Local guitarist Wendy Jean Garrison’s love for music is exceeded only by her passion for sharing it with others.

By Davis Coen

When she moved to Oxford in the late 1980s, Wendy Jean Garrison said she knew nothing about playing ‘bottleneck’ slide guitar, a style often found in blues music.

It wasn’t until connecting with Walter Liniger, an acclaimed scholar and lecturer on the blues genre and a student of slide guitar.

In 1984, Liniger received a grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission to apprentice with Delta blues great James “Son” Thomas. He spent seven years playing alongside him at festivals and participating together in music education programs.

Liniger got Garrison going to all of the local blues festivals, including one at Rust College in Holly Springs, MS, which featured several of the great Hill Country Blues musicians. She recalled that it was a time when a younger generation of North Mississippians was beginning to take a greater interest.

“So I just started listening and trying to play,” said Garrison.  “I was always trying to get people together and learning any way I could.”

Many who play slide guitar prefer to use open tunings, and Garrison is among them – and she particularly prefers the open E tuning.

Open E is considered courageous to some slide players because it involves tightening half the strings on the guitar, which risks the brief terror of popping one in the process – depending on the natural tension of the neck.

Others prefer dropping a few strings to make open G or D tunings – also ideal for slide but with looser overall tension than open E, and less chance of breakage.

“A lot of people don’t like to tune to E.  They’ll tune to D and ‘capo’ it up to E.  I just crank the thing up,” she said with a laugh.  “It’s not great for the guitar, but…”

Aside from having an illustrious history of local live shows – in some cases at bygone venues, such as Blind Jim’s, where Summit Lodge Bar is now, above Venice Kitchen – Garrison is more devoted to returning the musical guidance she’s been fortunate enough to receive.

Although she spent decades playing the local bars on the Square with bands like High Watermark, Bad Luck & Trouble, and most enduringly, the all-female group Maybelle’s Lovers, her passion increasingly lies with education and mentoring.

Much of Garrison’s recent work has been related to the Mississippi Humanities Council (MHC), an organization that carries out and funds grassroots public humanities programs, many of which encourage creative development at the middle and high school levels.

Garrison proudly holds a spot on the MHC Speaker’s Bureau, a collective of Mississippi’s finest storytellers and writers who cover a wide array of topics, including music.

In partnership with local actress Rebecca Jernigan, she put together a retelling of the story of Delta blues singer-songwriter/guitarist Robert Johnson, who, legend has it, sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for profound musical ability.

Jernigan tells the story and acts out parts while Garrison accompanies with instrumental guitar.

Most recently, the pair performed “The Legend of Robert Johnson” for This Is Noteworthy (TIN), another non-profit organization based in Water Valley, MS, that fosters creativity in the community.

“It was such a great audience,” said Garrison. “And with good questions.”

She also visits Boys & Girls Clubs and local public schools, including Como, MS, which has a rich history in the blues.  Garrison got the idea from fellow musician and collaborator Andrea Staten to bring along a “travel guitar,” which allows her to put it in the hands of the kids.

“They loved it,” she said.  “People at that age, they’re so interested in anything, and they just wanna do it, and just can’t wait to get their hands on it.”

Garrison said the children love to feel what it’s like to play the slide, and they’ll all line up just to play for a few minutes.

Just keeping it simple

Aside from playing guitar in an open E tuning, which Garrison finds easier than standard tuning because “everything’s where you expect it to be,” she also uses a steel socket wrench for a slide.

Although she loves the classic Fender Blues Deluxe amplifier, Garrison opts for a much smaller, portable Roland Acoustic-90 for most engagements.

“I mean, I like a tube amp, but it isn’t practical for me to take her out to gigs,” she said with a chuckle, explaining that the big amp is only used for certain occasions.

In 2021, Garrison began recording a handful of original solo instrumental songs, produced at a studio on campus by Ricky Burkhead, music professor and director of percussion studies at U of M.

Burkhead also guided her in releasing music online, and she’s become astounded at its vast reach through platforms like Spotify, YouTube, and TikTok.

“It’s wild,” she said, about first seeing her music used for homegrown videos by strangers on the hugely popular application TikTok.

Garrison also said she loves making videos but prefers the Instagram app. “The music is out there for somebody who wants to listen to it.”

She credits some encouraging songwriting engagements over the past few years, including a weeklong workshop in Nashville, for her growing enthusiasm for the craft.

Although her beloved husband, Dr. Richard “Rich” Raspet, passed away in March, Garrison feels she may be ready to continue sharing her music by summertime after a healthy hiatus.

Also, in light of losing Como bluesman R.L. Boyce and international blues ambassador Bill “Howl-N-Madd” Perry

in 2023—both role models to Garrison—she feels a renewed drive to mentor others.

“I’d like to help pass this on and to keep playing

myself. That’s the one thing I’m really interested in.”