Telecaster Master | Music | Style Weekly

Redd Volkaert remembers the day that the great Merle Haggard called him up and asked if he’d play guitar in his band. “I said, ‘Murph, you lying bastard.’ I was thinking it was my buddy Jim Murphy, a real prankster guy.”

“No, no. I’m Merle Haggard, I’m a singer,” implored the voice on the other end.

Nearly thirty years later, Volkaert still thinks that’s funny. “I’m a singer,” he laughs. “What a Gomer thing for Merle Haggard to say.”

For Volkaert, a hard-gigging session and pick-up player who started performing at age 14 in his native British Columbia, the call was a dream come true. As a dedicated country fan and musician, he idolized Haggard and his band the Strangers; the man he was being asked to replace was the great Roy Nichols, who perfected country lead playing. The first thing Volkaert did after saying yes was call his mother. “I can retire now, mom. I got the ultimate gig,” he remembers saying. She replied, “you’re playing with Merle?”

He ended up with Haggard for six years, both on the road and in the studio. But Volkaert, with his trademark suspenders and unruly chin beard, has seemingly performed with anyone who’s ever been anyone in country music, from George Jones to Dolly Parton to Dale Watson to Brad Paisley. The latter is such a fan that some people called him “the Redd Stalker” in his formative days, and he asked Volkaert to perform at his wedding. Established as one of the greatest practitioners of the Fender Telecaster, and well-known around town from his standout stints at the Richmond Folk Festival, Volkaert will headline a special free afternoon concert of country music at the Get Tight Lounge on Sunday, Nov. 19.

“We’ll do the usual stuff,” he says. “We’ll perform a lot of the old country songs, some honky-tonk, some western swing, a few of my instrumentals, some of the ones where I sing, and maybe a couple of rock things, like ‘Jessica’ by the Allman Brothers or the Joe Cocker arrangement of ‘The Letter.’”

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  • Volkaert relocated to Galax, Virginia to live the country life after playing clubs most his life.

Today, the bulldoggish Volkaert is hanging out at his 25-acre farm near Galax, Virginia, where he moved from Austin, Texas three years ago in an attempt to find some “peace and quiet” away from the music business. “My wife is a retired nurse. So if it’s missing a limb or an eye, we’ve got it out here.” On his property, he counts five donkeys, a horse, 20 chickens, three dogs, some barn cats, and a couple of miniature steers. “I love it here,” he says. “Country living.”

The move to Virginia came as a shock to people in Austin as Volkaert had become a mainstay in the city’s music scene. He’d had a residency at the Continental Club for more than two decades; one writer compared his departure to Aaron Neville leaving New Orleans. The Austin years came after he had raised his playing skills and profile in Nashville for ten years, where Merle discovered him.

“It was time to go. I’ve been playing music full-time since I was 17 and I’m 65 now,” he says. “I just got burned out playing clubs. I wanted to go where there’s none of that going on.” The guitarist does enjoy a regular Thursday night gig one hour away at the Floyd Country Store, normally known for old-time and bluegrass sounds, and still travels quite a bit – he just returned from a tour with Bill Kirchen in Australia and will be leaving for Texas in a few days. It was while playing with longtime collaborator Kirchen at the 2019 Wayne Henderson Music Festival in Grayson County that Redd first fell in love with the area.

“I was ten years old when I got my first guitar,” he recalls when asked how all of this started. “It was a tiny Harmony, made by Sears. It was my brother’s guitar, he didn’t like it and took up the drums. He’s a year older, so I got his pants and shoes and his guitar.”

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The veteran axeman says that at first, he was like every other kid driving people crazy learning the riff to “Smoke On the Water.” “I was playing along with records, Grand Funk and Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. My parents had a really good record collection. My dad liked blues: Freddie King, Albert King, BB King and my brother got into the Johnny Winter kind of blues rock. My mom liked everything. She had a Jimmy Bryant 10-inch EP and man, I wore that thing out because it was fast, clean guitar playing and that’s where the hook went in for me as far as country stuff.” From there, it wasn’t long before he was copping licks from Buck Owens and the Buckaroos and Merle Haggard and the Strangers.

Volkaert is famous for his work on the Fender Telecaster guitar. He acquired his first one in an unusual way after his dad won it in a pool game. “The guy he beat owned a music store and said, ‘Hey, you want to come pick something out?’” It was an Esquire, a single pickup Telecaster. It changed my world. I mean, it’s the sound of so much ‘60s country music, Bakersfield if nothing else, all of the music from the West Coast was all Telecasters. Buck Owens always used the Telecaster, Merle and his band did, and a lot of those records have that certain kind of sound. And now I could replicate that sound.”

When he finally got to play alongside Haggard, who passed away in 2016, he found a kindred spirit. “He was as big a guitar nerd as I am. He had ears from hell. I mean, he could hear a flea fart. And he was playing all the time. He’d be late for gigs because he’d be jamming on the bus.”

The stint with Merle was formative. But of all of the other superstars he’s backed up, from Kenny Rogers to Alison Krauss to Dwight Yoakam, which did he learn from? “Every one of them,” Redd says. “It’s the way they act, the way they treat people. The shitty ones, you think to yourself, ‘’I’ll never do that to somebody’ and the good ones are something to remember.”

There is one reliable way to tell the good people, he says.

“The assholes will change band members pretty regularly. A big sign of a good person is one who’s had the same members in his band for a long time. If he treats them well, why would they go somewhere else for $20 more? Look at Merle and Buck and Mel Tillis, they had people in their band forever. Brad Paisley has the same guys he grew up with, so does Toby Keith and Garth Brooks. So they have to be good people.”

When budding guitarists ask him for career advice, Redd doesn’t get technical and talk string gauges and pedals. “It’s all about being honest with yourself and putting in the work. If you are playing for the beer and the broads, then fine. But that is all it will ever be.”

Redd Volkaert will perform at the Get Tight Lounge on Sunday, Nov. 19 with Dogwood Brothers, Ramona & the Holy Smokes and Brand Franklin. Show starts at 1 p.m. All ages, free show.

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