With a master's degree in biology, J. Stephen Sanders worked in research at local universities, had a brief stint as a health inspector, ran a chimney sweeping business with his wife, and installed lightning protection in homes and businesses.
Those are just a few of the jobs he held before he took up the bagpipes and never looked back. Today he makes a living playing at weddings, funerals, andÊ "anywhere people want me." That can include standing under bedroom windows and delivering birthday greetings to men who've reached the big 5-0. "Their wives will call and say, 'Can you wake him up at six in the morning?' I'm cautious -- I don't want to lose my 'pipes to an irate husband. But so far all I've seen are some bleary-eyed guys," says Sanders, who just turned 50 himself.
His musical journey began at Bartlett High School, where he played the B-flat clarinet in the school band. During his 30s, he heard the bagpipes' drone. "I liked the sound," he says, "and I learned to play." Gradually his 'piping turned into a business.
Last year he performed at nearly 80 weddings, playing the bride's song of choice -- often "Highland Cathedral," made popular by Amy Grant a few years back. His fee starts at $200 and his location range is generally 250 miles of Memphis, though he's willing to go farther.
Discussing the nine-note, one-octave instrument, Sanders says true skill comes in learning "grace notes, or embellishments of clicking, rippling sounds." He's familiar with bagpipe history and his favorite song is "All the Bluebonnets Are O'er the Border." a martial melody that helped the British win a battle during World War I. "They were struggling against the Germans until a 'piper climbed above the trenches and rallied the troops," says Sanders. "His playing that song turned everything 180 degrees."
While he can't make such a claim himself, the native Memphian has had his moments. Each year he and his wife vacation in the Scottish Highlands. Once he was out 'piping on the banks of a loch unaware he had an audience until a busload of tourists clapped their approval.
Sometimes he gets more than applause. He laughs when recalling the mother of a bride whom Sanders describes as "blond, elegantly dressed, affable." After the wedding, he'd tucked the check for his services in the purse he wears with his kilt. Later, driving home, he felt inside the envelope and found the check --along with the key to the woman's hotel room. Says Sanders, "I nearly ran off the interstate shoulder." And no, he adds, he didn't use the key.
Looking back on the pull of the 'pipes, Sanders says, "It's hard to explain. But being able to do something creative, and to make a living at it. I couldn't imagine it back then."
For more information, go to Bagpipers.com.