Carlton Leatherwood's Big Bend people: Doug Scharnberg, the extraordinary guitar man
Editor’s note: Veteran Texas writer and editor Carlton Leatherwood writes weekly for the Daily Planet about the people of the Big Bend.
By Carlton Leatherwood
Doug Scharnberg sings a different tune, in a different era.
On Sunday mornings, he wakes you up slowly at the Starlight Theatre in Terlingua, where quiet songs and coffee harmonize with the desert.
He is a throwback to the swing music of the 1930s, has been playing guitar seriously for 40 years, and there is nothing else like it in all the Big Bend.
Except for practical matters, that is all you need to know to end the weekend on a high note.
Practically speaking: The tourist season is fast ending and musicians, river guides and others who dodge the heat are migrating north to cooler climes. This Sunday may be the last to listen to Scharnberg, who has gigs lined up in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. The musical brunch starts at 11 a.m. and continues for three hours.
Last Sunday, my party of three ate chicken fried steak with eggs, a bagel with salmon spread and a hot sandwich. These entrees came with coffee, a fruit cup and donut holes for $9.95, which is about the best you can do these days. Bloody Marys and other drinks were $2.50.
Now, the music and the entertainer.
"Some of the songs I have been playing for 25 or 30 years," Scharnberg said. "Today Is Mine" and "Vincent," on his CD, are two of those. "If you don't play them on a regular basis, you will forget them because they are so complex." He doesn't do "Today Is Mine" on a busy night gig because it is kind of mellow, kind of contemplative, introspective.
He said he was very fortunate to have exceptionally talented swing-era teachers at a school for professional guitarists in Hollywood back in 1984. A lot of the techniques that he uses on guitar on a regular basis now were just starting to appear when he recorded the CD five years ago. His teachers had told him his learning would really start to show in 25 years or so. And at age 55, that time is now.
"When I was a young teenager, I had already got really interested in swing music," he said. "A lot of my heroes were still around in the '70s, but by the '80s a lot of them were gone."
His guitar heroes include Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed and Merle Travis, who were all finger-style guitarists. He adopted their style by age 17 with the Travis and Atkins songs. A couple of years later, he was playing the Reed tunes. "He wrote out instrumentals which are a challenge to play," Scharnberg explained. "The first one I learned took me about three months. "Today Is Mine" is one of his songs."
Because it is a little bit quieter on Sunday mornings, he plays the more harmonically complex, the slower songs, the ballads. "Those songs that are so subtle," he said, "that's when I bring them out. Those are the ones that I really like to do."
After he graduated from the guitar school, he traveled around awhile. When he discovered Big Bend some 24 years ago, he decided he would settle here and do nothing but play guitar and resume his studies without having to pay the high rent of the city. "I figured I could live for almost nothing down here," he said, "and do nothing but play guitar."
But people couldn't play the jazz tunes that he likes to play, so he turned from an ensemble player to a virtuoso style guitarist, a solo guitar, playing the jazz tunes himself. He long ago learned how to play a bass line underneath his chords and arranged the chords so that the melody is on top of the chord so that he can play the melody and chord and bass line all at the same time, and sing on it and tap his foot to the back beat, which would be like the snare -- "just be a one-man band," he said.
If the audience wants to hear it, he plays Marty Robbins or Willie Nelson or whoever is asked for. "I've been a big fan of Willie for many, many years," he said. "Because I understand the theory and play by ear very, very well, if somebody asks me for a song, if I've heard it, I can generally play it the first time."
He enjoys playing guitar in the morning most of all. His natural routine is to get up, have some coffee and play the guitar for a few hours. The brunch gig gives him a chance to share the routine with other people.
Some time ago he started studying permutations, the rearrangement of a group of notes. "In four-part harmony, there are 24 different arrangements of each four notes," he said. "Out of the chromatic scale, there are 165 four-note combinations. So if you are exploring the guitar, that will keep you busy."
Over coffee, forget it. Lay back and enjoy the Terlingua troubadour – known professionally as Jobuk Johnson – sing his love songs, his lush ballads.