The Music Man

I took piano lessons from the ages of five-years-old to 16-years-old. I learned about all the classical composers. I was taught music theory, and I became skilled enough to sight read just about any piece of sheet music put in front of me. Impressive, right? Wrong. At the time, I absolutely loathed the piano and really wanted nothing to do with any of it. There were a few problems that hindered my musical education; all brought about by me. First, I was not much on practicing. I would do basically anything I could to get out of sitting down at the piano and honing my craft. Second, I wasn’t interested in playing Mozart and Tchaikovsky. I liked the way Ray Charles played those 88 keys much more. But more than either of those things, the reason that piano was a thorn in my young side was because every May, I had to play in a piano recital. 

My teacher averaged about 30 students, so there were a lot of friends and family members present at those recitals. I was scared to death to play in front of an audience. Why? I was not blessed with the gift of playing by ear. I had to rely completely on my memorized music to get me by. In my mind, if I messed up, I could not cover. Of all the fears in the world, that one seems so small, but it was huge to me at the time. In fact, it was so huge that it made me physically ill before every single recital. My recitals were held in the sanctuary of my home church, and let me just say, no human being has ever vomited more in the bathroom of First Baptist Church Atlanta than yours truly. Before every recital, I would make at least one trip to that bathroom to purge my soul and my stomach contents over the fear that I was going to mess up and not be able to depend on my musical ear to save the song. 

Since those days, I have always admired musicians who have been given the ability to play by ear. For them, no sheet music is needed. They just play. I don’t understand how they just know that a song is in a certain key and automatically know what notes are going to sound good when they play them. I believe a person is born with that gift or not. 

Enter Mr. Phil Cox. Every Sunday, I sit in the pews of Cross Creek Cowboy Church and watch this quiet guitar man play his instrument. He never has to have printed music in front of him in order to play. He just plays what he hears, and he can play any style of music out there. He is a natural. I don’t even think a person has to be interested in music to know that this man was born with a ton of raw talent. Mr. Cox does not play in a flashy, over-the-top, Keith Richards sort of way, but his musical gift is obvious and beautiful.

Phil Cox was born seventy years ago in Red Hill, a community just north of Linden, Texas. He says in those days, the biggest social events in many small towns were often held at community centers. His whole family, along with the rest of Red Hill, would routinely attend the local community center where the “old timers” would play and sing. Cox says the townspeople would cover everything from gospel songs to Hank Williams and he liked it all. He was about twelve years old when his dad noticed his son’s keen interest in the music being played. So, the elder Mr. Cox ordered his first guitar out of a Montgomery Ward catalog. Cox says he remembers taking that guitar to the community center, where the performers would teach him basic chords and how to strum his new stringed instrument. He says he was instantly smitten with the guitar and couldn’t get enough.

Cox will be the first to tell you he believes his ear for music to be a direct gift from above. He is very thankful for that gift because there was no money for guitar lessons when he was young, nor was there modern technology that would have assisted in tuning a guitar. He depended on his ear to tune his guitar, which is something he does to this day. Cox says that his brother had a record player and would play little snippets of songs, lift the needle, and let him figure out how to play what he just heard. That is the way he built his repertoire of songs, the first being “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” He blushed and said, “I ought not to tell you that,” Yes sir, you should. To me, that is the good stuff.

As Cox’s talent progressed, his dad upgraded his guitar to a Fender Mustang electric guitar. That’s when Cox’s musical talent really soared. He and his cousins, who had also been schooled by the old timers at the Red Hill Community Center, formed a band and began playing at parties and other community centers. He says they tried to model their sound after a famous band of that era, The Ventures, who sang songs like “Wipe Out” and the theme song for Hawaii 5-0. Cox says it wasn’t so much the lyrics to The Ventures’ songs that interested his young band, but that they were heavy on the instrumentation. That’s what tickled his ear. He says they were pretty good for a group of unassuming, small-town boys that just enjoyed playing music. Cox also said that back in the day, he used to get nervous playing in front of people, but then he realized, “That’s what a good band is for.”

Of course, teenagers became young men and life carried the group in different directions, including the military, jobs, kids, etc. Through it all, Cox never lost his love for music or his ear for playing. He says he’s played in all sorts of places, some better than others, but he now prefers to play in the places where it all started. He displays his talent at his local community center and at a senior citizens’ center, but every Sunday, you’ll find him using his gift for the One who blessed him with it. He is a very unpretentious man and gives total credit to the worship team members who join him in playing music at church and says he depends on their musical abilities. Cox got very serious and shared, “If somebody walks the aisle and makes a decision for the Lord while I’m playing my guitar for the Him, then I’ve used my gift well. To me, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

George Harrison of The Beatles once said, “I’m only myself when I have a guitar in my hand.” I get the feeling that Mr. Phil Cox is a very well-rounded man who is full of wisdom, gained from humble beginnings, hard work, and life experience. Unlike George Harrison, Cox is probably always himself in the presence of family and friends, but he says, when life wears him down, he takes out the Fender Mustang his daddy gave him all those years ago and plays his troubles away. I want him to bring that old Fender to church and play it one Sunday. Maybe he’ll play his favorite song, “Amazing Grace,” with that musical ear I envy. Or maybe he’ll bust out with a little “Georgia on My Mind” in the middle of Sunday service. I think even God & Ray Charles would be okay with that.


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