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Playing drums (here with the Houseal Brothers Band) taught me how to get over stage fright, helped put me through college, and showed me how to treat people. (Below) Floyd Nupp taught me an early lesson in all those things.

Floyd & Frank Nupp


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Drum Lesson

by Phil Houseal


The first time I played drums professionally, I was terrified.

I’d never been inside a tavern, much less sat behind a drum set on stage. With an audience. Well, with people sitting in the general area, talking, drinking, and smoking.

I was experiencing that indefinable gulf between practicing and performing.

Pounding drums in the basement to a Buck Owens record is existentially different than performing in a real band playing Tiger by the Tail. Even though you are technically going through the same motions, it’s like the difference between singing in the shower and performing in Carnegie Hall.

So what did I do? I rushed. The adrenaline was churning so much that I took that beat and moved it along at an ever-increasing rate. The band - all veteran musicians - gallantly tried to hold me back. But I was so untested I did not realize I was rushing.

At the first break, the guitar player - Floyd - did a wise and wondrous thing, although I did not realize it until years later. As the rest of the band headed to the bar, Floyd set down his guitar and motioned me over to the side. He lit a cigarette, blew out the match, and gave me a conspiratorial wink. Drawing me close, he gestured to his brother Frank, who was ordering his Hamm’s beer.

“Phil, you are doing a great job,” he said, taking a deep puff. “But let me tell you a secret. That brother of mine? He’s a good rhythm guitar player, but he rushes.” He winked. “He can’t help it, he always is speeding up the songs. What I want you to do next set is try to keep him steady.” I listened and drank it all up, as serious as a 17-year-old farm boy at his first real gig could be. I nodded and set my jaw. I can do that, I reassured Floyd. “Good,” he said. “And I want you to promise me something - Frank gets his feelings hurt, so don’t tell him I told you this. Okay? Are you with me?”

We went on to a more relaxed rest of the gig. I worked diligently to “hold Frank back.” I played with The Swingmasters for several more years. That gig grounded me in performing real country music, put me through college, and launched me on the road for several years performing across the country in show and lounge bands.

It was many years later, and I was back in Wellman, Iowa. Floyd, ever the wanderer, happened to be in town. Somehow Frank, Floyd, and I ended up playing for a party at a local farm to commemorate the end of harvest season.

At the break, we gathered around the keg and reminisced about those early years. The topic of my very first professional gig came up. Floyd grinned, then poked me and said, “Phil, do you remember what I told you that night?”

I smiled. “Of course. You said that Frank always rushed, so my job on the drums was to hold him back.”

Floyed started laughing. “You know what?” he said. “Frank never rushed. I knew you were speeding up the songs, but I didn’t want to crush you on your first night in a band. So I made up that story just so I wouldn’t hurt your confidence.”

I gazed at him in wonder and the dawning of understanding (I was still pretty naive).

Brother Frank, standing nearby, took this all in. He gave the classic slow turn and glared at Floyd. “You mean,” he said, his voice rising in pitch with each measured word. “You mean you told him that I was rushing!” He set down his plastic cup, and took a deep breath. “Why, you no good, lying, S.O.B., I ought to teach you a lesson right now.”

But Floyd just laughed harder, leaning on the wall of the machine shed to keep from falling down. I started laughing, too.

Frank never did think it was funny.

I learned many things playing in the glow of neon beer signs. I learned to listen. I learned to relax while playing. I learned to improvise.

But it was a wise old guitar player who showed me how to handle people.