Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Best Slide Guitar Player I Ever Knew: A Suicide Story

Stan Hamm was one of the best guitar players I ever knew. He was without a doubt the best acoustic slide player I ever knew. After working for a number of years in the music business and hearing some of the great guitar players of my time it takes a lot to impress me. Stan impressed me, and the memory of seeing him play, still has a lasting impression.

Stan was tall, over six feet with dirty blonde hair. He was slim with decent muscle tone due to the years spent on his family’s farm and all of the carpentry work he had done. He had the tendency to wear a beard for a month or so and then change his look in some way, either by shaving, changing his hair style, something. He wasn’t overly handsome but he was far from ugly. He could have had many more girlfriends than he did, but he was complicated with a lot of deep thoughts and concerns he wasn’t afraid of discussing.

I first met Stan while attending Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas. Hillsboro is a small town and Tabor is a small Mennonite Brethren college. When I first met him I didn’t know he was a musician. We were involved in some classes together and I found out that he enjoyed some of the same Christian artists I did. The one that brought us together was Larry Norman. I enjoyed how Larry Norman used Rock ‘N’ Roll to address social issues and Stan was of the same opinion. It didn’t take long before Stan showed up at my house one evening with guitar in hand.

At that time I was a frustrated musician who had not taken the time or made the effort to learn to play my bass guitar in an appropriate way. I dabbled with a harmonica and tried to sing but really wasn’t that good. I’ll never forget the first time I heard Stan play. I was amazed at how fast his fingers were and how good his music felt. When he brought out that old glass pop bottle neck and started playing slide guitar I was blown away. I had never heard anything like it. He could play everything from classic blues to gospel renditions which he often did at church. His slide version of Amazing Grace is still one of the best renditions I have ever heard. His fingering with both his left and right hand were so effortless, yet the music was without mistake and nothing short of incredible. On some of the things he would sing, and he wasn’t all that bad vocally either.

One of the things I always appreciated in my friends was their honesty and Stan was one of the most honest people I have ever known. I’ll never forget sitting out in the garage one evening, Stan playing guitar and me trying to play harmonica and sing some of those Larry Norman songs. It wasn’t long before Stan told me, "I don’t really think you should sing. It’s not that you can’t sing but you can’t sing the style we are playing." While those comments hurt a little I appreciated him for his honesty. His honesty also caused me to take my singing and playing more seriously. Through the brutality of his honesty I was challenged to be a better singer and a much better musician. I realized that Stan was good for me and would help me not only become a better musician, but a better person.

Over the years Stan and my family became close. For a year and a half we lived in separate attached apartments. We kept the doors between the apartments open and had a common room together that we called our family room. We lived in a community with other close Christian friends but while those families shared their own apartment space Stan and my family took it a step further. The television and our reading materials were in the family room. Our daughter was only 3 or 4 at the time and Stan would watch her as we went to the store or ran other errands. We looked after his things when he wanted us to. We shared most all possessions because we were like family. We even shared a meal together each evening. What was ours was his, and what was his was ours.

Over the years Stan became involved in the jail ministry I organized in college. He was among the first to care and respond to the people we tried to help and was there each week. There were four of us that were regulars in this ministry and we drew close over the four years we worked together. Stan was also involved at church, with student prayer groups on campus, and Bible studies. As far as I was concerned, he had it all together and we had a love for each other that was hard to describe.

Stan and I shared a number of heartaches together. We both had difficulties with our families and there were times we shared those heartaches with each other. He was having some troubles with his folks and their newfound "Charismatic" faith. I on the other hand had difficulty with my family who were all strict Republicans and very conservative. One Christmas Stan went home with me to Tennessee. That particular Christmas was unusual in Tennessee because the temperature was in the 70’s and the mountains were beautiful. We took a 4 mile hike up into the mountains to one of the beautiful waterfalls in the National Forest surrounding Erwin Tennessee. We found some popular tree leaves to cover ourselves with after we decided to strip down and get into the pools surrounding the waterfalls and take some photos.

Later that day we went home and spent time with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. It wasn’t unusual that when we got together my family would get into some deep philosophical or political argument, this time was no different. While I was so hurt that I was ready to leave and drive back to Kansas, Stan was among the first to be at my side, telling me that my family was worth more than any political view. It was important to make up and see to it that we didn’t have this type of separation, especially at Christmas. It was times like this that I knew Stan was a dear friend. I was there for him when he needed me and he was there for me when I needed him.

Some years later I ended up graduating from college and Stan and I went our separate ways. He spent time in Hillsboro, Oklahoma and Colorado and I was in South Carolina. It was almost 3 years later before I saw him again. My wife, daughter and I were visiting Hillsboro Kansas during Easter. While there we had decided to spend as much time with Stan as possible. I could see at the time that Stan was having some difficulties. He was focused more on the problems around him and didn’t seem happy. He was disillusioned with the church and the Christians around him. He was tired of seeing them talk about love while never showing love. I had not seen Stan like this before, at least not to this extent. We spent a good deal of time together and before I departed to go back to South Carolina I told him that if he ever needed anything to give me a call.

I had been back in South Carolina for almost a year when I received a phone call late one night. It was Stan on the other end of the line and he had awakened my wife and me. I was surprised to hear from him but was pleased. I quickly sat up in the bed and told my wife who it was on the other end. We had not been talking long when Stan began to ask questions about South Carolina. He wanted to know what the people were like, how hard was it to find a job and things of this nature. He than asked if I would be willing to let him move in with us if he moved there. My wife, Mary Jane and I were surprised because we still maintained a close relationship with him and considered him a part of our family. He would always be welcome, he should know that. He told us of his frustrations of living in a small town and living around “supposed Christians." The conversation lasted for close to an hour and I didn’t get much sleep that night due to the excitement of the conversation and the opportunity to talk to my old friend Stan. To be honest I was hoping that he would be moving in rather soon.

My wife was a little less optimistic after much of the discussion of the opportunity of Stan moving in with us in South Carolina. She had remembered his wonderful habit of eating raw garlic. She used to tell him that she could smell him coming up the stairs of the apartment before she heard him. Stan had also been experiencing some problems we were not to aware of and she felt it would be a good idea to find out what was going on in his life before having him move in. While there were several discussions between my wife and me, they were mute, Stan was welcome and we hoped to hear from him soon. Despite my effort to contact Stan over the next several months I was unable to do so. He was moving from one place to another and not many people knew where he was at or how to reach him.

A few months later I accepted a job in Hendersonville, North Carolina. It was only 35 miles from where we lived in Greenville, South Carolina but we moved none the less. I took the job as the Director of a Rehabilitation program in for mentally ill adults. We decided to go ahead and move despite it still being within commuting distance. Things were going great when I received a letter one day from an old friend back in Kansas.

My college had written a brief paragraph in its alumni newsletter regarding my new job. One of the mutual friends I had with Stan wrote me a letter. It was a surprise when I got the letter and I was excited. It started off in the traditional tone, "Hey Mike, it’s Mark here in Kansas. I recently read about you working in Mental Health and I am doing the same thing type of thing here in Newton, Kansas." There was more small talk, which was exciting to me, but then, the shocker, "By the way don’t know if you know or not, but do you know that Stan is dead?"

To say the least my emotions went from the high of hearing from an old friend to instant shock. I’ll never forget my wife who was with me that day at work. She could tell something was wrong from my silence and expression. "What’s wrong Mike?" she asked.

"Stan’s dead" was all I could say.

That evening I called Mark. I needed to know the details. It is hard to explain, that is to know the details, but I couldn’t control the urge. Mark was convinced that Stan was Bipolar and that he had difficulty with all of the things going on. Stan was in Colorado when he had killed himself and was by all evidence, alone. I couldn’t then and still have a hard time accepting that Stan is dead. I often wonder, dream and think about the possibility that maybe he really isn’t dead. I have had to come to accept over the years that he is dead and a dear friend is no longer around.

I have had many regrets, questions and thoughts over the years, "Is there anything I could have done?" "Why didn’t I see something after we had the phone conversation several months earlier?" Why did others put so much pressure on Stan?" "Dear God what a waste of a wonderful life." I thought these things and more but I finally realized that Stan was responsible for his actions. Did he think about the hurt he would create from his actions? I don’t think so if he would have he wouldn’t have killed himself. I have also thought about what was he thinking and going through.

The more I have thought and prayed about it the more I am convinced that the terrible disease of Mental Illness must be treated and understood. I have come to the conclusion that the church is to blame to a small extent for not fully understanding and addressing the needs of the mentally ill. Much of Stan’s confusion and hurt was the result of religious confusion. Many may say this is why you shouldn’t mix religion with the treatment of mental illness. After working in the field for some years I couldn’t disagree more. I am absolutely confident; this is why you must address religious thoughts, convictions, and delusions in the treatment of this disease. To refuse to do so will only allow the confusion to remain in the life of the person struggling.

It has been a number of years now since Stan left us. I still have the pictures we took on the mountain on that Christmas day when he provided me encouragement. I have the Testament our family gave him one Christmas when we lived together in Kansas. I have the recorded music he wrote and played. I listen to it often, still amazed at the ability of this individual who lost hope. This friend who was the best slide guitar player I ever heard play. I wish I could tell Stan one more time that I loved him. I wish I could be there to cry with him, but I can’t. I can only hope that others that need to hear this message will read it, and ultimately, respond to those they love.

The following video addresses the issue of suicide, just click on the video to view. If the video doesn't appear, click on the following link:


Here is another video from old friend Rick Cua, former bass player for the Outlaws, Don't Say Suicide:


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