It took two weeks for Roy Book Binder to build up the courage to call folk-revival linchpin guitarist Rev. Gary Davis. When he finally picked up the phone, it was one of the most important conversations he ever had.
In spring 1966, Binder was 22, fresh out of the U.S. Navy and recently returned to his home in New York City after a stint at a Rhode Island junior college. He was obsessed with the writing of beat poet Jack Kerouac and, above all, the guitar.
At the Folklore Center on Sixth Avenue, Binder asked around about lessons and was handed Davis' number.
"Long story short, I ended up there for a guitar lesson, and it was a life-changing experience," Binder said.
Despite being forced, out of politeness, to violate his vegetarianism by eating soul food at the Davis house, Binder said he was thoroughly hooked on his new teacher.
At his second lesson, he was told he would have to wait several weeks for the third until the Reverend returned from a Chicago tour. So Binder threw the dice and asked to go with him.
"I thought, 'Whoa, if I don't go for this, I'm out of my mind,' " Binder said.
Binder traveled with Davis off and on for two years, serving as his chauffeur and assistant. In return, he learned how to play country blues.
Even more importantly, Davis and another mentor, South Carolina bluesman Pink Anderson, taught Binder to be a storyteller. That triple role of singer, songwriter and storyteller formed the foundation of Binder's 45-year touring career, which has included appearances alongside artists B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt and Ray Charles.
Although Binder's music has received plenty of attention and he long since graduated to teaching others to play guitar, Binder said he prefers to consider himself an entertainer, first and foremost.
After all, he said, if he's having fun onstage, the audience should be, too.
"Laughter is a big thing," he said. "If you can make people laugh, that might be your ticket to heaven, you know?
"I tell them, right on the stage, that, 'You look like you're having a good time out there, but you're not having as good a time as I am here. ... At the end, I should stop and applaud you.' Without them, I'm just Roy at the house, picking up the garbage."
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...