This Rancho Palos Verdes Resident Jams with Strangers in Airports Around the World

Striking a chord.

  • Category
    Arts, People
  • Written by
    Jennie Nunn
  • Photographed by
    Shane O’Donnell

Michael Gallion, a self-taught guitarist who regularly plays outside Point Vicente Interpretive Center as well as airport terminals in Denver, Vancouver and Phoenix, has one simple daily practice: “I don’t leave home without a guitar—ever.”

Having grown up in a family of eight children in St. Louis, Missouri, he clearly remembers his aha moment with the guitar. “We struggled a lot financially,” says Michael. “My older brother got a guitar for Christmas, but I wasn’t allowed to touch it. It was like that scene in the movie Step Brothers where Will Ferrell’s character [Brennan Huff] is not allowed to touch the drum set.”

By the time he was 16, Michael had taught himself to play by ear on a guitar he borrowed from his next-door neighbor. He spent months practicing and dissecting each note of one of his all-time favorite songs: “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. 

“I untangled all of the details, and I wanted to know, ‘What is the guitar player really doing?’” recalls Michael, who played in a cover band in St. Louis named The Code. “Listening to a song and having this sort of catharsis and having it go through your body as the one playing it is just a great experience. I loved the ability to talk about a song and how it became a part of culture and connectivity. But then, to be able to play well enough that people liked what I was doing, it was sort of immediate. I could tell that when I played, people cared.”

After studying photography at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and working in the printing industry for many years, Michael moved to Los Angeles in 1988, followed by Orange County, to pursue music. He joined a group called The Color Wheel and opened for bands like No Doubt with front woman Gwen Stefani. 

Later, a producer approached Michael’s band to sign with an independent label that wasn’t quite in line with the style of music they wanted to produce. He decided to step away completely to focus on his wife and two children. He also embarked on a new career in business development and sales for Carson–based company Bird Barrier America, Inc., where he educates and consults with businesses to help prevent bird-related issues while protecting bird populations. 

But more than a decade later, his musical past caught up with him when his daughter nudged him to play the guitar again. “She could tell it was a part of my soul that I needed to revisit and that I couldn’t just walk away from,” explains Michael, who now lives in Rancho Palos Verdes. “In 2018, there I was, dropping her off at college in New York. I turned to my wife and said, ‘I have to tell you this secret. I made a promise to her to get back into music, and I don’t know what that means, but I’m just going to buy a guitar and see what happens.’”

His version of “winging it” led to carrying his LAVA ME 3 guitar with him and playing local gigs and private events with his band and at airports. He is the founder of Bedrock, an acoustic rock band with lead singer Lindsey Star and drummer Justin Tompkins that performs at local venues including Belle Epoque and The Lighthouse Café.

“When I pick up the guitar now, it’s with a lot of wisdom and experience,” says Michael, who strums a wide range of songs from troupes and artists including Neil Young, The Beatles and Fleetwood Mac. “There’s something so organic about it—it’s not contrived, and it’s not like I force myself on anyone. I sit quietly to the side. I don’t grandstand. I don’t place my guitar case out to try to collect tips. There are many musicians in the world who are so much better than me, so if I’m given cash, I pass it on to other emerging musicians I meet. There’s something special about that money.”

Michael, who took 52 trips last year and logged 170 hotel nights, strongly believes music brings people together—especially flight attendants and airport staff. “The right song performed live in the middle of all the hustle and bustle can make all the difference,” he says. “It’s not the same as overhead music. There is something about particular songs in the moment where people want to share the song’s meaning for them. Each great song seems to have 100 different stories, depending on who you meet.”

It’s these stories and connections that remind him of the vital role of music in his life. “There’s no agenda, and the universe has something in mind for it,” says Michael. “I followed my heart all the way until now, and this has turned out to be a reward for making the right choices.”