Music has always played an important role in my life. From my earliest memories, as my mother cleaned house or cooked, she was often singing. Dolly Parton’s Heaven’s Just a Prayer Away was a favorite: “Now if you go, if you go to church on Sunday, you get down on your knees and pray, and give your heart and your soul to Jesus. Heaven’s just a prayer away.” Another of her favorites to sing was Cristy Lane’s Shake Me I Rattle (Squeeze Me I Cry). It is a favorite of mine, still, because the story in the song is the epitome of who my mother was as a person. The singer talks about coming upon a little girl coveting a particular doll in the window of a toy shop. She remembers that she was once like the little girl, wanting something so badly that she could not have because she didn’t have enough money to buy it. She buys the doll and gives it to the little girl. That’s the kind of heart my Mama had and the kind of thing she would often do.
Every year, from Thanksgiving until Christmas, Elvis’s smooth voice filled our house as we trimmed the tree and baked Mama’s famous Fruit Cake Cookies. While I loved hearing how Elvis would have a blue Christmas without me, my favorites from his Christmas Album were the gospel tunes: (There Will Be) Peace in the Valley; Take my Hand, Precious Lord; It Is No Secret (What God Can Do); and I Believe. These tunes reminded me of Sundays at Hopewell Presbyterian Church, where I loved attending Sunday school and Youth Group. Sunday sermons were sometimes long for me as a kid (depending on who our preacher was at the time, some seemed longer than others), but I loved it when the congregation stood together and sang The Old Rugged Cross or In The Garden. Never possessing an in tune voice, I could sing along with the crowd and not stand out as everyone followed along in their hymnals, loud voices blending in praise.
While Mama and I shared a love for Elvis and crooners like Eddy Arnold (Make the World Go Away), Dad and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye musically. He grew up on and loved Country Music. I don’t mean what passes for country music today, I mean Country Music. His car radio was always tuned to a station that played Johnny Cash, Porter Wagner, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, and Conway Twitty. As soon as we got in the car for a road trip, my brother and I began lobbying for Dad to change the radio station to Big Ways, the local station in Charlotte, NC where DJ Jay Thomas spun the latest pop songs. Sometimes we were successful, other times we were forced to suffer through it. I can distinctly remember when that suffering started to change for me. We were coming home from my Grandma Cartner’s home in Harmony, NC and we had stopped at the stop sign coming off of Hwy. 21 onto Mount Holly-Huntersville Road. The DJ said something like, “This next one is from a new little lady on the scene, thirteen-year-old Tanya Tucker.” Delta Dawn blasted out of the radio and I was instantly in love with the song. I had no idea what the song was about, of course, but I loved the catchy chorus and, as a 7-year-old, I was thrilled to hear another kid on the radio.
While I still favored 1970s rock – often “borrowing” my brothers albums by bands like Steely Dan, Boston, Chicago, The Doobie Brothers, and America – I began to occasionally listen to Dad’s favorite station to catch Tanya and finding I liked other performers like Ray Price and Jim Reeves. They were sort of the crossover performers of their day. They were more croon than twang, and I liked that. For The Good Times and He’ll Have to Go were filled with adult content I didn’t understand, but I loved the smooth voices and was a sucker for a sad song, as I remain today.
Dad’s love of Country Music extended beyond the radio. My mother had given him a Gibson guitar in the late 1950’s as a Christmas present. I suppose he had played it consistently since then, but I don’t remember it being a regular thing until the early 1970s. Dad was working with his friend, Howard Rorrer, at Addressograph Multigraph Corporation, where they both serviced printing equipment. In their spare time, they liked to get together, sometimes with several other players, and have what they called a hootenanny. Ranged around the perimeter of our formal living room, they played and sang whatever moved them. It was at those gatherings that I fell in love with the music of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. I Walk the Line and Folsom Prison Blues rocked the house and Are the Good Times Really Over for Good? made me grin every time that I heard the rollicking chorus: “Are we rolling down hill like a snowball headed for hell? With no kind of chance for the Flag or the Liberty Bell?” I would sing along until forced to go to bed, then listen from my room until I fell asleep.
My brother, Curtis, spent time with and really got to know our Dad through Optimist Club sports. Curtis played basketball and baseball and dad helped with the teams, keeping score and getting kids without a ride to the games. Though I cheered a couple of years for the Optimist Club football teams, Dad tended to be busy at the concession stand and I am not even sure he ever saw me cheer. I think the only reason I tried out for softball one year was in hopes of connecting with him in the same way Curtis had. He did attend my games when he could and kept score for my team, but the times I felt closest to Dad were when we sat together in the formal living room of our house and I listened to him play and sing. I loved the gatherings with his friends who played, but even more than that, I loved when it was just us. I would make requests and he would oblige, often saying, “Oh, I don’t know if I even remember the words to that one”, but he always did.
More than anyone else, the songs of Hank Williams, Sr. were the soundtrack of my youth. I will always cherish the memories of sitting on the couch beside Daddy, listening to him strum his guitar and sing Hank’s songs. It wasn’t until I was in high school and Hank Williams, Jr. became popular that I really acknowledged that these weren’t MY daddy’s songs, but his. Daddy could almost bring me to tears singing, “Hear that lonesome whippoorwill. He sounds too blue to fly. The midnight train is whining low. I’m so lonesome I could cry.” Then he would bring me up again with my favorite’s, Kaw-Liga and, even better, Jambalaya. When he sang “Son of a gun we’ll have big fun on the bayou …” I was ready to head down to Louisiana for some of that crawfish pie and filet gumbo, though I really had no idea what those were.
In my mid to late teen years my musical tastes ranged from Jackson Brown to Billy Joel, from AC/DC to Quiet Riot. I bought every album and saw nearly every popular rock/pop band that came to the Charlotte Coliseum or Carowinds Paladium. Our formal living room became a place to court boys instead of hanging out with Dad. At sixteen, I carried a huge case containing about sixty cassettes in the back seat of my 1976 hand-me-down-from-Mom Ford Granada, music blaring and windows down wherever I was allowed to roam.
In my twenties, I rediscovered Country Music, falling in love with Vince Gill’s voice and guitar skills, and loving the harmonies of The Judds, and the cry in the voice of of Keith Whitley. I also revisited some of Dad’s old favorites, finding a love for the songwriting talents of Willie Nelson (Pretty Paper is still my all time favorite Christmas song) and George Jones and a love for the voice of Patsy Cline. I had a five disc cd player in my car and carried a thick binder of cds everywhere I went.
In my thirties, I was as likely to be found listening to Billy Joel as Merle Haggard. I had an iPod with probably the most diverse group of songs and performers you could imagine and a speaker you could plug it into and take your music collection anywhere. I was rarely without my iPod … on the beach, in the car, plugged into the stereo in my own living room, singing, like Mom, while I cleaned house.
In 2001, when I was thirty-six years old, my world was rocked. I lost my mom, my best friend, suddenly, unexpectedly, to a heart attack just shy of her sixty-second birthday and just 30 days before 9/11. I withdrew from the world, suffering, mourning, and lost. I contemplated joining her, calculated the likelihood of success in that endeavor if I just pushed the gas pedal to the floor and flew off the embankment near my house where the bridge for Hwy 73 which would eventually cross Interstate 485 was being constructed. The love and concern I had for my husband and my Dad reined in those thoughts temporarily, but they kept resurfacing. Music was still a solace to me. Songs like Diamond Rio’s One More Day and Faith Hill’s There You’ll Be took on new meaning when I was sad. Joe Dee Messina’s Bring on the Rain became an anthem I blasted when I was angry and hurt by things that happened in the family in the wake of my mother’s death.
And then one faithful day in 2002, as I ambled through the cd section at Target, a picture of a handsome guy caught my eye. I’m not ashamed to say I bought the cd based solely on that picture. Then I fell head over heels in love with the guy and the music. I’d never heard of a “ganjo”, but, Lord knows, I loved it. The music transported me out of my head, where I tend to stew, to dwell, to worry, to wallow, and made me feel happy. I sought out more from this artist and found his debut album from 1991 and a short-lived band album from 1997. I searched for info online and found appearances on television, videos, magazines. Before long, I was dragging my friends and my husband to various states to see him perform live. Keith Urban plays a guitar (and a gango … a six stringed banjo) like it is an extension of his own body … and I loved it. Watching him play like that, with abandon, made me happy again. It saved me, truthfully.
I sought out the music of other great guitar players like Brad Paisley, Eric Clapton, and Carlos Santana and fell in love with bluegrass players like Doc Watson, Ricky Scaggs and Bill Munroe. Though Dad and I were not as close anymore (he had remarried and retired from our business in 2002 and we no longer spent five days a week together), the music made me feel nostalgic for those days in the living room listening to him play and sing for me. That old Gibson guitar was gathering dust and aging inside its case. (Due to two separate encounters with a table saw, Dad had lost the tips of two fingers and could no longer play.) For Christmas 2003, I created a cd of all the songs that had brought us close and printed the lyrics on the cd insert. I shared memories of what those songs meant to me. On the day I gave it to him, I told him, “When you are gone, the only thing I want is your guitar.” I had no concept of what the guitar was worth, monetarily, I just knew it was the symbol of the time I had felt closest to my Daddy. He smiled and made me a promise that he would be sure that happened.
I’m now fifty-six years old and I drive to work every day listening to my Sirius-XM radio in the car. It might be tuned to The Bridge (Mellow Classic Rock), Prime Country (80s/90s country), or The Bluegrass station, depending on my mood. I’m the only person I know who still owns and uses an iPod filled with everything from Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, Sr. to Il Divo, from Journey and Loverboy to Elvis, from Adele to Alice in Chains. I own four Amazon Echos – two at home and two at work, so I can hear whatever music I want whenever I want. I blast Dua Lipa while I clean, singing and dancing with the broom when no one else is around to hear my awful singing voice. The last thing I say each night is, “Alexa … play music for Meditation.”
I credit my parents and my brother for introducing me to music early and often. That love of music is one of the greatest gifts they ever gave me. And, speaking of gifts … this Christmas, my 83-year-old Dad surprised me with one that left me speechless … his Gibson guitar. The moment took place in front of my husband, my brother, his wife and kids and an aunt and uncle. I didn’t speak, because I knew I couldn’t without crying. Only when prompted did I take the guitar from its case and hold it. As I looked into the crazed lacquer of it’s blond body, I saw the reflection of the seven-year-old me who idolized her Dad.