Friday Night with Guitar George: Heyward & Blind Joe Reynolds

Welcome to the Jason Heyward/Blind Joe Reynolds edition of Friday Night With Guitar George. Wait—what does a twenty-first century professional ballplayer have to do with a Depression-era Mississippi Delta musician?  And why are we discussing baseball in the music section anyway?  Remember, Guitar George is but one part of a website called BRAVES General Store, in the context of which all #content  is couched. So, stay with me.

At 12:23pm Monday afternoon I received a text that bore some disturbing news. At first I thought hoped the texter had fallen prey to an internet hoax, so I searched the web to check the veracity of the story and found to my chagrin that it was true: the Atlanta Braves had traded Gold Glove right-fielder Jason Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals in return for a signed baseball card of Bob Uecker, a fungo bat, a sack of practice balls, and a box of sunflower seeds. Nice work, Mr. Interim GM. Actually, the deal was Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden for pitchers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. I mean no disrespect to Miller and Jenkins, and I truly hope that they turn out to be solid additions to the Atlanta staff. But for many of us, this trade came as a great shock.

Jason Heyward is a well-liked, easy-to-root-for “good guy” who looked so impressive in a white jersey emblazoned with a red tomahawk that many believed he was developing into a “face-of-the-franchise” type personality in the ATL. Admittedly, there has been a lively ongoing debate among Braves fans concerning the less than torrid offensive numbers produced by Heyward, and to what extent these were offset by Jason’s phenomenal defense and exceptional base running skills, not to mention his “intangibles”: likeable guy, professional no-nonsense demeanor, good work ethic, mature presence in the locker room, having an errant fastball destroy one side of his face and returning to the lineup the next day, etc. Ok, it was a few weeks later, but you get the picture. When B.J. Upton makes a great catch in center field do we tweet each other, text each other, post things on Facebook?  No. We do not. But when J Hey makes a great catch, we blow each other’s phones up, right?  By the end of the game we have gifs of the play all over Facebook and YouTube. Even when the Braves as a team were struggling, we still watched the games partly just to admire the way Jason went about his business on the field. There is just something about Jason that we love. Maybe something about his character. Of course I know that likability and character don’t win ball games, but often the character of individuals reflects the values of an organization. And maybe we Braves fans naively viewed Jason as a continuation of a pattern of personnel that we wistfully traced backwards in our minds from Jason to Chipper to Pendleton to Bobby to Murph and allowed ourselves to believe that admirable human qualities somehow enhance raw athletic skills.

Monday afternoon, in the wake of the shocking news, our own srbrown bravely took upon himself the unenviable task of quickly posting on BGS an essay that would help those of us wailing and gnashing our teeth to set aside our emotions for a minute and look objectively at the trade from a broad, long-term fiscal and sabermetric perspective. Stephen presented his case quite admirably, but it didn’t remove the sting. Intellectually, I understand the trade. Emotionally, I feel hurt and betrayed. And unfortunately for me on a personal level, this was not the first time in the past few weeks that I suddenly and unexpectedly felt betrayed by an organization that I had trusted and respected for years. Thus, as I am wont to do in the face of emotional distress, I sought to assuage my frustration over the Heyward trade by turning to some heavy blues guitar. I needed something meaty and gritty, like Stevie Ray’s “Voodoo Chile” or Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying”, maybe Skynyrd’s “Gimme Back My Bullets”. Fortunately, I had something close at hand that worked perfectly—just recently I had saved a link to a performance that looked like a good candidate for FNWGG: lefty guitarist Doyle Bramhall performing “Outside Woman Blues”, originally recorded in 1929 by Blind Joe Reynolds and covered numerous times, most notably by Eric Clapton on Cream’s 1967 classic Disraeli Gears.

Doyle Bramhall is one of those guys whose name is not widely known but should be. Son of a successful blues drummer in Austin Texas, Doyle grew up friends with Jimmie Vaughn and Stevie Ray Vaughn, so it is no surprise that Doyle took up playing the guitar. Bramhall’s resume includes touring with Roger Waters, recording and performing as a solo artist and with the band Arc Angels, producing albums by Willie Nelson and Cheryl Crow, and most impressively, touring and recording with the aforementioned Eric Clapton, at whose Crossroads Guitar Festival this video was taken. There are other videos of Bramhall on YouTube that are more theatrical and less grainy, but as I did last week, I ended up choosing a video that exudes a certain raw energy, both in the song itself and in the musician’s performance thereof.

The life of the troubled but gifted Blind Joe Reynolds is one of the strangest sagas in the history of music, replete with triumph and tragedy and contradictions. He might have been born in Louisiana in 1904, but other sources show that he was born in Arkansas in 1900. There is widespread consensus that Reynolds was not his real last name, yet there is widespread disagreement as to what his true birth name really was. Some say it was Leonard, others say Sheppard, some insist it was Madison. Nobody claims to be certain as to how many wives Joe had, how many children he fathered, or how much time he spent in prison. One thing we do know about Joe is how he lost his sight. Joe was not born blind. He was hit in the face by a shotgun blast during an argument. He survived the incident, but lost both of his eyes. Joe didn’t let that deter him from continuing to sing the blues and play bottleneck guitar. If Jason Heyward took a blast in the face from a shotgun, he would be back in the lineup the next day, standing confidently in the batter’s box, and patrolling right field with swift feet, sure hands, and easygoing grace.

Such were the thoughts that ran through my mind Monday afternoon as I played that smoldering performance by Doyle Bramhall. Then played it again. And again. After hearing me play this video for about the fifteenth time, Jack the Schnauzer waddled into the room, looked up at me, and said “What the hell?”  So I told him about the Heyward trade. He did not take it well. For the rest of the day, Jack the Schnauzer moped around the house mired in a deep funk. Full of angst. Inconsolable. For Jack too is a big fan of Jay Hey. Because dogs are good judges of CHARACTER.


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