the guitar before I kill him,’" Shorty said with a laugh. "That’s how I started."

Shorty will never forget his first lesson.

"My uncle took me on his knee and put my hand on the guitar strings," Shorty said. "My hand wasn’t quite big enough to wrap around the neck, but he’d push my fingers down on the string.

"That hurt and I started to ask him why he was doing that and he said, ‘After a while, you won’t feel it,’" Shorty said. "He was right, because I have a lifetime of calluses on my fingers. Now, every time I play, I think about my uncle, who I lost last November at the age of 97."

Those lessons only fueled Shorty’s desire to play guitar as well as he could.

"I wanted to be the baddest, best guitarist in the world," he said. "That’s what I always dreamed of doing."

Shorty began playing professionally when he was nine, but received his first payment when he was 13.

"I was working with Walter Johnson Orchestra at the time," Shorty remembered. "Walter took me under his wing that time, and he got permission for me to play with his orchestra as long as there was no alcohol on the tables.

"I remember getting one dollar, and back then, that was a lot of money."

When Shorty began playing with the group, Johnson gave him some advice.

"He told me to play with my amp and guitar turned all the way down," Shorty chuckled. "He just wanted me to learn the motions and rhythms and the guitar.

"He said, ‘One of these nights you can turn it up,’ and one night I did," Shorty said. "I was on it, man. I looked at Walter and he was grinning from ear to ear and the horn players were also smiling."

After his time with Johnson, Shorty found a yearlong gig with Ray Charles.

"It was a big reward playing with Ray Charles, because I never thought I would end up on the road with him," Shorty said. "I was playing in Tampa, Florida, on Friday and Saturday with Walter, and Ray heard about me."

The accolades piqued Charles’ interest and he asked the guitarist to join him.

After that, Shorty played with Sam Cook and Guitar Slim, and in 1957, he recorded his first solo single "You Don’t Treat Me Right," with blues pioneer Willie Dixon.

Today, at 75, Guitar Shorty is still playing and recording music.

His latest CD, "Bare Knuckle," which was released last year on Alligator Records, was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Traditional and Folk category.

"It didn’t win, but at least it was nominated, and I’m thankful it was nominated," Shorty said. "I’m now working on another CD, and it’s almost done."

The new CD reflects Shorty’s desire to broaden his horizons.

"I’m trying to raise my playing to another level," he said. "I still have the blues, but the songs are a little on the hip-hop style. I’m trying to reach the younger generation as well as my own. I hope they will take to it."

Shorty’s mind has been in the hip-hop genre for some time because of his friends and family, and he said Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer allows him explore new ideas.

"Bruce lets me go my own way a little bit and that’s why my music is a little different from the other artists who are on the label," Shorty said. "He always keeps me in check and asks, ‘Is it going to work, Shorty?’ But since I’ve been with him, I’ve never looked back."

When Shorty gets to Park City, he will first enjoy the cooler weather.

"It’s hot here in Texas," he said. "I don’t mean hot with two Ts, but hot with four Ts."

After basking in the lower temperatures, he plans to play a "smoking-hot" show.

"I’m going to play songs from all my albums and reach back to some covers," he said. "The covers help establish yourself with the audience. I try to satisfy everybody, and I know that’s impossible, but I do try."

Shorty is also keyed up to introduce his band, which includes bassist Chris Jones, drummer Daniel Gerass, keyboardist Malcolm Luken and guitarist David Abram.

"This is the first time I have a group that gets along," Shorty said. "They’re like little kids in a van, but they won’t let me do anything. When I try to pick up my suitcase, they tell me to get my hands off the handle and let them do it."

Grammy Award-nominated bluesman Guitar Shorty will play the Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 14 and 15, at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $30 and are available at http://www.parkcityshows.com or at the door. For more information, visit http://www.parkcityshows.com.


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