By Gary E. McKee
For almost a decade, Texas Folklife has been hosting a Big Squeeze accordion competition spotlighting young accordionists across Texas. The competition in 2014 marked the first time that grand prize winners would be selected in three categories – polka, conjunto and Cajun/zydeco. Big Squeeze winner in the polka category was Garrett Lee Neubauer of Altair. Garrett has been playing accordion since the age of 12. When his father, Daryl, passed away prematurely, he felt that the best way to honor him would be to pick up his father’s accordion and learn how to play it. His father had been an accordionist in the Tony Janak Polka Band. Between managing a rice farm, and playing, Daryl took time to guide a young Mark Hermes (of the Czechaholics) on the art of playing accordion. When Garrett made his decision, Mark returned the family favor by showing him around the keys of Darryl’s accordion, which had once belonged to Bobby Jones. Lawrence Ruether, Garrett’s grandpa, also played the accordion and taught him some songs. As Garrett’s skill increased, other members of the Czechaholics, Brian Klekar and Greg and Brian Svetlik mentored Garrett on the intricacies of music and performing. I remember going backstage several years ago at a Czechaholics gig at SPJST Lodge 88 in Houston and finding Garrett playing along while behind the curtains, learning the songs.
Down by the Pond
Down a sandy country road that leads to a lush, serene oak grove that Garrett calls home, he would spend evenings practicing while sitting in the yard or out by the stock pond. He has ample time for this as he works in the maintenance department at Rice School district just five minutes away. Both he and his dad graduated from there. His neighbors, Gladys and Joe Salinas, big polka fans, would enjoy the notes floating across the cow pasture in the evenings.
As Garrett’s confidence and licks improved through the many hours of practice, he was asked more frequently to sit in with the Czechaholics and Texavia. The Tony Janak Polka Band has reformed as the J & S Playboys, and Garrett sits in occasionally to fill his father’s shoes. Though he loves playing all genres of music his favorite is the Czech polkas and waltzes that he grew up listening to his father play.
His desire to learn more about the unique instrument grew and now he owns four keyboard and two button accordions including the one he won at the Big Squeeze competition. In case anyone stops by and wants to jam, Garrett also owns an electric bass guitar, a keyboard, an electric six-string guitar and a set of drums. The six-string guitar is what he spends more time on now as he is still in the learning stage.
Big City Venues
The Big Squeeze competition broadened Garrett’s horizon as he went from playing the smaller Central Texas venues to performing at the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum in Austin and then in front of thousands of people at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston at the annual Accordion Kings & Queens event. The large audience did not intimidate him. “I just got up there and did what had to be done.” The competition gave him a chance to see and talk to outstanding accordionists his own age playing Cajun and conjunto styles. The 2015 Big Squeeze performance will give Garrett a chance to perform once again at the big venues and to turn over his title as Accordion King to a new young performer. Garrett has some advice for those novices: “The accordion is a difficult instrument to play and the only way to master it is to practice, practice, practice.”
The Texas Dream Band, a country/polka band out of Hallettsville is Garrett’s regular gig now, playing keyboards and accordion in this band composed of the offspring of other country/polka musicians. But whenever he isn’t playing with Texas Dream, Garrett can be found with his accordions ready to take the stage wherever polka is happening. There is no doubt that his father would have been proud.
[Editor’s note: Garrett Neubauer performed at the 2015 Big Squeeze Finals on April 25 in Austin, where Brandon Hodde of Holland, TX, was crowned the new polka accordion king. Both will perform at the 26th Annual Accordion Kings & Queens event on Saturday, June 6, at Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston.]