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.