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Axle grease and guitar strings

By Justin Reedy

Most of his customers probably don't know their mechanic has a voice like Waylon Jennings.

John West's workday repairing cars and trucks at his auto shop on the south end of Jonesboro is much like that of any other mechanic. Except in most other garages the boss doesn't duck into his office from time to time to scrawl the lyrics of his latest song on the back of a flyer advertising car parts.

West, 58, has been working on cars in Clayton County for years, and for almost as long has struggled to break into Nashville as a country and gospel singer and songwriter. He's written and recorded dozens of songs, worked tirelessly to get them played on radio stations around the country, but still can't get the attention of a major record label.

"We're supposed to live in a free country, but you can't do this for yourself," says the frustrated West, as he sits in the office adjoining his garage, his guitar propped up nearby. "It's probably the most nerve-rackingest thing you can do."

The Jonesboro native first got into music when he was a young boy, but never took it more seriously than just strumming his guitar on the front porch after dinner. Sometimes, while listening to a country and western song on the radio he'd block out the singer's voice and put his own lyrics to the music in his head.

"I did have a talent and didn't know it," he recalls.

Then in the mid-1980s, West's longtime employee and friend Evelyn Blessit inadvertently gave him an idea for a song.

"She told me one time that we build memories every day with what we do," West said. "I thought, ?That would be a great name for a song.'"

When Blessit heard the song a few days later, she decided to convince West to try getting into the music industry. So the mechanic and then-restaurant owner recorded the song at Jonesboro's Real 2 Reel Studios and "Building Memories" became West's first 45 rpm record.

"Here I was, I didn't know diddly squat about the music business," said West.

Though the song got some airplay on radio stations, listeners couldn't find the album on sale anywhere, giving West his first frustrating experience in music promotion. He eventually recorded a 10-song cassette and toured around the southeast, visiting radio stations and encouraging them to play his songs. When he wasn't out on the road promoting the album, he called stations from his office over the weekend.

"I'd start out at 7 o'clock in the morning calling stations on the East Coast and work my way west as the day went on," the musician remembers with a chuckle. "My ear looked like a leaf of cabbage by the time I was done for the day."

West's struggle to get recognition by Nashville's record companies continued for several years, and all the while he kept writing music. Today, he says he's probably penned more than 500 songs.

Tucked away on the desk of his auto repair shop's main office is a stack of many of those songs n some typed out on plain white paper, others scripted on notebook paper, and still others scribbled on sheets from a notepad or on random scraps of paper. When he's not adding to the stack, West shuffles through it in search of a song he's remembered that he wants to share.

"I wrote this song here about how much Jonesboro has changed," he says. "It's called ?Gone With the Wind.'"

He recites the song out loud without any musical accompaniment, his voice filling the tiny office as he decries the long-gone barbershop, corner store and other fixtures of his youth in Clayton County. The lyrics complete, he turns back to the stack of songs in search of another one and Blessit speaks in his stead.

"He wrote one a while back called ?Back Home in the Country,'" she says with the knowing look of someone who's heard all of West's songs. "It'd make you cry."

Later, West shares a new song of his called "She's Crying Inside," this time singing it. Perched on a swivel chair, the musician in mechanic's clothes strums his guitar confidently, tapping his worn work shoe on the floor in time.

"I told her there was She laughed and said it's alright

But I knew that I hurt

Behind the laughter she cried

Because she's crying inside

Yes, she's crying inside

Behind the laughter she hides her pride?"

When he's done belting out the song, Blessit points out that he has to try and record it or sell it to another artist to record.

"I'd love to give it to Alan Jackson," he admits, absent-mindedly strumming his guitar as he talks about his future in music.

Depending on the time of day, West seems either about to give up on breaking into country music or ready to pick up and move to Nashville.

"I'm tired of fooling with it," he says at one point. "I've been trying for 16 or 17 years."

But later, the guitar cradled in his tanned arms and grease-stained hands, his frustrations over the music industry's built-in obstacles subside.

"I won't never give it up, because I guess I enjoy it too much," West says with a smile, and he changes from feeling defeated by the country music establishment to being defiant.

"Me and her," he says, gesturing to Blessit sitting nearby, "we may just load up here one day and go to Nashville. I'll walk in there and ask them ?What is the deal here? Why can't I do what y'all are doing?"

Until then, West will go on living in musical obscurity and working on his other projects, which range from restoring old cars to perfecting a machine that grinds garbage down to a fine powder for use as fertilizer or concrete filler.

But that's just fine with West, who has again convinced himself that he'll always be on the outside looking in.

"You know when my music will mean something?" he asks. "When I'm dead and gone."