School's Out

A guitar maker's yarn

Twenty-year-old aspiring guitar maker Allen Pegues recalls his high school days. "I was all about buyin' me some beer," he says. "That's what I did."

Pegues lives near downtown in a neighborhood peopled by crack dealers, whores and kids wielding oversize bikes with bare-rimmed wheels who noisily run over empty beer cans in the street. Waltz-time sonatas provide a steady beat to afternoons and evenings of front-porch beer drinking.

A teenage Latina strolls along his fence in the uniform of a prostitute -- tight jeans, crimson pout, long chestnut-colored hair. Pegues looks at her, takes a pull from his can of Bud Light, and says, "That's pretty bad when they are young like that and not like regular teens. Especially someone that beautiful. They could be doing anything but that."

An underlying tension is often attendant here, the old slant of being white in an all-brown community. Pegues squints into the waning sun, drops his eyes to focus on a nearby crackhouse and says, "It's just not happy here. There's no happiness, ya know?"

His longing for simple homespun cheeriness explains why his is the only front yard on the street with a garden. It's mainly tomatillos, tomatoes and sunflowers. "Seems like these people 'round here would be all about having gardens."

Pegues is from Mississippi, most recently Petal, a suburb of Hattiesburg. He's in Phoenix attending Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery. As soon as the school semester ends next week, he's gone. Hopefully, he says, to Michigan or Austin to work his guitar angles.

And after only six months of luthiery he's already a hell of a guitar maker. I played a spruce-top acoustic he built from scratch and it chimed like a Martin. Pegues explains that a worthy and well-crafted steel-stringed acoustic guitar is one that will remain timeless, its tone taking years to realize. An inferior acoustic lacks the tone resonance and timbre of a well-crafted model. Hand-crafted guitars preserve their makers' inspiration and inventiveness, giving an individuality to each instrument.

Pegues' speech is tinted with an unlikely Mississippi via Oklahoma dialect and his words have a kind of musical meter; guitar is pronounced "git-tar," etc. He's 6-foot-3 but slouches down to six feet.

With smoky blond hair and cobalt eyes, he resembles the implausible upshot of Joe Buck and a young Buddy Ebsen.

He grew up listening to Sousa marches and classical music. Now he's blues-addicted, mostly digging Jimmy Rogers, Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt. He can place any Bob Dylan line to its song.

On his porch is a copy of Catch-22. He's halfway through it. "Man, there's some funny stuff in that book," he says.

By age 5, Pegues (pronounced Pag-EEZ) was driving golf carts. Before his 10th birthday he was building go-carts and taking apart and reassembling engines. Using only a chain saw, he has been known to carve chairs from pine logs.

"I used to love to get drunk and play with chain saws," he says, laughing.

His old man is a World War II veteran, retired after a 20-year teaching tenure at a penitentiary in Mississippi. His dad is one reason he won't be going back to Mississippi once school's out.

"He's 74 years old now," says Pegues. "He's a hardworking son of a bitch. I don't know how he does it. I hope I get more sense than he does when I get 74. You know, out working in the sun all day and shit. And I know if I get back to Mississippi, he'll have me building a house. I don't want to build a house. Whenever you move back home, you're giving up, you know what I'm saying? You're not moving forward anymore.

"Plus," he adds, "there was Klan people down in there. And that's fucked up, man. It was weird. It was real obvious throughout the population of the whole area. Hattiesburg is not so bad because it's a college town. It's as bad as Louisiana, though. And the Cajun people, I could be scared of the Cajun people. When I was growing up in Cleveland, Mississippi, there wasn't any black people at all on the west side of the railroad tracks. That was a segregated town. But a shitload of writers came out of Mississippi there, like Faulkner."

A job transfer for Pegues' mother moved the family to Norman, Oklahoma, when he was 11. Pegues' interest in formal education faded during high school .

"I kind of started fucking off in school. I'd always done that, but I started not even going at all. I didn't have to once I started driving legally. I'd just like drive to school and sit in the car and listen to the radio or sleep or something the whole time. My friends all had parents that made them do stuff. My parents never made me do anything."

After six years in Oklahoma, the family headed back to Mississippi. The unsettled Pegues returned to Norman the day before his 18th birthday, telling his parents he was off to finish his senior year with his friends. A girl and unreciprocated love were involved.

"The real reason I moved back there was on account of a girl," he says, shaking his head. "I would sit there with my four-track and it was like I was losing my mind."

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