The Fate of Genius: Guthrie Trapp Flirts with Disaster

By Keith Wicker

Genius burns brightly. Like moths, the rest of us are attracted to its brilliance. We want to stare at it, study it, bask in its light. But for the genius, the intensity of the burning often means that he or she doesn't live to mellow middle-age. In no field of endeavor is this truer than for guitarists. Most of the great ones, the truly ground-breaking ones, have died young. Do we need a list? Django Reinhardt, Joe Pass, Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Robert Johnson. It's too depressing to continue. In Louisville, in small clubs, there is such a guitar player, one whose white-hot ferocity makes me fear for his mortality. His name is Guthrie Trapp. Hurry, see and hear him now, because he's definitely too good for this town and probably too good to live long.

Guthrie hails from "the beach." Not the perfect one from the bad movie, but one near Pensacola, Florida. He plays in a band called Filthy Rich, which has played Louisville several times and enjoys accolades from all who hear them; usually, the sentence "The guitar player's great" is part of the praise. Guthrie has moved to Louisville in part to be close to Nashville; in part to be with his girlfriend Erin, whose model-like beauty could be the subject of another article; and in part to play with local musicians.

Most guitar players at some point reach a plateau and need help. It's at this point that we go to instructors at our local music store or over at the community college. The best guitar teacher I had was a graduate of the Berkley School of Music in Boston. He would demonstrate a song for me, and my jaw would drop. "You're great," I'd manage to groan. "Listen to Django Rinehardt," he would advise. "Everyone needs to learn humility."

Guitar players of Louisville, be warned: Guthrie Trapp, who just might be a reincarnation of Django, will teach you humility. Guthrie grew up listening to bluegrass, jazz and blues. He has never studied formally but claims that he's learned all he knows by listening to the records. He's heard Django, of course, but says, "I've never learned any of his licks; I just try to imitate his style." Since moving to Louisville, Guthrie has been pursuing acoustic projects and rediscovering a love of the acoustic guitar; nevertheless, he still includes "choking a Telecaster" as one of his favorite activities. In what may be another grim foreshadowing, Guthrie lists Danny Gatton as one of his primary influences. When I struggled to remember the details of Gatton's demise, Guthrie filled me in: "I have it from reliable sources," he said, "that Gatton had a stroke. After that, he couldn't play anymore, so he didn't want to live. He shot himself." Once again, the blind focus, the obsession of genius results in untimely death.

The Lighthouse on Frankfort Avenue is quickly gaining a reputation as the best bluegrass club in town. Some nights, jeans and sneaker-wearing patrons entertain themselves with massive jam sessions. Other nights, musicians wearing suits gather around a single microphone to make the high, lonesome sound. On Thursday nights, however, the stage belongs to Guthrie Trapp and his fellow guitarist, Chris Brandstat. While Guthrie's build might best be described as "wiry," Chris is a broad-shouldered giant. While Guthrie's hair is short, Chris has a flowing mane. Though their physiognomies are different, when they play, they come together like Homer and Jethro, like Charlie and Bill, like Ralph and Carter. Chris is a hard-core bluegrass musician. He sings like a young Tony Rice and his flat picking sparkles like a stolen hubcap. When Guthrie's solos kick in, the bluegrass instrumentals, such as "Beaumont Rag," become syncopated symphonies of rock, jazz, swing, and ragtime. Each time I think, "That one was `out there,' so now he'll come back to the melody," Guthrie takes it "out there" a bit further. As the set moves along, they shift from bluegrass songs to swing numbers. With "San Antonio Rose," Guthrie is suddenly in his element. He tells me, "I like the swing stuff the best. I listened to a lot of West Coast swing. In that there's more than just the I, IV, V, like the Kansas City Stuff. The West Coast stuff is more I, vi, ii, V, which gives you more freedom for improvisation."

How long will he be here? Guthrie isn't pleased with Louisville's tight-fisted ways with musicians. "I was making $900 a week back at the beach," he grumbles. "Here some clubs want you to play for the door! I feel like I'm back to paying my dues, but I already paid those dues when I was teenager." He is enjoying the proximity to Nashville; in fact, the day after we spoke, he was off to Music City for a gig with Alan Rhody. Since moving here and taking the frequent foray down I-65, he's met Sam Bush and the British giant of the Telecaster, Ray Flacke. "I haven't got to play with those guys yet," he laughs, "but I've met them."

How long will he be here? He is a man obsessed with music and his instrument. He is young, relatively unknown, hungry for success, and talented almost beyond description. Will he make a deal at the crossroads? Will he take an ill-fated plane ride?

Hear him now, while he's in your backyard and his flame seethes, waiting for a dose of recognition to make him a signal fire that all will turn toward. Tell your friends and be praised for you prescience.

Guthrie Trapp and Chris Brandstat play every Thursday night at the Lighthouse on Frankfort Avenue from 9 until 11.