Port Lavaca police chief is a guitar pickin' man

Jan. 17, 2011 at 5:05 p.m.
Updated Jan. 16, 2011 at 7:17 p.m.

Port Lavaca Police Chief John Stewart, above, plays guitar at the Six Mile Bar & Grill in the Six Mile Community on Friday. Stewart has been playing the guitar since he was 6 years old.

Port Lavaca Police Chief John Stewart, above, plays guitar at the Six Mile Bar & Grill in the Six Mile Community on Friday. Stewart has been playing the guitar since he was 6 years old.

SIX MILE - A quiet-faced lawman, Port Lavaca's John Stewart walked into Six Mile Bar and Grill. He set down his guitar case and got ready to play.

By day, Stewart serves as chief of police. He makes arrests and runs the police department, but every once in awhile, he gets to step out, away from the badge.

Stewart has played guitar since he was 6 years old.

Now, most Friday evenings will find him down at the Six Mile's only bar. A tall, silent figure with a watchful, peaceful face as he and the other members of 1090 Line - they just picked a name - run through country tunes, standards, rock songs and anything the enthusiastic crowd wants to hear.

It all started about three years ago, when Stewart and neighbor Justin Roeben started talking. They found they both like music and both played guitars.

Soon, they found themselves hanging around Roeben's garage most evenings, running through songs, and riffing off each other while Stewart sang.

"We just started talking and it turns out he's played for years," Roeben said. Roeben admitted he was surprised to learn about Stewart, who has worked as a law enforcement officer since he got out of the Army in 1972.

Stewart doesn't recall why he received a guitar when most are learning to read and write.

"I don't know what it was about it. I just wanted to play," he said, leaning back in his chair.

The guitar was an old beat-up instrument that Stewart and his father glued together and restrung to make it usable.

He had a few lessons on the instrument, but over the years, most of everything he learned, he taught himself.

As a kid growing up in central Texas, Stewart would form bands with any of the other kids who could play.

After years playing on the old glued-together Soundbox he'd started with, Stewart decided he wanted a new guitar, a dark red, single pick-up Les Paul Junior.

He wanted the guitar and the 14-year-old worked all summer in the watermelon fields to earn $200 to buy it.

He grew up during the heyday of rock 'n' roll, learning licks from the songs on the radio and spinning records that played Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and the Beatles.

As he got older, the music just got better.

"I was listening to the Stones, the Beatles, all of those guys. They were playing when I was learning to play and I cut my teeth on that," Stewart said.

When he enlisted in the Army in 1966, the Les Paul went with him.

During his time in the service, the officers asked if any of the men knew how to play. Stewart raised his hand and soon became a part of an Army band.

"It was great. We would play shows, and our guys could get weekend passes when no one else could," Stewart said, grinning.

In the Army, he became part of the military police, and after serving for a few years, he got out and went to work for the Austin Police Department. His path as a man of the law was set.

In the 1970s, Austin had a thriving music scene, but drugs were also a part of that scene, so Stewart steered clear.

It was his job to enforce the law and the law was not on the side of illegal drugs.

"Yeah, they could play, but they were uncomfortable with me, and I was uncomfortable with them," Stewart said. "I just didn't want to associate with anyone involved in things like that," Stewart said.

From then on, he kept to himself, playing music on his own. He took guitar lessons, worked on his technique and haunted local guitar shops.

Working as a police officer, Stewart has seen some of the worst of mankind over the years. The music helped him get away from it all.

After a long day, he'd come home, take out his guitar and, guitar in hand, he would step away from the world for awhile.

"It helps. Just getting your mind off of it for a little bit helps," Stewart said.

Then, three years ago, Stewart found out that Roeben could play.

They started holding jam sessions in Roeben's garage - running through any tune they came across and felt like playing. Then guitarist Robert Dunham joined the group. They had a bass player sit in one night. Then they found Mike Ward, who wanted to play drums. A few months ago, the group turned up at the bar, the only bar in Six Mile, and set up their gear beneath the red, white and blue spotlights and started to play.

Now, a crowd turns out every other Friday to hear the group. They never rehearse. There's no lead singer, or lead guitar and each member takes a turn at lead or playing solo riffs by lifting a hand or nodding a head.

On this particular Friday night, the plywood floors are thumping, reverberating as Stewart, with a nod of his head, pulls the opening licks of "Tequila Sunrise" from his guitar.

The crowd recognizes the song and claps with approval.

Stewart gives a small nod of acknowledgement and a smile plays beneath the neat white whiskers of his mustache.

"It's great playing. Playing with these guys, it's just about having a good time, about having fun," Stewart said.

Port Lavaca resident Kelvin Kartchner said he was surprised the first time he heard Stewart play.

"Whenever you see John, in the newspapers and things, he's out there arresting people and being a police officer. Then to see him come in and play here, and he's just a whole different person," Kartchner said.

Even Roeben admitted he was a little surprised to learn the chief could play, but said he shouldn't have been.

"It doesn't matter what walk of life you come from. If you've got music in common, you could be a skid row bum, but you can still sit down and play," Roeben said. A smile opened up across his face. "John can play."



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