orthern Michigan musician, acoustic guitarist and songwriter John Warstler has just released his first Christmas CD, "Solace for the Season." Filled with his expert finger-style playing and his unique take on classic old English traditional hymns and Christmas songs, the first track also includes an original Christmas tune this Petoskey-area resident penned himself. Two other Northern Michigan musicians, Crispin Campbell, cello instructor for the Interlochen Center for the Arts, and John Cotton, an acoustic bass violin player, appear on the CD, too.
John Warstler began his musical career in an unusual way: he was born with a stuttering disorder, and music helped him cope. He eventually became a speech pathologist as well as a professional musician. These days, he’s not only recording in the studio and playing tunes off his new Christmas CD “Solace for the Season” at various venues, he’s also “Mr. John” to Northern Michigan school children. In addition to working with students with speech disorders, he uses his music to teach learning readiness skills to kindergartners through second graders.
When MyNorth visited him at his studio in his home high on a hill in Horton Bay, Warstler was playing his six string 1934 Gibson Roy Smeck Stage Deluxe acoustic guitar as he looked out over the view of Lake Charlevoix.
MyNorth: Though your stuttering disorder isn’t detectable right now, it’s your stuttering that prompted you to pursue speech pathology and to pursue music, too, right?
John Warstler: When I was little, when I stuttered, I was sent to speech therapy for not saying my words clearly. But I didn’t get much help for my stuttering for quite a long time. That’s why I went into my chosen field because I wanted to help people because there wasn’t much help for me in the public school setting.
MyNorth: Has music helped you get through the challenges posed by stuttering?
John Warstler: Music has always been a part of the therapy thing. Without my music, I don’t know where I’d be. It helps with life in general.
MyNorth: How did you start playing guitar?
John Warstler: I was probably around 13 years old. I got 30 dollars in cash for Christmas, and that’s when I bought my first guitar. Nobody pushed me. I played a little bit of ukulele in 3rd and 4th grade. It’s a very good instrument to learn as a training wheel type thing, because the first strings of a “uke” are essentially the same as the highest four strings on the guitar, so once you’ve mastered the “uke”, you’ve got 2/3rds of the fingering down.
MyNorth: You took to guitar playing right away…
John Warstler: I loved it. I was obsessed with the instrument. I played every day. For the first fifteen years of playing, I maybe missed ten days of playing.
MyNorth: Did you perform in front of people?
John Warstler: I did rock n’ roll gigs in 1969. But I never was very good at the electric guitar.
My North: We are in a studio surrounded by six acoustic guitars, two banjos and a mandolin. It seems you definitely gravitated toward acoustic!
John Warstler: I bought these instruments when they weren’t worth all that much money. For instance, (points to the guitar he’s holding) this is a 1936 Martin 000 18. The guitar that I play and record with most is a 1934 Gibson Roy Smeck. The golden age of acoustic guitars is the mid-1930’s and early 1940s. Any Gibson or Martin from that era is just the best of the best.
MyNorth: So you decided you didn’t like the rock n’ roll thing. And then you started doing solo acts?
John Warstler: I’ve always marched to a different drummer. Back to the stuttering thing: I’m very confident I’m not wired like most people. I’m much more right-brained. It’s been proven that stutterers have a lack of cerebral dominance. I was different from most guitar players in my finger style, and I learned flat-picked guitar about the same time.
There’s a couple of people I credit for influencing my style: Cat Stevens is one. That album “Tea for the Tillerman”: I just intuitively learned to play that stuff, and I learned to pick out the melody. And then there was the influence of a cousin by marriage, Eldon Whitford, who has written the bible for Gibson flat-top guitars. He was both a finger-style guitar player and a flat-picker. Back in the late 60’s, it was a pretty cool time. Neil young was getting big, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. There was a lot of great acoustic music around at that time. In high school in St. John’s, I played with a woman named Diana Dewitt. She was a partner of mine. She ended up singing with Neil Young and Emmy Lou Harris.
MyNorth: What lead to the recording of your first CD, “Solace and Grace” which was released in 2006?
John Warstler: There was a guy who kept knocking on our door in Wisconsin. He was starting a new church from the ground up, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, which was considered a liberal church. He became my best friend. I thought, “What can I do for my buddy?”
I always had played a few hymns, like “Amazing Grace” and a few others, so I started playing those hymns in his church. And playing those hymns really was the extent of my performing in public once I had kids. I started to realize that not many people do this. Even though I do a finger-style guitar, there aren’t many people who play those kind of songs with just a guitar … one instrument … the way I do. I developed quite a repertoire of hymns. My guitar playing was part of every Sunday morning–no other instruments, and very non-commercial. It’s traditional music on acoustic guitar. It’s a very melodic and soothing type of music.
MyNorth: Your first CD was a collection of hymns. How did this new Christmas CD “Solace for the Season” come about?
John Warstler: Last year, around this time, right after Thanksgiving, I got a call from the Disney company and they said “We inadvertently used “We Gather Together”—a hymn I recorded on “Solace and Grace”—for an episode of “General Hospital. ” They purchased a synchronization license good for five years! I understand there are soap networks and there’s a possibility that they will need to renew that license. People have been bugging me to do a Christmas CD for many years. Quite frankly, I know a lot more Christmas songs than traditional hymns, so I decided to use the money to have a Christmas CD professionally done. I used Frontier recording in Copemish, Michigan down by Crystal Mountain.
MyNorth: How did you decide which songs you wanted to put on this Christmas CD?
John Warstler: I knew I pretty much had enough material, but I ended up weeding a few of them out.
MyNorth: And you wrote an original Christmas song?
John Warstler: I wrote it a few years ago, but it was just one part of it. Then I added the bridge. I had a guitar converted from a six string to a seven string, just for this particular song. I always thought it sounded somewhat like a hymn, and uplifting. My songs are more of a comforting thing, very laid back. I’ve gotten great compliments on it. It’s called “A New Morning.” And I’ve written others, and I thought: do I want to name this “The Christmas Waltz” or something? But I decided I didn’t want to pigeon hole it.
There’s a story about the naming of this song: my wife had an unfortunate thing happen. A friend of hers was killed in a motorcycle accident this last summer. She was having a terrible time, and had to be driven by a friend home from work. But she ended up working through things, and the next morning she was much, much better. I was heading downstate, and I was driving towards the east, and it was one of those things: the sun peeked out, and cast a long beautiful ray of sunshine. I was listening to this song and I thought: “ This is a new morning.” It felt like a new morning. And I thought: “That’s what Christmas is all about.”
MyNorth: What are your hopes for this new CD?
John Warstler: As I have said, I’m wired differently. I’m not a hot guitar player! But I think my music comes from a different place. I think I’m able to just feel something in my music and can get in to a space in a way not a lot people can do. My whole mantra—and what I want for my CD—is to help people get their minds and hearts in a good space. Sometimes, these simple little guitar runs between the melody notes can do that!
Warstler will appear at Primitive Images in Good Hart on November 27th, McLean and Eakin Booksellers in Petoskey on December 3rd at the Holiday Open House, and on December 4th at both the Holiday Hobby Craft Show in Boyne City and at Sadie and Jake’s Gallery and Café in Charlevoix. His new CD, “Solace for the Season” is available on his website HymnSONGuitar.com or through CD Baby. His CD’s will also be available at Horizon and Border’s Books.