Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs Rich Van De Carr was playing a blue guitar in a blue taxi cab when we spied him in the parking lot at Rotary Park. Oh yeah, and he was playing the blues.
The little hybrid car relies in part on alternative energy, but Van De Carr runs on blues power - as in, John Lee Hooker and Buddy Guy.
He works full-time in the maintenance department at Yampa Valley Medical Center all week. But on weekends, he moonlights driving a cab for Alpine Taxi. When the squawk box in his cab is quiet on a Sunday morning and dispatch isn't sending him any fares, he grabs his electric guitar out of the back seat and practices his minor pentatonic scales. Van De Carr props the sheet music up on the dashboard and gets after it.
I was so surprised to see a cab driver practicing his guitar last Sunday that, for a moment, I wondered if he was recharging the hybrid's battery with his scorching blues riffs. You're right - it sounds too good to be true, and it was.
Rich was tapping into some alternative energy, all right, just not the kind that can power a taxi cab.
Sunday morning strollers on the nearby Yampa River Core Trail were oblivious to Van De Carr's music. He plugs his guitar and headphones into a tiny Fender amplifier about the size of a deck of cards. It runs on a standard 9-volt battery.
A gregarious fellow, he handed me his axe through the driver's window last week, so I could dazzle him with a lick in the key of E. OK, Rich wasn't dazzled. However, I was impressed by the volume of sound that came out of the headphones.
The blues lit a slow-burning fire inside Van De Carr's soul about five years ago. He just didn't know it at the time.
"My girlfriend and I had an argument, and she left me," he explained. "That's when I took my guitar back out of the closet" after nearly 20 years.
The taxi driver soon began rediscovering his passion for the music of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. But he didn't start studying blues music until the summer of 2007. That's when he made a pilgrimage to Chicago, where he attended the National Guitar Workshop. And that's where he first heard Murali Coryell throwing down. It's where he was introduced to the classic bluesman Hubert Sumlin, and it's where he was invited to play onstage at the famous bar owned by blues immortal Buddy Guy.
"I didn't even know who Buddy Guy was the first night I went to the bar," Van De Carr confessed. "During an open-mic night, I asked Murali Coryell if I could play with him onstage, and he said, 'Sure man, I'd be honored!'"
That experience changed him. When Van De Carr returned home to Steamboat, he quickly sought out guitar instructor Neil Marchman. Soon afterward, he began carrying his axe in the back seat of his cab.
So, you're wondering, "Does this guy Rich play guitar for his passengers?"
The answer is "no." When a fare involves more than one passenger, Van De Carr stashes his guitar in the trunk. But when he only has one passenger, he just lays it in the back seat. And on more than one occasion, curious riders have asked and received permission to play for their driver.
That leaves open the possibility that someday Van De Carr will be dispatched to the airport, and his passenger will be Buddy Guy. And on the way back to Steamboat, the legendary bluesman will unlatch his guitar case, pull out his famed polka-dot Telecaster and begin educating the cabbie.
An even better scenario would be if Van De Carr showed up at the airport, and his assigned passengers were the ghosts of Robert Johnson and Stevie Ray Vaughan, traveling together. And then, the three of them rode off into the Twilight Zone and jammed for eternity. Yeah-h-h, that's the ticket.
The closest Van De Carr has come to that daydream was one January, when he almost picked up a familiar pop/rock musician at the airport.
"I had Kenny Loggins on my run sheet once, but I told the dispatcher I was a fan, and they pulled me off it. They don't want us mauling (celebrities)."
Don't worry about it, blues man - just keep practicing your blue notes in the seat of that blue cab. I'll be with you in spirit, brother.