No doubt about it, Redd Volkaert stands out in a crowd.
A burly man with a red beard and arms that look to be approximately the size of fire hydrants, Volkaert could almost be taken for a classic New England fisherman.
Stick his '53 Fender Telecaster in his hands, though, and it's clear that the man is one of the finest country guitarists of his generation; as comfortable with jazz and rockabilly as he is with the classic Bakersfield sound of his boss, Merle Haggard.
In addition to his regular studio and road work with Haggard's band the Strangers, Volkaert has found time to pursue a solo career on the side. Following the release of his first solo album, 1998's "Telewacker," Volkaert has just released his second album, "No Stranger to a Tele," once again on the Oakland-based HighTone label.
"It's along the same lines as the last one in that it's six (vocal numbers) and eight instrumentals," says Volkaert in a telephone interview from his home in Manchaca, Texas. "All the vocal ones are me covering some old tunes."
Among the vocal numbers -- sung in a rich baritone as burly as the man himself - are covers of Johnny Bush's "Conscience Turn Your Back," Bob Wills' "End of the Line" and "Big Big Love," a 1961 hit for Wynn Stewart, who had employed a young ex-convict named Merle Haggard as a bass player during that period before Haggard went solo in 1962.
The album opens with the title track, Volkaert's tribute to Roy Nichols, Haggard's longtime lead guitarist who, along with the Buckaroos' Don Rich, defined the Bakersfield guitar sound of the '60's.
Nichols, who had also performed with the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Lefty Frizzell and Stewart and played with Haggard from 1965 to 1987, suffered a stroke in 1996 that has left him confined to a wheelchair much of the time as well as being unable to play guitar.
"It's a bunch of licks that he played on different Merle records. I took a bunch of licks in that style and made an instrumental out of it."
"I did another one called 'Diminishing Flames,' and it's a Jimmy Bryant and Speedy West tribute. They were called 'The Flaming Guitars' back in the old days. It seems like less and less people know of them all the time, so I figured, 'diminishing.' You run into more and more young guys all the time who've never heard of them."
"Sonically, I think it's better than the last one. The last one sounded kinda compressed, and there was one drum sound for the whole album. I think I learned a little bit more from the last one. I recorded it here in Austin, too, instead of in Nashville."
Volkaert is enthusiastic about his move to Austin last year, instigated partly at the urging of old friend Dale Watson, on whose 1997 album "I Hate These Songs" Volkaert contributed lead guitar.
Though originally from Vancouver, Canada, Volkaert has lived in the U.S. since 1986 when he moved to California, eventually ending up in Los Angeles (where he first met Watson, who had moved there at about the same time), and staying there until a 1989 move to Nashville.
"I figured I was fitting in less and less (in Nashville)," says Volkaert, musing on the reasons why he left Nashville. "I'm not interested at all in the kind of music they're pumping out there. I lasted about 11 years, and I met a lot of marvelous musicians and singers. But musically there's nothing to go see in that town. In Austin, if you want to go see a salsa band, you can find one, and it's great. You can still go to a dance hall three nights a week that has twin fiddle bands with a steel; pretty good-sized bands that are playing Johnny Bush kinda music."
Volkaert has quickly become a fixture in the Austin club scene, often sitting in with Watson's band and performing on Sunday nights at the Continental with Heybale, which also features ex-High Noon bassist Kevin Smith and longtime Johnny Cash pianist Earl Poole Ball.
"We just play and have fun. We've recorded a couple of nights live, and we're going to make a little CD; no label or nothin'. Just an off-the-stage deal."
And there is still, of course, Volkaert's day job as Haggard's lead guitarist, a gig he has held since 1997 (Volkaert can be heard on Haggard's latest album, last year's "If I Could Only Fly").
"I had jammed with some of the guys in the band in Nashville and got to know them. So, when the job came open, Merle asked the guys in the band, 'Who do you guys want to get?' And six out of eight of 'em said me. So, I'm getting even with the other two."
Haggard's band usually takes the winter off, but Volkaert will be back on the road with Haggard starting in March.
"As far as I know, we're booked up pretty heavy for the spring and summer. He's happy with a lark (with how his new album is doing). It's going great, (though) they don't play it on the radio because he's too old or whatever. It's seems like it's drawing a different kind of crowd a lot of times, too."
"For me it's the best country job a Tele guy could ever have."