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In a music scene known for Buffet covers and karaoke, Joe McGlohon’s sax was pure gold. Now, he’s saying farewell.

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Every good player wants to play by the ocean. Could be the clean air. The wide stretches of empty sand — or all the skinny potential mates in sexy swimwear — but beach gigs always attract talented musicians. Some are hungry troubadours strumming for tips. Others are national acts, working smaller clubs for a weekend getaway. Not many can say they once played a packed Houston Astrodome for 80,000 fans or graced New York’s Radio City Music Hall.

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“My grandma lived in the city,” says Joe McGlohon, remembering the ‘92 gig with “Queen of Country” Reba McEntire. “We used to go to Radio City to see plays and movies, so when I actually got to walk on stage, it was amazing. Not only did we have the crowd in the building, but the show was simulcast on the Times Square Jumbotron.”

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Not bad for the son of a piano teacher from Greenville, NC. Joe began his quartercentury road career at 18, playing steel guitar for the band, Heartwood. But once he heard the blues and soul sounds of Motown and Memphis — influences like “Big J” McNeely, King Curtis and Junior Walker — he stopped sliding strings and began blasting notes. “‘Shot Gun’ by Junior Walker is what turned me on to playing sax,” he recalls. “That’s what made me say, ‘I want to do that.’”

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For 25 years, McGlohon toured the nation with country and blues giants like Delbert McClinton and T-Graham Brown. In 1989 he joined Reba McEntire, serving as her music director for five years. Still, youthful recollections of coastal summers kept calling him home. With his parents still in Greenville and sister Millie in Nags Head (she settled here in 1973 with husband Jimbo Ward), Joe left Nashville in 2009. He soon discovered another welcoming family among Outer Banks musicians, his sax mixing in like mangos into salsa: making everything spicier, sweeter and — best of all — subtle.

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Like any great conversationalist, Joe knows when to talk, and when to listen. So, while most soloists cram the maximum licks into a small block of time, McGlohon’s mastered the art of fitting time into a choice group of licks. He credits the style to an anonymous bluesman who once told him he “could be twice the player he was, if he could learn to only play half the notes.” The approach fits most any genre. Besides being an active member of The Crowd, Joe loves to sit in with a range of local acts: backing up bluesy Mojo Collins; jamming with jazz proponents like Joe Mapp and The Coordinates, Wet Betty, or any lineup boasting TR3 drummer Dan Martier or bassist Mick Vaughn. milepost

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His saxophone mixes like mangos in salsa, making any music both spicy and sweet.

“I used to come down to Nags Head when I was in college to check out the Good Humor Band,” says Martier. “So when I finally got to play with him, it was like playing with one of my heroes.” Of course, a life of cramped vans and nightclubs comes with a few close calls. Joe’s been swung at. Shot at. A 1977 motorcycle accident wrecked his hand — and his steel guitar career. But his scariest memory occurred in 1991. Not in some seedy bar, but flying home from a California corporate gig with McEntire.

It wails. It laughs. It even rocks. McGlohon cradles his baby. PHOTO: ChrisBickford.com

“I decided to hop on the crew plane, instead of flying with the band,” McGlohon recalls. “The band plane took off, followed by our plane, then Reba’s private jet. When we got to Memphis to refuel, we got word that the band plane had gone down five minutes after takeoff, killing all eight band members and both pilots.” Twenty years later, Joe still phones the families every March 16 to remind them how special their loved ones were. It also keeps him aware of what’s important. “That was such a traumatic event,” he continues. “I just had to get through it and keep on making music. But it did bring me to the conclusion that life is short and to make the best of every moment.” So, if you hear some sultry sax blowing down the beach this fall, make the most of that moment. This October, Joe moves to London to rekindle a 20-year romance and back a Belgian singer through Europe. But as much as the Outer Banks will miss him — and as much as Joe will long for the Carolina coast — every musician knows: it’s not so much where you play, so long as you keep playing. — Jesse Fernandez

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