The thrill Bruce Zimmerman gets with a guitar in his hands has not changed since he began playing one 42 years ago.
"It's probably more intense because it has become so natural," he says. "It's almost like an out-of-body experience."
This usually occurs when he's playing with other musicians. Zimmerman has never been out of a band since he was a 9-year-old in Bernie, Mo., playing with his brother and two cousins in a group called The Four Z's.
Now 51, Zimmerman traveled much of the United States playing almost every kind of music with a dozen different bands before taking a job with Rapco, the Jackson, Mo., musical equipment manufacturer, 11 years ago. But he never stopped playing.
Bruce Zimmerman and the Shysters were a Cape Girardeau mainstay through the 1990s. Now on Sunday nights he plays in the Water Street Band at the Water Street Lounge. Thursday nights he's at the Indigo restaurant with the Bruce Zimmerman Band, a three-piece outfit that usually has other musicians sitting in.
Zimmerman's nickname, Slick, might have something to do with his Michael Jordan hairdo, but it also describes the way his fingers travel the fretboard of his Gibson 335 guitar. He is a guitar player's guitar player who knows a limitless number of songs and lyrics, can sing and has a sense of showmanship.
"We just try to buckle up and hang on and try to keep up," says bassist Brad Graham, half of the rhythm section in the Bruce Zimmerman Band.
But musicians say Zimmerman impresses with expressive playing and dynamics instead of flashiness.
"He's not a look-at-me kind of guitar player," Graham says.
The other half of the rhythm section, drummer Gary Nunnally, has been playing in bands since he was a youngster in Chaffee, Mo. The rhythm section must be ready for anything behind Zimmerman, Nunnally says. "He works drummers, I'll tell you that. He plays so fast."
Zimmerman likes playing with people who can keep up with him and be relied on. "Brad and Gary, they're going to do the best job they can every night," he says. "They are good, seasoned players."
He seems to play with a kind of mental telepathy. "He has done this for so long, he just looks at band members and you know what he's thinking," Nunnally says.
He loves the guitar and is always experimenting with different tunings and techniques. Nunnally recounts Zimmerman being excited about learning a new method of playing slide guitar used by John Hiatt guitarist Sonny Landreth.
"He becomes so infatuated with it, it would be well into the night before he realized what time it was," Nunnally says. "That happens to 17-year-olds, not 50-year-olds."
Zimmerman grew up in a family of hardworking cotton farmers who would rather play music than watch television. They didn't have much in the way of material possessions, but they had good musical instruments.
His father, Harold, taught him some things about the guitar. His mother, Eva, taught him how to harmonize. Zimmerman's father played bass in a gospel music group back then and at 73 still does. Zimmerman's own children, Eric, Brandi and Victoria, all play music as well.
While still a boy, he quit biting his fingernails because he read in a magazine that Eric Clapton used his nails to bend strings. "I wanted to do what he did," Zimmerman said.
In 1962, when he was just 11, his band won a demo recording at Sun Studios, famous as the place Elvis got started. The legendary producer Sam Phillips was there. "It had that Sun sound," Zimmerman says. "Of course, we sounded like chipmunks."
When the jukebox vendor in Bernie removed 45s from his machines, Zimmerman and his brother would buy them for a nickel each, money they'd gotten by redeeming soda bottles. They'd drop the needle on the record over and over again trying to figure out guitar parts.
Bassist Earl Perkins grew up in Dexter, Mo., but says everybody in the area knew about Zimmerman. "Bernie was the home of killer guitar players at the time," Perkins said, referring also to Bob Ash and Butch Smith. Ash is now a musician in Nashville.
At the end of the 1970s, Perkins and Zimmerman played together in a band called Stampede. Zimmerman quietly made it known he was the band leader but he encouraged everyone else's creativity, Perkins said. "He gave me the green light to do anything I wanted to do."
Zimmerman's only expectation was for the band to play well.
"You probably won't play with him unless he has a lot of respect for you," Perkins said.
Perkins and Ray Doan, another old Zimmerman bandmate, play together now in a band called The 13th Floor.
Doan and Zimmerman were neighbors growing up in Bernie and played in many bands together. Zimmerman was into the Beatles, the Byrds and Dylan, Doan recalls. Music was all that mattered to them.
"That's all we talked about," Doan says. "We would say, 'What do you think we'll be doing when we're 50 years old?'"
Doan went on to play in Hustutler, a hard rock band with a big Southeast Missouri following in the 1970s. Zimmerman was in another popular band called Dirty Work. Doan quit playing in 1978. "Hustutler just about did me in," he says. "... Bruce never let up," he says.
Perkins, Doan and Zimmerman still get together sometimes to play music, most recently regrouping at the 2000 City of Roses Music Festival.
During his musical career, Zimmerman and his bands have slept on pool tables and once took temporary jobs when they were broke and stranded without a booking in Georgia.
One memorable nightspot was The Golden Gator, a tin building deep in Louisiana Cajun country where pieces of plywood on cement blocks stood in for tables. He doubted anyone would show up that night. "People came in on tractors, horses and bicycles, and they just partied," Zimmerman said.
The owner showed him the door to use if shooting broke out.
Sometimes the bands performed at the kind of places people go on a Saturday night just to get into a good fight. Not all of them walked out alive.
On the road, he often played six nights a week, but he never burned out. "There are lots of pitfalls," he says. "I've seen guys get to drinking too much, and the next thing you know they don't think they can play without drinking."
Zimmerman, who does not drink when he plays music, is the only one still standing from one five-man band he played in.
Being a musician is like belonging to a brotherhood, Zimmerman says. An important affiliation was with Doyle "Whitey" Hendrix, a harp player, singer and guitarist. They were called Whitey and Slick, but Zimmerman says, "We were the Felix and Oscar of the blues."
Whitey and Slick held forth in downtown Cape Girardeau for many years until Whitey got sick. Zimmerman was holding his hand when Hendrix died of cancer in 1997. Before he died, Whitey gave Slick his grandfather's 1800s Hohner harmonica.
After Whitey died, Zimmerman began concentrating on the blues. He's still learning how to play, he says.
"Guitar can never be mastered. That's one of the great things about it."
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