Puppy love

You might not expect a classic Walt Whitman poem to work as a rap. But no one seems to have explained that to Nick Stubblefield. Or if they did, he didn’t listen.

“Ladies and gentlemen, tonight you’re gonna hear Walt Whitman the way he was meant to be heard,” the irrepressible Nick declares at the outset of a one-off cut recorded just for kicks and giggles (and later expanded into a music video).

And then, atop a staccato wave of electronic keyboard notes, the fluid flood of Walt’s words arrives: “Oh captain! my captain! our fearful trip is done … “

Nick’s own journey, though, is only just beginning. He plays piano with verve and natural grace. He’s fearless in arranging songs. He’s performed for the wealthy and the cultured, to much acclaim.

And to many, many pats on the head.

Nick, who’s been gigging professionally for several years now, is 15. He’s closing out his freshman year at Asheville High.

In this dog-eat-dog world, it would be convenient if you could resent this puppy’s seemingly unfair load of talent. Good luck: Nick Stubblefield, like the rest of his close-knit family — dad Jerry, mom Cindy and sister Phoebe — is honestly and unfailingly nice.

When I visited the Stubblefield home, they fed me apple pie (fresh from the oven). And, yes, a glass of milk (skim — probably because it’s healthier).

Pretty wholesome, no? Still, the “talented kid” thing is beginning to make Nick a little nuts.

Earlier this year, he released a debut CD, Tried as an Adult, mostly recorded when he was 14 (the family had 100 copies pressed). The cover includes a couple of mug-shot-style photos. But the album title, while clever, also harbors a grain of truth: Forget my age; just listen to my music.

“You don’t have to make excuses … ” says Nick.

“Or allowances … ” adds his dad.

“Don’t listen to it and say, ‘Oh, that’s good, ’cause he’s a kid,'” Nick concludes.

And indeed, taken at face value, Tried as an Adult, packs definite charms: Nick’s piano playing is fluid and seemingly effortless throughout. His willingness to tweak jazz standards with modern keyboard splashes adds a distinct level of fun. And while the rhythm tracks occasionally drop out of synch with the melody, they further spotlight Nick’s knack for composition (five of the CD’s 12 cuts are his own).

The album’s biggest selling point, though, is as a documentation of promise: Where, oh where, will Nick go — as an adult?

The family that plays together …

Nick says his piano playing started “a very, very long time ago.”

His family loves to tell the story of Nick as a toddler, kicking on the piano.

“It sounded like music,” his father asserts.

Abstract music,” Nick qualifies.

By fourth grade, Nick was pushing hard for piano lessons. He began working with David Foster, the organist at First Baptist Church on Oak Street, and hasn’t stopped since.

Nick’s talent, says Foster, works on several levels.

“Technically, he’s very, very gifted,” the organist explains. “He has a natural feel for the piano and the keyboard.”

But he has something bigger still.

“Nick loves music,” his instructor says. “He has a natural grasp of the different styles. He picks things up so quickly. He’ll hear something, and immediately take off on it. He can play Bach as well as he can play jazz.”

Foster can’t help but wonder what Nick could do if he had more free time to devote solely to his musical gifts.

“Nick’s a joy to work with,” his instructor concludes. “A joy to work with.”

As expected, the young pianist practices for hours on end. You can hear him all over the house, his sister says, rolling her eyes good-naturedly.

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