More Than The Strings: Tim Courtney
Tim Courtney takes a beat to decide on his next song. He cradles his chestnut guitar on his lap and casts his bright blue eyes on each of the faces of his moderately cramped audience chatting away in Midway Craft House’s bar. He knew his regulars, knew what they liked. A few graceful strums of his fingertips and “Here Comes the Sun” is floating out of the tiny speaker plugged into his instrument. Aside from the precariousness of his speaker halfway propped upon the counter next to a glass tip jar, the musician radiated an air of calculated cool that seemed to garner everyone’s attention effortlessly, as if his music inspired its own gravitational pull. A pull so strong even the bartender, previously busy with flitting from tap to patron, took a momentary pause to respectfully bob his head on the downbeats. More people carefully filter into the bar, intrigued by this bubble of peace seen from the street drifting in a convenience store slash bar on bustling Fry Street on a Friday night.
More affectionately known around the Denton area as ‘Tim the Guitar Guy,’ Courtney made Denton his home some thirteen years ago and has never looked back. Chances are if you’re familiar with the local music scene, you’ve either heard his nickname in friendly conversation or chanced to hear him play at least once at a random venue. Although he is known for his classically refined cover performances of pop and rock songs, he never shies away from a good Beatles tribute.
But classical guitar was not his first calling. Before a guitar had ever had the chance to grace his fingertips, Courtney will admit he was first drawn to the keyboard.
One fateful day when he was 15, Courtney happened to be passing by a music shop when he saw a keyboard sitting in the window. Soon afterwards he gathered all the money he had stockpiled from his part-time newspaper route and shoved it all at the shopkeeper, eager to begin practicing on the shiny faux-ivory keys. He quickly took a liking to it and enrolled himself in private piano lessons. However, the excitement of the keyboard only lasted a few months before it was replaced by the fierce pull of the nylon string at age 16.
Growing up in Buffalo, New York Courtney was surrounded with rock and roll on all sides as a teenager. He often listened to music that fell under something he calls ‘tough guy rock’ that was a far cry from the big hair and colorful pop of Prince his classmates were into. As for when Courtney made the leap from rock to classical guitar, he has Randy Rhoades to thank for that. Before his untimely death, Rhoades was known for injecting his love for classical guitar into heavy metal chords when he played with artists like Ozzy Osbourne and bands like Quiet Riot.
“I was so enamored with what the guitar alone could do versus what the guitar could do just playing chords behind a singer that was screaming his head off,” Courtney said. “That acoustic sound always amazed me.”
As a child Courtney went to a small Catholic school in Buffalo. A school, he remembers, he dreaded attending because of the group of boys who would pick on him for having a large mass of fat just beneath his skin that used to engulf the right side of his face.
“I was an easy target,” Courtney said, absently stroking the soda can he was holding with his index finger. “People were like, ‘Alright, he looks different. Let’s fuck with him.’”
This bullying went on for much of his young life until he picked up the guitar in high school.
“All of a sudden, I noticed more and more people taking interest in me,” he said.
And although Courtney had certainly gone through hardships in his life – the incessant childhood bullying, the loss of his mother and father – he never lived up to the depressed, type-A ‘troubled artist’ stereotype. When he’s performing, he thinks of himself as a man hiding behind his guitar just making the sounds he showed up to make.
“I wasn’t trying to put myself out there as an artist and make waves,” Courtney said. “I was just trying to sit in a corner and make music that people could listen to and enjoy.”
But when he finds himself in between breaks for his shows, Courtney loves to mingle with his audience in an effort to grasp the best music selection for the crowd and read the room. His personable demeanor and quick wit make the reconnaissance feel like catching up with an old friend.
“Tim’s the kind of guy you can not see for a month or two and then hang out with him. It’s like you just pick up where you left off,” 13-year friend and cycling buddy David Tracero said.
It’s difficult not to like the guy. Courtney balances his sarcastic humor and work ethic flawlessly, knowing when it’s time to schmooze the audience and when to get back to work.
“He’s your hilariously funny best friend,” duo partner Carolyn Keyes said. “He’s always funny, but he’s also always ready to do what needs to be done.”
He left his home in Buffalo to attend Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, and upon completing his masters in guitar he found the University of North Texas and decided to take a chance at a doctorate degree. He didn’t finish his doctorate, however, because he was supporting himself as a full-time student and simply could not make ends meet.
“I was paying for school out of pocket and my pocket dictated that maybe it was time for a break,” Courtney said. “And that break has lasted six years.”
And although Courtney would like to go back to UNT, he knows that after such a long period away from the program, he would have to retake and pay for too many classes to get his hat back in the ring. His time at UNT has not been forgotten though, and he often reminisces about the sense of community the guitar program had given him as a student. While competition was prevalent as it is in so many other music programs, it was always a healthy dose, and everyone always tried to helped each other.
He strived to recreate as much of that same sense of community he could in the classical guitar classes he taught back at El Centro Community College and the private lessons he teaches in Denton now.
His time at the El Centro campus in Dallas, while fun and a steady income in the beginning, opened his eyes to the fickleness and bureaucracy community college music programs are capable of.
“The music department, when I started, was really strong,” Courtney said. “Then, little by little, enrollment plummeted.”
Students just didn’t go to El Centro to become serious musicians and soon Courtney had lost a significant number of his students, effectively freeing up his Tuesday/Thursday timeslot that was once overflowing with lectures. It wasn’t until a full-time professor notified him of his upcoming retirement from the music program that he saw a way to advance his teaching career.
In an attempt to get a leg up on the competition, he asked a few musically inclined friends how best to rewrite his resume. The most memorable reply he had gotten was from David Tracero, a fellow guitarist who headed Grayson College’s music department at the time.
“Well, first thing going against you is you’re a guitar player.”
And although Tracero had explained the chances of him getting the job were slim because of his instrument and lack of a doctorate degree, Courtney went ahead and compiled all the necessary paperwork to be submitted for review. During the process, he was up against a few other applicants but wasn’t particularly worried because most of them were outsiders. Nothing a lecturer with a master’s degree who had been with the school for seven years had to worry about, right?
“At the time, I’d thought they would at least give me a fair shake,” Courtney said, arms folding loosely across his chest. “They never even gave me an interview.”
After his experience at El Centro, Courtney prefers private lessons over institutionalized teaching. On Wednesdays, he teaches at the Denton Senior Center and he loves that he can sit down with his class to casually guide them through “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Ode to Joy.” He prefers disengaging from the standard teaching style that requires students to take notes. Instead, he takes a more practical approach and designs lesson plans that force students to play regularly throughout the lesson in order to learn.
The rest of his work week includes sessions with students privately enrolled in the Childbloom Guitar Program. However, since the facility moved out to Fishtrap Road on the outskirts of Denton a year ago, Courtney is worried families may stop scheduling lessons because of the inconvenient distance. His worries thus far have been largely unfounded, but he can think of one student who he has seen a lot less of since the move.
But when he’s not teaching guitar, he’s either playing it or cycling during the crisp hours of the morning on the weekends. Last year Courtney biked a whopping 10,000 miles in his spare time and celebrated the news with an Instagram post and a friendly beer at Midway Craft House. Cycling had become a proactive way to clear his head.
“I couldn’t afford a therapist,” Courtney said. “I’ve just got a really nice bike.”
He jokes that he doesn’t know whether he’s a guitarist who loves to cycle, or a cyclist who happens to play guitar. But given his mileage count, it’s probably the latter.
He definitely can’t guess where he’ll be in 10 years, but Courtney’s nomination for the Denton Music Awards in classical guitar motivated him to keep gunning for what he wants most. He wants to perform full-time as part of the duo band, dZuo, he and flutist Carolyn Keyes created a few years ago. And through this partnership Courtney has learned to execute pieces he never dreamed he could emulate. He and Keyes have adapted and honed pieces from Japanese works that were not necessarily meant for their instruments. What was once intended for the shakuhachi, a long bamboo pipe played similarly to the clarinet, and the koto, a normally stationary wooden instrument with 13 to 17 strings running along its top, has been perfectly translated by dZuo into a first-rate flute and guitar lineup.
The group plays shows throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth area and are slated to perform a piece from their Japanese program titled Shikyoku Ichiban at the 2018 National Flute Association convention in August.
For dZuo performance updates, booking info or more information on Tim Courtney visit www.dzuoduo.com.
Header image courtesy of Madison McQueen
Header image design courtesy of Mallory Frenza