Most people don't know about the harmonica player. Long gone are the days when a first-rate blues harp player could be the star draw of a band. Today it's an increasingly rare art form, its practitioners content to take a side role in their band or may even be a guest musician sitting in. Stumble through the door of Adair's Saloon or The Free Man on any given night of the week, and chances are you'll find Jack Gulledge doing just that, a handful of harmonicas slung over his shoulder in a custom-made, brown leather strap.
Gulledge, 76, a lawyer and the husband of local karaoke maven Karaoke Carmen, sits in with bands like Sugarfoote & Company around Deep Ellum. He's adorned each night by a harmonica holster of his own special design, consisting of an arsenal of 16 harmonicas, all in different keys, as well as a 35-foot microphone cord, as he insists that harmonica players are usually "relegated to the hinterland of the stage."
"Harmonica is just not a welcome instrument in most bands," admits Gulledge. "Harmonica is a perfume instrument: too much of it would make anybody ill." He's frank about the fact that tries his best not to be overbearing: "People like what I don't do more than they like what I do, because I don't overburden. I try not to, and a little harmonica goes a long way in a band."
It is this mantra that perhaps gets applied to Gulledge's humble and rewarding existence here in North Texas. His little-known presence has gone a long way. He doesn't hold his story in high regard, seemingly having little interest in the characteristics that make him such an interesting addition to the thread of Dallas' local music. As he takes modest bites of his now room temperature burger, he pauses to reflect on his performances here in one of Deep Ellum's oldest establishments.
"I just sit in, I don't get paid. You understand, they don't have any money to pay me," says Gulledge. "It helps me keep young. Or at least think I'm young, and if it helps them, so be it."
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Gulledge is no stranger to helping and representing his fellow musicians. He has been practicing law in Dallas since 1970, and has devoted much of his time to providing a helping hand to aspiring artists wanting to launch their careers and land record deals.
"I'm semi-retired. I still do it, I represent people," explains Gulledge. "I have a bunch of clients that are struggling. Nearly everybody in music is struggling right now."
Gulledge has a passion for providing the stepping stones to success for local talents. He's represented such notable artists as honky-tonk extraordinaire Gary Stewart, who put a face to rich vibrato-laden, outlaw country music up until his death in 2003. He's also currently representing Tommy Irvin, whose latest album, Texas Weather, was released late last year.
However, Gulledge expresses little interest in pursuing any musical ventures of his own. He comes from a time when "making it big" still retained the notion of a highly romanticized dream, before the internet made it almost accessible for everyone. He experienced a time when Dallas was laying the foundation of its economy in oil, insurance and banking rather than music and entertainment. Back then the buildings and highways even went by different names.
His connection to the fluctuating Dallas music scene is rooted in the business side of things, and only pursues his blues harp playing as a hobby, performing in these tiny pockets of North Texas flavor such as Adair's Saloon. He has "played through the wall" on his harmonica since he was in high school, but has been playing publicly since the early '70s. He cut his teeth, however, in the country musical capitol of the world, Nashville.
"I went to Nashville and I recorded a couple of songs that I had written up there, and got on Bullet Records," says Gulledge. "Now Bullet Records is gone, but Bullet was an independent label back in the '40s that was a big label and it had a couple of No. 1 hits." Already by that time, however, Gulledge was no young up-and-comer. "That was 25 years ago, and I was too old for Nashville then. But you're never too old for Texas."
Gulledge is never too old for anything. Despite struggling with arthritis and still recovering from back surgery, his gumption and general sense of get-up-and-go remain strong. He was never too old for marriage either, as it was only about 10 years ago that he met his current wife, known to most as Karaoke Carmen.
"She does the talking, and I do the walking on our karaoke business," says Gulledge. "She can't do any heavy work -- can't do any work really, the physical work. So I do the work, and she does all the PR work, she's very good at it."
A well-known fixture among Dallas' karaoke circuit, Carmen just re-located her Sunday night show from The Goat to Adair's. "She's 62 years old, and she just got her master's degree in psychology. She just got her license for counseling," Gulledge says. He adds with a chuckle, "I didn't know I married a co-ed."
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Gulledge plays what's commonly known as second position harmonica. It has also been referred to as "blues harp," "draw harp" and "suck harp," and is the fourth family of any one key which allows for more flexibility within said key. "Harmonica is probably the easiest instrument to have fun with, but one of the most difficult to get accomplished with," explains Gulledge.
He insists that after 60 years of playing harmonica, he'll never reach the level he desires. He started learning when he was 16 or 17, and has no intention of slowing down. "I still have plans, you know, we all do," he says.
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