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KEYS TO THE HIGHWAYA GOOD OLD BOY SINGS THE GREAT OLD TUNES

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"Yeah," Frank shouts back without missing a beat, "and put that old dog in the back seat, too." The other cowboy-hatted old boys at the bar guffaw; Baldwin chuckles, then returns to the impressive business at hand: jamming on the piano and laying into a blue-smoke organ run. Frank leans over, winks, says, "He plays all the good stuff, boy. I like that." He motions to the tables of diners who now sip colorful drinks and gently tap their toes. "All the old folks used to come down here. They didn't want to hear no rock 'n' roll." He pulls deeply on his Bud and leans even closer.

"You know," he whispers, "Bill's a nice guy, but he's very mysterious. He plays it very close to the vest."

It's true that Baldwin is reluctant to talk about his personal life ("I had two good wives, and I have a couple of kids. I can't complain"). Yet he loosens up considerably when the subject turns to music and the road. And there's absolutely no need to discuss his talent: It's there, regardless of big black hats, shades or musical agenda. After a sinister, terrifying version of the old Tanya Tucker hit "Delta Dawn," wherein he drops a full octave, Baldwin concludes his first set with a lounge-solid rendition of "Pennies From Heaven."

"What the hell is he doing here?" Frank wonders aloud, then drinks more Budweiser.

At the bar again, Bill Baldwin sips a fresh Coke and ruminates on the state of music today. He frets especially over the high costs of recording, the low pay in the field and the loss of the individual personality to technology.

"I have no idea what it costs to cut a video in 1991, but I'd guess at least $30,000. And then you gotta lip-synch it." He shakes his head at the image. "It's ridiculous. If you had ten grand you could just spend, you could buy the right tape system, digital delay, digital reverb, good keyboard that does all the cellos and all the fiddles, and you could do everything yourself. It's not going to be too long before studios will be a thing of the past."

A kid in a ponytail and cut-off jeans pokes his head into the conversation. Speaking in flawless California surf, he asks Bill, "Dude, do you know any Grateful Dead?" Bill answers that he doesn't play any of the Dead's tunes but he listens to them.

The kid goes on to ask about his equipment; he's approving of Bill's setup--with certain "radical" modifications--but he simply can't fathom his unwillingness to prerecord everything. Politely, Bill says, "I like to freelance." The kid slaps his forehead in disbelief.

"Dude! You just put everything on three-and-a-half-inch disks, you know, and bam--you do your thing, you get paid and you're gone." He wanders away, mumbling about making life easy on yourself. Bill smiles.

"He wanted to know why I wasn't updated, and I'll tell you why: I'm happy with my sound. Oh, I could go out and spend $15,000 and I might improve it, but then again I might not." A fire truck, lights flashing, passes by. Bill wanders to the door to see what's going on.

"Maybe it's the Rusty Spur," someone suggests loudly.
"It's Shades of the West [a massive Western-wear-and-kitsch store]," someone responds. "Looks like they're busting out the windows."

Bill returns, looking pensive.
"I'm from the old school," he professes. "You have to learn to play. You're still gonna have players in this world and the real players, they're just going to need their instruments. A player will show his ability and always outclass the prerecorded stuff. The human element is what makes it art. "That's what I was trying to explain to that kid. I watch the people. I watched those old folks tonight. If I see people out there are restless, I'll try to find an alley that'll get their attention. I might misfire three or four times, but I'll find it and then I'll burn up that alley for an hour and a half." He sips his Coke, pulls at his beard.

"I walk in ready to go at 100 percent. Sometimes I'm not able. Some nights I can't sing as good and some nights I could fall off the stage and not miss a note.

"I'm glad to be doing what I do. Of all the music I like to jam to, I like the blues. I'm a power singer--`Danny Boy,' `Shenandoah' . . . that's my favorite kind of singing. But for playing, it's the blues--I mean hard, basement-cellar blues, Eastern blues. It's big where I'm from in West Virginia, too." He smiles, thinking of home. "It's beautiful there, but man, it's coal-mining country. Poverty to the toenails. There's no work except for mining, teaching and being a lawyer or a doctor. And I wasn't ever going to shovel coal. Never. I wouldn't even bend over to pick up a lump."

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Larry Crowley