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June 20th, 2006 - 10:05 am

Chris and Lea Walls and their two young children were all killed in a terrible car crash last Friday. Chris was 36. Lea was 34. I’m ashamed to say that I’m not sure exactly how old their kids were.

I’d known Chris for most of his life. He and I grew up together in Enterprise, Alabama, where he was my neighbor and my classmate and my friend. We’d lost touch over the years, but still swapped emails on too-rare occasions. The last time I saw him and his wife was at our tenth high school reunion in 1997. Their children hadn’t been born yet, and they were living in Nashville at the time.

Chris was a drummer, the simple statement of which does not do him or his talent justice. By his junior year of high school, he’d taken over the lead of the marching band’s drum section (it was a huge band, over 200 strong) and arranged intricate drum features based on the work of his idol, Rush’s Neil Peart. In college, Chris was a talented jazz percussionist who could play virtually anything, up to and including pieces by virtuosos like Dave Weckl.

While in Nashville, he played session work when he could find it, but like many other artists past, present and future, he had to have day jobs to support his family. I hadn’t heard that he’d moved to Phoenix until I got the awful news last Saturday. I was not at all surprised to read Chris’s pastor saying, “I think his heart’s desire more than anything was to work in music. His heartbeat was music.”

The first place I ever picked up a guitar was in Chris’s bedroom. It was December of 1987, and a mutual friend of ours had gotten a Strat knockoff and amp for Christmas. I’d never played before, but I got bored and picked up the guitar, asked its owner to show me a chord (D). Chris jumped behind his kit, and somebody mashed “record” on a boom box. This was the result.

It was so much fun that I bought a guitar for myself a few days later. I didn’t get much better that the vain thrashing on that old tape, but I loved (and still love) to play. I never had more fun playing than with Chris’s drum symphony thundering behind me.

And now that old tape is all I have left.

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