Hawkins, other St. John’s members make music for the Salvation Army
Long before Versailles native Sam Hawkins joined the Kentucky State Police, he was playing the guitar. A week before Christmas, Hawkins and other members of St. John’s Episcopal Church showed off their musical talents at Kroger during a late-afternoon bell-ringing stint for the Salvation Army. Hawkins’ 5 to 6 p.m. slot was preceded by an hour from fellow church member and guitarist Ben Harper, who played sing-a-long Christmas carols with the assistant of Walter Kuntz on a three-stringed instrument that Kuntz called a “strumstick.” “Just to watch the faces light up as they walked in was wonderful,” said Ann Miller, who organized the musical outing. (Miller said other church members volunteer on their own for bell-ringing duties.) Hawkins said he was 7 when he first picked up a guitar. Asked to describe the finger-picking work so proficient that he’s frequently hired to play at a variety of events, he said he’d played other instruments classically – bassoon, saxophone, and the bass violin in bands and orchestras – and, through instruction, developed his own style that’s “kind of unique.” “What I intend to do is just instrumental solo guitar, so there may be some classical music in there – I’ve got some selections that are – but mainly I like to do old standards. I can do stuff from the 40s and 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, but mainly … (I) just keep the arrangement as rich and full with bass lines and melodies and all the chords kind of worked out. That’s kind of what I do,” Hawkins said. Hawkins said his parents’ support of his love for music was probably the second-greatest gift they gave him. “They sacrificed financially, gave me guitar instruction for about four-and-a-half years, and then from there, I began developing my style.” When Hawkins wasn’t being interviewed, he played “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Jingle Bells,” “Let it Snow,” “Joyful We Adore Thee” and other holiday favorites. All five fingers of his right hand were involved in producing bass lines, melodies, harmonies and counter-melodies. He joked that the gentle tunes wafting out from his guitar were putting patrons to sleep, but Clay and an onlooker disagreed, saying it was soothing. One shopper asked if Hawkins was playing a Martin (one of the finest acoustic guitars produced in America). Hawkins responded that it was a custom guitar, and after the man walked off, expounded on that description. “It’s a handmade Ted Ramsey. Ted Ramsey is a builder in Louisville. It’s one of a kind. He built it as a spec guitar,” Hawkins said. “Years ago, a friend had it for sale, and I didn’t think I could afford it, and he said, ‘You need this guitar.’ The second time I played it, I knew I had to find a way to buy it.” Hawkins said the guitar’s intonation is “true, up and down the neck,” the pitch is good, and unless he’s in an environment with wildly fluctuating temperatures, once it’s in tune, it stays in tune. “It projects very well … the lows are low, the highs are crisp, everything is equal in between. It’s the real deal,” he said. That classical guitar, with the bottom three strings made of nylon and the top three of light steel wrapped around a silk cord, has been his instrument of choice for 20 years, he said. But any instrument, no matter how well made, needs a good musician to produce great sounds, and Hawkins is widely considered one of the finest acoustic guitarists in Central Kentucky. The bell ringer to Hawkins’ left that day was Larry Yocum, whose KSP spot Hawkins said he filled when Yocum retired. To his right was Tracy Clay, another friend from St. John’s whom Hawkins said he trades friendly jibes with when they sit across from each other in church. Clay said she loves to ring the bell when accompanied by music, especially when it was played by someone as “extremely talented” as Hawkins. “Just seeing people come in and greeting them and just that time of volunteering, I guess you could say,” Clay said. “Giving your time – our days get hectic and our days get busy, and this is just a way to kind of reflect. That’s the way I think about it.” Hawkins said when he plays with bell ringers, he’s usually too preoccupied to see how many people are dropping money in the big red kettles or even how much they’re enjoying his music. “I didn’t have any eggs thrown at me, so …” he said, laughing. Last week was the second consecutive year Hawkins has strummed between the kettles, and he said he’ll be happy to return in 2020. “If they call me next year and I’m still living, I’ll do it again,” he said with a chuckle.