Little boy blues

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.

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Josh Alan Friedman