June 30--Tex Callens leans back in his rocking chair and slowly strums his guitar.
Almost in a whisper, he starts singing an old-time country tune. His voice builds to a strong twang, complete with a yodel or two, before the song is over. Almost seamlessly, he slips into a long reminiscence brought on by the lyrics.
It's not a surprise. The journey to this performance was 78 years in the making. "If you don't live the song, you can't sell the song," he said.
Callens, a retired government worker from Stevensville, always wanted to be a country crooner. He taught himself a few guitar chords and even wrote some songs over the years, but it never went much farther.
Until last year.
His family urged him to take a guitar lesson with well-known local musician Dean Rosenthal. Things went into warp drive, and he soon had a CD and a concert date.
Callens, backed by a band comprised of Rosenthal and others from the album, will perform Saturday night at 49 West. The concert is a release party for "Going Back to Texas," which features 16 cuts.
"He's an inspiration to me," said Louis Aymard, Callens' neighbor and a retired psychology professor.
"He's a living example that retirement isn't about endings, but about new beginnings."
The recording features covers of standards such as "My Bucket's Got a Hole In It," "T for Texas," and "May You Never Be Alone Like Me." Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams are among the idols of Callens.
"I can't even listen to country stations anymore because, to me, it's not country. But then I'm 78 years old."
The CD also includes three originals by Callens, including the title tune. He left Texas at age eight when his mother and stepfather moved to Washington, D.C.
Until then, he was being raised by his grandparents in Cleveland, Texas, and the CD jacket features a photo of Callens from those happy times. He's pictured at about age six on a horse, sporting cowboy gear and a toothy grin.
The move to Washington shook him so badly he had nightmares about it until he was in his 40s. "It was totally traumatic to me at that age to be yanked away," he said.
He picked up the "Tex" nickname went he came to D.C. Originally, it was "Texas," but got shortened. He learned to yodel while delivering newspapers as a teenager, trying to imitate Rodgers.
His given name is Robert Paul, and that's what his family calls him. Callens has three children, five grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren.
After a stint in the military, he became an English teacher for four years. He then worked as a geographer for the Defense Intelligence Agency. Stints followed as a management analyst for the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy. He retired in 1995.
Callens traveled to Texas many times over the years, but stayed in this area because of family. He also stayed away from his dreams of country music stardom.
"It was just one thing after another. I had to work for my family."
Maybe there was a little fear in there, too.
Callens admits he's not the greatest singer, and only knows a few chords on the guitar. "There's probably a dozen people in the neighborhood who can sing better than I can," he said.
But his music is still appealing, said Brian Cahalan, owner of 49 West. "It has a raw honesty about it."
Rosenthal and Tom Fridrich, who recorded the CD at his Harwood studio, had similar thoughts.
"He simply has a heart of gold for this music," said Fridrich, who plays drums on the album and will do the same at Saturday's concert. "It's rare to find that."
Rustling up stories
Callens has about a dozen cowboy hats.
But he rides a Harley, not a horse. And he minds three dachshunds, not cattle.
Callens is hard to pigeonhole. Even though he loves country music, artists such as Norah Jones pepper his conversation.
"I don't like to be categorized. I like that idea I'm more than one person," said Callens, who wears a replica of a North African talisman around his neck as a kind of good luck charm. Somerset Maugham used the symbol, and Callens is a great fan.
He's also quite a devotee of Rosenthal, even though he put off lessons for about nine years after receiving them as a present.
Callens thought it was too late to get started and was fighting depression. Thanks to therapy and the insistence of his family, he gave in. "I had no more excuses."
Soon after they met, Callens played one of his songs for Rosenthal, then another.
"What started out as a lark turned into something pretty cool," Rosenthal said. He invited Callens up on stage during a performance at Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis last week to play a couple songs as practice for the upcoming show.
Callens said all the attention makes him feel like a young man. Well, at least younger than he is.
"I kid around and tell people I'm 58," he said. "I don't look 58, and don't sound 58, but I feel 58."
And that's good, because he has more planned. He'd like to put out a Christmas CD. "My dreams have expanded."
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