Little boy blues

Andrew Baxter Jr. may be a mere child, but the 11-year-old guitarist is no novelty

"He's so young, it's a novelty," marvels Jim Suhler. "His hands are so tiny, people think, 'Isn't that cute?' But he can really play, and he seems to be in it for the long haul. He never gets rattled, never a bead of sweat, always real poised."

Observing Andrew at home and onstage proves that his precocious love of the blues is generated from within. Andrew sets his own pace, and his parents merely accommodate; his folks insist they're not star parents, pushing their kid toward something he doesn't want. He keeps his musical equipment out of his bedroom and stashes it in a separate "blues room," and his clothes closet indicates a budding show-biz career: There are pairs of pointed cowboy boots adorned with musical notes. Andrew wants tips for all his boots.

This is where he dresses to the nines in blues regalia before hitting the clubs. His style is modeled on Jimmie Vaughan's retro R&B threads--the wardrobe of Mississippi sharecroppers who moved to Chicago in the 1940s, went electric, and dressed up Delta blues. It's a million miles from today's fifth-graders, who get tattoos and piercings and experiment with drugs. But the kids at school make fun of Andrew's hair, which he models equally on "Jimmie Vaughan and Ricky Ricardo." Every day, he slicks gel in his hair (favorite brand: Dippity Do).

Andrew's life of blues seems more about his natural feel for guitar, rather than suffering the thoughts of a Percy Mayfield or Howlin' Wolf. But the kid is not just into style; he's got substance. His music room is serious business: The walls are covered with Texas blues festival posters, most of which Andrew has attended. The first guitar he used for live performance is a three-quarter scale, child's-size Fender Duosonic; his first tube amp was a tweed Fender Blues Jr. Then his folks purchased a full-sized Silvertone hollow body for a hundred bucks; then came a blond Vibrolux amp, now fueled by his No. 1 ax, a man-sized '60s reissue Strat.

I grab the Strat, while Andrew takes his Guild X-170 hollow body. I start off the rhythm on Freddie King's "Side Tracked," letting Andrew play lead. He doesn't hit a wrong note or lose a moment's rhythm, even when I do. He doesn't add any flash or rock licks to his blues, he keeps it country--unlike anyone remotely his age. He plays behind his head for a moment, but does this only as a concession to showmanship.

"One night at Muddy Waters, [local bluesman] Shawn Pittman got me up there and said I could use anything [effects pedals]," Andrew recalls. "OK, we're doin' like a funk song in D, and I just pressed the wah-wah pedal and heard it snap on." According to reports, the kid was born to wah, and his dad got him a Vox wah-wah for his 11th birthday.

"Do some 'Soul Sister,'" dad says, and Andrew obliges.
"I don't wanna take a whole buncha time with the lead, because that would be rude," explains Andrew about playing tastefully behind vocalists. He begins his solos softly, when cued by a singer, then builds from the vocals.

When I ask him what his favorite records are, Andrew is unsure of what the obsolete word--record--means. "Tell him your favorite CDs," says his father. He lists Johnny Moeller's Return of the Funky Worm, released on the Dallas Blues Society label in 1996, along with anything by Mike Morgan and the Crawl. Morgan, whom his parents knew before Andrew was born, happens to be Andrew Baxter Jr.'s role model.

"Poor kid," Morgan says when told of this. "But he's a great little kid. I wish I woulda been born with talent and a work ethic like that. If he keeps goin'..." Morgan's voice tails off, hinting at the obvious.

I first saw Andrew play when he was ushered onstage at Poor David's with Anson and the Rockets. Weeks later, he sat in with Little Charlie and the Nightcats. How did a little boy manage to land onstage with Charlie Baty, a 45-year-old California-based guitarist on Alligator Records who had never heard--or heard of--him?

"I played Little Charlie's guitar during break," explains Andrew matter-of-factly.

"They were talking shop, and Charlie Baty saw those little fingers working," says his father. "He could tell Andrew was good."

The Baxters have attended the last four Greater Southwest Guitar Shows, and event producer Mark Pollock booked Andrew as a feature attraction for next year. This year, the Southwest Blues newspaper invited him to sit at their booth and play. Andrew brought his little tweed amp, and blues senior Joe Jonas accompanied him on harmonica. Andrew Sr. recalls: "This guy comes over, and goes, 'Hey, your kid is good; he's got good timing. C'mere, you need to talk to me.'"

Jimmy Triggs, a Nashville luthier, approached the Baxters about custom-building a guitar for the kid. "I go, 'How much is this gonna cost us?'" dad says. "He goes, 'No, I wanna build you one.'" The only thing Andrew's asked for specifically was a fat neck. He also wants a Tele, a good slide guitar, and a red Brian Setzer 6120 model Gretsch with the dice volume knobs (the size of which would dwarf him). He keeps a poster of it in his music room.

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