The love of my life, and I do mean this in the biggest way possible, came down with Parkinson’s in 2016.
W. T. actual. F.
Big, strong, and vibrant when we met 40 years ago, and now — weak as a kitten and racked with pain. I cannot stand it! We recently had a virtual doctor’s appointment (one benefit out of this COVID mess) with his neurologist and after we described the laundry list of new ailments, the doctor looked straight into the camera, into Karl’s eyes, and said, “It looks like we have reached a new level in the progression of your Parkinson’s. I don’t like it. And I can’t stop it.”
I don’t like it and I can’t stop it. His words rattled around in my head for days. That is true about a lot of things, I guess. It is certainly true of all the losses that pile up as the years fly by. Gerald Sittser said it best in his book A Grace Disguised, a book in which he describes the deep grief he encountered after his mother, wife, and daughter were killed by a drunk driver: “I did not get over the loss of my loved ones; rather, I absorbed the loss into my life, like soil receives decaying matter, until it became part of who I am.”
Parkinson’s. What a shit show! We don’t like it. And we can’t stop it. With each new symptom we feel a little piece of us fading away. His car is gone, and with it, his independence. Fear and anxiety now overshadow confidence and self-assurance. His public identity is slipping away. Singing is getting more difficult. Playing guitar is proving to be more of a frustration than a joy.
We don’t like it. We can’t stop it. But what we can do is reframe it and reflect on the good stuff. Perhaps strike another tune using the same notes.
One day this week we were talking about his guitars—anything is better than rehashing doctors appointments and filling pill boxes. We were reminiscing about the guitars he has owned, past and present, the ones he kept and the ones that got away, the ones he wished he would have held onto. There is an emotional connection between a musician and his instrument, something we accountants will never understand. But it’s fun to hear the stories.
We still have some of his guitars hanging on the walls of our home. Others are long gone, having served a good purpose. Our conversation took us through the many twists and turns of a bold and adventurous life, with each guitar a little guidepost along the way. Each one purchased, each one traded or sold, each one gifted to him or given away marked a different stage of his personal and professional life. A life of someone who followed his dream of making music for a living. A life of someone who honors his Creator with his musical gift. A life full of fond memories of the people along the way.
When Karl was just eleven years old, his parents surprised him with a 1963 Sears Silvertone electric guitar with an amp inside the case. The next summer, Beatlemania was sweeping America. Karl spent hours in his room teaching himself chords by playing along with their 45s. The basics came easy to him as he worked out the chord progressions to “She Loves You” and “Love Me Do.” Looking back, he wonders how his dad ever pulled together $100 for his birthday present. Money was tight. He knew his mother appreciated his interest in music; after all, she sang in USO shows during The War. But his dad was more of a “no monkey business” kind of guy, so it meant a lot to Karl that it came from him. What a sacrifice, and what a gift that Silvertone turned out to be. It truly opened a whole new vista.
At age fourteen, when Karl was in the eighth grade at St. Andrews Catholic School, on Indy’s east side, his reputation as a strong vocalist had spread and he was asked to join The Knightsmen, a talented and popular group from Arlington High School. At first, he sang lead vocals and harmonies, but in time he added a Framus bass with a Sears bass amp. His neighbor John Wagle had mentioned in passing, “Karl, if you seriously want to earn a living in music, learn to play bass. Bands will always need a bass player. There are plenty of lead guitar players out there. And a bass player who can sing? You will work in music as long as you want to!” Even at fourteen, Karl knew music was his destiny, so he picked up the bass. And besides, if it was good enough for Paul McCartney, he figured, it was good enough for Karl Hinkle.
The Knightsmen covered Top 40 pop music and performed at private parties and school dances. They were regular winners at local Battle of the Bands contests, warmed up for Kenny Rogers and Tommy Roe, performed in the Indianapolis 500 Parade, and played fraternity parties at IU and Purdue. That is quite a lot of livin’ for a boy fresh out of Catholic school eighth grade! Karl’s family moved from Indy’s east side to the suburbs in the middle of his junior year, so he had to leave the band. By the time The Knightsmen got back together to play at their thirty-year high school reunion, their Top 40 playlists were labeled “Oldies,” but their audience loved the old familiar music and still knew every word to every song.
There is something about a person’s coming-of-age music. It never leaves you. It is said that every generation is convinced they were the first to invent music. And sex. This is especially true if you were a child of the Sixties.
While finishing up high school at Franklin Central, Karl bought a Harmony Archtop 6-String Acoustic. Sometime during his senior year, he took up with the Zerfas brothers in a band called Jubal, where he sang and played bass using a clear acrylic Danelectro with an Ampeg Bass amp. Those guys had a lot of fun, but they rehearsed more than they had paying gigs. Karl spent so much time at the Zerfas home practicing loud music and sleeping under their basement stairs, back home his own mother dragged his bed out into the front yard at 10068 Southeastern Avenue in Wanamaker, and put a For Sale sign on it. The story goes that she made him buy the bed before he could move it back into his bedroom!
After graduation, his folks convinced Karl to enroll in the Winona Hospital radiology program. On the first day of class he was all set to go. In his backseat were his textbooks and his uniform. However, in his trunk were a couple of fishing poles and a tackle box. He called his buddy Jerry Sparks and said, “Hey, wanna go fishin’?” And that was the end of Karl’s hospital career. He felt a wave of relief wash over him with the first cast. He could finally exhale. Over the next two years he played bass in Jubal, doing what is perhaps best described as underground rhythm and blues, and worked at the Eastgate Harry Levinson’s Men’s Clothing to make some money.
Karl was twenty in 1972, when he was invited to join the The Wright Brothers Overland Stage. They even offered to pay for two weeks of rehearsal time before their first engagement. Wait! What? Can you say hook, line, and sinker?! Their harmonies turned out to be magical, but the clear plastic bass proved to be a little too much for a country rock band with big Stetsons and Western boots. He traded it in for a 1972 Fender Telecaster, which made him look country cool and served him well throughout the Overland Stage and Ironhorse days, especially after the legendary Wayne Kemp shaved down the neck and installed a rosewood pick guard. The Wright Brothers Overland Stage was a pretty big deal in the early 1970s, so much so that they sold out Butler’s Clowes Hall. Twice!
Sometime during the late ‘80s, some friends from church surprised Karl with a Hofner bass guitar. After hearing how much he admired Paul McCartney, how he began playing bass as a kid because of the Beatles, and how he had always wanted a Hofner just like McCartney’s, our friends Ed and Linda Ralston showed up at our little farmhouse in the country. They slowly opened the case, and there it was—a Vintage Hofner Bass (500/1) 1964–1984 20th Anniversary Special! They had purchased it at Phelan Music in Carmel, from Jack Phelan, who had recently bought it back from an eighty-year-old woman who had purchased it new but found she just wasn’t playing it like she had hoped she would. Funny thing: she had glued a pick holder to the front of it. Mortified, Jack gently removed it. When The Knightsmen got back together for their thirty-year class reunion to play their favorite ‘60s music for their aging classmates, Karl played the Hofner. When they were still performing the oldies at summer festivals a decade later, he still played his treasured 20th Anniversary Hofner (minus the pick holder glued to the front).
It was the winter of 1973, and the Overland Stage packed the trendy new hot spot, The State of INNdiana, every time they played there. One night, Indiana Senator Birch Bayh (and father of Governor Evan Bayh) walked in with his dinner party and took a table at the back. Emcee Tom Wright recognized him to the crowd, to a warm round of applause. Bayh stood to acknowledge their greeting, and then to everyone’s surprise he began to make his way toward the stage. Easy in front of a crowd, Bayh took the microphone and asked if they knew the song “Put Your Sweet Lips A Little Closer To The Phone.” The rest is Indiana history. Tim, who can play any tune by ear, began with a few chords, Karl and Tom followed with sweet harmonies. The senator joined in; it turns out he was a pretty good singer! Senator Bayh finished his rendition to thunderous applause and beamed all the way back to his table. (Family legend has it that Karl’s dad would, back in the day, play poker with some guys at the the Foster Hotel & Motor Lodge at 21st and Illinois. At the time, Birch Bayh was a political rising star but would often join their game anyway. Just one of the guys.)
After the untimely demise of the Overland Stage and before the Wright Brothers Band started back up, Karl was in a couple of duos, trios, and a bluegrass band called Ironhorse, where he played an Ovation 6-String and the ’72 Telecaster Bass. The Ovation had been made famous by Glen Campbell and was quite the envy.
Ironhorse was power-packed with blazing musicians playing high-octane bluegrass at 110% miles an hour, in a contemporary, edgy, “new grass” kind of way. If you appreciated blistering fiddle, banjo, mandolin, and steel guitar executed by the fastest pickers in town, then you loved Ironhorse! Besides, they were really fun people to hang with; their musical paths crossed often over the decades to come, and they remained good friends for many years. Michael Clark went on to produce some of Karl’s solo albums and played on all his recordings after Karl’s switch to Christian music. Those two were a mutual admiration society. Karl always thought Michael was the most amazing picker he had ever known and would often remark, “That Michael, he just needs a lucky break. He is so talented and no one works harder!” And Michael would say, “I have always said that Karl was the best, most gifted singer I’ve ever played with or heard on records, even the big stars or critically acclaimed artists.”
What ever happened to that awesome ’72 Telecaster? Karl’s brother Kurt lived in Shreveport after he got out of the Army and was a pretty good musician in his own right. The story goes that Karl loaned the Telecaster to Kurt in hopes he would be able to get his chops back and make some money with it. Kurt kept that guitar for twenty-nine years, but alas, at some point he needed cash and sold it. The one that got away. When Karl found out, he said, “Well, I guess he needed the money more than a guitar.” And that was that. No hard feelings.
During his final stint with the Wright Brothers, beginning in 1978, Karl played an Ernie Ball Music Man bass guitar. That guitar carried him from coast to coast through live shows too numerous to count: national television performances on The Grand Ole Opry, NBC’s The Today Show, Hee Haw, Nashville Now; signing with the Warner Brothers recording label in Nashville; songs in Billboard’s Top 40; and warming up for numerous country music legends, including Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton, just to name a few. Anyway, Tim, Tom, and Karl made some great music together, had a lot of laughs, and enjoyed the best audiences in the business.
That Music Man bass guitar traveled in the back of the equipment truck next to Karl’s turntable, record collection, and tin foil (to cover his hotel room windows), from Indiana to Alabama, New York to California, Texas to Minnesota, over thousands of miles across America and back home again. It was on one of those road trips to Minnesota that Karl and I fell in love. We had our first kiss in July and were married in December! But that is another story for another time.
Karl sold the Music Man to a good friend of the band, Andy Potter, who still plays it. And according to Andy, it still sounds great. He treasures that bass guitar and all the stories of fame and fortune that came along with it. Just twenty feet from stardom.
The year 1985 was the beginning of Karl Hinkle Music Ministries. Karl was serving as youth pastor under the founding pastor of Carmel’s Northview Christian Life Church, Pastor Tommy Paino, who quickly realized that Karl’s musical abilities far outpaced his abilities working with teenagers. So, they formed Karl Hinkle Music Ministries, and Karl hit the road spreading the gospel in word and song.
In the early days of KHMM, Karl had an Ovation, a Martin 00-18, a Yamaha 6-String, and a Guild F-212 12-String. The Martin was a perfect fit for his hands. He loved the Guild because of its full sound when leading worship; the Yamaha because it was easy on the fingers and had nice projection; and the Ovation because they had road history together.
At one point Karl mentioned to a friend at church, Keith Chamblin, how much he liked the sound of his black Takamine. So Keith let him borrow it for a while. Karl kept it for two years. It fit him so well that in time he bought his own Takamine 6-String with a Sunburst finish. He played it day and night. It was his new favorite.
Then, one day in March 2004, Karl was in Nicaragua and was moved by God Almighty (and the sight of the ramshackle guitar a young man was playing) to give his new Takamine to nineteen-year-old Luis Costello. So he did. He left it right there. Over 3,100 miles away. In the heart of Managua. With a promising young man who would go on to use the guitar to spread the Word of God with his charismatic presence and musical talent. When I asked Luis about it while gathering details for this story, he said, “I still have that beautiful guitar; it is a great blessing from my brother.”
Karl acquired a little 1964 C. F. Martin 00-18C Classical Guitar, made in Nazareth, PA, from Jack Phelan in 1973. His wife, Karri, remembers an older gentleman coming into Phelan Music wanting to sell it. It was in a cardboard case and was very dusty. She cleaned it up and restored it to beauty. Jack called Karl to come see it. Karl fell in love with it and bought it on the spot. Jack passed away in 2004, way too soon. Everyone in the Indianapolis music scene loved Jack. A premier bass player, he had studied at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France, after attending IU. He was a consummate master of guitars, especially the bass guitar. He ended up in our church worship band, because John Cernero, then the worship pastor at Northview, asked Karl if he knew of a bass guitar player who might be interested in playing Sunday mornings. Karl suggested he call Jack, and it was the beginning of a long friendship both personally and professionally. Jack’s story was truly a story of redemption, love, and reconciliation. Not to mention extreme talent.
Our lives are all richer for having known Jack Phelan. Karl remembers Karri saying, “If you ever decide to sell it, call me first. This little Martin has a special place in my heart.” One Sunday morning when Karl was ministering at a sweet little church somewhere in Indiana, the well-meaning sound tech went to move an antique wrought iron music stand away from the guitar stand that held the little Martin. When he lifted the stand by its top, it suddenly disconnected from the heavy bottom of the stand, which fell over, violently striking the Martin squarely in the back and knocking a hole clear through the precious instrument. Karl was heartsick. He did the concert, packed up, came home, and the next day shipped it off to the C.F. Martin Guitar Company to have it repaired. I asked Karl how he could just go ahead and play the damaged guitar. He smiled and said, “Well it already had a hole in the front, sooo . . .” It survived the assault with a little cosmetic blemish, but it keeps sounding rich all these years later. He still loves that old guitar. The show must go on, as they say, even if a jarring diagnosis may temporarily knock the wind out of us.
I surprised Karl on his birthday in the early ‘90s, when our sons were little, with an Ibanez Exotic Koa Wood 6-String Cutaway Acoustic-Electric. It has traveled with Karl’s ministry all around the country, in and out of prisons, jails, small churches, big churches, and more. In February 2013, United Airlines broke its pretty neck on the way home from a trip to Oregon, where he did the Sunday worship service in a riding arena at a horse expo in Portland. United Airlines refused to fix it, due to some fine print in their baggage disclaimer. Customer service was at best indifferent and, frankly, rude in the response to our demand that they pay for the repair or to replace the instrument. We were not the only ones. Someone actually wrote a song about a similar experience, called United Breaks Guitars.
IRC Music was able to make the repair, but the poor dear has a nasty keloid scar across its neck. It still sounds good even though it looks like its best days are in the rearview. To this day, it is Karl’s “go-to” guitar. When we were on Beaver Island, Michigan the year after the PD diagnosis, he recorded Mary Gauthier’s Mercy Now outdoors with that old axe.
In July 2010, Karl’s brother entered an eleven-month, faith-based addiction recovery program near Cleveland, an eight-hour drive from Indy. On his first visit, Karl brought his Yamaha Classical 6-String for him so he would have something to do in his spare time and in hopes that he might get involved in the worship team. Nine years younger than Karl, he has always looked up to his big brother. Addiction runs in the family, and he had struggled with it for years; we all hoped that this immersive program would be the help he needed. He was grateful for the opportunity, and he did well for a few months, but alas, he took the Yamaha and left the program before completing it. When he got back to Indy, he pawned the guitar, fully expecting to go back for it, but he never got around to it. He hates talking about it now that he’s clean and sober. Again, Karl said, “Well, he must have needed the money.” And again, no hard feelings.
Back in our double-income-no-kids days, Karl picked up a Thin Line Ibanez Exotic Wood 6-String Cutaway Acoustic-Electric with Red Sunset Burst finish. These days, it mostly just hangs on the wall looking gorgeous. I guess that’s important sometimes. There are times when beauty and fond memories are reasons enough to keep something around.
Over a span of thirty-five years, Karl’s music ministry took him to churches large and small throughout the country and abroad, but mainly in the Midwest. Many churches invited him back year after year, and there he met some of the most astounding people quietly working in Kingdom work. No fanfare. No celebrity. Just quietly working the harvest. One of those churches was Calvary Chapel Fellowship, in Stroh, Indiana. In August 2012, Pastor Gary Rifenburg asked Karl to accompany him to his car after the morning service. He popped the trunk, and there was a guitar case. Inside was a Magnum Handcrafted Personalized 6-String Acoustic with a built-in pre-amp AND a mic inside. It was designed and built by Bob Grant, of Grant Guitar, LaGrange, Indiana. It had the initials KH in abalone inlays on the head. It was beautifully crafted with African rosewood for the back and sides, Sitka spruce for the top, ebony overlay, mother of pearl, and abalone shell inlays. The vine represents Christ’s leadership of the Church and all the believers who are grafted into Him. The vine entwines the cross where the true vine was sacrificed for our sins, giving the grafted branches new hope and beginning. The verse is from John 15:1. Those are the stats, but here is the story: God had been nudging Bob to create a guitar just for Karl for a few years.
Wheelchair-bound, Bob was an old-school craftsman, and he finally heeded the Lord’s nudge and designed a personalized guitar just for Karl. Surprised, shocked, humbled, and overwhelmed are just a few of the emotions swirling inside Karl as tears welled up in his eyes. All he could muster was, “Thank you so, so much!”
From that 1963 Sears Silvertone to the handcrafted Magnum, it has been a wild ride for Karl and his music over the last half century. He took the notes of his childhood and wrote a new song. And now, in the face of this Parkinson’s shit show, we are asked to strike yet another tune using the notes given us. We don’t like it. And we can’t stop it. But alas.
Christmas Eve 2020 was the first in thirty-five years that Karl was not able to sing his signature “O Holy Night” at some church somewhere. One Christmas Eve, he even sang it for some tourists and howler monkeys in a Belizean rainforest! But this year, between the pain, anxiety, weakness, and medicine, he just was not up to it. One more loss. Thankfully, his friend Dan Lawhorn had recorded him a few years ago, so they were able to hear Karl’s version at church anyway. Lord willing, he will be able to sing on Easter Sunday 2021, but if not, we have his recording of “Amen” and we are so grateful to Dan for recording it for us.
Looking back, Karl can honestly say he has no regrets. Not that he didn’t have his share of hard times and high water. But all those guitars—whether bought or sold, acquired or given away, lost or found, damaged or repaired—they all hold their own place along the journey.
Along our journey. Each one served a singular purpose and connected some particularly awesome people along the way. Collectively, those trusty axes provided a livelihood, a dream job come true, sustenance, entertainment, worship, art, and, best of all, some really beautiful music. And now it is time to strike up a new tune with the notes we have.