Somewhere out there, so deep into the West . . .
that Google Earth has yet to chart it, there’s a crystalline lake tucked half way between the village of Brigadoon and the mountain kingdom of Shangri-La. At the edge of the lake nestles McGuire’s Landing. If you’re ever lucky enough to come across that charmed locale, you’ll see a sign tacked to the front of the general store and bait shop that reads, “APPEARING NIGHTLY: PETE HUTTLINGER & HIS GUITAR.” Stay to listen. The guy’s supernaturally good. And, man, can he tell a story!
Pete Huttlinger & The Life Well-Lived
Now if you believe the newspapers, Pete died on January 15, 2016 in Nashville at the age of 54. But newspapers never get it all right, do they? And Pete was always full of surprises.
McGuire’s Landing is Pete’s magnum opus, the rapturous musical incarnation of his dream and vision. We’ll get back to this later. First, though, let’s re-trace the winding path that brought him there.
Born in Washington, D. C., Pete descended from two lines of prominent journalists. His maternal grandfather, Fred Walker, was an editor of the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, reporting directly to its owner and publisher, William Randolph Hearst. Pete’s father, Joseph, was a White House correspondent and publisher of his own avidly read newsletter on the oil industry.
“My dad took my mom to the White House on their first date, and while they were walking around, President Truman came out and said, ‘Hi, Joe.’ That got Mom’s attention.”
When Pete’s father died in 1964--when Pete was three--his mother moved with her six children to northern California. There he began contending with another massive adversity. Although outwardly a sunny, rambunctious kid, he was born with his internal organs reversed and a critically damaged heart. From his teenage years onward, he underwent an array of surgeries and procedures that would have crushed a lesser spirit. But Pete thrived once he discovered the healing power of music.
“When I was around nine, my sister married a guy from Virginia who played old-time banjo—the frailing, clawhammer style. I really looked up to him. I was very excited when he’d come to visit and bring his banjo.”
Thus inspired, Pete began taking banjo lessons but soon switched to guitar. By the time he finished high school, he was such a proficient guitarist that he was accepted into Berklee College of Music, where he subsequently excelled in music theory and harmony—and where he picked up spending money playing bluegrass music in the Boston subways. He graduated from Berklee with honors in 1984, after which he regularly returned to his alma mater to speak and conduct workshops.
Like virtually every other hot guitarist in the universe, Pete, after graduation, immediately headed for Nashville, where the competition was fierce and the possibilities endless. He spent several seasons playing in bands at the Opryland amusement park and working recording sessions. One of those sessions was being produced by Kris O’Connor, John Denver’s road manager and co-producer. When O’Connor saw that Pete could—and did—play banjo, dobro, and mandolin as well as guitar on the session, he invited him to join Denver’s band. Pete toured the world as Denver’s lead guitarist from 1994 until the star’s death in 1997. He also played on Denver’s records and TV appearances. In 1995, Pete released his debut album, Catch & Release. Denver invited Pete to sell the new CD at his merchandise table during concerts. This was, and is, rare for a star of Denver’s level to share in that prime real estate.
“John was the consummate entertainer. He knew how to read an audience, and he knew delivery better than anyone else I’ve ever worked with.”
It was while touring with Denver that Pete wrote an instrumental piece he called “McGuire’s Landing.” Denver liked it so much he demanded Pete tell him the scene he visualized when he was writing it. Pete said he imagined a girl standing on the shore and looking out to sea for her lover’s return. Impressed by the image Denver asked if he could write lyrics for the song. But he died in a plane crash before that could happen.
After Denver’s death, Pete began making a name for himself as a solo performer—even as he was providing instrumental backing for such notables as LeAnn Rimes, Sara Evans, Brad Paisley, Wynonna, Donna Summer, Brenda Lee, Engelbert Humperdinck, and George Burns. In 2000, he won the National Fingerpick Guitar Championship and soon after emerged as one of the Nashville Chamber Orchestra’s most popular guest soloists.
Grammy award winning guitarist Steve Vai heard Pete play in California and was sufficiently dazzled enough to sign him to his Favored Nations label, which, in 2002, released Pete’s second album Naked Pop. The label also backed Pete’s national tour with fellow guitar slingers Tommy Emmanuel and Peppino D’Agonstino. Then Hot Tuna founder Jorma Kaukonen joined the list of Pete admirers and thereafter regularly featured him as a performer and instructor at his Fur Peace Ranch.
In 2004, Pete was one of only three acoustic guitarists invited to play at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, an event he played again in 2007 and 2010.
Early in his solo era, Pete began working with publicist and artist manager Erin Morris. Over the years, the business connection blossomed into a romance, and the two were married in 2006. They would go on to form an extraordinarily fruitful partnership that produced and marketed Pete’s albums, concerts and camps, as well as his instructional DVDs and books.
Their special relationship, which included a long period during which Erin functioned not only as Pete’s manager but also as his booker, caregiver and chief roadie, is chronicled in their richly inspirational book, Joined at the Heart: A Story of Love, Guitars, Resilience and Marigolds. Working in league and in love, they became one the most potent creative forces on the independent music scene.
In March 2007, Huttlinger made his triumphant debut at Carnegie Hall, appearing there with pianist Chris Nole and vocalist Mollie Weaver in a performance that incited spontaneous bursts of applause throughout the show and a sustained standing ovation at the end. The Carnegie Hall performance coincided with the release of Huttlinger’s album, Things Are Looking Up. Twelve of the 15 songs in the collection are the ace guitarist’s own compositions. It includes a spellbinding version of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
That same year, LeAnn Rimes, with whomPete had already toured, chose him to back her in the BBC-TV series, Live From Abbey Road. Excerpts of that session can be seen on YouTube, as can dozens of Pete’s other performances, chief among them that whimsical crowd favorite in which he undertakes to play all the parts on Steve Wonder’s “Superstition” simultaneously. While utterly serious about the quality of his playing, Pete flashes his humor in every performance.
His good humor and patience made him a superb teacher, a fact testified to by the wealth of bestselling instructional material he created and the many well-attended guitar camps. Guitar Player magazine dubbed him a “guitar sensei.”
Acoustic Guitar, Guitar Player, Fretboard Journal, Premier Guitar, Fingerstyle Guitar and Vintage Guitar have all accorded him cover stories and profiles. Collings Guitars has had a long and supportive relationship with Pete. The company has recently created a second signature Pete Huttlinger model with a design that spotlights Pete’s love of flyfishing. The first signature model was created in 2011.
In late 2010, Pete suffered a near fatal stroke that for days paralyzed his right side and stole his speech. With a life-saving surgery and by exerting enormous effort (as was his habit), he slowly overcame the paralysis and was playing rudimentary guitar again within three weeks. He’d hardly had time to savor this triumph, however, when he was devastated by end-stage heart failure. This blow was so serious he had to be life-flighted from Vanderbilt University Medical Center, near his home in Nashville, to Texas Heart Institute in Houston, where he spent the next four months recovering and adjusting to the Ventricular Assist Device (heart pump) which was implanted in his right ventricle. From then on he wore a permanently attached battery pack and controller in a bag over his shoulders. Always the trouper, it was only a matter of time before he was weaving his heart pump into his comic routines.
“Survival is fine—as a starting point. But my message to the world is: Don’t just live—live well.”
Once back on his feet and working the road, Pete was finally able to complete McGuire’s Landing as an album and book. In it, he created a world where all the hearts are strong and music comes along with the daily bread. It’s a world that flourishes untarnished, even as Pete failed to completely survive the stroke that finally laid him low. We say “completely” because his legacies of compassion and resilience are still intact and vital—and his music is as transformative as ever.
Just ask the folks at McGuire’s Landing.