Little boy blues

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

Andrew Baxter Sr. is a distribution manager for a computer warehouse, and his wife, Angela, is a travel agent; theirs is a happy, healthy home in the middle of middle-class suburbia, deep in the heart of Carrollton. They are parents of two clean-cut kids any parent would proudly claim: 14-year-old Morgan and 11-year-old Andrew Jr., boys who are the picture of fresh-scrubbed adolescence. Andrew, for instance, adores Nintendo and basketball, and a trip to his bedroom reveals shelves filled with Beanie Babies, Legos, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Donald Duck dolls, and a picture of his girlfriend; among his favorite TV shows are such kiddie fare as Family Matters, Step by Step, and Hangin' With Mr. Cooper. He's suburban-normal, right down to the guitar his parents bought for him awhile back; Junior's just another kid whiling away the hours by making a little music and waking up the neighborhood.

But he's also much more than that: At age 11, Andrew Baxter Jr. is a guitar-picker whose control, timing, and taste make him an impressive blues musician. The fact that he just turned 11 is what gets people to watch; the fact that he can play all hell out of his instrument is what makes them listen.

Already, the fifth-grader, not yet five feet tall, has been regularly showcasing at blues festivals and weekly jams. Once a month, he shows up at the Blue Mule in the West End and plays with the Hash Brown Band--it's a paying gig--and only a few days ago, he was on stage at the Hole in the Wall on Harry Hines, fronting his own band for the first time. He's a pint-sized star: In order to accommodate nightly requests for autographs, Andrew Sr.--father, roadie--ordered a hundred 8-by-10s, which he sells for $5; the proceeds funnel into Andrew Jr's. music fund. (Only five are left at the moment.) The music fund defrays maintenance costs for five stage guitars, two blues amps, strings, repairs, and customized picks bearing the Andrew Baxter Jr. name.

Andrew Sr. says he's in no particular rush to see his boy turn pro, but already music-gear industry sharks are circling, and would like his endorsement early. A Nashville guitar company is building him an instrument from scratch. D'Aquisto Strings, in New York, sent a dozen sets and a letter saying they'd love to have Andrew "join our team of endorsers." The kid has yet to write his first song. But the American public's obsession with baseball-card celebrities strikes nightly when the Baxters visit clubs.

Drunks plunge napkins or matchbooks before him, requesting an autograph with today's date, so they can prove they knew him when. "Sometimes they spit when they talk," complains Andrew of such late-night demands, in the wee hours before he must be in school.

It would be easy to dismiss Andrew as just another kiddie musical sensation, the blues version of LeAnn Rimes or Radish's Ben Kweller--kids who get on stage before their voices even break, who make music without yet knowing how all the pieces fit together. His parents avoid using the term "child prodigy" when referring to Andrew; they don't want to burden him with such expectations. Besides, can there even be such a thing as a child prodigy of the blues?

Dallas-based blues artist Lucky Peterson, with whom Andrew recently played at Blue Cat Blues, was once such a "prodigy," appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show when he was Andrew's age; still, it took years before Peterson escaped the novelty tag. Little Stevie Wonder was a child prodigy, of course. But is Andrew one? Brian "Hash Brown" Calway, who worked for Andrew Sr. a decade ago, thinks so. "He plays as well as guys in their 20s, with tons of room to grow," says Calway. "He's a hard worker. I've given him a couple of lessons. Then he goes home and woodsheds."

Andrew Jr. clears his plate at the family dinner table; it's all so Leave It to Beaver. He plays solitaire, shuffling cards. He's a picker, not a talker, and looks to his father as his spokesman. Andrew Sr. fetches their 1998 Charley's Guitar Shop calendar, which serves as a personal diary. During a "Young Gun Shoot-Out" at the Tandy Center in Fort Worth, Andrew "took the cake," his father says, handily gunning down fellow adolescent guitarists. Other boys fell silent after their solos; Andrew was the only kid who could also play rhythm.

Other highlights read like an education in the blues: Blues impresario and ex-pro-wrestling champ Armand Hussein invited him to attend the East Texas Pinetop Blues Festival, where he sat in with Tutu Jones. Hussein drove Junior around in a golf cart and introduced him to the likes of Bobby Blue Bland and the guys who hang out at R.L. Griffin's, the South Dallas blues institution where only the strong survive. "They invited us to their club," dad says.

Andrew met Lou Ann Barton at the Texas Independence Day Festival at Sons of Hermann Hall last year, and Antone's house guitarist Derrick O'Brien gave him his number; Lou Ann requested he learn "It's Raining" before coming to Austin to sit in. He met Buddy Miles last year at the Robert Ealey Blues Festival in Fort Worth and now sits in with Ealey every three months. The Baxters also attended the First Annual Blind Lemon Jefferson Festival in Wortham, Texas, where Andrew sat in with family friends Jim Suhler and Monkey Beat, then played a local juke joint that night. "They turned it up to eight and just blew that little shack down," recalls Andrew Sr., never a guitar player himself.

"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.

Andrew Sr. worked at the original Stubbs Barbecue in Lubbock in the 1970s, the region's premiere blues club. The Baxters have a photo of 3-year-old Andrew onstage with guitar at the short-lived Dallas Stubbs on Greenville Avenue ("I had 40 percent of nothin' of that," says Andrew Sr.). He's onstage with Jim Suhler, Mike Morgan, Lee McBee, and Doyle Bramhall Sr. Andrew holds a real guitar, but was playing air guitar. "Picking up the rhythms and the grooves," his dad says. His maternal grandfather taught Andrew the riff from "Secret Agent Man," the first lick for millions of kids.

A collection of Andrew Sr.'s LPs sits on a top shelf in the music room, and it includes albums by the likes of the Palladins (with whom Andrew recently posed for pictures backstage at the Sons of Hermann), the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Freddie King, George Thorogood, Anson Funderburgh, Marcia Ball, Angela Strehli, and Roomful of Blues. "All the blacks are down there," Andrew Jr. points out, and sure enough, segregated on the bottom shelf is the deep stuff: Willie Dixon, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, T-Bone Walker, Albert King, Junior Wells, Albert Collins. The kid practices against these records, and next wants to learn "Okie Dokie Stomp" from a Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown album.

"Play some 'Snatch It Back and Hold It,'" says Andrew Sr., not unlike father goading his high school football-star son. "How 'bout some 'My Babe Don't Stand No Cheatin?'" Andrew obliges with each of these blues motifs. He's played two talent shows at Polser Elementary School, his Carrollton school, and one "pancake breakfast." He performed "Johnny B. Goode" and "Kansas City" with the school principal, Mr. Wagner, on rhythm guitar, and another fifth-grader on drums. The parents loved it. But not one friend or peer in Andrew's fifth-grade class shares his interest in blues. They prefer Marilyn Manson.

"[Manson] sucks," Andrew says with a laugh. "I think he's stupid. Some people at school say I show off, playing guitar." He shrugs, but this doesn't give him any pause. He can think of only one girl who likes his playing. Andrew will be joining the school orchestra next year, tackling upright bass.

Angela Baxter tells of a time 10 years ago, when her son was three weeks old. They were in Little Rock, Arkansas, visiting her family, and the Stevie Ray Vaughan bus was in town. Since the Baxters knew Double Trouble bassist Tommy Shannon from their days at Stubbs, they were invited in. Angela recalls Vaughan holding little Andrew and giving him a small kiss on the cheek. To her, it was an omen.

Andrew's first album is not even a dream, considering he's yet to write a whole song. Once, his big brother was in the hospital for a few days, and his father suggested he go to his room and write something to express how bad he felt about seeing his brother lying in bed. But Andrew wasn't ready, and he won't be for a while. So father and son continue to hit the clubs every so often, at least two or three a night. The clubs never charge cover.

"We don't go out for beers," Andrew Sr. says, but of course. "He goes to hear music, that's the sole purpose. All the guitarists in town give him a chance. They know he's not gonna hog the stage or his head's not gonna pop. I was his caretaker first, now I'm his roadie. I'll make sure his amp is on, he's tuned up. But it's between him and the folks onstage. A lot of people at the jams request Andrew. If he likes who's playin', if he's comfortable, he'll say yeah, and if he doesn't, he'll tell ya, 'I don't wanna play with 'em."

"There's this bass player who looks like a bulldog," Junior explains. "He smells...But it doesn't bother me, except when they spit in my face," he says, talking about the drunken fans who can't believe a sound so big comes out of a child so small. "They ask, 'Are you gonna be the next Jimmie Ray Vaughan?'"

"There ain't no rush," his father insists. Indeed, Andrew Baxter Jr. is one bluesman--one blueschild--who has all the time in the world.

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