There was a radio in my grandparents house in a little room between the kitchen and the other four rooms in the house. It played as my grandma cooked dinner on a kerosene stove, while grandpa still worked in the cotton fields on either side of the dirt road that took a hard right and dropped down toward the Savannah River. That was when dinner was a noon meal and tea had taste.
Mornings, a sad organ would play during the doleful reading of “The Obituary Column of the Air.” Sometimes the country songs from an AM station across the Savannah River in Hartwell, Ga., were sadder than the organ, but I’d rather hear two tom cats fighting at 2 a.m. than an organ.
Hank Williams sang “Hey Good Lookin’ ’’ as flies buzzed against the screen in an open window. Flies were always at the screen trying to get in or out. You can’t satisfy a house fly.
My mama would walk through singing “You Are My Sunshine,’’ the Louisiana Gov. Jimmy Davis song that has endured like the rest of country music. When I was about 10, we drove more than half a day to Spruce Pine, N.C., where my step-dad had grown up on Brushy Creek and run a little shine down to Morganton. As our ’55 Chevy strained up the steep grade to Gillespie Gap, Hank Locklin’s “Please Help Me I’m Falling” came over the AM radio as clear as the water streaming off the rock walls beside the road.
Years later, I groused in the living room floor as my step-dad had the only TV in the house tuned to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. They sang sponsor Martha White’s theme song that ended with:
For the finest biscuits, cakes and pies,
Get Martha White self-rising flour
The one all purpose flour,
Martha White self-rising flour’s
Got Hot Rise.
I didn’t want to hear that hillbilly music, at least I didn’t think I did. I wanted to hear the Beach Boys, Roy Orbinson, Leslie Gore and the Four Seasons.
I listened to nothing but rock n’ roll through high school, through a war and in college. Soon after I started my career in newspapers in 1972, I went to a sports writer’s house for a party. He played some rock n’ roll and then put on a record and said to the collection of young, college-educated reporters he had invited, “I bet you ain’t heard nothing like this.”
The next thing I know, my foot’s bouncing on its own and I’m singing a bad tenor harmony: “If I can’t be your salty dog, I won’t be your dog at all. Honey let me be your salty dog.”
I knew the words to about everything Phil Batson played, and he marveled at that. We started hitting bluegrass festivals including the one at Shoal Creek Country Music Park near Lavonia where little Marty Stewart played mandolin with Lester Flatt and Nashville Grass. We went to one in Hugo, Oklahoma, where there were a lot of dobroes among the parking lot pickers and listened with Hell’s Angels as Doc and Merle Watson played at Snuffy Jenkins’ festival in Lumber City, N.C..
Batson and I became roommates in a house with a wraparound porch. We never disagreed on music. We played some Sgt. Pepper and Elton John on vinyl, but we about wore out some J.D. Crowe and the New South and Seldom Scene albums.
It’s funny if you just said, Paul out of the blue, nobody would know who you meant. You had to say John, Paul, George and Ringo. It’s not that way with country. You can say Dolly, Hank, Reba, Willie or Chet, and they’ll know who you mean. I would have added Emmy Lou, but that’s too easy.
We listened to Waylon with Willie, talked about how Porter Waggoner couldn’t sing a lick and sat marveling as George Jones’s voice filled the old house and — as he sang in “The Grand Tour — “chilled me to the bawwwn.”
They say country music is three chords and the truth. Maybe, but bluegrass was more. It was and is like stock car racing. Tune ‘em up and run ‘em as hard as you can.
Country is three chords and enough heartache to fill the appointment book of every psychologist in New York City. But country folk don’t believe in therapy. They cry to mama or in their beer. And there’s Daniels therapy, Charlie and Jack.
We listened to a lot of music as we grow older, but country music finds a place in the soul and sticks. Men already so lonesome they could cry sat under the moon in deserts and jungles yearning for the whip-poor-will call like back home. And a woman sits at home on a Saturday night trying to comfort a teething baby remembering her mama had told her how sorry that man was.
But as bad as life was, some of the men and women singing on the Opry probably had it worse. I’ve had banana splits that lasted longer than Nashville marriages.
There were two girls in my life I thought I couldn’t live without, and they both broke up with me with Glen Campbell singing in the background.
The first one, I got over, and as Jimmy Martin sang, “Now she’s gone, and I ain’t worried. I’m settin’ on top of the world.”
I was nearly over the second one when she decided maybe I wasn’t so bad after all. She may have been wrong. Batson was my best man, and I’m still settin’ on top of the world 42 years later.
About two years into our marriage, we went to a Glen Campbell concert. His band sang a great version of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.’’ I wasn’t lonesome at all, but it about made me cry.
When I listen to country now, it’s that old stuff. You can listen without hearing about impeachment and climate change. It is, after all, mostly red state music.
All this flooded back because I watched every minute of Ken Burns’ 16 1/2-hour documentary on country music on PBS. The last 2-hour episode ended with “Will the Circle be Unbroken,’’ a song we sang a few years ago at my Aunt Ruby’s graveside service.
I sang a rough harmony on the chorus. Afterward, I had some fried chicken, potato salad and cold green beans with my cousins, hugged some necks and drove five hours home to St. Simons. Aunt Ruby had suffered a stroke and had spent years in a wheelchair, but never lost her country spunk. I wish we had sung, “I’ll Fly Away.”
Hank Williams didn’t write that country hymn. He wrote another good one, “I Saw the Light.”
One country singer wrote, “Hank Williams, you wrote my life.” Hank didn’t write mine, thank God, but I could listen to his for the rest of mine.