Longtime guitarist teaching new generation of songwriters

MINEOLA — Aging window panes on the old Beckham Hotel rattle like a snare drum as the afternoon train passes through town.

From the building’s structure to the towers of precariously stacked CDs or the guitar-lined walls and eclectic visitors, the hotel is filled with a menagerie of sounds.

The owner, John DeFoore, a 65-year-old mustachioed songwriter, perks up from his barber chair throne in front of a computer loaded with thousands of songs and recordings.

“Listen to this,” he said, and the first bars of a new Martina McBride single fill his cluttered studio.
He mouths the words to the song, which is about blaming the alcohol for the drunk.

DeFoore, a mostly soft-spoken and patient man, offers humble praise.

“Not bad.”

His former student, 23-year-old Kacey Musgraves, wrote it.

Since the 1960s, DeFoore has been teaching guitar and songwriting, helping to start the careers of music stars Miranda Lambert and Michelle Shocked and getting his students national attention through television shows and songwriting contests.

As with Ms. Lambert and Ms. Shocked, DeFoore takes pride in seeing his students achieve success, scoring recording contracts and critical acclaim.

“It means that I did my job and I’m through,” he said. “Wave goodbye, have a good trip, let me know if I can help out.”

He said he wants his students to become the songwriters they are, not copies of his style.
“I failed,” he said. “What I want is to turn out who they are.”

DeFoore’s parents introduced him to music at an early age. His mother played violin and piano. His father directed the church choir, and his brothers are all guitarists and songwriters.
“We slept with the radio going all night long,” he said. “That’s all we ever did.”

While he played throughout his youth, DeFoore’s musical career finally blossomed in 1964 after he graduated high school and was stationed in England with the U.S. Air Force.

While in playing for change, known as “busking,” in London, he met folk guitarist Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who invited him to Les Cousins, a folk bar in London’s Soho district.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” DeFoore said.

Surrounded by a subculture of guitar greats, he spent his time in the club absorbing knowledge from the city’s musicians.

After his military duty was up, DeFoore applied for a passport to stay in the country. On the form was a blank for occupation.

“I had no idea what I was, so I put musician,” DeFoore said. “That’s when I realized that was all I ever wanted to do. It was almost just a kid’s decision.”

He stayed in London six more years, writing commercial songs for the British ITV and playing the midnight shift at Les Cousins.

Then newly married, he returned in 1973 to Texas and enrolled in the music theory program at McMurry University in Abilene.

He said it was tough. Texas music had not caught up with what was being played overseas.
“I was doing a lot of singles, original music and what I’d done in London,” DeFoore said.
“Generally the quote was, ‘OK, yeah, but can you play “Tie the Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree?”’”

Although he was not a country musician, to find the most work, he started playing lead in a country band.

“The deal for me was, as long as I’m playing, I’m all right,” DeFoore said. “I’d have played any kind of style music if it was playing guitar. I’m a guitar fanatic, I guess.”

However, addictions, bad decisions and tumultuous relationships stole most of the band’s momentum.

“Drugs and alcohol dictated where we played and who heard us,” DeFoore said. “Addictions interfered with any good success.”

On Nov. 22, 1979, DeFoore joined Alcoholics Anonymous and has been sober since.
While he continued playing in the same clubs with the same musicians, he refused his previous temptations.

“I reached my bottom, and I didn’t consider turning around,” he said. “I think the music got better to me, and I became a better player.”

In 1989, he purchased the old Beckham Hotel intending to open a venue and moved to Mineola from Dallas.

A change of plans led him to opened DeFoore Music Institute out of a front room in the hotel. It was an opportunity to rebuild his name and his craft.

“I didn’t want to teach —” DeFoore said, stopping himself mid-sentence. “I like teaching, but I loved playing.”

Rather than focus on chords and scales, DeFoore decided to specialize his lessons in writing.
“I’m not going to get everybody famous or to the level they want,” he said. “I can teach them to enjoy it.”

He is filled with experiences and wisdom from learning the hard way, the perfect combination for a songwriter.

When his students get to the age where they play in clubs and bars, he said he starts a conversation about temptations and how to avoid setting up for disaster.
“They don’t need to do what I did,” he said.

His former student, Miss Musgraves, attributed her success to DeFoore’s lessons. She studied for five years at DeFoore’s studio before moving to Nashville and breaking into the music industry.
She recently signed a recording contract with Universal Music’s Lost Highway.

“He gave me the confidence to put down my idea, no matter how bad it was, and nurture it,” Ms. Musgraves said. “I’m super thankful for the lessons I got. It wasn’t your typical guitar lesson.”

He teaches a prison guard who is writing music for the first time in his life, teenagers throughout the community, as well as musicians interested in alternative rock and even electronic music.
The studio has grown to fit four teachers and offers bass, fiddle, piano, voice and violin lessons.
DeFoore tells an old joke about conversation between a dad and his son.

The dad asks, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and the son replies, “A musician.”
“You can either be a musician or you can grow up,” DeFoore said.

He managed to do both.
Published Nov. 28
Tyler Morning Telegraph

Published by Melissa Crowe

I’m Melissa: an adventure-seeking, story-telling, internet-loving journalist. I work in Seattle. You can find my work in the Puget Sound Business Journal where I use data to tell stories about the people, businesses and industries driving Washington state’s economy.

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