Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado
She lies there, black and beautiful, graceful under well-placed, dancing rhinestones, inviting the caress of my nimble hands. I pull her tightly to me with well-placed leather straps and feel the low moans begin to emanate from deep within her being, soon turning to a throaty tremolo as I run my fevered fingers up and down her length.
“What do you think one of those things weighs?” he asked.
“Geezus, I don’t know, around 30 pounds, just a little less than a good saddle,” came my casual reply. “When you’re playing for a kick-ass wedding, out in the hot sun with one strapped to your chest for three or four hours, they weigh a lot more, especially if you’ve been drinking beer.”
Rhinestone looks are paramount, but not many really wonder what a musical instrument weighs unless we’re talking about accordions, those musical devices that draw mixed references to earplugs and dancing in the same breath. Nothing can fire up a crowd quicker than a fast-paced accordion – or kill a crowd if it’s played too slowly.
My buddy Buck Deane got me into playing one of the damned things mostly because they’re portable and can be thrown in the back of a pickup truck almost as easily as a well-tuned guitar. Back in the day, Buck and I traveled all over hell together, and packing a piano around wasn’t feasible, but an accordion was. The good thing about it, I reckon, is that Buck still talks to me.
We played a lot of dances, happy hours, jam sessions and barbecues, but without a doubt, we headlined at Tommy and Carolyn Moore’s house more often than not, the point being that if not our best fans, Tommy and Carolyn were our most tolerant. Wherever we went, Buck always drew a crowd; I was always learning.
Word got out in that way it sometimes does, and the next thing I knew, a guy was beating on my door, wanting me to play at the National Accordion Championships, or some such thing, up in Wyoming. Are you kidding me? Having nothing better to do, I threw a few licks his way, and he seemed impressed. Then I handed him my accordion and said, “Here – show me how a champ does it.” I’m still wondering why they thought I’d make a good contender.
With increased consistency, my phone started ringing with invitations to backyard get-togethers, weddings and general craziness, parties that always sounded like the one you couldn’t afford to miss. Many of them ended with the same admonition: “Don’t forget to bring your accordion.” Huh? My prices went up.
Years later, I was having a conversation with the internationally renowned boogie-woogie piano player Caroline Dahl, who, on some of her recordings, laces the underside of her incredibly full keyboard extravaganzas with a harmonizing accordion riff. “Oh, man,” I said. “I had to quit playing the accordion. Everybody in town wanted me to drag the thing along to this party or that, and my smile was getting a little run-down.” To which she laughingly replied, “You lucky dog. It’s different where I hang out; if I take mine to a gig, people threaten to shoot me.”
Truly, other than a memorial service or two and a performance at the Aspen Community Church last fall, I haven’t touched my accordion in at least 15 years, probably more like 20. There’s an old one stashed up at the cow camp just in case the ghosts of polka kings past infiltrate my being.
Hildur Anderson, the most renowned accordion player in recent collective memory, was my mentor in all things accordion for a period in the 1970s. She’s the one who told me to just play it without making all those faces and not to be intimidated by the toughness of the music.
Again in the ’70s, a couple of record producers heard my style and commented that such a sound might fit well with some of the stuff they were recording. Today, if you listen carefully, accordion accompaniment can be heard in the background of many hit tunes. You can thank yours truly.
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