07/09/06 — By day, he is city manager; after business hours, he rocks

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By day, he is city manager; after business hours, he rocks

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on July 9, 2006 2:00 AM

When Joe Huffman straps on his electric guitar and draws the pick across its strings, for a few hours, he is no longer Goldsboro's city manager -- he's just Joe, a natural-born rocker who lets the music take control.

On a typical morning, Huffman wakes up before sunrise. He grabs his "1970-something" Electra around 5 and plays an unplugged set -- a steaming cup of coffee by his side.

"It's a way to get started in the morning, a way to get my brain engaged," he said of his morning sessions. "I hope it gets my mind stimulated."

For Huffman, losing himself on the fret board and practicing the sometimes difficult trade is the only way to wake up, he said. The early start also gives him the opportunity to focus on work and family once the sun comes up.

"I don't usually have a lot of free time, and I don't like to burn family time doing personal things," he said.

When he meets with concerned residents or city staff, some of them said they find it "hard to believe that Joe Huffman plays rock 'n' roll."

But to Huffman, both work and play are related -- the two are a perfect team, he said.

"When I think about music, I think about possibilities," he said. "Whenever I hear a song, I'm not thinking about how someone else plays it or what it should sound like. All I care about is whether it sounds neat. I'm thinking of the next note, the next possibility."

As Goldsboro's manager, that same sense of vision and creativity that he applies to a jam session helps him run the city, he added.

"I see that in my work," Huffman said. "When I first got into city management, I didn't do the same thing for a year. It was like every day something was different. I think that's what I enjoy about my work -- every day brings change. You figure things out as you go."

Being a "lead-guitar man" is also about recognizing mistakes, versatility and taking simple things to a new level, he added. So is being a city leader.

"I probably don't ever play the same way twice," Huffman said. "For the most part, I'm not looking at anything. I'm just looking for what fits. That's what is enjoyable to me -- the improvisation. When I'm listening to music, I'm thinking about all the missed opportunities."

It was the 1960s when a young Joe Huffman first picked up a guitar. He remembers watching Johnny Cash with his parents, who wanted him to emulate the star.

"I wanted to be a guitar player from the time I was a little kid," he said. "My parents, they would watch the Johnny Cash show and stuff like that, and I think they wanted me to go into the country music sort of thing. But then, I kind of leaned toward the rock stuff."

There was just something "more fun" about rock 'n' roll, he added.

Then, as a teen, Huffman turned to Chet Atkins, the Beatles, Chicago and the Eagles for guidance -- playing air-guitar when their tunes would come on the radio.

"As a teenager, I wanted to play guitar, and everybody wanted to do well and be famous and that sort of thing," he said. "It would have been neat to really have been an accomplished guitar player at the professional level, but I never really seriously pursued that. At the time, I wasn't good enough."

Years later, every time he plugs that Electra into his Fender amplifier, he thinks about all the practice time and hard work that got him to the experience level he is at today.

"You look at the book and you learn the chords, over and over and over again," Huffman said. "I've learned over time, you sort of learn everything together. And you make music that is a result of all of that. I think years and years and years of playing and knowing what's going on the fret board and how the sounds relate to one another helps a lot."

While the joy of playing music before work, and with "some folks every once in a while," is stimulating and helps keep him on the ground, Huffman said he has found a new reason to love picking up the guitar -- Banished, the all-genre band Huffman and his friends recently formed.

Last Saturday, the faint sound of dueling electric guitars momentarily drowned out the birds around the Teakwood neighborhood. One of those guitars was played by Huffman, the other by songwriter and Wayne Community College biology professor Ralph Benedetto.

Huffman said he first heard Benedetto play at St. Mary's Traditional Catholic Church -- not exactly rock 'n' roll. Still, he knew he had found a bandmate.

"Sometimes, your guitar just fits certain people," he said. "I heard Ralph playing the rhythm guitar and said, 'I know this fits.'"

As Huffman sat listening, Benedetto continued to impress him, as did drummer Russ Heinz. So, after mass, he approached the men and asked them if he could join their group.

Heinz was the first member of Banished to "jam" with Huffman.

"We played loudly, and we played for a long time," Huffman said. "We enjoyed it, but we knew we needed something more."

From there, the two began adding people -- and instruments -- to the mix. Benedetto was the next bandmate to climb on board.

"The first time I played with Ralph, it was automatic," Huffman said. "We played and coordinated very well together and I told him 'our sounds complement each other. They're different, but they're different enough where they fit together perfectly.' And he agreed."

The group now consisted of three pieces -- a set of drums and two wailing guitars. They played together during the Hispanic mass at St. Mary's and decided to take their music to a different level. So, they added Huffman's neighbor Jeff Neiman on bass guitar and Vincent Ambrosio on keyboard, vocals and acoustic guitar.

"I never really played with a band at any time," Huffman said. "I played with some folks, but it was never really anything where there was any level of commitment. It feels really good. I don't know how to describe it."

Playing with the band gives him a certain satisfaction he can't find anywhere else, he added.

"When you're playing music with some other folks and it's going really, really well, and it sounds really good, there's nothing like it," Huffman said. "It moves you at a deep level. It's like throwing a touchdown every pass."

Being the member of a band is a way to get involved with the community, Huffman added -- a way to show people that somewhere behind the suit and tie that comes with being city manager is just Joe.

"It's a good feeling," he said. "It's a really good feeling to just sit up there and play music. I mean, I like being city manager, don't get me wrong. It's great. But there's something about anonymity that's neat, too. I love what I do, I love my job, but it's kind of neat to be in these other roles, too."

So, on his way to work, Huffman will continue to get engrossed in a song as he contemplates the city's next move ... or one of his own.

And music will still, sometimes, stop him cold as he hums along with a song that touches a chord that day.

"It's that good," he said.