Tommy sat on the cold metal bench outside a little coffee shop in downtown McKinney. His raspy muffled voice crooned a soft country song, while aged yet agile fingers strummed across the well worn strings of a blue acoustic guitar. Salt and pepper hair brushed across a ruddy, bearded face as a crisp north wind kicked up. Tommy reached over to secure the two wrinkled dollar bills flapping inside the open guitar case. He carefully tucked the ends of the bills under the small stack of prized CDs bearing his image and that of Mable, his faithful companion of 37 years.
Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire soulfully echoed across the Square. Tommy's foot tapped along with each rhythmic beat. I dragged a wooden chair across the brick sidewalk, then parked myself a couple feet away from the real-life Texas troubadour. I enjoyed each rendition of old familiar tunes, as well as the original compositions inspired by nearly 40 years of life on the road.
"Tommy, would you mind telling me a little bit about yourself?" I asked when he took his first cigarette break. "Where are you from?"
"I was born in McKinney, Texas. Haven't been back here in over 30 years." His tone and demeanor became a bit more serious when he described his early childhood.
"Yep, I was born right here in McKinney. My folks got killed when I was 13. They wanted to put me in foster care, so I took off and rode the rails. Never looked back. Been traveling 'round the country ever since."
His eyes brightened and a little crooked smile appeared when he started talking about Mable. "We've been together for 37 years now. I was rummaging around in a dumpster looking for cans one day, when I ran across this old black guitar with a broken neck. She was in bad shape, but I fixed her up with some glue and tightened up her strings."
The adventures were mixed with making new friends and happy times, sprinkled with hard hungry days.
"We've walked across all these 48 states, just playing music for folks and living off what they put in my guitar case."
Tommy went on to describe the nomadic life of a traveling troubadour. "I've never run into anyone else who does this. It's an honest livin'. I don't beg," he said. "I just play my music, and if folks like what they hear, they drop a dollar or two in my case. Sometimes I'd ride the rails from one town to the next or just walk 'till I couldn't walk no more."
I listened as he carefully crushed the tiny cigarette butt beneath his worn out walking shoe and tossed it in the trash can beside the bench. "I don't stay in one town for more than a few days. Never had a wife or kids. Wouldn't be right, with me movin' round so much. Wouldn't change a thing if I could."
When I asked about Mable, he said she was named after his beloved grandmother. The old black acoustic guitar with hundreds of scrawled signatures from front to back, now sat in the window of Snug on the Square, just a few feet away. I asked if I could take a picture of him and Mable, so he walked over and took her out of the window. I could see the jagged repair on her neck and her strings were missing.
"Mable's retired," he said. "When you retire a guitar, you take off the strings. Need 'em for the next one."
Then he pointed out the spot where Elvis had scribbled his name one rainy night in '69 in Mobile, Alabama. But, he was just as proud of the signatures from a group of women that signed her after a Susan B. Koman walk a few years back.
"I decided that it all began here, so it should end here. I'm leaving Mable with Sandra and these nice folks. I know they'll take good care of her."
Tommy mentioned that when he came back to McKinney after being gone for so long, he strolled along the unfamiliar streets and asked around at a few shops and restaurants downtown to see if he could set up somewhere and play his guitar. Sandra Nichols, owner of Snug on the Square, was the only one who welcomed him and treated him with respect.
"That's when I knew my Mable would have a good home and a good family right here," he said. "They're going to keep her right there in the window."
I was intrigued by the story of Tommy and old Mable, especially the long and loving relationship the two shared. So, of course, I was curious about the new acoustic.
"Tommy, what's the name of your new guitar?" I was sure it would be another interesting story.
He turned his whiskered face and answered, "Haven't named her yet. She's gotta earn it."
After taking a few pictures and recording a couple segments of Tommy serenading and smiling at passers-by, I said farewell to the wandering minstrel from McKinney. I shook his talented weathered hand and dropped all the cash I had in the old black guitar case. Who knows when Tommy will be passing this way again?