Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My pal Vince Gill talks about how much fun it is to make sweet music with lovely Amy Grant

OK, so it's Christmastime. I guess it was three years ago I wrote this piece for the Nashville Symphony. They didn't use this version because I mention that Vince Gill enjoys sleeping with Amy Grant and other light-hearted things. I was proud of the version that was used, but figured you might like to read this one. By the way, I'll be back in full bloom soon.

“Earthy elegance” is how Amy Grant describes her husband’s cross-genre appeal.
Country icon George Jones says the man he nicknamed “Sweet Pea” has “the kind of voice for just any type of music,” whether sung in a high lonesome saloon or the grandest of symphony halls.
The guy in question, Vince Gill, says he’s just a “hillbilly” who respects his surroundings and audiences.
“I always try to play what’s appropriate,” he says. During his three nights at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, “I’m not going to do the crying-in-your-beer, cheating songs. I want to do what’s beautiful for the room, honor the room for its integrity and honesty.”
Some argue country music is best when played in a barroom. If so, for three nights, Turner Hall in the Schermerhorn Symphony Center will become the most acoustically pure honky-tonk in the business.
Grant points out her beloved is at home in the most-reckless joints as well as in the elegance of the Schermerhorn. “I’ll say this about Vince Gill: The one thing I’ve always loved about him is he’s such a combination of elegance and rough around the edges.
“His voice, the way he carries himself can be absolutely down-home. He could get along comfortably in the roughest barroom – that’s his roots – and he can put on a tux jacket and walk out with the symphony.”
She notes, though, that playing with a world-class symphony offers challenges not found in the smoke-filled roadhouses where Gill honed his pure-tenor voice and guitar-playing skills. For example, the music must be orchestrated and the singer must resist any whim to call out set list shifts. Plus there’s a certain pomp, or at least propriety, when playing to the tie, gown and Chardonnay crowd.
Gill admits the challenge, but mostly he simply relishes playing the venue he says will become “Nashville’s Carnegie Hall.”
While he is a heralded artist – 19 Grammys, 18 Country Music Association Awards and six Academy of Country Music Awards are just some of his hardware – he also is the music world’s “class clown.” As showcased during his dozen years as CMA Awards host, Gill’s self-effacing, roll-your-eyes charm allows him to tip-toe the line that defines good behavior.
Again, he tries to fit his tongue to the circumstances. Perhaps he tuned up – or toned down -- for his symphony stand during a three-week Christmas tour with his wife.
“It’s always a lot of pressure performing with Amy,” he says. “I mean, I’ll say just about anything between songs. But I’ve always got to be on my best behavior with Amy.”
Regardless, this funny man -- who jabs at himself for being “calorically challenged” -- says the “awesome” thing about touring with his wife is not just that he’s traveling with his best friend: “I get to sleep with the other act,” he deadpans.
That “other act” isn’t on the Schermerhorn bill (“But I’m in town and I’m available,” she teases), but her remarkable passion for the Nashville Symphony might apply a dose of musical performance anxiety to Gill.
Beginning in 1993, when the symphony was in dire fiscal straits and perhaps facing extinction, Grant began performing with them in a series of fund-raising concerts that helped retire the debt. Beginning in 1996, she and the symphony barnstormed the land with Christmas concerts, raising the orchestra’s profile.
The Nashville Symphony arose with flourish to become a world-class, Grammy-winning, Carnegie Hall-playing outfit beneath the baton of late Maestro Kenneth Schermerhorn.
Instead of fading to black, the orchestra now performs at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, a monument which meshes the best of the world’s great halls with modern technology.
Gill hardly takes performing in the Schermerhorn’s Laura Turner Hall for granted.
“I want to honor the room in its most glorious state,” he says.
Gill remains mindful of his surroundings and audiences wherever he plays.
This modern-day soul of the Grand Ole Opry inserts vitality into that institution by performing regularly there and by challenging younger country artists to take that venerable stage. He stays true to principles nurtured by Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe. “I never play the electric guitar out there. I like the way acoustic music plays there. I play bluegrass. I try to honor the tradition of the place where I’m doing the music.”
One might argue the Schermerhorn is too young for traditions, but Gill uses his career’s fail-safe tool to scour the songbook for tunes suitable for the hear-a-pin-drop confines.
“I follow my ears,” he says. “My ears are my greatest asset. It’s not my hands. It’s not my voice. It’s my ability to hear.
“And if I can hear what’s appropriate to sing or play, that’s what I point toward.
“My ears haven’t let me down in a long time. I just trust them and try to do what they tell me is the right thing for me. And I still hear pretty good.”
His symphony choices are songs that “orchestrate well.”
“I hope I can keep it fairly organic and try to honor the symphony and honor the room.”
Don’t expect the electric guitar wizardry that long-ago earned him an invitation to join Mark Knopfler’s Dire Straits (“Money for Nothing”).
He’ll keep it acoustic. “I’ll be trying to do the things that are beautiful, do ballads. There’s no
point in trying to rock the crowd.
“It’ll be more in the jazz or subtle blues world. I don’t see a lot of flash and dash.”
Expect the “Go Rest High On That Mountain” vocal purity that earned him legions of admirers, among them country icon Jones, whose own voice turned many a barroom ballad into a thing of beauty.
It is said that Jones, in his prime, possessed the best voice in the history of country music.
Jones, the man they call “Possum,” disagrees: “I think Vince has the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard. He’s the man and the singer that everyone would like to be like. He just overwhelms me.”
Jones, who worked package tours with Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn and Gill, adds “I don’t think there’s a nicer person in country music or any music.”
Jones says “He Stopped Lovin’ Her Today” and the like never belonged in a symphony hall. “I don’t have the type of voice that fits in, but Vince does.”
Gill has played the Schermerhorn before. And while he takes his job seriously, he is, after all the impish Vince Gill…. So to the genteel souls in the audience: Be forewarned ….
One night, while dazzling a Turner Hall crowd, he got it in his head that he really, really wanted
to sing a tongue-in-cheeker he’d recorded with The Notorious Cherry Bombs, a country super group that included, among others, pals Rodney Crowell and Tony Brown.
That song: “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long.”
“I looked at Amy and I told her: ‘I’m sorry, dear, but I’m going to have to do this.’ ”
Christian-pop star Grant, who’d signed on for the better and the worse, didn’t stop him.
While he doesn’t rule out a repeat performance this month, he says it would have to occur during his solo segments. “I would have the good taste, at least, not to ask the symphony to play along on that one.”
Once again, his mind turns to the special environment. “I’ve been to Carnegie Hall. And I heard the symphony at the Schermerhorn the first night. I have not heard rooms that respond to the music the way the Schermerhorn did.
“The sound of the instruments, when played lightly, it was beautiful. When they bear down on the violins, you could hear the actual wood of the instrument.
“That’s a testament to how great the room sounds. It’s magical.”

Monday, December 19, 2011

A reflection of Christmas lights and birthdays with Little Jimmy Dickens, a giant of a human being

Little Jimmy Dickens is one of my favorite people, deservingly loved for his charm and personality. People sometimes forget he's one hell of an artist. But that's an aside. Saw him Saturday night at the Preds game and we all sang Happy Birthday to Little Jim. Anyway, in appreciation of a great man's 91 years -- his birthday is today -- I thought I'd resurrect a story I wrote for my friend, Susan Leathers, and her Brentwoood Home Page last Christmas. Remember,this story is a year old, so it doesn't reflect anything happening today. I haven't been out to see if Jimmy has his lights back. In any case, the story you are about to read is true.

Little Jimmy Dickens sits in his house on West Concord Road in Brentwood and chirps, softly, about the activity on his one-acre lot.
“I’m just kicking back and watching the birds,” says the Grand Ole Opry legend, adding quickly that something is missing from his yard this year.
For the first time in more than two decades, the homestead in Brentwood Hills is absent the elaborate light display that has raised children’s smiles and bedazzled holiday sightseers.
Closing in on his 90th birthday, he simply decided not to partake in the elaborate decorating this year. You see, he’s not one to hire yard decorators. This salt-of-the-earth soul always has done it himself.
“It’s such a struggle to put them up by myself. I just let it go this year,” says Dickens on a blustery Williamson County afternoon.
Then he pauses. “I miss it. A lot. I been doing it for so long.”
He explains that this year he and his wife, Mona, and their two daughters and their families – “I’ve got two granddaughters and a great-grandbaby, a girl. I’m surrounded by pretty girls” – are going to spend Christmas away from Brentwood.
“We have a chalet up on the mountain in Gatlinburg that we’re being given to use,” he says. “I’m looking forward to it.”
While up there, they’ll celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Christmas Eve marriage to Mona. “We’ll just be with everybody,” he says, of that celebration.
Because of the plans to Christmas in the mountains rather than home in Brentwood, the genial heart of the Opry figured he’d limit the decorating to a lonely wreath or two.
He doesn’t blame age, although he could, of course. He was a mere youth, perhaps not even 70, when he began turning his home place into a holiday showplace.
It sounds like even he has a hard time believing it when he says: “I’ll be 90 Dec. 19.”
That birthday, by the way, will be celebrated at home. But Dickens doesn’t know yet what’s in store for him.
“My wife is full of secrets. She don’t tell me much, but I’ll be in the middle of it,” he says, breaking into the laughter that has delighted Opry fans since he joined that historic broadcast family in 1948.
“Tater” – as his pal Hank Williams dubbed Dickens after the 4-foot-11 performer’s song “Take an Old Cold ’Tater (And Wait)” --reckons that since his birthday is on a Sunday, at least it will be one of his days off. He still works the Opry regularly, performing Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights as well as being available whenever the show needs him.
“They keep me busy,” he says. “But I don’t do any recording or any touring much anymore. Oh, I’ll do a few things with Bill Anderson and the casinos here and there.”
Other than that, he’s content with his work for the Opry. He also admits delight at the newest generation of fans hatched after he began appearing in videos and televised appearances with reigning CMA entertainer of the year Brad Paisley, who as a teenager opened for Dickens and who still regards the older, smaller man as a mentor.
“Brad’s been so very kind to me to use me in his videos and stuff. He’s just a prince,” says Dickens, who began his show biz career in 1938 on the radio in West Virginia.
For the next decade, he plied his musical trade for radio stations throughout the Midwest, where in addition to singing and picking “I was selling anything from baby chicks to trees.”
He found his permanent home in 1948, when “Mr. (Roy) Acuff brought me to the Opry.”
That King of Country Music died in 1992, but this firecracker of an entertainer continues to thrive.
When Dickens isn’t at the Opry, there’s a good chance he’s talking about it. “I do a lot of interviews and things like that. I enjoy talking to people. I appreciate their interest. I worry when they don’t call me.”
When he’s not engaged in Opry pursuits, he keeps busy taking care of the house and his acre yard in Brentwood Hills.
“There’s always something to do around here daily,” he says, of the chores he’s tended to in the four decades or so spent in “the third house built on this hill.”
As noted earlier, the wildlife rank pretty highly on his list of passions. “We feed a lot of birds,” he says, pointing out “at least a dozen” feeders within eyeshot.
“We have those little bitty wrens and whatever you call them. They’re beautiful. Got a lot of redbirds, too.”
He also tends to the pond filled with “big Japanese coy. They go to the bottom, though, this time of year.”
But on this cold and gray December day, he admits regrets about not putting the lights up this year.
“Oh it’s a lot of work. It takes me about a week to put them up,” says this lively nonagenarian.
He’s unlike many holiday decorating enthusiasts, in that he can’t quantify his work by rattling off the number of lights he has put up in years past.
“Golly, I have no idea. I just kept putting them up until I ran out.”
And there are some special reasons he laments not taking the effort to get his yard decorated and lighted up by the day after Thanksgiving, as has been his tradition.
“I like it when the kids in the neighborhood come by and look at them. And down at the Orphans Home, well, they bring the children by and see them lights. That was worth it.
“They would just bring them buses by. That’s the part I miss more than anything. The people in the neighborhood thanking me for putting them up and the kids enjoying them.
“That meant a lot to me.”
There is a long pause and a twinkle. “I think I’ll probably do them again next year.”

Saturday, December 10, 2011

It's a damn wonderful life ... aka 'The Big Guy got run over by a reindeer and some wise guys from not afar '

As you know, old Flapjacks is working on a longer project that is sure to delight. But can't let this holiday season pass without revisiting one of my favorite damn Christmases ever.

“Have a Damn Nice Christmas.”

Makes you feel like breaking out the hot chocolate and singing about that Wenceslaus fellow feasting on Stephen or whatever.
That Damn Nice holiday sentiment nearly cost me my job back in the winter of 1982. Fortunately, I was able to make The Big Guy, our publisher blink. Perhaps the dollar signs I’d help him earn blinded him temporarily, long enough for me to back out his door, put on my yellow fedora and fire up a smoke.
Hell, for all I remember, and sometimes that isn’t much, The Big Guy maybe even smiled. At the very least he jangled the change in his pockets and nodded, blankly, thinking “How in the world can I get back to Carolina and out of this institution....” He was from that state populated by basketball and Biltmore and his prize, upon retirement, was to get back to the mountains and drool.
Call me naive or innocent (few do, you know), but I was surprised by the fuming anger of The Big Guy, as I didn’t understand what was so wrong with this sentimental greeting. I even sent one of the cards to my mom, and she didn’t object. She was willing always to have a Damn Nice Christmas right up til she died. I think she hung the card on the Christmas Tree. Still she had been a journalist, so I suppose she got it.
That greeting that was broadcast around Clarksville came during the heady early days of the fraternity of nicotine-stained journalists who came together with purpose and pride and along the way became known as the News Brothers. Blue-collar journalists, telling blue-collar stories to a blue-collar (and Army-drab-collar) town.
Most people liked it when we wished them a “Damn Nice Christmas” 28 years ago.
After all, wasn’t that the last line from It’s A Wonderful Life? Jimmy Stewart looks into the camera, eyes twinkle as the bell tinkles and says: “Attaboy, Clarence: Have a Damn Nice Christmas!” Listen closer next time, as that part of the line gets drowned out by all the joyous singing.
In the weeks and months leading up to delivering the holiday greeting to The Big Guy, our publisher, I’d been helping to guide what came to be prize-winning coverage involving the deaths of two beautiful and innocent young people. Of course, we weren’t looking for recognition. We just were looking for the truth. And justice. And, when the adrenaline and nicotine wore off, perhaps some sleep.
Kathy Jane Nishiyama and Rodney Wayne Long still stir nightmares in sections of my soul scarred and raw by their monstrous murders almost three decades ago. There still are the sweats on cold nights.
Children, really. Promise extinguished. Forever frozen as “mug shots” that ran daily on the front page with eerily parallel dispatches about the mysteries, searches, chases, savagery and mourning.
The newspaper wasn’t large in staff, but the staff was large in heart. We were pretty young ourselves, though our own innocence had been washed away by years of covering trailer-trash murders and gunfights involving prostitutes, transvestites, serial killers and soldiers. Our photographer would show us some of the not-ready for prime-time shots he got of bodies and bullet holes. Even I was shocked by one of a fatal wound right below a guy’s testicles. He not only bled out, but his once-proud – to him I’m sure -- private parts were making the photographic rounds of police departments and newsrooms.
Sure there was gallows humor. When you are making $150 a week and aswirl in bodies, sometimes you just had to laugh when you saw the photograph. Sorry. But it’s true.
The Kathy Jane and Rodney stories touched us and I’ll tell you much more about them some other time.
Suffice it to say that for the most part, we worked around the clock to tell those stories, to cover the deaths and the get to know the families of the teen-age victims and the killers. Some of the finest police coverage ever by my dear friend, Rob “Death” Dollar, with the occasional assist by me and by our vigilant Baptist wordsmith, the near-legendary Frank “Wuhm” White, a successful businessman and downtown roof owner. Another story. Another night. For this is Christmas.
Long-time copy desk pal Jerry “Chuckles” Manley, a semi-portly boy with a reddish beard, edited the copy with expertise and with at least one keen eye while Virginia Slims smoke made the other eye run. His sidekick, “Flash” – a fresh-from-school news virgin – aged every time he helped copy-edit those stories and write a headline about a body found or a gleeful, boasting killer.
My boss Tony Durr – whom I still love and miss a couple of decades after he died, alone and perhaps in mortal remorse, in a lonely Alaska Coast Guard barracks after washing out of journalism and a half-dozen marriages -- pranced around the newsroom, excited by the grisly coverage and his occasional assist and /or attempt at deflecting the slings and arrows of upper management .
Sure, great coverage of two murders that occurred at about the same time in the same Southern town. “Things like that aren’t supposed to happen here in Clarksville,” barked one police officer who enjoyed back-shooting dope-smugglers, pimps, throat-slicers, chicken thieves, father rapers and other everyday perpetrators and predators.
Sixteen-hour work days could be punctuated by cigarettes exploding in the newsroom. Yep, we booby-trapped the open packs on our desks with “loaded” cigarettes. There were those who never wanted to admit they smoked by buying their own. Wives would object if they openly indulged. So they bummed and as a result I loved watching them jerk around in their chairs, gasping when the smoke cleared, the frayed cigarette pursed between Lee Oswald lips.
Seems pretty juvenile, but then again, so does rubber vomit.
But this is a story about Christmas 1982 and the card. You remember the Christmas card, don’t you?
It actually seemed like a great idea, guaranteed to raise a smile, in the wake of all that had gone on in the news. And besides that, Rob and I were coming off the success of the movie we’d produced and directed, written, whatever the word might be, and even starred in ... along with “Flash” and “Chuckles” as co-stars and others who occasionally dropped in to take part. Half the town’s police force and firefighters and charitable organizations were involved to some extent. Even the mayor and the first American to circle the globe participated.
“Flapjacks: The Motion Picture” -- with its intricate plot revolving around news events, along with its slapstick and satire poking fun at journalism (we didn’t realize we were the last generation of practitioners of that profession at the time), law enforcement, pop culture and current events -- holds up to this day.
With all the pie-throwing, gun-slappping, confetti-flying, car-chasing and finger-flipping scenes, it also really is a portrait of my life at the time. I could have called it “Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine,” after the Doors album, because it came out of my head – and out of Rob’s – as we went along, coping with the disaster and death we’d been covering.
We’d meet for coffee at 7 a.m. on Saturdays with a “script” for the day’s shoot, film for a few hours, then wash the shaving cream from the pies or the sideshow elephants turds off our sneakers, go to the newsroom with a couple fresh packs of smokes and put out prize-winning newspapers well into the night and next morning.
OK, you may be wondering what this all has to do with a Christmas.
You see, the movie played until dawn in an abandoned theater in the city and raised a few hundred bucks that went to a homeless agency, the fire department’s Christmas toy drive and the Police Department’s children and widows’ fund.
Even the newspaper hierarchy was pleased by the movie that came a month before Christmas ... some young staffers, after all, had done this on their own time, made headlines in Clarksville and in the corporation for raising money for charity ... and at the same time won journalism awards.
Of course, with all this holiday cheer floating around, Rob and I decided the best thing a group of guys can do is put together a Christmas card to thank our friends and to express our belief in peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind .
It in turn would reappear the following December on our planned News Brothers calendar, again a fund-raising proposition. More on that too another day, as I’m sure you are anxious to get out and shop for some children who really don’t care what you give them, as long as they get something. See the loaded cigarettes or rubber vomit section above for last-minute ideas.
When we weren’t immersed in the most heinous of murders, driven to drink (and sometimes getting a ride home) by the human carnage we’d witnessed, we got further involved in charity.
We wore our shades to give blood and to visit dying children. . There even were plans under way for a News Brother Basketball Tournament, that we were going to host at one of the local high schools, again to raise money for charity.
There was nothing complex about the Christmas Card. We’d wear our News Brothers’ best – bits and pieces of the tuxedoes we’d worn in the days of the “Flapjacks” premiere.
Rob, Chuckles, Flash and I showed up in our finery. Our clerk, a pretty woman named Neesa, was good enough sport to show up to don the top half of a Santa costume and expose what were and likely still are damn nice legs.
Fresh from the photo shoot, Rob and I dashed to our favorite printer and ordered a few dozen postcard-sized copies of that picture, with the phrase “Have a Damn Nice Christmas” printed below the picture.
Delighted by the result, Rob, in his white top-hat and I in my yellow fedora immediately distributed these cards around town.
We started out in the old Royal York Hotel, a high-rise former swank joint that had degenerated into a flop for widows, widowers, lovable losers, liars and murderous drifters. Many of them were our closest friends. “I was so tough my spit would bounce,” one of my friends told me when I wished him a happy 83rd birthday. Again, another story.
We went up the elevator – it was one of those you drove yourself – and stopped at each floor, sliding a card beneath each door. “Gunsmoke” reruns blared from the TV sets in 90 percent of those rooms.
We then left a stack at the desk to be distributed in the lobby.
In the next hours, we wandered the streets of the city, handing them out, sliding them into the mail slots for county and city officials. It was sort of a Charlie Dickens scene we were creating in the cold, snowy Clarksville night.
We even saved one in case Chico the Monkey ever came back from the dead. I still have that one. Just in case. That too is another story and it actually took place later. I have told you about that tragedy before and likely will again, as Chico’s death haunts and delights me to this day.
Then, spreading Christmas cheer, we went to the newspaper complex, going from the press room to the advertising offices, to the camera room, to the job shop, sliding cards beneath doors and leaving them on desks.
The last one, and we didn’t hesitate, went beneath the office door of The Big Guy, our publisher.
“He’ll like this,” said Rob.
“Yeah,” I said. We didn’t really think he’d mind one way or another, as long as he could jangle the change in his pockets as loudly as possible.
Perhaps he was angry by the Chico coverage. Maybe it was my long interview with a drifter named W. Robert Cameron. I’d caught him while he was resting along a railroad siding, taking a breather from his mission of hitchhiking to Austria.
Maybe it was Rob’s steady stream of stories about death and destruction –”No more wreck stories” we were commanded after about the 24th traffic fatality involving a drunken soldier in six months. Not good for the Chamber image, I suppose, in hindsight. Especially at Christmastime.
“Tim, uhh, this is The Big Guy, uhhhh,” was the voice the next morning when I picked up the Flap phone, one of those blue plastic contraptions that I kept next to the Mr. Potato Head collection on my desk. “Could you come down here and see me.”
I still didn’t know what was going on. He didn’t sound angry. Just self-important.
“Uhh, Tim, uhh, could you close the door and, uhh, sit down.” I noticed he was jangling his change harder and faster. I wondered if I should offer him a loaded cigarette.
He held up the card. “This is wrong,” he said, sounding like a sinister Bobby Knight. “You do not put ‘Damn’ and ‘Christmas’ in the same sentence. You guys have gone too far. Do not give any more of these out.”
Once I explained that half the town had them, he stood up and walked across the room. He was jangling wildly. The rosewater scent of his hair spritz filled the tiny confines.
“Tim, uhh, you are a great newspaperman, uhh, but this is too much. Do you have any of them left?”
I nodded. “Sure. How many more do you want? And I can order more”
He stood there, in silence, nodded to the door and then said “don’t do this again.”
I looked at him and smiled.
“What?” he said, in a benign bark.
“Big Guy, Have a Damn Nice Christmas.”
He shook his head. “You too,” he muttered. “You too.”
I ambled back upstairs to the newsroom, where Rob greeted me. He put on his top-hat, fired up a Kool and we went for coffee.
A dozen hours later, about five blocks from the newspaper, a house caught fire. A guy dressed like Santa Claus, apparently en route to a party, stopped.
By the time Rob and the Fire Department got there, a soot-covered Santa Claus, with a handicapped woman slung over his shoulders, walked from the fiery house.
He handed her over to the rescuers and anonymously disappeared into the night.
I can’t remember if we ever identified the Good Samaritan with the jiggling belly and the soot-covered white beard. I’d like to say there were flying reindeer involved, but if so, they all vanished without a trace.
All I know is it was a great lead story on a holiday that should revolve around generosity, love and peace. As papers rolled off the press early the next morning, I carried one outside, onto Third Street, where a little snow was falling. Rob was standing out there, with our old friend, Skipper, the old carny and merchant marine who once served spaghetti to Al Capone. Rob had rousted him from his room at the old hotel. It was cold. Boy was it cold.
We shared nips of cheap brandy and wished each other a great holiday: “Have a Damn Nice Christmas.”
Skipper looked up as Tony, Jerry and Jim arrived. He handed them the bottle of cheap brandy.
Skipper, who wasn’t wearing his teeth, looked up to the sky and began singing “Silent Night” in his amazing Irish tenor.
With that beautiful voice echoing off the old buildings around us, I looked to Rob and the others and smiled. “God Bless us every one.”

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Life beneath the scoreboard: 'I don't have time to be sad'

All the talk about the "new" Sounds stadium at different locations sent me mentally trekking back to a day spent in the old neighborhood beneath the Greer Stadium scoreboard. It is a neighborhood that should be revitalized, but Metro powers-that-be look instead always at downtown and the riverfront for their showpieces. Anyway, here's the chronicle of an afternoon spent with one of the now-vacant neighborhood residents when I was writing for the Tennessean, Nashville's morning daily.

Monica Bender's dad was only 32 when he collapsed and died while jogging. His daughter, on this day shooting hoops on a South Nashville hard court, is that exact age.
Her mom also died way too young. Breast cancer claimed her four years ago, at age 57.
The young woman's 85-year-old grandmother has diabetes and needs considerable attention. Grandma also worries that heavy winds will blow Greer Stadium's guitar-shaped scoreboard onto the family home, almost directly below it on Chestnut Street.
"She also is afraid the fireworks noise will hurt the house," says Monica, who lives with grandma Ellen Taylor and tends to her medications.
Heavy load? Perhaps. But Monica is happy.
"I don't have time to be sad." She stops dribbling her well-worn basketball.
"You can hardly read what it says." Monica rolls the ball forward in her hands to expose the almost invisible Rawlings logo. "It's so smooth now, sometimes it's hard to control."
I had been driving through the Greer Stadium neighborhood when I spotted her. It was midday, and here was a grown woman attempting a jump shot from the top of what would approximate the key, if there was such a marking on the asphalt parking lot. As the shot echoed off the rim, she snagged the rebound and delivered a tidy layup. It was time to park my car.
"Basketball's my hobby," Monica explains after I interrupt her solitary game outside the old SNAP Neighborhood Center at Martin and Humphreys.
"I like to come out here for an hour or so when I'm not working." Seldom are games - or even other people - involved.
"I just like to shoot," she says. "Do my own strategy."
This is Monica's serene oasis. Warehouses, office buildings, the Sounds ballpark and her grandmother's home pretty much fill her horizons.
"I like the scenery," she says, running her right hand over the almost cue-ball-smooth basketball's skin.
Monica grew up in Mt. Juliet, but her heart forever has been tied to the house behind the scoreboard.
"My mother was raised right down there," she says, looking toward the white house beneath the giant guitar. "It always was home. We came here every weekend when I was growing up. Never missed a weekend."
Monica physically moved here just three years ago. Her mother had died, and her grandmother's health woes became a concern for the whole family.
"Somebody needed to take care of her, make sure she got her shots," Monica says.
She has two brothers and three sisters, but she volunteered for this role.
"I've never been married. Got no children, not that there's anything wrong with being married and having children. I just never thought about it. I just have been busy being my own self."
Monica never thought twice about moving here to help her grandmother.
"It was home anyway. It's been rough sometimes, but, hey, Jesus is going to help me out. That's my source. I do what he says to do."
Besides that, she enjoys living with her grandmother. She can't say the same for Blackie, the poodle.
"Old, black poodle. Little dog. Little ornery, too," she says, the sunshine catching her bright smile. "Blackie's my grandmother's dog. If it was up to me, I'd do fine without him. But it's her entertainment."
Tending to medical needs of her dying mother, and now her feisty grandmother has sparked her to change her career focus.
A Donelson Kroger cashier by day, she's taking night classes to become a medical assistant. "I want to help people," she says.
Regardless of her career path, her nights will be spent on Chestnut Street.
"I'm staying here with my grandmother until God calls her home. That's the plan.
"Taking care of your family is just what you do."
The 5-foot-5 woman fingers the basketball logo again. "I made the high school team, but since I just had one parent, I couldn't get to practice.
"I love all sports, except golf. I don't understand it. And car racing. Who wants to watch cars go around and around all day? But I like the rest of them. Hockey's pretty good, got those fights."
And baseball? After all, her life's home is beneath the Greer Stadium outfield wall.
"I like it. I like the lights and the fireworks. I guess I've only been to two games in my life. We just sit on the porch and look at the people going in, and we listen."
Her preference is obvious as she dribbles the ball twice, stops and sends it toward the hoop.
"God's given me life," she says. "You should be sad when you don't have it."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Jesse McReynolds talks about how his mandolin-playing and Jerry Garcia led to his long, strange, musical trip

Those of you who care know that I'm working on a book or two containing my own back pages while trying to carve out an income. Just so you don't think I've forgotten about you, here's a story that appeared a bit over a year ago in The Westview, the paper that became the Nashville Ledger. If you want to read this, I'd also suggest you sample some of the music.

The 81-year-old mandolin-playing, iconic country traditionalist doesn’t feel at all out of place playing songs embedded in fans’ hearts by Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead.
Doesn’t sound out of place either, reckons Jesse McReynolds, noting that he and his late brother, Jim, and their Virginia Boys were a source of inspiration for Garcia and his band mates.
“I think the whole thing is that Jerry would have liked to have been a bluegrass picker,” says Grand Ole Opry star and bluegrass legend McReynolds, relaxing at his home in Gallatin.
“He liked doing the old songs like the ones I grew up listening to,” says the mandolin player who has carved out a unique niche in American music by implementing his adventurous spirit.
That spirit is on full display in his newest album Songs of the Grateful Dead: A Tribute to Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter.
Hunter, who put the words to Garcia’s melodies for decades, even contributed an original to this collection, in large part because he was taken with the tribute project, credited to “Jesse McReynolds & Friends with David Nelson and Stu Allen.”
The latter two have deep ties within the Grateful Dead universe. Nelson is a member of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, a band he founded with Garcia and John “Marmaduke” Dawson. Allen is a former member of Dark Star Orchestra – a Dead tribute outfit -- and is a member of JGB (formerly the Jerry Garcia Band, the late Dead leader’s primary outside outlet.)
“I got to know Robert (Hunter) some through Sandy,” says McReynolds. Sandy Rothman and Garcia took a pilgrimage to the South back in 1964, the idea being to capture on tape traditional country and bluegrass acts. A particular favorite of Garcia’s was Jim & Jesse’s band.
McReynolds and Rothman became friends when the bluegrass star began pondering a Dead tribute record. “Sandy told me the story about how he and Jerry used to travel in the 1960s, before the Grateful Dead.
“They followed us around. But he was too shy to talk to us. Jerry was a bluegrass fan and he was interested in our music. The only thing I regret is that I didn’t get the chance to meet him. But I do listen to their music. My wife is a big Deadhead.’’
Actually, it was due to that “Deadhead” – “Joy ‘n me are 15 years married. She’s 50-something” – that McReynolds seriously began to select the Dead songs he’d like to replicate in his own special fashion.
“She knows every song that the Dead ever done,” says McReynolds. “She was such a big help on me playing this project. She’d tell me how it goes.”
McReynolds met his current wife in the mid-1990s, when he was touring as one half of Jim & Jesse.
And what started as a business meeting – she was interviewing the McReynolds brothers for a New Jersey country publication – developed into something much more for Jesse, whose first wife, Darlene, died in 1993.
“We didn’t see each other for a long time, but….” laughs McReynolds, adding that his wife brought her Grateful Dead albums with her to Gallatin.
Listening to that music, much of which is built on traditional American music’s shoulders, convinced him that he could do a tribute record and stay true to the sound of that iconic rock band.
After all, it’s not that Jesse McReynolds and his late brother (Jim died of throat cancer in 2002) had ever been afraid of taking risks.
“I’ve recorded for a lot of different groups,” says the mandolin star. Of course, many were just studio tracks he was laying down in Nashville and neither knew nor particularly cared on whose album they would end up.
But he was hand-picked by Jim Morrison, the erratic genius behind The Doors, to play mandolin on The Soft Parade album. While “Touch Me” was the big hit from that 1969 album, “Runnin’ Blue,” with its lonely intro “Poor Otis dead and gone, left me here to sing his song,” is a Doors fan favorite. And Jesse McReynolds’ mandolin provides just the effect Morrison was seeking.
It also should be noted that Berry Pickin’ in the Country -- a 1965 tribute to rock ‘n’ roll workingman’s poet Chuck Berry – remains atop the stack of McReynolds fan favorites.
“That was one of the highlights of my recording career,” says McReynolds. “No bluegrass group had ever tried anything like that before.”
Bluegrass pickers always have shared some of the free spirit of rockers, but the musical forms seldom intersected, a notable exception being Elvis’ reworking of Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
“I just was one who would never turn my back on any type of music,” says McReynolds. “I am surprised when people say ‘Wow, I’m surprised you listen to that kind of music.’
“But the Chuck Berry record is one of the most requested albums Jim and I ever done.”
Berry didn’t play on the album. But he did appreciate it. ”Chuck wrote the liner notes. I wish we could have got him to play on the project.”
Of course Garcia, who died in August 1995 after years of struggles with health and substance problems, does not appear on this album either.
But his spirit is here, according to McReynolds.
And so is his lyricist.
Hunter, a country music enthusiast, has been known to visit the Grand Ole Opry. He also paid a couple of visits to Nashville while McReynolds was recording the Grateful Dead album.
“I told him I was so impressed with all the words he wrote on those songs,” recalls McReynolds.
“So he said to me: ‘I’ll send you some words if you want to put some music to them.” That was the genesis of “Day by Day,” the album-closing track in which McReynolds channels Garcia.
Filling in for Garcia in interpreting Hunter’s lyrics wasn’t easy.
“It’s just a little hard for me to put music to words that somebody already wrote. But Robert was pretty happy with it. I’m just glad I got my name on a song with Robert Hunter.”
The only other song on the album that was not a Grateful Dead original is “Deep Elem Blues,” a traditional song that captivated Garcia when he first explored American roots music.
The song that details the perils and pleasures of the African-American red-light district in Dallas is of unknown origin, but it dates at least back to the 1920s. It was a Garcia staple in his coffee-house, pre-Grateful Dead days. And it was a regular part of Dead sets beginning at least by 1966, having both traditional acoustic and electric incarnations.
“Jerry liked things like ‘Deep Elem Blues.’ He liked some of the Carter Family recordings. There is a big connection on him and bluegrass music,” says McReynolds.
“I did ‘Deep Elem Blues’ because Jerry liked to do that one,” he adds.
While exploring Garcia and Hunter’s massive songbook, “I picked the songs that I figured I could do in my own way pretty much, ones that fit my voice.
“But it’s Grateful Dead music and I wanted to do it in a way that Jerry Garcia fans and Grateful Dead fans would accept it,” he continues.
“I didn’t want to copy the Grateful Dead, but I wanted to get the same arrangements, the same timing. I tried to get as close to the way it was originally done and then do it my way too,” he says.
Of course he knows the image of an 81-year-old mandolin master, a veteran bluegrass star, doing Grateful Dead tunes catches some people off-guard.
“When I tell people I’ve got a tribute to the Grateful Dead out, they look at each other and start laughing,” he says. What they don’t realize is that while they have been sitting in their seats at the Grand Ole Opry listening to the traditional-sounding “Black Muddy River” or “Ripple,” they’ve been listening to pure Dead.
And, of course, the jam band circuit, sprung from the Dead’s performance style and fan base, also has discovered this cutting-edge album by an 81-year-old bluegrass picker.
“It’s already accomplished more than I ever figured it would,” McReynolds says. “I’m thankful I’ve found an audience I didn’t know existed, as far as accepting me doing music like this.
“Nobody can come close to capturing the original version of the way they done them, but to know that the Grateful Dead fans accept me, well….”
Dennis McNally, publicist and official Grateful Dead historian, says the way the music comes from the picker’s soul is reminiscent of the work of his old friend.
“If Jerry Garcia had been born in the South and if he’d been permitted to live to be 80 he’d sound like Jesse McReynolds,” says McNally, whose A Long Strange Trip is considered the definitive history of the band.
Yes, his brother has been gone for eight years. Garcia’s been gone 15. But at 81 years of age, Jesse McReynolds, well, to borrow a phrase, plans to just keep on truckin’.
“I usually play 40 or 50 dates a year, but with this record I might be working a lot more in the next year. I’ll do as many as I can.”
He’s clearly enamored with the man and the band that first brought this batch of intricate music to the people.
“Back then, when this was going on, with the Grateful Dead and Woodstock and rock ‘n’ roll, we was so busy then doing our own roadwork, we was pretty busy doing our own thing.”
He laughs at the lifestyle differences, while celebrating the musical kinship.
“I’ve never smoked or drunk very little. And I know very little about smoking marijuana, although I smelt marijuana a few times,” he says.
“But the way they lived their lives has no bearing on me as far as doing their material. That was their way of doing things. They done things their way; we done things our way.”

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Baseball season's over, but it's never too late to read about guitars that tune good and firm-feeliin' women

With baseball season over and -- who knows what will happen in the future with the Nashville Outlaws? -- I thought I'd share this piece I wrote for their inaugural season, 2010, in which I was asked by then-club honcho Jason Bennett to talk about the Outlaws who inspired the name, men I knew and loved or still know and love. This was in the ballclub's old program, but I thought it was pretty darned good. Maybe you'd enjoy reading it. Thanks. By the way, I love baseball. But I love Midnight, Tompall, Bare, Willie, Billy Joe and Waylon, "my" Outlaws and friends a helluva lot more.

The guy who started Nashville’s Outlaws movement with a tear-jerking duet with his son laughs when asked what the connection might be between those musicians of the 1970s and the new Prospect League baseball club which is borrowing that name.
”I guess the way the music business correlates with baseball is, well: Do what you do and do it as good as you can,” says Bobby Bare. “Let the scoreboard tell you how well you did. Our scoreboard is always the charts and how many you sell.”
The Nashville Outlaws ballclub will be keeping track of how well they do this summer by watching the scoreboard at Vanderbilt University’s Hawkins Field.
Outlaws co-founders Brandon Vonderharr (general manager), Jason Bennett (vice president) and Chris Snyder (also vice president) – whose friendship was formed during a decade spent in Nashville’s professional baseball world -- deliberately chose the club’s name out of reverence for that most irreverent and loosely allied group of music-makers and windmill tilters.
“We wanted to select a name that was reflective of Nashville’s music background and the guys that had a vision that made them find their own path, their own voice and along the way found a place with the public,” says Bennett, referring to the folks often referred to in shorthand as “Waylon and Willie and the Boys,” after a line in the movement’s most-iconic song.
It is a fitting symbolic affiliation for the ballclub comprised of college players who hope to follow Bare’s advice and hit, pitch, catch and run “as good as you can” to get noticed.
Perhaps they’ve got Big Apple pinstripe dreams. The most important way for a guy to get noticed in this league is with the crack of wooden bats on rawhide. This will be a new sensation for these young men, most of whom have spent their careers creating that heretical “ping” when contacting the ball with aluminum bats.
Like Bare and his cohorts, the team also will be swinging for mainstream acceptance.
One plus toward developing fan loyalty is the team makeup of scholarship players from Vanderbilt, Austin Peay, Belmont, Western Kentucky and hometown players attending college elsewhere.
“When you come to Hawkins Field to cheer for the Outlaws, you really will be cheering for the home team, for Nashville,” says Bennett, saying that is a difference this club has with the Class AAA Sounds, playing just blocks away. The Sounds are tied to a Major League club and their professional dreams are to at least get their cups of coffee in the Bigs. Perhaps they’ve already had that sip and are on their way back down. They don’t consider Nashville home. Former Sounds star Prince Fielder will forever be labeled a Milwaukee Brewer. Don Mattingly is remembered as a New York Yankee … Nashville was a rung on the ladder to the top, albeit one where people sure liked guitars.
And then there are the entertainment value and values.
The Outlaws’ premise is to offer low-cost -- $8 a ticket plus free parking – entertainment in a setting where families, Little Leaguers and church groups can get up close and personal to the action.
The hope is to change the way the game is perceived and appreciated in Nashville. “We are excited that we can provide a great alcohol-free environment that would be safe to bring your family to. It’s more of a wholesome environment where you don’t have to worry about who’s sitting behind your kids,” says Bennett.
The musical Outlaws founded their own loosely linked team in Bare’s Music Row office, a gathering place for dreamers, schemers, guitar-pickers, pinball players and knife throwers: Waylon Jennings, Tompall Glaser, Captain Midnight, Billy Ray Reynolds and the lot.
Nashville treasure Hazel Smith -- writer, TV host, publicity producer and all-around sweetheart – actually gave the movement its name.
“I was doing mostly PR at Glaser Sound Studio, 916 19th Avenue South,” she says. “It was Waylon’s and Tompall’s office. It was like Bare’s in that inside those walls they could say what they wanted to do and do what they wanted to do.”
She was pressed to come up with a way to describe the music, so she reached for her blue Collegiate Edition of Webster’s Dictionary and began scouting out words.
“I looked up a lot of different names like Mustangs, and you know different things but nothing really fit the music they were doing. Then I came on ‘outlaws’ and it said ‘living on the outside of the written law.’
“I thought for a minute. They certainly are not doing music the way that Music Row is doing right now, so maybe that might fit,” she recalls, going through her thought process of settling on the musical moniker.
Romanticized history has it that the Outlaws movement was all about Nashville reclaiming its rootsy, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” heritage from the Countrypolitan strings, crooning and wall-of-sound style that reigned over the charts. Bare laughs at that notion.
“It didn’t have a helluva lot to do with anything except it was a bunch of free-spirited guys who didn’t care what anybody said. They just didn’t want to do the same thing over and over again.”
In Bare’s case, established record company wisdom would have him reprising his classic sounds, i.e. “Detroit City” or “500 Miles Away from Home.” He understood why the companies wanted more of the same: Who wouldn’t? How many “Detroit City”-quality songs are on the charts nowadays?
Bare possessed neither temperament nor need to repeat himself. “I just was having some fun with new stuff.”
That new stuff that launched the Outlaws movement was Bare’s recording of a collection of songs penned by the late Shel Silverstein. Lullabys, Legends and Lies was filled with wit, heartache and story songs.
“Gather round fellows I'll tell you some tales about murder and blueberry pies
And heroes and hells and bottomless wells and lullabys, legends and lies
And gather round ladies come sit at my feet I'll sing about warm sunny skies
There's mermaids and beans and lovin' machines in my lullabys legends and lies….” goes the track introducing this double-vinyl-disc song cycle. (It is available on remastered CD and is an essential element of any music collection.)
“I produced it and nobody knew what I was doing,” Bare recalls. The record company was expecting something like Ride Me Down Easy – his previous effort.
“When I got that project finished, everybody was happy knowing I wasn’t going to go nuts,” he says, with a laugh. So he got the go-ahead to proceed and “I immediately went nuts and worked with Shel” on Lullabys, Legends and Lies.
Bare says the record company was skeptical about releasing this aberration. But after a smuggled acetate of “Daddy, What If?” -- featuring Bare singing with his son, Bobby Jr. -- hit Atlanta’s air waves, RCA simply ignore what it had.
“Here was this cute little boy singing with his daddy. It heated up the radio big time.”
While the album is a monumental work, its true importance is that it opened the door for artist-produced albums out of Nashville. The first one to follow Bare’s efforts showed with a flourish that the floodgates were open.
“Waylon and I have always been really close,” reflects Bare. “He went to Chet (RCA honcho, guitar wizard and my late friend Chet Atkins) and said ‘Bare’s doing that. Let me do it, too.’
“Of course, they were really worried about what Waylon would do. But they let him, and he went ahead and produced Honky Tonk Heroes,” a collection written for the most part by fellow Texas renegade Billy Joe Shaver.
Suddenly, this “different’’ musical vision was corporate-approved, executives let their hair and beards grow, swapped polyester for denim and began counting money while cashing in on the Outlaws.
Ironically, the movement proved so successful that it helped pay for the glass corporate towers, banks and foreclosed office suites that have supplanted the rowdy rooming houses, honky-tonks and semi-derelict offices of the 1970s.
“It pretty much was a promotional gimmick,” says Bare, reflecting on the next big step. Wanted: The Outlaws was really just a sampler of music from Jennings, Willie Nelson (a former Bare roommate), Jessi Colter (Waylon’s wife and a pop success for her “I’m not Lisa”) and Glaser. (When approached for this story, Glaser, though kind, politely said “I’m retired,” and set the phone down.)
The big-name Outlaws --Waylon and Willie – became country music’s Glimmer Twins, and they stormed the country, drawing rock fans into the world of steel and heartache. Their shows were loosely constructed and could include walk-ons by Cash, Charlie Daniels, Kris Kristofferson and country traditionalists like Jack Greene and Jeannie Seely.
Regardless of the stamp of corporate approval that “legalized” the Outlaws, they gained notoriety by dreaming their dreams and acting on them, creating a new, artist-centric version and vision.
The young men who comprise baseball’s Outlaws and the businessmen who are footing the per diem and expenses are similarly dreaming of gaining wider recognition. It’s not that they hope to topple the Sounds and Ozzie as that team builds toward a more big-time future. But they do hope to offer a fun alternative.
It should be emphasized again that the musical Outlaws’ game of choice wasn’t baseball, but pinball. And it wasn’t that flippers and flashers and sirens game played by The Who’s famous ”deaf, dumb and blind kid.”
This was serious, quarter-a-play stuff, in which you beat the sides of the machine to get the ball-bearings to line up, bingo style, with payoffs based on how many were lined up. Five in a row brought $100, if memory serves.
Bare says “Waylon, Tompall, Midnight, we all were addicted to them.” (Midnight was Roger Schutt, a wannabe songwriter, knife-tosser and oft-fired disc jockey who was a friend to everyone from Bare to Jennings to Roger Miller to Kinky Friedman to this writer … but that’s a story for another time.)
Of all the parallels between the base-running and bass-playing Outlaws, probably the most basic is that they share the philosophy of going against the grain to get back to the thing that’s most important: whether it’s a guitar line or a line drive.
Instead of going in a direction that takes them away from their roots, they are steering dead on toward that destination.
As Waylon sings in Luckenbach, Texas, the biggest-selling record of the Outlaws movement:
“There's only two things in life that make it worth livin'
That's guitars that tune good and firm feelin' women
I don't need my name in the marquee lights
I got my song and I got you with me tonight
Maybe it's time we got back to the basics of love….”
In this case, it’s time we got back to the basics of baseball.
“It’s a grassroots movement,” says Outlaws VP Bennett. “There’s something to be said for being able to play and watch baseball in its purest form.”

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The man who loved motorcycles died, and 5 more lives claimed, but Booger makes sure a dream roars on

When Booger answered the phone tears coated his voice.
And it reminded me of the day I rode on the back of the Harley, my then brown and curly hair being slashed by the wind. At the front of the herd of bikes, Booger Watson rode on the old motorcycle in memory of his Pop.
The bikers and I (as a participant observer… I suppose nowadays you’d say I was “embedded with the bikers … ) were celebrating the life of Leslie W. “Big Lester” Watson … as were the five people who died Sunday, their RV filling with carbon monoxide during the campout following the toy run in Big Lester’s memory. Thirty years after that first ride.
I’d been working all day for my various employers while most people were celebrating or worshiping or both – some pray while roasting brats and other wieners before Rob Bironas tees it up for the Titans. I took a break and turned on the TV news.
“Five motorcyclists dead after charity event in Clarksville,” says one of the weekend news guys, Skip or Lefty or Butch or Buzz, I can’t remember. The blond guy with blue eyes. Like that narrows it down in TV land.
Anyway, I sat down and waited, right through the commercial for frozen Friday’s dinners and the lead story about the Titans “kickin’ the ever-lovin’ crap” – as the sports guy said -- out of the Baltimore Ravens. Maybe he didn’t put it that way. Can’t remember. It was a good game, though.
Then came the story that both seared and sored my heart, suddenly thrusting me into decades past, into the times I rode in the convoy of the bearded and leather clad boys who loved Big Lester.
Five people died Sunday. Camping at the after-party hosted by Bikers Who Care, an organization born and dedicated to fulfill the kid-loving legacy of Leslie W. Watson.
In recent days, after last weekend's tragedy, no one has called him “Big Lester,” for that was a nickname born in grease and toil, when he was teaching the rugged young men of Clarksville that they could be saved, they could find direction, by putting the gears and nuts and bolts together, by fixing up Harleys. And riding them. With due caution (but not necessarily helmets).
Actually, there was one writer who invoked the old nickname. In the story I wrote for Reuters News Service, who do try to keep me busy and help me feed my kids and 500 head of cattle out on the back 40, I referred to him as “Big Lester.” Kidding about the cattle by the way. All I’ve got is a possum and a lot of goldfinches. And moles. Hate the damn moles.
I don’t know what he thought about moles, but I know that Leslie W. Watson didn’t like his first name. Leslie was hardly, back then at least, the kind of name you’d associate with a guy – even a very old man – who rode and relished 61-cubic inch knucklehead painted chrome silver. “Big Lester.” More like it.
Course he’s been dead now and political correctness I suppose has made the name “Leslie” more macho, worthy of the spit and leathers and grease beneath nails and on thinning hair. Course Booger’s real name is Leslie, too. And he still goes by “Booger” even at 60 years old.
Then again, some people call me “Flapjacks.”
Anyway, back to the motorcycle run. Now it’s called The Leslie W. Watson Memorial Toy Run, an annual effort to collect toys for the Clarksville Fire Department’s Christmas toy drive for underprivileged children.
On that first time out, when maybe 250 or 300 bikes roaring from the Fairgrounds down Riverside Drive to the firehouse on Franklin, it was called the “Ride for Big Lester.” The admission was a new toy – and most brought several – to donate to the run.
That group of bikers expanded their goals, working with many charities, aiding kids, in sickness and in health. Now about 1,500 bikers ride in annual the Leslie W. Watson Memorial. Many are soldiers or veterans. Back then, it was mostly scruffy kids and me (not that I didn’t blend in).
Someone, it may have been Dickens, said of that portion of my life it was “the best of times, it was the worst of times.” There was some personal tumult, for sure. And I had nasty habits, took tea at 3 in the afternoon and sometimes was asleep by 3 in the morning.
I was first and foremost a newsman, the associate editor of an excellent daily newspaper, The Leaf-Chronicle. I worked probably 70-80 hours a week, helping my staff in recounting the adventures of Court Agate, counselor at law, and all kinds of stories about giant catfish, train wrecks, helicopter crashes, murderous punks and drunken soldier wrecks and shootings. And, with a long drag at a cigarette, I’d grab the first paper off the press and check the headlines.
Hard-smoking and drinking, a nationally honored columnist who wore his feelings on his sleeve, I was warned.
That’s why I fell in love with Booger and the boys, or really with their memory of Big Lester. It’s why I was rolling along, helmet-less, the wind whipping my Levis denim jacket and mustard News Brothers T-shirt, a pair of shades protecting my eyes from bugs, glass, dog turds and other flying objects.
Not sure where this “get your motor running, head out on the highway” adventure started. I think on the obituary page. I read that a fellow named Leslie W. “Big Lester” Watson had died and that his remains would be at some mortuary, whatever the name of that island of deceased souls, pickled bodies and broken toys in downtown Clarksville.
It was my town. I loved almost everybody there, other than a phony bald guy I sarcastically called “newspaperman” and other assorted authoritarian geeks or creeps who mostly were his friends or government officials.
So I walked to the funeral home. Only to be struck by the sight of the silver Harley outside, surrounded by about 30 or 40 other motorcycles.
Inside there were nice words for Big Lester. Outside were the two-wheeled machines to which he had devoted his life.
When the funeral was done, the boys rolled out to Greenwood Cemetery with the body.
The next day’s editions of the newspaper had the front-page centerpiece with the headline:
“The man who loved motorcycles died.”
It was the Feb. 17, 1982, version of my old Clarksville Calling Card column that ran for more than a decade three days a week. The Nashville Banner had me do a similar slice-of-life, human-dignity-focused effort called “Real Life” for almost 10 years.
Then at the morning newspaper in Nashville – after the Banner was done in when greed got in bed with Korporate Amerika – I was allowed to write the same basic column, as long as I did it “on my time” for a couple of years…. Until they required me to run photos with the columns and suddenly realized most of my columns were about black people or perhaps motorcycle riders. Not the Green Hills shopaholics and 20-30ish white tamponeers and their trophy husbands that were the chosen demographics.
“Write about white businessmen in the suburbs or don’t write a column at all,” said the then-boss, or words to that effect.
I smiled and pulled down my pants, shot him what was then a finely toned moon. Maybe I just flipped him off. Or hit him with a giant hocker on the schnozz. Nah, I gotta admit I was sad. But proud. I refused and began a long and steady stroll toward what ended up with me sitting on the night cops beat.
Regardless, that fellow is now some sort of white big shot in Brentwood while I wear worn out shorts and Chicago Cubs T-shirts, down to the seeds and stems of clothing, while toiling away in my basement. Yet, I am convinced I won.
Oh well, personal tails and tales aside, the story about Big Lester’s funeral painted a pretty good picture of these young bikers. And then a few months later they decided to start the annual Leslie W. “Big Lester” Watson Memorial Toy Run.
I rode in thatl. I didn’t have a motorcycle. Always been a knucklehead but too poor to own one, so I rode on the tail-gunner’s seat, bugs in my teeth and good vibrations all around.
That was 1982. The 30th edition of the run, now called “Leslie W. Watson…” etc., with no “Big Lester” in its moniker -is the one that ran last Saturday, with the bikers filling up four truckloads of toys before going to their after-party – a fund-raiser for a camp for seriously ill children.
Two-hundred bikers and their families camped out at the Clarksville Speedway.
Five people did not wake up, victims of carbon monoxide poisoning.
That’s the news the Aryan news guy offered up and it was why I called Leslie Jr., well, Booger, to ask what happened.
He cried when he told me. But he said the ones who died loved kids, too. That the work would continue. That Bikers Who Care are on a mission from God. Or something similar.
And I thought that, in a real way, I helped get this run started by my loving depiction of the man who loved motorcycles and also various columns about kids in need or dying….. I identified with them all and they with me.
So when Booger and Bill Langford and the others began to dream about the memorial run three decades ago, I participated in their dream and in publicity for it. I rode in it and covered it more than one year.
When five people die at an event you kinda helped start, well a guy can’t help but feel the pain. Then again, look at all the kids these bikers have helped. And will help in the future.
Big Lester would be proud.
It also had me digging through my files. Most of my writing, from all the newspapers at which I served with dignity if not decorum, was lost in the Nashville Flood of 2010.
But there were a few old columns I was able to rescue.
One of them is the following, from Feb. 17, 1982. My writing perhaps has matured over the years. I know I have matured to the point of being over-ripe. But here is the column:

The man who loved motorcycles died

The gloomy, drizzly day was suited more to a funeral than a motorcycle ride.
Leather-jacketed young men joined conservatively dressed old men at Tarpley’s Funeral Directors.
They all admired the low-slung, silver Harley-Davidson by the curb in front of the funeral home.
The bike belonged to Leslie W. “Big Lester” Watson, who died Saturday at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville.
Big Lester’s youngest son, Booger, 30, was standing in front of the funeral home, talking about Big Lester and the beautiful old Harley.
To many, this bearded young man in black leather jacket, jeans and boots may have seemed out of place at a funeral, especially since he was to lead the procession … vrooming the silver machine through the streets of Clarksville to Greenwood Cemetery.
And what a procession! Many of the other young men in black leather and jeans, strutting proudly outside the funeral parlor were there to join Booger… to vroom their Harleys behind Big Lester’s and escort the hearse in revving final tribute to the cemetery.
Many of the older fellows in their suits and ties probably envied the collection of proud young, probably remembered back to the days they straddled Harleys and headed down the long, lonesome highway abreast Big Lester.
“Dad opened the first Harley dealership in this town,” said Booger.
That was in 1946. When Big Lester moved Watson’s Motorcycle Shop from 741 Greenwood to 1661 Hopkinsville Highway in 1952, he rode his bike to the new location.
That was the last time anyone rode the beautiful machine.
He put that 61-cubic-inch Harley away, covered it, lovingly storing his lifelong dream away.
“From the early 1920s, his life had been Harley-Davidson motorcycles,” said Booger. “The first one he had was a 1915 model. He said that when he got that old 1915 model, one day he’d own a new one.”
That day was in 1940, when Big Lester traveled to the Harley-Davidson factory in Milwaukee, Wis.
He rode home on his dream machine.
Big Lester hadn’t ridden motorcycles much in the last of his 73 years of life.
“The last time I remember him riding a bike was when I was 11 years old and he built me a little hummer and showed me how to ride it.” Booger laughed, then his voice thickened and he rubbed his eyes.
Big Lester transferred his love of Harleys to his sons. Hadley owns Watson’s Motorcycle Repair in New Providence and Booger worked with his dad at the old shop on Hopkinsville Highway.
Booger pretty well ignored the business he shared with his dad for the past month. “I spent all of my time at the hospital,” he said.
And then, the man who loved motorcycles died. In his mourning, Booger had a thought: he was going to take his dad’s beloved bike out of mothballs, repair it, clean it and ride it in the funeral procession.
“It was a passing thought to begin with .. then, I thought ‘Well, I’ll go to the shop and see what happens…’”
The work began Sunday night. “I’d say definitely it was running in an hour’s period of time.”
Booger spent two hours Sunday and six hours Monday preparing his tribute. “Most of that time was spent cleaning it up and checking it out. Some of my friends came by last night to help … It as a party … kind of like it would have been if Pop had been there.”
Of course, “Pop” was there in spirit, which was represented by that motorcycle.
“Other than a human object, that motorcycle was the nearest thing to Daddy,” said Booger. “He just loved it.”
The funeral hour was drawing near. Booger and 30-to-40 bike-riding friends prepared their honor guard….
Big Lester’s Harley Deluxe was going to be at the point, leading the way to the cemetery.
“Daddy always liked his motorcycle in front,” said Booger.

Rest in Peace to the folks who died in Clarksville.
But their dream, Big Lester's spirit, lives on whenever Booger and his friends go back on the highway to help kids.

Friday, August 26, 2011

We don't need no education: The Americanization of Emily & one cool-rockin' daddy who laments that college has begun

He knows when to hold ‘em and he knows when to fold ‘em, but there’s no way he could help me cope with the violent and vicious melancholy tearing at my heart and soul.
Don Schlitz has a daughter, too. And he knows what it’s like to pack up a couple of cars and haul your baby girl off to university, away from my protection but not my love, of course.
Damn. It hurts.
As Kenny Rogers sang in perhaps Don’s most-famous song, this is one songwriter who knows when to walk away and knows when to run. But there’s no way to get away from that ache of the empty bedroom with the lonely teddy bears on the shelf.
That last sentence is mine, not his. Maybe he’ll borrow it for a song. Judging by what the government says, I could use the income. Especially now that my beautiful Emily Mariana has started college.
Don, a genial and gentle soul who makes his living by making words rhyme and lifting people’s hearts with songs -- from The Gambler to Forever and Ever, Amen -- is without words, hell downright speechless when we talk about how I dreaded moving Emily from my house.
“Man, I know what you’re going through,” he says, his easy drawl offering a bit of brotherly reassurance.
“I feel for you, but nothing I can say will make it better,” he offered. “I’m not going to tell you any different.”
Don and I were having a conversation for business – my business and his – when our conversation strayed into the personal.
An editor – who was among my closest friends and personal advisers – once told me my greatest talent and attraction as a journalist was that “you wear your heart on your sleeve. It’s gonna kill you one day.”
The fact he was found on the floor of a Coast Guard barracks with an empty prescription bottle nearby may prove he held his heart on his sleeve as well. But that’s another story. One of many dead friends.
He was right, though. I don’t hide behind a just-the-facts demeanor, unless I’m dealing with a serial killer or a father-raper or a litterer caught because of 8-by-10 color glossies of his act.
So if I like someone I’m interviewing, which is generally the case, I don’t hide behind my notebook. The fun is in being human.
Getting a little ahead here, but who’s counting words?
Don was wondering if I could come out to his house this week to hang out. I like hanging out with good guys. Hell, he may even have wanted me to offer up a hint or two toward his quandary. “I’m staring at all these words that rhyme but I can’t figure out how to put them together in a song,” he says.
Songwriters are among my favorite people and saying I couldn’t go out there hurt. But it was saying the reason that made the hurt worse.
“I’m getting my daughter ready to go off to college. I’m taking her this week,” I said.
My stomach, usually a swollen and constipated knot of tension, twisted and turned, rumbling. Don heard the slight sob coloring my words.
“I feel for you man. Been there. It sucks. It hurts.
“Just be happy she’s going to be near you,” said this nice fellow, a year my junior – “you’re one of them 1951ers,” he joked, pointing genial fun at those of us from the heart of the Baby Boom.
Yes, I did help stop a war. Don may have too, although he’s a spry, young man, a whippersnapper, one of the 1952ers.
And yes, I pictured myself on a boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Ah, those old first-night of college memories…. Or are they real? Just ask the Axis... Oops, I stray again. Scuse me.
I have lived the tough and cynical life of the hard-driving hippie disappearing into the moonlight over Route 66 in my 1965 Falcon. Thirty-cents a gallon and shut off the engine when going down the slopes of the Rockies or Sierras. Rolled 400 miles one day without burning a bit of fuel, from Flagstaff to Barstow and down into Burbank. Stopped along the way for 10-cent coffee and chatter at a truck stop in a ghost town.
I have splashed in the hot sulfur baths in the middle of the desert and talked of revolution and politics and peace.
When I did “settle down,” so to speak, I became a harder-edged-still newsman, nicotine-stained fingers, beery breath, threatening to send pica poles where they shouldn’t wander on their own while dealing with all kinds and flavors of celebrity, ballgames, death and destruction.
I’ve buried many of my contemporaries, some who lost the fight against the demons we all confronted. Others who just decided to pack it in on their own.
I’ve suffered immense personal and professional loss, but countered with gain and growth.
I have learned not to count on "friends" for help in most cases, that a true friend indeed is rare and that most good-time "friends" turn their backs on you when you are in need of a good word or a leg up. You may know what it's like.
A simple, most-perfect expletive can be aimed at those who disappoint or betray.
I have stared down the most vile Korporate Amerika had to offer, people who were more interested in dispiriting me than in letting me do my job with dignity.
I’ve learned lessons on twisting-turning nights and almost-bouncing checks.
And I don’t want to think of my daughter having to eventually encounter a world that’s not fit for her. This was the first big step toward her entrance into that mean world.
In other words, while I wrestled off some thugs after a pickled-egg and beer dinner in Winslow, Ariz. (It was such a sad sight to see), I don’t know how to handle this latest catastrophe other than to wish I’d held Emily back a school year so I could have her in my house one more year. Shoulda flunked kindergarten, kid.
Truth is, the chubby baby I plucked from the cobbled ground of the orphanage courtyard in Arad, Romania, 16 years ago, is in college. Dropped her off Thursday.
I’ve known this day was coming for awhile, ever since I decided to let her into my life, so to speak, to go ahead and put the time and effort and personal resources into the adoption of the kid with one name, Mariana, scribbled on the back of the 3-by-5 snapshot sent us from Romania in the summer of 1995. That was before Al Gore discovered the internet. All we knew is the baby had curly hair like me – that’s why our adoption lawyer chose her – and she was beautiful and mostly healthy.
Of course, I wasn’t alone in the adoption decision. Suzanne also wanted to go get this little girl, to bring her to America, to give her a home. Relish and savor love grown not in the belly but in the heart. (Hey, Don, there’s another line).
Enough so that we gladly (??) spent too many thousands dealing with the creepy pocket-protector personnel of the State Department and answering perhaps the most intrusive questions ever directed at me.
And that particular adventure led us to a second adoption, three years later, of our son, Joe, formerly Lazar, a 3-year-old playground reprobate who enjoyed watching oxen drop their loads on the dirt road outside his orphanage in Giurgiu, Romania.
All the boys got charges out of that. Heck, it was kinda different to me, as well. Despite my many nasty habits – I take tea at 3, etc. – one thing I can never get enough of is the sight of an animal crapping while pulling a load of Gypsies down rutted roads.
But that is another story for another day.
This one is about Emily.
I am happy she is going to be successful. “This is what we train them for, to be out on their own,” said one friend, trying to salve the rawness that is in my head, gut and soul as we took the many steps to get her ready for college.
During this week, while I helped her get ready, while I spent money on everything from gasoline to eyeglasses to GooGoo Clusters (a kid’s gotta eat), I kept on thinking I was looking at the little girl.
Oh she is small now, only 5-foot or so. And very pretty. But I kept seeing her as the little girl I picked up at the day-care back in 1995 and 1996. I was working at the Nashville Banner then – a far superior newspaper to the one you folks are “offered” each day now – and I tried to get off work by 2, so I could pick her up at the day-care.
Since I went to work at 4 a.m. or so, that still was a reasonably long day. Anyway, I’d drive up to the day-care and usually see her sitting by herself in the playground. She didn’t look sad. Just remote. Like a baby who had spent most of the first two years of her life isolated in a crib in a massive dorm of similarly isolated children.
She didn’t know much English. But “Tata” quickly turned to “Daddy” and soon we were driving around the Music City, singing songs about Rocky Raccoon, Bungalow Bill, the holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall and the like. Of course there were those other songs about Silver-Tongued devils, cool rockin’ daddies and my famous renditions of “Happy,” “Dead Flowers” and “Shotgun Willie.”
And those drives almost always led to a house out in Forest Hills, where my mother, then in her final couple of years, would react with delight when I’d carry the little girl into her house. Mom died 12 years ago now.
She always loved “Little Emily.” In fact one of the last times she was able to get out of the house was to go to the airport when we brought Emily home.
Our almost daily visits with my mom usually meant that on the way back to my house, there’d be a spin through the drive-thru at McDonald’s for some fries. They were among the first “American” treats Emily ever sampled. In order to keep her quiet in our room in Zurich during a daylong layover on our way home, I found a McDonald’s in the old city, bought quarter-pounders with cheese and fries and milkshakes. A fella in full Arab-prince regalia led me to the McDonald’s. I called him Ahab.
Emily spent that evening in Switzerland running from me to Suzanne for a fry.
Finally she ran into a table and collapsed in tears. Briefly, before she was chasing fries again.
Oh, I could go on with 16 years of memories – not all of them great, because she is far from perfect. I’m happy she’s closer, at least in my regard, to that than is her old man.
But the stories I’d tell all carry the same basic theme. I love my daughter. I’d do anything for her. I want her to be happy. (Yes, I need love to keep me happy….)
Yes, I’m proud Emily is in college and I hope she makes it. School’s not always been easy for her. But she's smart. She can accomplish this task, I'm sure. But more than smart, she's good. A good person. For that I'm most proud.
But it hurt like hell to unload her in a dormitory, even a nice brick one.
Don Schlitz – remember Don Schlitz, this is a story that at the beginning kinda featured him -- remembers that loss himself. And just by talking to him, I could tell he generally and genuinely hurt for me as I prepared for that big journey. "I'm sorry for you, man."
On Skype last night, her first as a college student, I talked with Emily in her dorm room. It was after 10 and she had just opened up a microwavable spaghetti meal. Would have been too late for her to eat like that here.
The first sign of liberty I suppose. I’m sure she’ll remember her first night at college like I remember mine, even though mine involved color and kaleidoscopes and tear-rolling laughter and bonding around a bonfire. No spaghetti, though.
Guess a good way to end this little tale is by quoting another line from Don Schlitz (and his pal Paul Overstreet): “I’m gonna love you forever, forever and ever, amen….” I can’t sing that very well. I do have more the vocal skills of Keith Richards than Randy Travis.
You know this thing about kids growing up?
I don’t like it. Not one damn bit.
I may make some spaghetti and Skype her at 10 tonight. Hope she’s not out.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Marshall Grant's death has me thinking about Carl and Johnny and June, but also of Scotty and Fats Domino

When I heard that Marshall Grant had died, I reflected back on the blistering cold day in January of 1998 when I reached for the newsroom phone.
I was going to call a man in Mississippi to ask him what he remembered best about Carl Perkins.
I was a huge Perkins fan, knew him slightly, and the news had come over that the Rockabilly Cat was gone.
I was the features editor and columnist at the old Nashville Banner. My music writer, Jay Orr, wasn’t in that day. I think he was “working from home” as we used to say, probably writing about Garth Brooks or something else to me inconsequential. (Don’t get mad, Garth. I still love you man…. Gotta add that because I don’t want him to get insecure.)
Jay, who now is some sort of erudite white-collar executive and archivist, didn’t want to come in to write about Perkins. He suggested I call Marshall Grant, who lived in the wilds of Mississippi, down near Jerry Lee.
So I called directory assistance and got the number and dialed. Little did I realize how important that call would be to me.
I can still hear the sadness in the voice of Marshall Grant in the moments after he answered the phone. It wasn’t that he had no recollections, for he had plenty to share.
It was that he didn’t know that one of his great friends from the rockabilly scene -- from Sun, from the small studio that had sprung Elvis, Scotty and Bill, Roy Orbison, John R. Cash and the Tennessee Two, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich and Conway Twitty – had died.
He asked for a couple of minutes to collect himself, then, in true human-being form, for he was a fine one of those, he began recounting tales of Carl, who had succumbed to throat cancer.
As it was noon and the paper had to leave the floor of the composing room by 12:30, I explained to Marshall what had happened and asked for a few comments, promising to call him back after deadline.
Which I did. Probably called him a dozen times since and even hung out with him at a cemetery on one Hendersonville afternoon and also helped him tote his old bass into the Musicans Hall of Fame back when it first opened … before it was blasted away to help suit somebody’s godforsaken view of what Nashville needed to become. That’s another tale, of steamy politics and that’s not what I’m writing today.
On other times I’d just call Marshall to talk. I wrote about him a couple of times and used him as a resource on others.
Our bond grew, based on death and me being the bearer, inadvertent as it was, of bad tidings.
I called Marshall to get his reactions to June Carter Cash’s passing. Again, I was the one who broke the news. And he wept.
By the time Johnny Cash – the voice and front man who was Elvis to Marshall’s Bill Black and Luther Perkins’ Scotty Moore – died, I just figured I was not really calling for comment, but to break the news.
Which I did. He wept and recalled a man he loved.
He later introduced me to a crowd of musicians and historians as the one who told him his friends had died.
But he was just joking. He liked to hear from me. It’s probably been a year or so since I called him. I check in on musicians I care for who are in their advancing years periodically. Not to be a vulture, but to be a friend.
Did the same for other guys who became friends. Bobby Thompson. Vassar Clements. Josh Graves. Chet Atkins. Eddy Arnold. Captain Midnight. Used to call Louise Scruggs occasionally as well, as she was the only person who ever tried to get me Bob Dylan on the phone. She would let me talk to Earl.
There have been others.
It wasn’t that I was calling because I needed anything or because I wanted to write another story, although it would have been my delight if my employers at the time, another “newspaper” here in Nashville after the Banner folded, had cared.
“That Eddy Arnold story should have been a brief,” I was told after writing a happily drawling tale of a day spent with Eddy.
While I was told I should have dedicated the space to Shaggy or some other superstar, I was the entertainment editor and I gave over the space to Eddy.
It was the last time he was interviewed by anyone.
But mostly I just made these calls because I cared about these people. Many, if not most, had been bypassed by the desire of newspapers and media to focus on the Shaggys and the like.
I wanted to make sure they knew that at least for one old man, they still mattered. So I’d call, we’d chat. We’d laugh. They’d tell me off-the-record stories. And we’d hang up.
It was as much therapy for me as anything, as needing to connect with these people who had contributed so much to my life and my own strange life’s soundtrack, made me feel better.
Well, my relationship with Marshall was pretty much like that. Except I used any excuse possible to talk to him. When my bosses wanted me to write about that one-dimensional biopic about Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, I was asked to contact some of the young people who played roles in that over-rated film.
I took the opportunity to call Marshall, just because he was there when it happened. (His autobiography, not a masterwork by any means but worth a read by any Cash fan is called “I Was There When It Happened.” )
Over the years I learned a lot about Marshall, about his long separation from Cash – John’s drugs seriously damaged that relationship – as well as their teary reunion at June’s grave.
I learned that he was such a packrat that he not only kept souvenirs, he kept the house in Memphis where he and Luther and John began their work together, where they hatched songs and melodies in all-night sessions.
I think about him often and wish someone cared enough to let me write one more story about this great man and his career not just as an artist but as a promoter and manager…. a good man of music and faith who drove the car while June sat on John’s lap in the back seat from Dallas to Oklahoma City or somesuch and sparks (at least) became hotter than a pepper sprout.
He told me many stories about Cash. Most were tales of a good man with demons. Not a demon who tried to be good.
Many tales he asked me not to write, so I didn’t. Just hearing them was joy enough.
My friend Peter Cooper called today while my family was out to lunch – we were celebrating Gotcha Day, the 16th anniversary of the day we picked our beloved Emily up at the orphanage in Arad, Romania – to leave a message.
“Your friend Marshall Grant has died,” said Peter’s voice message.
Peter’s among the few really true good friends I have and need, and he figured I’d want to know.
Of course I did. I began thinking back to the conversations I’d had with other fellows I like to keep track of.
First thing I did was call Scotty Moore, a dear friend of mine, whose meager accomplishment in life is inventing rock ’n’ roll guitar while playing with Bill Black and Elvis (and later D.J. Fontana).
Even though I was carrying bad news, I figured Scotty ought to know. And it gave me a chance to catch up with a good guy.
Then I picked up the phone to call Fats Domino ….
Come to think about it, that list of people I call to check up on is getting shorter these days.
What a drag it is getting old, as Mick Jagger sang while Scotty’s No. 1 acolyte, Keith Richards, played guitar.
Thanks for your friendship, Marshall.
And for the tunes.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Personal reflection on the 3-0 mark for a real newspaperman, Bob Battle

I wrote this on Jan. 23, 2010.

Another old-time journalist died Friday, Jan. 22, 2010. Bob Battle was a good guy. He loved the Nashville Banner. He went on to write a column for Williamson A.M., the Gannett suburban product, after circumstances killed the city's very good afternoon newspaper.
Anybody who knew and loved Bob remembers the Banner's last day. While others drank and partied about a job lost, Bob wailed and wept, for the Banner was a living, breating entity, squashed by korporate journalism and greed. I helped him to the door. I didn't think he'd make it. A part of Bob Battle died out there where the Gannett reception desk now stands sentry.
Those who still walk the earth who are considered unfit for Korporate journalism lost a treasured alum today. Some of those who used to love newspapers and considered PR a necessary evil rather than a corporate-sanctioned co-collaborator were there on the final day of publication of the Nashville Banner almost 12 years ago. That newspaper -- a truly local newspaper in a world where news increasingly was and is being determined by demographic studies and corporate trend-spotters -- was sold out from under 100 people, most of whom still loved newspapering better than the promised land of public relations. Many of them have bounced well into that sector. Good for them.
But then there are the "mavericks" ... people who cannot by nature succeed in the world of news-gathering as determined by the gods of Rochester or the Space Coast or wherever they may entrench themselves.
Bob Battle was one of those. Yes, he wrote his final column for the Gannett suburban product targeted for the richest county in the state. And I'm sure those columns were as hard to edit at the end as they were if anyone had to edit them back in the old days.
But Bob had soul. And he had institutional knowledge. He knew everyone in Nashville and knew where they drank. He was to the drinking journalist what Eddie Jones was to the smoking journalist: the real deal. The "Hello, Sweetheart, get me rewrite" kinda guy.
If there was a greatest generation for journalists, it would be guys like Bob, Eddie, Jerry Thompson, Fred Russell, John Bibb, Gene Wyatt, Edgar Allen, Jimmy Carnahan, all dead. I'm fortunate to have spent time with each of those men and to have considered them friends.
To these guys the story was the thing, not the spin. Little thought was given to how it would play in Green Hills or Belle Meade or if it would impact sales at mall boutiques negatively.
Yes, Bob had his faults. He sometimes even bragged about them. Yes, he liked his white wine in the bottomless glass after he gave up the harder stuff.
But he also knew when to seek out the opinion of journalists, perhaps a generation or at least a half-generation younger, and ask for advice or even proof-reading of a column or a business story.
When Garth Brooks first began to make a little noise, Bob told everyone that Garth would be as big as Elvis one day soon. And he was right. No surprise. Bob knew his shit.
This rambling comes as I'm sitting in my basement, my own fortress of sorts, which, among other wall-decorations, has the final edition of the Nashville Banner. My farewell column to that newspaper is right above Bob's.
Good company to the end, I figure.
He was a good guy to start the day with during my 10 years at the Banner. He usually was there at 4:30 or 5 when I arrived at work, generally beating not only me but even Tony Kessler, Jane Srygley, Mike McGehee, Left-Hander and C.B. Fletcher.
Sometimes, perhaps, Bob hadn't had a lot of sleep. And perhaps there was that more than faint hint of the night before on his breath. But he kept on going. He was working for a newspaper he loved, a living and breathing dinosaur.
Well, those dinosaurs are extinct now.
In an era when backing down and back-stabbing are the keys to success, not just in journalism but in Amerika, some still are able to keep their dignitiy even in a world where perhaps they are out of step.
I treasure the fact that I could call Bob Battle a friend.
I don't drink much or any at all now. But maybe I can figure out how Bob kept that one glass of wine from ever getting anywhere near empty.
I'll never be able to reallly figure out why the world decided it didn't need journalists like Bob Battle, dedicated to a newspaper and its audience and not bottom line figures. People who didn't back down when they knew they were right.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


With ink in their veins and big hearts, The News Brothers take a stroll down Memory Lane, reliving the Glory Days of the newspaper profession.

Every picture tells a story, don't it?: A melancholy tale of four dedicated young guys who loved newspapers

It may be my favorite picture of my newspaper career. It’s not one of the shots I got of O.J., Ali, Waylon and Willie. John R., Magic, Henry Aaron. It’s not even the one that Johnny Cash Kristofferson, Kris’ son, took of me and his pop singing one day at the corner where the Tally-Ho Tavern – which we both frequented lives ago -- once existed.
Nope, it’s a photo of a quartet of journalists – three guys I loved and me – sitting on a curb on a deserted downtown street. A bottle of cheap champagne by our feet. Likely a trail of empties followed us to that spot, like so many broken hearts.
We’d just finished screening a movie called “Flapjacks: The Motion Picture,” a crude-by-today’s-techno-standards Super 8mm film that chronicled the birth of The News Brothers. I don’t need to go into it here. Buy the book if one ever becomes available. (Yeah, Mr. Dylan, I am workin’ on it, so quit riding me about it. Damn, Zimmy....)
I write pieces of the News Brothers book now and then. Sometimes I laugh. But at times like this it hurts. The movie featuring those four men – including that dashing young man in the yellow Fedora – is a skewering of pop culture, society, ruthless authority and the korporate mentality. But for all of its rudeness and satire, it also is a love letter to newspapering.
Working as a newspaperman was my life’s goal. It was ripped from me a few years ago, although I still have the pleasure of writing for a living and for life.
Some of the fellows in the picture didn’t become journalists on purpose.
The guy in the white top hat, my pal and still-colleague in the News Brothers business, is Rob “Death” Dollar. He’d been destined for a job in the CIA when a newspaper job and family ties came calling. He had career setbacks, thanks to corporate politics and big money small-town bullying, but he went on to a distinguished career as a journalist. You’d probably not have expected that if you looked into the bleary eyes of the guy in this Saturday Morning, 2 a.m. photograph. Of course, you’d have to remove the shades to see those eyes.
News Brothers always wear shades because our futures are always so damn bright, as life has proven.
Rob was on my staff and he was the best police reporter I have ever known and, though I never worked for him, I’ve been told he was a good and fair boss, willing to go to the mattresses for his troops after he moved to his hometown to take over the daily.
Jerry “Chuckles” (damn he hates that nickname) Manley is the guy in the green tuxedo. I know you can’t tell colors in this black and white picture, but he’s the guy on the far right, his arm on my shoulder. And that tux is green.
He looked like a drunken and somewhat overweight leprechaun that night. Hell, many nights for that matter. I remember one night he and I went to see the Little Ole Opry – Jack Greene, George Morgan, Jeannie Seeley, Little Jimmy Dickens – in a not-very-secret after-hours club behind Pal’s Package Store in Clarksville. It was a joint that perked up at about 10:30 on Friday and Saturday nights and featured the Grand Ole Opry stars who came up to Clarksville after finishing their weekly shows. If I remember correctly, it was corporate Opry clout that caused this Little Ole Opry to close. Not surprising.
After the Little Opry show ended and Jerry dropped me off at my thankfully temporary home (another story), he drove back to his. When a dog came running out in front of his blue Prelude, well, he chose wisely. He left the road and rolled the car. “I didn’t want to kill the dog,” he explained to me the next day. News Brothers are, as we like to say, damn nice guys. I think he only took one sick day, but he looked like something the … well. .. dog dragged in…
Jerry was, like me, never planning to be anything but a newspaperman. It was his calling. As a writer perhaps his words didn’t sing. But as an editor who finds holes in stories, who asks the right questions, who writes headlines, who exercises humanity with staffers, he was among the best in the business. I love the guy like a brother.
Then there’s the dark-bearded Cajun in the purple Fedora, Thomas Anthony “Tony” Durr. He kinda stumbled into journalism by accident. His life, it turned out, was one big accident after another, leading to ultimate tragedy.
He had been a computer guru with a company out of Florida. When he sold his company’s products to the newspaper in Clarksville, he pretty much came along as part of the deal. I mean, early newspaper computers had a lot of problems.
What could be better than hiring an editor who helped hone the system and plopping him in the newsroom to try to keep things straight?
Of course, Tony’s greatest contribution as an editor is that he also liked to play golf, so he pretty much relinquished the control of the newspaper to me, coming in for conversations or calling in, but I was the associate editor and, well, he figured I could take care of things. (Actually I shared the authority with another sub-editor, a guy who had a face like a death mask and a personality to match.)
Tony was what they call an “idea” man. With the help of Rob and Jerry and a few other brave souls who lived hard but worked harder for the sake of good newspapering, we executed some of his ideas.
We also had plenty of our own, and Tony, to his credit, knew enough to step out of the way if the News Brothers were chasing a story, covering a tragedy or consoling a grieving mother whose murdered daughter’s skull had been mistaken for a milk jug when the dogs dragged it out of the woods.
Tony really wasn’t a News Brother, but he enjoyed the fruits of our hard work in his role as editor of the newspaper.
Jim “Flash” Lindgren isn’t in this picture, because he was young and went home by 1:30. He was like our little News Brother, among the original foursome. We loved him and took him on our outings and figured he’d carry on the tradition, which he did in Indianapolis, where he now sells bogus penny stocks to unsuspecting retirees. Nah, that’s not true. He’s distinguished himself in journalism and in academia at Butler University.(That's the school that keeps on almost winning the NCAA title, choking in the big games? Talk about "the curse of the News Brothers....")
But this is about the picture and I’m kind of getting off the track here. But that’s my right, as I am the writer of this piece and I no longer report to soul-snuffing corporate bean-counters and butchers of hope and dreams.
What this photograph represents to me is love of friends, for sure, but love of friends who also were in love with the act of committing good journalism.
Proud, hard-smoking, far from pure or Puritanical, these good and decent men prided themselves on being solid newspapermen.
At the time this picture was taken, that’s the way we all figured it would be. Newspapers would be around forever and we’d be able to enjoy the ride and the responsibility and, especially, serve our duties as members of the Fourth Estate.
This picture was taken in Clarksville, Tenn., where all of us worked together and where I spent the first 15 years of my newspaper career.
Tony had already gone on to his next job, weekend editor of the San Antonio Express-News, by the time we coaxed him to fly up to spend the weekend in my apartment and go to the movie. I remember him as a perfect house guest, a good gumbo cook and a guy who loved my old cat, Sly (“C’mon, get up and dance to the music.”)
Sometimes now Rob and I joke that this early morning after the movie premiere was at the peak of our careers and we should have driven off into the Cumberland River or disappeared like Jim Morrison after the police arrested us while the credits rolled. That statement may raise questions, but I’ll answer them another time, perhaps in the book. This is about newspapers.
It turned out it wasn’t our careers’ peak. For another decade or even two, there still was newspapering being committed around Tennessee and even in some of the other colonies and commonwealths.
Not too long after this photo, Jerry went on to a short stint at the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro (Yes, that used to be a helluva paper and not a shopper at all) before landing his dream job as a copy editor at The Tennessean.
He’d wanted to work there because John Seigenthaler was his hero and because he loved that newspaper, the one that was delivered to his home down in Petersburg, Tenn., when he was a kid and playing Tiddlywinks and Mumbly Peg, while getting sugar drunk on Nehi on the town square … Of course he may not have done that at all, but I never can figure out what he might have done in Petersburg. I think he kept his pants on most of the time.
He rose fairly quickly at The Tennessean because he is, was, remains, a great newspaperman. He not only was content, he was jubilant that he was going to spend the rest of his working days at the paper he had loved all his life.
I was still in Clarksville, sucking on smokes, listening to the scanner and minding the night shift when he’d call me and say “I just wrote a good headline and thought, man, a million people will look at this headline tomorrow.” Of course, there weren’t a million Tennesseans sold then. But there were probably four or five times more than the measly 55 copies they sell daily now. OK. OK. I’m kidding. I don’t know what the circulation is or how the “Internet” clicks factor into the equation. Mind you, there’s still good work being done there, but you can only stretch a staff of five so far…. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but bean-counting is the name of the game and they have continued to lop off staffers.
But Jerry was in his glory back in his early Tennessean days. Sometimes, as he still lived in Clarksville part time, he’d spin by my house at the conclusion of both our shifts and we’d chase the dawn. “C’mon, man, let’s go for a ride in this Pink Cadillac…” and Bruce Springsteen would scream from the speakers as we played chicken with deer and ran full-tilt on reckless adventure, sometimes to Nashville or Guthrie, Ky., once to laugh at death on an interstate overpass. But we don’t need to share that story here. Glory Days, indeed.
Rob’s newspaper career also was glorious for nearly 24 years as he became the backbone of the Kentucky New Era in his hometown of Hopkinsville, Ky. He helped turn that small-town, daily rag into a respected, hard-news paper. He made enemies.
But he earned a lot of respect from his staff and even from his bosses. That’s back when bosses in upper management showed respect to their staffs. And sometimes the bosses even deserved it.
Me, well, I was the last News Brother to leave Clarksville, taking a sip of brandy and turning out the lights on my last night in that newsroom. I had been hired by Editor Eddie Jones and Managing Editor Tony Kessler at the Nashville Banner and served a variety of jobs for the 10 years I was there. In whatever role, I was also the designated No. 2 man, the bullpen, if a decision needed to be made. I loved the Banner, which eventually was killed by greed, both corporate and personal. I went down with the ship.
Because I was in the middle of an adoption, I accepted the offer of a job that wouldn’t force me to move. I went to work for The Tennessean and served as a copy desk staffer, entertainment editor (about six years), senior entertainment writer, senior features writer and then, as they apparently -- at least I interpreted it that way -- were trying to make things uncomfortable enough for me to leave, I was moved to night cops. Almost a full-circle career.
I figured that buyouts were going to come, so I held on for the better part of a year, working the night shift, never seeing my kids. One of the few pluses of that job was that my boss was Jerry, who had been on my staff in Clarksville, but had been more of a comrade than an employee.
When my buyout did come through, Jerry could hardly stand it, keeping his head down and hugging me quickly before he went out the door. He was going to be night editor for another four years, but I was the last full-time staffer he’d ever have, at least as far as I know.
Of course, I survived and continue to squeak out an income but hold my head high as a freelance journalist, writer and even part-time news-writing instructor and journalist-in-residence at a local university. My family and my forays with Rob and the occasional other News Brother or Americana star help keep me sane (so to speak).
Rob finally left his newspaper job on his own terms, resigning as managing editor, after disagreement with the way his paper was going, his staff was being treated and his powerlessness to change it. He wouldn’t backstab his people. Money talks. Good men (and women) walk.
After reluctantly leaving journalism, he went on to serve as deputy mayor in Hopkinsville, and later had a pretty good temporary job with the federal government, responsible for overseeing public relations and community outreach activities in 21 Western Kentucky counties during the 2010 Census.
When he accomplished that task with great success, the Census Bureau gave him a lapel pin and said, "Attaboy." Now, in polite terms, he's in "transition" or "between opportunities." But, he keeps pounding the pavement to get a job, and he’d make anyone proud. Hell, I'm proud of him.
Tony left San Antonio for newspaper jobs in Chicago, back to San Antonio, Anchorage and Kodiak. He tried to recruit me for each one, but I knew he was never going to be at one place long enough to pin my hopes to his career. I did get trips to San Antonio and Chicago out of the deal, though.
It would have been my luck to have moved to Anchorage just in time for his firing there. Even if he’d taken me to Kodiak from there, he also got fired there.
I occasionally would talk with him after he left newspapers and joined the Coast Guard. He seemed happy, had survived his seventh or eighth divorce.
But there always was the hope he’d go back into newspapers. He didn’t know where or when, but he figured he would. I’m sure he would have wanted to come wherever I was so I could cover for him. But I loved him.
Tony’s Coast Guard career ended one apparently lonely night. An empty bottle of prescription pain-killers was found by his body after he didn’t show up for duty the next day.
It should be noted that the other original News Brother not in this picture, "Flash" Lindgren rose to great heights as a senior copy editor in Indianapolis, before his paper was consumed by korporate cannibalism and he exited rather than compromise his principles. Apparently his News Brothers training "took."
There were others who joined, proudly. Scott "Badger" Shelton was a correspondent for The Tennessean (by the way, Rob was for a time, too in his Hoptown days.) Scott also was a radio newsman, who became infected by the News Brothers and their enthusiasm while covering us as a news story.(Our movie was designed as a fund-raiser for a variety of worthy causes.) I don't know if Badger left journalism to go into a media relations job or if journalism left him. Regardless, he has ink in his veins. He is waging war with a deadly disease right now, but we hear he wears his shades during chemo treatments.
John "Street" Staed left Clarksville to pursue the heights of management superstardom in the news business. He reached them all right and even admitted once in a note that he was a "management puke" and no longer worthy of the News Brothers affiliation. Perhaps not .. until he was lopped from his lofty position and turned back into a reporter. Last I heard he was working part-time at a newspaper while training to be a respiratory therapist or Popsicle salesman.
I think Ricky "Dumbo" Moore has so far survived as a newspaperman. The sports editor in Clarksville back when the Brothers raged, he's some sort of high-falutin' copy editor or something in Chattanooga. I'm sure he worries, though, as he's not getting any younger, is overweight and has a variety of health woes.
There are others ... Harold "The Stranger" Lynch died long ago of lung cancer. Billy "StrawBilly" Fields left newspapering early enough to survive and he now is a high-ranking government official in Nashville (as if that's a good thing). David "Teach" Ross got out when he could and now is a schoolteacher in Erin, Tenn., and plays guitar in roadhouses at night.
I could go on, but I want you to scroll back to the top of this column for a second and look at the picture of four guys who just wanted to be newspapermen, who loved each other and loved exercising the First Amendment as well as helping the underdog and uncovering corruption and, always, sticking to their principles.
On the far left is Rob. As I said, he’s "between opportunities."
Then comes Tony. He committed suicide.
The happy fellow with the yellow Fedora is me. I left newspapering on my own terms, but I both regret and resent what has happened to newspapers since. My heart aches for my profession and its people as well as for the readers who no longer are fully served, for the underdogs who are ignored and for the fact big business and government go unchecked while a country is in despair.
You see, I got a buyout four years ago. In the months and years after that came a wave of buyouts and layoffs, shrinking a once proud staff to just a few. It's not just a Nashville malady. It has happened everywhere there is or has been a newspaper. The bottom-line is key. Sacrifice enough people so the CEO can get a $1 million bonus or whatever.
My old friend Jerry toiled in the trenches of middle management, a night editor without a staff, for almost four years after I left.
Last Thursday, while he was on vacation and bound for the annual Manley family pig roast and clambake in the countryside near Petersburg, he was notified his job was being vacated. Time to pack up your stuff old man.
I’m sure he was told “Thanks for all you’ve done.”
Several other good people – including an exceptional young journalist and rock drummer named Nicole Keiper (I put her name in here because she’s still young enough to hire, folks) – got axed. As did Ellen Margulies, who spent 25 years at the morning newspaper. There were many more corporate-wide.
Some didn’t expect it. For that, I am most sorry. I’d been telling them it was coming. But nobody really accepts that the worst will happen. Until it does.
By the way Larry McCormack -- the official News Brothers photographer (I'm not sure if he took this shot as it was 29 years ago and very late on a night when $3 champagne was involved) -- did make the cut and remains employed. At least last time I checked.
I could go on and protest what happened to the guys in the picture, but I’m particularly angry with the way Jerry was treated.
He had his dream job, and the corporate guys, who come and go, took it away from him.
I’m sure he’ll bounce back. Or at least roll back…. Maybe he can return to Petersburg to play spin-the-bottle with the local school marm. I don’t know.
All I really know is that when I look at the picture at the top of this column, it used to make me happy. Still does, until I realize that the four men there just wanted to spend the rest of their lives as newspapermen. And, for whatever reason, those dreams were crushed.
They say daily newspapers are dying. The reason is simple. People, not necessarily me, but I am a good example, are being dumped on the curb as the korporate juggernaut kills a most wonderful profession.
It’s not over yet, of course. So beware if you remain in a newsroom. George W. Bush never had an exit strategy, but you sure should. Does anyone want to be the last one standing in America's newsrooms? I don't know and I assume it would be some korporate type with a parachute, anyway. I do know that's one story no News Brother would want to report ... turning out the lights on what once was a noble profession.
There are a few things that come with a life spent in newspapers, triumphs and friendships as well as nightmares from tragedies covered, human beings in suffering.
One thing you never forget is the stench of death.