By Kenny Berkowitz
Back in 1959, guitarist John Fahey took money he’d saved as a gas-station attendant to start the Takoma record label, creating a home not only for his own American primitive recordings, but also for second-generation players. These players shared his love of country blues with a twist and together they reimagined the possibilities of fingerstyle guitar. Now, three of his earliest signings—Toulouse Engelhardt, Peter Lang, and Rick Ruskin—are hitting the road in March for the Takoma Records Guitar Masters Tour, making stops this spring in Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington.
“Fahey was a very strange cat, and you never knew what to expect,” says Engelhardt, who has kept early letters Fahey wrote him.
“His criticism of my work was brutal, especially for a young, 20-something guitar dreamer. One day, he would say he thought my music was a bunch of crap. Then the next day, he would write again, and say my solos were some of the prettiest stuff he had ever heard. I remember him saying to me, in his funny high-pitched vibrato, ‘You’re the next guy, the next gunslinger who will enter the O.K. Corral. You need to keep developing your own style.’”
So Engelhardt did, mixing pop, psychedelia, and the sounds of SoCal beach culture to become “The Segovia of Surf,” while also teaching community-college biology.
Lang’s path was equally indirect, recording a ground-breaking album with Fahey and Leo Kottke in 1974 before switching to a career in film animation, struggling with his health, and only recently returning to performance.
Only Ruskin has remained in music the entire time, self-releasing albums of gospel and blues, including the new Whatever Happened to Blind Matzoh Leftkowitz?, and running a recording studio in Seattle.
“I think [Ruskin] sums it up best for all of us when he says we don’t think like other guitarists,” says Engelhardt, who followed Fahey’s advice to add more tunings, minor keys, and atonality to his music. “As the years went on, I began to realize that John was trying to help me reach my potential. In the end, he was right, and I appreciated him as my mentor. In essence, this tour is about his dedication to steel-string fingerstyle guitar and the enduring legacy he left behind.”