MOUNT VERNON — He’s played with some of the legends of bluegrass and country music and played at the Grand Old Opry when he was 15. Today, at 56, music still dominates Darell Sanson’s life. He teaches guitar, mandolin, banjo and bass Monday through Thursday, and often performs with his band, Safire Sun, on weekends.
Then he has to find time to tend his garden, walk his dogs (Gizmo, Jewels and Briley) and clean and assemble “barn stars” for an Internet marketing firm.
That doesn’t leave him much time for things like vacations, hobbies or recreation, but he’s happy.
Sanson began his music career at age 7.
“My dad made me play,” he said. “Like most kids, I came home from school, threw my books in the corner and went out to play. Then one day my dad said I was going to learn to play the mandolin. I could go out when I learned the day’s lesson.”
He hated it, but learned each day’s lesson. Then one day when he had learned four or five songs, his dad, who played in a bluegrass band, told his mother to bring Darell to the bar where they were playing, the Astro Inn on Marion Road in Columbus, about 10 p.m.
“I was scared to death, but I played the songs I had learned,” Sanson recalled. “Afterwards, people came up and were giving me dollar bills and pinching my cheek. I had $26 or $27 in my pocket.”
“Dad let me do what I wanted with the money and I went out and bought models, candy, etc.”
Sanson wasn’t enthusiastic about the lessons when his dad insisted on them, but today “I can’t thank him enough. ... The music changed my life.”
That first success also changed his brother, Sheridan’s, life. “When he saw me come home with that money, he decided he wanted to learn to play.” Sanson said.
Sheridan learned to play the upright bass. He became “the greatest bass player I ever heard,” Sanson insisted.
Sanson continued to play at venues, mostly bars, around Columbus and by the time he turned 15 he, his brother and two others formed their own group. He explained that one of the things aspiring musicians learned to do was to be available to play during the breaks by the “stars,” that way you would get heard by the audiences who came out for the name bands, and maybe get opportunities to play.
That’s what happened for Sanson. A group called The Country Gentlemen needed a replacement mandolin player while their regular player was meeting Army Reserve obligations.
Sanson was 15. “They asked my parents, who said no twice. I got them to try one more time, and this time my father said they should come to our house and talk it over.”
The band drove their tour bus to the house, stayed on their bus that night, then Sanson’s mother made them a big breakfast. In the end, his parents agreed to let him go.
He was paid $150 per week, plus food, and supplied his show clothes. He had his own room on the bus. The band gave him $25 a week for spending money, and sent the rest to his parents, so he would have some money built up at the end of the tour.
That tour led to another with Jimmy Martin and Sanson’s first chance to play at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville on Oct. 13, 1971.
He would eventually play their several times (at both the “new” and “old” Opry houses). Not as the star, as he is quick to point out, but as one of the supporting musicians.
“I still played there,” he laughed.
He loved being on tour and collected stickers for his mandolin case from every state he visited. He would eventually visit every state except Alaska, Hawaii and California.
“I loved it. It was my dream life,” he said.
As much as he loved it, dreams sometimes give way to practicalities and, at the urging of his first wife, Sanson left music to work fulltime for Cardinal Industries in Columbus, building houses. He estimates he was away from music for about 15 years. He even sold his instruments.
When he lost his job at Cardinal, Sanson went to Chuck Flynn at Flynn’ Guitar Center, looking for a job teaching guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass and banjo.
“I couldn’t work for a better man,” Sanson said of Flynn. “He gave me help when I needed help.”
He also taught for a time at the Richland Academy of the Arts and for six months in a special program at the delinquent facility in Mansfield.