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Finger pickin' good


There is something powerful about watching a person sit on stage alone with a guitar and listening to them strum a rapid and tantalizing tune that blends base, rhythm and melody together.

Brooks Robertson noticed it when he was 11 years old. His father took him to the Nokie Edwards festival in their hometown of Eugene and the middle schooler, who had always been into baseball, watched a man named Buster B. Jones pick the strings of a guitar with a fire in his fingers he had never seen before.

“Something just told me this is what I wanted to do,” says Robertson, now 22 years old and a full-time musician living in Portland. Robertson is one of the youngest fingerstyle guitarists playing in the style started by the likes of Merle Travis and Thom Bresh.

This weekend, Robertson will come to the Grand Lodge to perform songs off his 2010 album Into the Trees. But his set will also include songs he’s been playing for years: those of Buster Jones and other eminent pickers — Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed and Tommy Emanuel.

Robertson’s wild ride up the guitar neck began that day he first saw Buster play. Robertson turned to his dad and said, “I want to play like that.” From that day on, Jones — a self-proclaimed hillbilly from the south and master of fingerstyle guitar, nicknamed ‘Le Machine Gun’ and ‘Pistola’ for his fast playing — became Robertson’s hero.

Not yet a teenager, Robertson bought Jones’s CD and wore it out. He traded his baseball cap for a cowboy hat and boots like Buster’s and memorized all of his songs until he could hum each one. Then, he picked up the guitar and imitated the handiwork of the man who inspired him to play.

The next year at the same festival, Roberston met his music idol backstage. The following year, he was invited to perform for Buster at a private benefit concert at his Oregon home.

The two bonded instantly.

Buster, a scraggly-bearded finger-style champ of the 1990s whom Chet Atkins called the best fingerpicker since Jerry Reed, saw in Robertson, a nervous 13-year-old from Eugene, a fervor to play the music — exactly what made him a legend of the style.

That’s when Jones took Robertson under his wing.

Hours-long practice

Months of homeschooling — first once a week, then three times a week and finally full days for six months of hours-long practice at Buster’s house — primed Robertson in the ways of his fingerstyle guitar.

“Playing solo guitar is a lot like playing the piano,” said Robertson. Steeped in country, his music crosses multiple genres from blues and jazz to classical and Brazilian. “One hand is doing the chords and bass and the other hand is playing the melody or even harmony,” he notes.

Not two years since Robertson first saw Buster perform at the Nokie Edwards Festival, he was playing in it and other high-profile gigs like the National Association of Music Merchants show in Anaheim, Calif., and the Montreal Jazz Festival in Winfield, Kan.

Soon, the Eugene teenager was the youngest endorsee of Canadian-based Godin Guitars, and took his music across the U.S., to Canada and Europe on alongside Buster. Touring with his mentor for most of his youth was “an amazing experience” and “really all I wanted to do,” said Robertson.

Buster, who died in 2009 at 49, was in his early 40s when the unexpected pair met. As old friends, Robertson describes Jones as an “interesting character” and a “generous” man who grew up in the South to a big music family and played music since he was old enough to hold an instrument.

Recently, Robertson took his guitar to Germany, where he played 15 solo performances around the country and brought home sponsorships from the high-end German acoustic amplifier company AER as well as Collings Guitars of Austin, Tex., specializing in hand-built acoustic guitars.

Hall of Fame

Last month, for the tenth year in a row, Robertson flew to Nashville, Tenn., with more than 50 of the top solo guitar players in honor of the 28th Annual Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention. He was one of seven or so invited to play at the Country Music Hall of Fame in a tribute to Chet Atkins.

“He is slicker than a cat on a greased pole,” said Rock and Roll Hall of famer Nokie Edwards of The Ventures. Legendary thumbpicker Thom Bresh observed, “Brooks Robertson plays like the house is on fire.”

These are some of his greatest achievements to date, Robertson said. Now living in northwest Portland, Robertson carries the torch of his fingerstyle predecessors by playing around town, teaching guitar at Artichoke Music in southeast Portland and offering lessons over Skype.

While writing new compositions for his upcoming album and even thinking about a few vocals, it seems Robertson is calmest when strumming some of his favorite high-energy Buster tunes, such as “Skippy,” which Buster named after the peanut butter he jokingly said was the only food he could afford.

“I’ve played these songs so many times,” said Robertson, who most often plays a Godin nylon-string guitar and a Collings steel-string acoustic. “I start the song and my fingers know what to do.”