Play it by ear


I have been a musician for most of my life. I started playing piano, by ear, when I was about 11. Granted, at first, it was, well, terrible. My left and right hands didn’t want to work together. Fortunately, I had help from my uncle Gary “Tuff” Sutton. He kept me from sounding like someone had dumped a couple of wild cats on the keys whenever I started to play. Eventually, I got better. So much so that once upon a time, my music led me to a decision that could have changed my life forever.

I’ve had a lot of unique opportunities I had in my life, some relatively common, others extraordinary. But when I was a teenager, some friend of the family knew one of the leaders of a local country band that’d mad their way to Nashville to some tune of success.

One Sunday afternoon, the band was in town and our family friend asked if I would like to come play with them. We went to someone’s house, though I have no memory of whose, and I sat in with the group, electronic piano in tow. Most of it were the usual three-chord country riffs, which I caught onto quickly. After a while, one of the band members, presumably the leader, spoke privately to my parents. Afterward, I was asked if I’d like to go on tour with the band for the summer. That was, in a word, surprising.

I was only 14, and that was a lot to take in for a kid who’d never ventured much past the boundaries of his family farm without his parents. I couldn’t even comprehend what a road tour might entail. Why me? There must certainly be more qualified musicians available.

As it turned out, it wasn’t just my musical ability that seemed of value. It was also because I was so young, appeared even younger, and I was self-taught. These were all very marketable traits. So, we were asked to think it over.

And that’s what I did – I thought about it, so much that I didn’t sleep for several days. What about school? My family? College? What happens if they become some huge success? (Which they eventually did, and no, I’m not telling you who it was). What would become of my education or whatever “normal” was in my life? I’d heard the tall tales of the successful road that leads to ruin.

My parents, though extremely cautious, seemed surprisingly supportive of whatever decision I would make. After all, I’d be well paid, and we could use the money for my college fund. At that point, it didn’t exist, so anything was a help. Still, after days of consideration, and hours of soul searching, I respectfully turned down the job.

In the end, I’m glad I didn’t go, but I never gave up my music. I kept playing piano in restaurants, events, and weddings. I paid for college in part by performing and even released a CD in the 90s. For the last 27 years, I’ve been lucky enough to perform behind the keyboard with my family band, “The Brothers & Co.” That was always enough for me. Still, sometimes, I still think about what might have been. Not because I regret my decision, but how different my life would have been.

Later, I got a taste of what that life might have been like when I was performing in variety shows around the country through the late 1990s and early 2000s. From Las Vegas to California, Virginia to South Dakota, I’ve “cracked my whip” all over our amazing country. But that’s another story entirely.

I miss those days sometimes, travel and new places, the applause, stage, lights, signing autographs, all of that. Eventually, I gave that up too so I could look after my parents. One choice, I can assure you that’s without a single regret.

The moral of the story is simple. Our decisions determine our future, for better or worse, and you have to choose how you want your life to be. One more thing, that band, although very successful, broke up after only a few short years.

Gery Deer is a Greene County resident and columnist. He can be reached at

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