California musician

still feels, relishes his local ties

still feels, relishes his local ties

November 25, 2002|by KATE COLEMAN

Joan Dawson of Smithsburg recalls a 20-year-old conversation with her son Billy Alexander.

They were in the car, driving to Alexandria, Va., talking about the then 15-year-old's dream of pursuing a career in rock 'n' roll.

Dawson was pointing out how hard it is. So many talented people want it and never make it, she told him.

She clearly remembers his response: "The difference between them and me is they drop out and I won't," he told her. Alexander also recalls the exchange. "I was just a young punk," he laughs.


He had been playing guitar since he was 9. He was good, and he was aware, even as a teen, that he had excelled to a high level. He compares the instrument's pull on him to a magnetic force.

"It's like breathing air," he says. "There was no possible way I was ever going to give up," he says.

He hasn't.

Alexander, 35, is visiting his mom this week. He mentions a Neil Young song - "Helpless" - to express feelings about home. "All my changes were there."

Although he's lived in the Los Angeles area for nearly two decades, he says he's still "local" when he comes back to Smithsburg. "My heart's still there," he says.

There was no thought process involved in Billy Alexander's decision to play guitar or to keep playing it, he says. He says his mom's theory is that a $30 acoustic guitar purchased from a Leitersburg neighbor became his "little buddy" after he moved to Maryland with his mother and sisters after his parents' marriage ended when he was 9.

Initially he taught himself. "I just wanted to play by ear," he says. He liked rock - AC/DC, Rush. He later took lessons, and is well remembered by his teachers.

"Billy's a good guy," says Lew Palladino, who plays with the Hagerstown-based Rhythm Kings and still teaches. He recalls a young Alexander as a very dependable student. "He had a lot of natural ability," Palladino says. But he also worked hard and had a lot of questions.

Alexander later learned to read music. He took classical guitar lessons from Tony Suranno, environmental safety specialist with the Washington County Board of Education, who plays with the Ray Birely Orchestra and a band called The Shades.

Surrano remembers Alexander as one of the few students who wanted to learn the instrument - not just songs. Alexander practiced; he came prepared. He enjoyed what he was doing, and Suranno expected that he would continue playing.

Alexander took music classes at Smithsburg High School. He calls Harry Wacker, who taught music in Smithsburg schools for 37 years, a "total music guy, a tall-in-the-saddle kind of teacher." Wacker wasn't real quick with the compliments, but "he'd give me a little look, a twinkle" of encouragement. "That's something I'll never forget," Alexander says.

Wacker remembers Alexander taking music theory his senior year "to expand his horizons." He describes Alexander as very persistent, very dedicated to music.

C. David Warner, professor of music and chairperson of Hagerstown Community College's Humanities Division, remembers Alexander, then a teenager, playing in his band, Penny Candy, for a few months in the early 1980s. "He was a phenomenal player even then," Warner says.

Dawson says she didn't really encourage her son in his pursuit of music as a career. She wanted him to have a back up for his dreams. She didn't want his life to be hard. She recalls him moving to California at 19. His keyboard was stolen, and he had a series of "day jobs" including telemarketing, which she says lasted for two minutes, and working for a moving company called Starving Students.

Alexander came back home, worked hard and saved money. A co-worker at Cavetown Planing Mille teased him, displaying nail-gun scars on his hands, a scary prospect for a guitarist.

Alexander returned to California, continued to play and developed a reputation as a guitar teacher. He was good with kids. He was aware of never wanting a student to feel stupid or inept.

"I could at least have a guitar in my hand," he says. But he enjoyed teaching, describing it as a symbiotic relationship. "I'm cut out for it, and I did get a lot out of it," he says.

Alexander is "home" in Maryland between tour stops with Feel, the band he connected with through an ad he placed in a trade publication."World-class level guitarist who sings and plays looking for project with great songs and great guys," he wrote.

Alexander found what he was looking for joining with singer/songwriter Scot Sax, bassist Mark Getten and drummer Dave Shaffer. Sax and Getten had played together as part of Bachelor Number One, getting a song on the "American Pie" soundtrack.

The four musicians started playing together a couple of years ago - trying to find their sound, touring a little, playing some clubs.

A few days after Sept. 11, 2001, they had a gig at The Bitter End, the 40-year-old rock club in Greenwich Village.

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