Redd Volkaert – Show and Tele
Redd Volkaert sure is fond of his Telecaster. The 43-year-old Vancouver native has kept his thick yet surprisingly nimble fingers around that type of guitar almost exclusively since he first began playing as a teenager back in British Columbia. Three decades later, he’s got no plans to switch.
“I’ve got other guitars,” the newly transplanted Austin resident explains, “and I’ll play ’em for a night at a time, but then I’ll miss my Tele.”
And he’s not talking about just any old Telecaster, of course. His favorite is a well-worn 1953 model he’s had for years. It’s not exactly a centerfold showpiece: “the neck’s wore out, it looks like a rotton banana on the front, all the paint’s gone.” But, he says fondly, “It feels great, and it’s always sounded good. It’s just like an old Chevy — it’s the 283 of the guitars, you know, it just won’t die.”
The same kind of durability marks Volkaert’s career. You’d be hard-pressed to find a guitarist who’s logged as many bar-band hours, worked as many different stages — from small-town Alberta to the Grand Ole Opry — and maintained as robust an enthusiasm at every step. In conversation, he seems thrilled to just talk about playing; and listening to his new HighTone disc No Stranger To A Tele, it’s immediately clear he has a feel for the instrument that few ever achieve.
It’s no wonder Merle Haggard tapped Volkaert as his lead guitarist four years ago. “He’s really a good player for me,” Haggard said during an interview last fall. “He fits my music.”
The 14 tracks on No Stranger To A Tele (eight of them instrumentals, seven penned by Volkaert) whip from steel-infused honky-tonk (“Diminishing Flames”, a Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant tribute that showcases longtime Haggard steel man Norm Hamlet) to Ventures-style rock ‘n’ roll (“Chee-Z”). It’s a playful record, shifting from country to jazz to ’70s rock riffs with confidence and gusto.
“I like twisting things around that way, putting parts together,” he says. “To me, that’s as much a part of playing as anything, is having fun with it.”
Volkaert grew up on classic honky-tonk and blues. Sure, he says, he listened to Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, but his father — a guitarist himself who loved classic R&B — helped him dig deeper. “He turned me onto Jimmy Bryant, and I was like, ‘Man! I never heard nothing like that!'”
Both Volkaert’s parents supported his guitar-playing ambitions. It was with his dad, in fact, that 11-year-old Redd first took the professional stage — tucked behind a looming bass amp, playing rhythm in a local strip club. Watching the dancers move, Redd laughs, “really might have been the deep seed that made me want to play!”
After leaving home, Volkaert spent about eight years playing in a trio in Alberta, where, like Bakersfield a decade or two earlier, an oil boom had produced a seemingly endless supply of venues. “Every little town had two hotels with two bars — one was rock and one country. Of course we didn’t play the fancy clubs, it was all just oilrigger bars, stumpy little places. Didn’t matter to me, work’s work and I get to play.”
His sights, though, were always set on Nashville. “I was aware of the Bakersfield thing,” he acknowledges, “but when I was a teenager, I listened to Chet Atkins and Grady Martin, the guys who played on the Nashville records, and I was like, ‘Wow! That’s the shit, that’s the tone, that’s the stuff. I need to go there.'”
He worked his way there slowly, spending several years in California, playing in local bands from Redding to Santa Cruz to Los Angeles. “I was in L.A. I think 4 years. I played all the time — afternoons, pool parties, birthday parties — and I met piles of people,” he recalls.
One of them was honky-tonker Dale Watson, who was just getting started at the time. The two became fast friends and played together often. Years later, Watson hired Volkaert to play on his 1997 album I Hate These Songs.
It was through Watson, inadvertently, that HighTone became interested in Volkaert. Between sessions for Watson’s album, the band played some local bar gigs; HighTone’s Bruce Bromberg showed up at one and was immediately taken with Volkaert’s playing.
“He asked if I was interested in making a record, and I told him no — I didn’t know anything about his label other than Dale was on it. He said, ‘Why not?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘this is Nashville, I’m fat and short and bald, and getting older, and goofy looking, and that don’t sell records. You ought to know that.'”
Several months of back-and-forth arguments later, Volkaert was signed — and he’d even agreed to sing a half-dozen songs, which required further arm-twisting (“I hate my voice,” he says). He’s certainly no Randy Travis, but on No Stranger To A Tele, his thick baritone is plenty serviceable, projecting a burly Dave Dudleyish quality on Wynn Stewart’s “Big Big Love” and, on Johnny Bush’s “Conscience Turn Your Back”, upping the guilt-ridden angst (he even toys with Bush’s trademark vibrato).
Funny how good things sometimes happen all at once. Shortly after HighTone released his debut disc, Telewacker, Volkaert earned his spot in the Strangers.
“I knew a bunch of guys in the band from playing club gigs and stuff around Nashville,” he says. “So when Joe [Manuel] left, I guess Merle said to them, ‘Who do you want to get?’ And five out of eight said me.”
He pauses. “I’m getting even with the other three.”