Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Millie gave Elvis the Blue 'woo-woos'

(I wrote an obituary for Reuters on the wonderful Millie Kirkham Tuesday. But as usual, I wrote more than they needed. Fine with me. Here is an expanded version of the story. She was an incredible woman and a long-time neighbor.)
The woman who gave Elvis Presley what she called the “woo-woo-woos” in “Blue Christmas” -- a song being played countless times this holiday season -- has been silenced.

Mildred “Millie” Kirkham, 91, died Sunday in Nashville, but she left her soaring vocal stylings on countless Nashville recordings by the likes of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline and George Jones.

Elvis’ original guitarist, Scotty Moore, said Tuesday morning that he knew Kirkham well from her sessions with Elvis and the Jordanaires.

“Anytime they needed that high voice on something, she was always there,” said Moore, who cworked countless recording sessions with Kirkham.  “She just could do that high voice that blended in with the Jordanaires.”

Moore , who was guitarist on the 1957 “Blue Christmas” session – a part of Elvis’ Christmas Album -- remembered Kirkham Tuesday as not only a fine singer, but “she was a very nice lady.”

“Everybody loved Millie,” said A-Team session guitarist and Country Music Hall of Fame member Harold Bradley Tuesday.

“I worked with her for a long, long time,” he said. “It’s impossible to count the sessions we did together. She was a wonderful singer, but she was also a wonderful person and she always was smiling and never gave anybody any problems at all. She was a sweetheart to work with.”

Bradley said her distinctive voice “put a topping on the recording.”

He also said that she didn’t mind sticking her neck out, which is what she did when coming up with the “woo-woo” harmony on ‘Blue Christmas.’

Bradley didn’t work on “Blue Christmas,” but the “woo-woo” is an example of what he called her “unique sound.”

Gail Pollock, Moore’s companion of 40 years and a Nashville music business veteran, said her good friend “Miss Mille didn’t want to be remembered for being Elvis’ ‘woo-woo singer,’” but she was resigned to the fact that she would, indeed, be remembered for that little phrase she inserted during horseplay with Elvis and everyone else in the session.

”She was just, well, alive,” said Pollock, through her tears. “She was the most independent thing you’ve ever seen, she did it her way and her way only and she did it in a way that didn’t offend anybody.”

Pollock noted that Kirkham, who sang for Elvis from 1957 until 1974, performed as recently as this year.

Kirkham’s voice is an integral part of “The Nashville Sound,” a more cosmopolitan form of country music that in large part was fashioned by Bradley, his producer brother Owen Bradley and guitarist/producer Chet Atkins. 

“Those vocals are some of the most instantly identifiable in country and pop music history, said Peter Cooper, a writer/editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.

“They are an indelible part of every song she sang on. There is no Blue Christmas without the sound of Millie Kirkham,” he said. “She was also there to contribute to Ferlin Husky’s ‘Gone,’ which was a remarkably important record in helping to create what came to be known as the Nashville Sound.”


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Rock 'n' roller, bluegrass wizard, folk singer, damn nice guy Mac Wiseman revisits his rural upbringing for wondrous album

(I am lucky enough to have a few friends in the music world who I sometimes call, just to chat. Many of them -- Chet, Vassar, Uncle Josh, Bobby Thompson, Eddy to name a few -- have taken their final bows and I miss them. I was fortunate enough to be asked by CMA Closeup online in August to do a story on Mac Wiseman's new album, "Songs From My Mother's Hand." I did that and was proud, as Mac is a friend and a damn nice guy. I then wrote a much-longer version, which I share here.)      

Mac Wiseman pushes past the bottles of potions to treat the maladies of age and rescues a yellowed notebook from stack of them on the table. Then, with a smile, he leans back in the generous recliner, lifts his voice and “reads” one page.
“When I was young and in my prime…..” he sings -- in pitch-perfect, room-filling tenor -- “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues.”

“That’s my locale and that’s where the CD begins,” he says, explaining the song choice to demonstrate what is in many ways the most important album of a storied career that was nurtured in the Shenandoah Valley by a mom who meticulously wrote down lyrics of songs that played on the radio.  Twelve of those songs make up the heart-yanking project Songs from My Mother’s Hand.
Revisiting Depression-era Appalachian folk songs, scrawled meticulously by his mother as she listened to the radio, could be mistaken by some as the bookend on a long career.  Except Mac, 89, is already diving through his mom’s 13 journals of lyrics to see which songs will make for a sequel.  

Some call Mac Wiseman a bluegrass musician, at least in part due to the company he’s kept, from Monroe to the Osbornes. But he also was a dear friend of America’s troubled country-folk troubadour, Hank Williams.  And this isn’t a bluegrass album. It’s pure American folk music.
Besides that, old Malcolm B. Wiseman doesn’t much like to be pigeonholed as a purveyor of the music form he played a hand in creating.  “I don’t like the raucous sound of a banjo,” admits the man who stood next to Scruggs as he perfected the revolutionary three-finger picking style.

When Mac had his own outfits, that voice – HIS VOICE – was the most important instrument, high-lonesome solos guiding listeners through a landscape of guitars and fiddles.   
His career in music began when he went to work as a radio announcer in Harrisonburg, Va., about 25 miles from his hometown of Crimora, Va.

“I began to notice that the program directors were driving Fords and Chevrolets while the hillbillies were driving Cadillacs,” he says.  He made a career decision right then and there. He wanted to drive a Caddy.
That decision has paid off for listeners and for Wiseman himself, as his career has had him singing all types of music, from classic bluegrass to novelty tune “If I Had Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride” and a top-10 version of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” back when every boy had a coonskin cap.    

While some might call him the “last man left” from the classic era of bluegrass, his musical palette includes rock ‘n’ roll, gospel and, especially, folk songs. It’s an eclectic repertoire shaped by his upbringing in the Shenandoah Valley, thanks to the inspiration of the woman who wrote down the lyrics to songs she heard on the radio and used them to encourage her family during the dark times. “We had long nights during the Depression when we would all gather around the organ and sing,” he says.
Other times, he “performed” solo.  “We had no running water, no plumbing, no electricity, no phone. And I would leaf through my mother’s books and sing every song.”

And that’s why this newest album Songs from My Mother’s Hand, a collection of folk songs from the era before “bluegrass” became a genre of its own, may well be the most important of his career.
“It’s going to reenact an era of my life I had almost forgotten about,” he says, noting that the songs come from a time when 11-cents-a-dozen eggs were considered expensive.

“Everybody else was poor,” he recollects of those days. “But there was always love in our close family and we never missed a meal.”
While she was intent on feeding her family, his mother also wanted to instill in them the love of music that had her sitting by the family radio and jotting down song lyrics as she heard them.  What she didn’t write down on the first listen was captured on the second, third, fourth, whatever it took.

And those are the songs, captured by a mother’s love, that make up this new album.
Some of these songs he’s recorded before. Others remained as mementoes, words on yellowed paper, put there by his mom.

While these notebooks remained as important as a family Bible, the pages are hardly “kept under glass” protected.  The songs were jotted down so they could be sung not worshiped.  And though he pages through the notebooks regularly – they are literally letters from Mom and home, after all --  he really never  thought of recording a collection of them until a few months ago when producer and guitarist Thomm Jutz and co-producer and Americana songsmith Peter Cooper visited with him.
They went out to his home in what he refers to as “L.A.” – aka Lower Antioch, for the section of Nashville that holds his cozy, memorabilia packed home – and wanted to talk to Wiseman about doing a record of folk songs.

That, in itself was a good idea for this fellow whose voice, though seasoned with the grit of age, remains among the purest instruments to produce country ballads.
Those discussions were held where Mac – hobbled by child polio – is mot at home, in the easy chair planted in a living room where a Christmas tree stays year-round – “I got one strand of lights burned out on it. But I keep it up because I don’t have to bother taking it down and putting it back up every year.”   

Wrapped presents and even an Easter bunny – again never put away when that season ends – decorate the floor next to the 90-year-old table, which came from his mother’s house, that was the writing surface used by his mom when she captured these songs.  On this day, though the volume is muted, “Family Feud” is being played on the TV crowning that important piece of furniture.
He spends a lot of time in this room, a literal museum filled with instruments, posters and other souvenirs of a life well-spent in music. In addition to being an engaging live performer, Mac’s recorded 60 albums and at least 800 songs in a long and diverse life spent mostly with guitar in hand.

Among the relics are the yellowed notebooks – sort of like the lined essay books used for written exams in college – filled with the lyrics of “You’re a Flower Blooming in the Wildwood,” “Little Rosewood Casket,” “Put My Little Shoes Away,” “East Bound Train” and “Answer to the Great Speckled Bird” and a life’s worth more.
Jutz – a German expat who has embraced his adopted home-country’s texture on his sprawling, multi-artist exploration of the Civil War, The 1861 Project  -- explains in his lightly-drawling, German accent that  while he and Cooper talked with their hero about capturing some of his favorite folk songs, Wiseman told them about the 13 yellowed notebooks filled with the scrawling from his mother’s hand.   

One of those cartoon light bulbs went off in Jutz’s head. “To me it’s really a treasure of country music. We were here and I had always wanted to do something like this.” He points to the notebooks.
“Nobody had ever asked him to do this before,” says Cooper, offering up one of the well-used song journals so a visiting journalist could page through it.  

“The timing was right. You come across something so special and you want to document it.”

He elaborates on the timing issue by noting that Wiseman, 89 and the last surviving member of the original board of directors of the Country Music Association, finally will be inducted into that hallowed hall this autumn.

“I was speechless for a little bit,” Wiseman says, remembering the call from the CMA . 
In his mind perhaps his time had passed.  Overlooked. Perhaps he wasn’t going to get into the Hall of Fame, while younger acolytes like Vince Gill and Garth Brooks – “and they are deserving,” he says, were enshrined.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed,” he says of the annual rite of melancholy when he’d learn his name and likeness weren’t going to be preserved on bronze in the Hall of Fame rotunda… at last not yet.
“My only consolation was these people didn’t know my track record,” he says, explaining that he took comfort in the semi-ignorance of those who didn’t know they were overlooking a folk-singing, bluegrass-playing, even rock ‘n’ rolling musical pioneer.
“I’ll hurt my hand, patting myself on the back,” he says, after rattling off a litany of great musicians with whom he has performed and venues where he has taken bows since becoming a professional artist in 1946.    

“Mac’s the longest-tenured living singer in America today,” Cooper says of that 68 years of performance.
Only Anthony Benedetto,  Tony Bennett – who began winning amateur singing contests and working as a singing waiter in the early 1940s – could challenge that claim.  And truth be told, he’d likely be proud just to be mentioned in the same sentence as Wiseman, who earned plenty of his early acclaim up north.

And that success included rock ‘n’ roll, Wiseman says, noting for a time he was appearing on Dick Clark’s (American Bandstand) shows and selling hits everywhere but in his native Southland. “In the South, they were throwing my records in the trash can. And up north, I was cutting new tracks.”
The conversation returns to the source material for this newest record, though, and why it is important to him, personally and professionally, and to anyone who has an abiding love in American music.

While he has recorded some of these songs earlier in his career, most are captured for the first time by this iconic American singer whose voice and phrasing is as unique as that much-younger singer, Willie Nelson, who is a mere 81.
Co-producers Jutz and Cooper note that while many contemporary artists take a full day to get one track, Wiseman cut all 12 tracks in a six-hour period, with the sound as live and lively as possible.

“I don’t think we played any song more than twice,” says Jutz.  “It’s perfect with its imperfections.”
The players include Musicians Hall of Famer Jimmy Capps, rising star mandolin virtuoso and beauty Sierra Hull, Grammy-winning bassist Mark Fain, multi-instrumentalist Justin Moses, harp man Jelly Roll Johnson and hammered dulcimer delight Alisa Jones Wall.

 “It’s the matter of getting the right players in the studio and letting them go,” says Jutz.
And the 89-year-old singer points out that it is folk music and certainly not bluegrass, even though it is that form for which he’s best-known.  “I don’t like the raucous sound of a banjo,” he says, smiling.

He says the songs are timeless. While perhaps “old-timey” in delivery and production technique, he says the songs are as relevant today as they were when his mom began writing them in the journals.
“The reason for the longevity is it’s slice-of-life,” he says about the collection. “People don’t change. We just get a new crop.”

It’ll be difficult to find anyone in that new crop to replace the man who sings the songs his mom wrote down.
“I asked the doctor the other day whether taking Viagra would conflict with my medicines,” says Wiseman.   “It said ‘it wouldn’t do you any conflict, but what you do after it might kill you.”  

He opens up one of the yellowed notebooks and begins to sing The Stanley Brothers’ classic “Old Rattler.”      
“Rattler was a good old dog as blind as he could be,
But every night at suppertime I believe that dog could see ….”

He puts the book down and smiles toward the ceiling as he sings.…
(P.S. from writer: If you don't buy this album or -- if a Grammy voter you do not vote for it -- you are an idiot.)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

White Saab loads up for trek through hazy memories with world-famous veterinarian, a damn nice guy, and old Champo

When I hugged Carpy outside my old white Saab 900S, the 30-year-old car that became part of my life since I last saw him, I wondered if this could be the last time.... I don’t know.

Hell, it had been 36 years at least since I saw Tom Carpenter, a legendary Orange County, California, veterinarian, husband, father and grandpa who also has Kareem’s and Magic’s signatures on a small square of the old parquet ball court where they played.  A Mickey Mantle-signed baseball and some old Wrigley Field seats are also a part of his sports paraphernalia collection.  “I go in there just to relax,” the kindly vet says of his sports room.

At one point I contributed to his collection of sports paraphernalia as I sent him a “Muhammad Ali: Three-Time Heavyweight Champion of the World” button from New Orleans, where I covered – as a journalist and eventual friend of Ali – the dethroning of a clumsy Leon Spinks, the pride of St. Louis.

Tom likely has lost track of that button I sent him in 1978, the day after the fight. Most of what I remember from the day I got the buttons (one resided in my house as well, at least until the 2010 flood) is that I stayed up for the better part of 48 hours to cover the fight, enjoy the post-fight celebrations and spend the morning afterward with Ali.  But that’s beside the point. One of the incidents that bound Tom and me as friends was the agony we felt when Kenny Norton beat Ali in a fight we watched in the Hanson House TV room in Larch Hall on the campus of Iowa State University. (That was before the 50-pound bust of Old Man Hanson took a flyer from the seventh-floor windows. I still wonder how in the world that could have happened to that great ISU benefactor? Amazingly, he survived the fall with a few chips and perhaps a bit more respect due to his durability.)

I’ve never seen Tom’s memorabilia collection. Probably never will. I mean if I see Tom just once every 36 years or so, I’ll likely be dead at our next get-together, which could be a downer.  Or at least it will be relatively mellow.

But that’s probably not relevant, since most folks have proven with heavy punctuation they could care less whether I live or whether I die, although I promise to do both sometime. 

Oh well, occasionally life gets in the way, but friends, true friends, never really are gone. You keep them in your heart for awhile. Or, I guess my version of forever.  Hell, 38 years ago or so, when Carpy was still in school, I drove up to Ames, Iowa, from Nashville to pick him up for Jocko’s wedding.  I was driving my mom’s ’72 Dodge Duster since the exhaust manifold of my own ’65 Falcon had exploded for about the fourth time.  And, oh yeah, there was that little carburetor problem, which meant someone had to hold their hand over the air intake in order for me to start it.

Tom and I went and tried on those silly powder-blue tuxedoes at the Ames monkey suit joint. Had to get matching boxers so our underwear wouldn’t show during the nuptials. God knows a lot of our friends, some of them possibly sober, would be looking at us closely to make fun of anything we did wrong. That would include wearing underwear that put our butts on display beneath the expensive-to-rent, cheap fabric.

Well, to summarize, Jocko, Tom and I were able to remain on our feet through the entire nuptials and into part of the night after.   What happened when I left my feet is open to debate.  But enough of that.

“Would this calm and clear late-March 2014 Nashville Saturday morning be the last time I’d see Tom?,” I wondered a week or so ago.  Didn’t really get emotional, but as I drove away – he had to get back to the vet convention, fetal-pig roast and dog-castrating seminars or whatever thousands of whacky veterinarians were doing at the Nashville Convention Center &  Mayor Karl Dean Monument to Civic Excess. 

I’d seen Tom since Jocko’s wedding, but it still had been probably 36 or more years since that last sighting when, on a late-March 2014 day, I picked him up to enjoy a breakfast at Athens in Berry Hill, my dining hall of choice as many of my friends, including cuddly and over-sized sobriety evangelists, assorted blue-tooth-wearing banjo wizards and wry life observers will profess.

Of course, many of the years that separated us came in the time before Al Gore – that chubby mama’s-boy from Carthage, Tennessee, (said in all kindness, as I loved his mom and the feeling was mutual) – discovered the internet, much like his father, the late Senator Albert Gore Sr., discovered the Dwight David Eisenhower Interstate Highway System.   

So it was a sort of prehistoric time when people conversed and also had to pick up phones or write letters, and losing touch with friends probably wasn’t uncommon, unless you were perhaps drunk and lonely and in a life crisis and reaching out for a beloved friend for counseling in the middle of the night. (A guy can lose a lot of friends that way, I should note.)

I mean, I never forgot Carpy. Thought of him often over the years as one of the nicest guys I’d ever met. A kid from Mechanicsville, New York, who was game to mix and mingle with his elders as they toiled hard for their diplomas.

 Me in my pink bunny costume. Jocko in his. We had been the rabbits in an “Alice: Through the Looking Glass” booth at the university’s spring festival. I don’t know if Tom wore one or if he was even there that night.  Holes in the brains of time.

Sometimes I smile, sitting at my desk, when I remember Captain Kirk in his leather pilot’s jacket taking a flyer through an open window and being chased out of the apartment by a gang of women’s rights activists, unhappy to see a guy flying like Superman into their braless political rally.  He landed in peace, of course. Almost went away in pieces. And many of these women were my friends.

Within minutes, Jocko stomped on the gas pedal of the muscle car, a cream-on-bronze “Goat” (GTO) or similar beast.

If their window hadn’t been wide open and their preaching against men not so loud, Captain Kirk, a Vietnam war veteran who almost killed Ho Chi Minh one night while holding off hordes of Cong with a basket filled with grenades and Whoopee cushions, may not have made that flight. Good thing there was neither glass nor screen on that window.  Even a much-decorated Naval hero of LBJ’s war, a swabbie noted for his courageous use of torpedoes and sword-fighting on the Mekong Delta, wouldn’t have risked such a dangerous entry. 

 Actually, that’s an entirely different story, about Captain Kirk and his debut as a first-round draft choice to a sport I believe I dubbed “rolling” – a sort of free-spirited approach to life that usually began with the formal 4 p.m. Friday afternoon planning conference at Tork’s and ended when the “Maverick” reruns played on black-and-white TV on Sunday afternoons while Jocko and I pounded down 10-cent greaseburgers and studied physics.

All’s fair in the rolling world. As long as no one gets hurt. In fact, we passed around a coconut with magic marker lines and logos drawn on it to make it look like an NFL football. It was the game ball, for the person who had the most outrageous rolling experiences of the weekend.

It was retired when I graduated.  Still have it though. It’s been out in my back yard for more than 20 years, weathering down to nothing. Of course, the same has happened to me. Although, when my wife allows it, I do sleep indoors.

But then again, that’s not where this story is going this time.

I wish I’d showed Tom – aka Carpy or “El Carpone” when on the rolling squad – the coconut. We didn’t have time to drop in and tour the house, but I showed him where I lived.

“It’s like an oasis in the city,” he said. “God-damned fine place. I’m happy you seem happy, Tim. Look at all the mature trees. We don’t have them back home.”

Nah, back there they have swimming pools … movie stars…. according to a song composed by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.  Earl’s house, still for sale, was along the avenue on which I conducted my brief tour of the city.

Actually Tom doesn’t live in Beverly Hills. His home, as I may or may not have mentioned to this point, is Orange County, California, where he has been the personal veterinarian of choice for everyone from John Wayne (“everybody loved the Duke”) to Joey Bishop (“I asked him for an autographed picture and he said: ‘Rat Pack or just me?’ I got both. Damn nice guy.”)  It is said that when Frank Sinatra wanted to begin using Tom’s veterinary services he was put on the waiting list (and then he died). Tom does things his way. Regrets? He has a few. Actually I made a lot of the preceding paragraph up. Well, only the Sinatra part.

Tom’s accomplished very much in his career. He was celebrated as “America’s Top Vet” by the Clinton White House and was the one who taught Bob Barker the importance of spaying and neutering your pets. And it doesn’t surprise me.  All the guys on the rolling squad have done well.

Jocko, God rest his soul (well, he’s not dead, but he doesn’t take phone calls from rolling squad members – hasn’t since his ex-wife died and broke his heart), has spent 30-plus years as the best inside salesperson in Cedar Rapids and a good share of Eastern Iowa.

Captain Kirk. Well, hell, he’ll say he’s not done anything. Except he gave up alcohol and drugs for the most part – we all have you know… me, I retired from that sport 25 or so years ago at the top of my game – but Captain Kirk is one hellluva Bible thumper. And it’s cool. He also airbrushes T-shirts of Jesus for gang-bangers and two-headed women at circus sideshows and he’s obviously eaten far too many funnel cakes.  Oh, and he spends his free time and money going to Romania to help the orphans. Which is cool, in my mind, as my two children gave up their Romanian orphan status 15 and 18 years ago. 

There’s an ease when you get with old friends. If they were really good friends, the conversation just picks up where it left off. In our case, I think it was outside the house trailer where Tom lived in the green pastures at the edge of Ames while he was finishing vet school. I think they have skyscrapers in that trailer park now. If not, they should …..

A lot of things have happened, many of them bad, in the last 36 years. I’ve stood over bodies of dead kids and taken notes as well as written about escaped monkeys, war heroes, aliens and Cassius Clay. Tom has operated on the pets of movie stars as well as built what appears to be the top veterinary practice in the Western Hemisphere. He also runs marathons and curses at the maladies of age while pushing past the 26.2 mile-marker.  “I always add an extra two miles on just for fun,” he said. And he wasn’t joking.  He once did an extra 13.1 miles at the end of the Boston Marathon.

While our communication in person ended long ago, modern times, such as they are, enabled us to reconnect digitally and seemingly personally in a way that perhaps only Smokey Joe (another story) could have envisioned in a cloud of oily, black-cubed revelation decades ago…

We’d been communicating via Facebook for the last few years, so I knew what Carpy looked like: Just like Tom Carpenter with an older body encasing him.  Me, I look just the same as I did in the 1970s, though my hair is white and thinner and the curl is gone, my face is lined and drawn and punctuated by age spots, there are constant black circles beneath my eyes and my frame no longer shows the bloating of beer but instead shows age and decay.  If they cut me in half, they could count my rings and be surprised there are only 62. (“Thought the bastard was older than that,” they’d say, tsk-tsking while rolling the carcass into Hefty bags for curbside recycling.)

There’s no real reason to go into what Tom and I talked about. You wouldn’t understand.  Unless you are John Nitz. Leonard Sandholm. Captain Kirk (Terry Kirkwood). Jim Mraz (Jocko). Carpy. Champo (my college-era persona who didn’t take much morphing to become the OCD, free-loving, often depressed and crazed journalist hailed by the nether world as “Flapjacks”).   I guess Ben Sorenson, who abandoned his Chevette after driving it into a snow drift would understand.  I’ll never forget that Iowa blizzard, when Ben agreed to drive us to Tork’s for emergency supplies.  He left the road and the car disappeared – us in it – into a snowdrift. The blizzard erased any image of the car and the fact we had to crawl out the windows to escape.   “I’ll just leave it there and see if it’s still there in the spring,” said Ben.  We hitched a ride in the back of some hemp farmer's pickup. He was a kind old man who knew the Iowa State rolling team desperately needed to get to Tork's for supplies to outlast the storm. He brought us back to the dorm, too.    

Of course, you’ve – I hope – shared the experience of reconnecting with an old friend from the past and realizing they have been a part of you all through the years. Like grains through the hourglass, those were the days of our lives… Isn’t that how that dead guy with the cool voice pronounced the old soap opera?  

Tom and I are similar in so many ways. We have become devoted and stone-cold-sober family men. His kids are grown. Even has a couple of grandkids he dotes on and posts their pictures on Facebook.

Mine are making their way in life after a start that was rough, through no fault of anyone but a maniacal, cruel dictator who greeted the throngs by wearing used jockstraps on his head. I made that last part up. Ol’ Nicolae was left as dead as Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner when the Romanian people got done with him.

My kids came from orphanages in Romania, but they are as All-American as their pop. “Give Peace a Chance,” they sing when the network news comes on the television machine and Boris the Spider is ready to invade Ukraine. Hold it, that’s not Boris… it’s Vladimir Putin.

Tom and I have had many other friends in life. His are California runners and dog docs who go to the Final Four and run out at Joshua Tree and wager over golf at $1,000 a stroke (made that last one up).

My friends, for the most part, are News Brothers, some are dead and some are living.  Tony “Lying Sack of Shit” Durr and Harold “The Stranger” Lynch and Scott “Badger” Shelton among the former.  Okey “Skipper” Stepp’s also dead.  Jerry "Chuckles" Manley, Ricky G. "Dumbo" Moore, Jim "Flash" Lindgren, Frankie "Wuhm" White, David "Teach" Ross, Jim “Kentucky Fats” Monday (noted evangelist and hustler for God) and, most especially, my frequent book collaborator, Colonel Robert Stanley Dollar (“Death” News Brother) are among the living and I love them desperately. Future Nashville Mayor “StrawBilly” Fields was “whited out” – for awhile, anyway  – from that list when he failed to pay his dues by returning phone calls or e-mails from his friends who needed his help.  Probably better for his political future, as The News Brothers don’t like hacks and whores.  Come to think of it, I need to put his name back on that list. I love the big, old East Nashville “man of the people” (or man the size of many people).  He's just like so many other "friends" you only hear from when you call and they say "Damn, I've been meaning to call you.... So, you're still alive?"   

When the News Brothers get together, there is no time elapsed.

Of course, in the case of Rob and me, there really isn’t much time elapsed, as we talk in the shorthand of special friends frequently.  Soon we’ll be on our third book together, buoyed by the success of our first two and the overwhelming support of our friends.   

The shorthand of friendship is understood by so few, only the special ones who have shared life experience, who have loved us, who continue to do so.

Folks who know and celebrate our faults and our weaknesses with laughter and greet our few and meager successes with cheers.

Unfortunately, these folks are outnumbered in life by those who reply with self-righteous expletives when we just try to be ourselves, cynical warts and all, when reaching out for friendship and reassurance.

 It had been a long time since I saw Tom Carpenter, DVM, Orange County, California, a young man who long-ago admired my tie-dyed rolling jersey and later became the Duke’s veterinarian.

But as we forked into out breakfasts at Athens, it felt like any other Saturday morning in the early 1970s, when the rolling squad would regroup over breakfast before planning another day and night of serious study of the human spirit and other academic pursuits.

We were the benevolent Merry Men of Ames, Iowa, beloved at any all-night truck stop or biker bar.  We were fast on our feet and left good tips.    

When we stood by the old, white Saab at the end of our morning and reunion, I hugged Tom. He did so in return. I really didn’t want to let go, but he had pigs to castrate, or whatever the world’s top veterinarians do at these confabs.  The actual pig-castrating by the way came at the John Nitz homestead in Northwest Iowa, where a bunch of city boys were taught the cut-and-fry art by the local hog doctor 40-some years ago.

Actually Tom is more likely to be discovering the cure for feline leukemia than about anything else I can imagine. He’s that good of a fellow and vet.

Would we see each other again or is this the final chapter, the punctuation, the post script, one last roll through time with an old and steadfast friend?

Hell, Tom, if you’re out there, let’s get together again.  I just remembered the Viking Fest.

Were you there for that night when our guests – male and female -- tore into the roasted turkeys and then threw the naked bones – “Tom Jones”-style -- over their shoulders while filling glasses from an Everclear-spiked keg of Schlitz? We saved the Mad Dog 20/20 for the desert beverage?

Heck there are more tales to write. Thanks, Carpy. Your visit meant more to me than you can imagine.  

  (Note: The thing is that this is, for the most part, a true story, although time has played tricks on me.  There’s a hole in Daddy’s brain where all the memories go.)





Sunday, March 2, 2014

Why I almost 'went home' to Clarksville but didn't and other tales from the crypt

From my unpublished files comes this column I wrote at 6:29 p.m. December 3, 2011. At the time, the web site in Clarksville, Tennessee, was asking me to write a regular column for them. After all, I had won national honors for my column-writing and my editing when I “grew up” in Clarksville, spending 14 wonderful, smoke-and-booze and news-flavored years working for the state’s oldest newspaper. I had been trying to get my old employer, The Leaf-Chronicle newspaper, to pay me to do regular revisits to that city my heart never left. When that didn’t work out (details below), I approached Clarksville Online. Been courted by them, but that hasn’t worked out either. This was the sample column I wrote them, back when I was told they wanted me to write for them. But that never materialized. Nobody loves you when you’re down and out, I guess. But you might like reading this column, keeping in mind the twists-and-turns – professional and highly unprofessional -- of its history. ***********************************************

CLARKSVILLE, TENNESSEE -- Me ‘n’ old Skipper sat on a bench. It was hot in Clarksville. Boy was it hot. But it bothered me a lot more than it did Skipper. A guy who has spent his life wandering the high seas and the carnivals of the world is accustomed to discomfort.

The grammar was intentionally bad in the lead of my July 4, 1982, Clarksville Calling Card column in The Leaf-Chronicle newspaper.

And while I wrote of many people and places and things – most especially the people who call this wonderful old city home – during my 14-plus years at the newspaper, this one lead and the column that followed it remain dear to my heart.

At night, when I can’t sleep, I’ll often think of that day that I introduced readers to Okey Stepp, a dreamer and pal, a hard-smoking old fellow who had a dash of Kerouac mixed in his Zane Grey-meets-P.T. Barnum soul.

I’m not going to detail the adventures I had with Skipper here. If you’ve been around Clarksville for awhile, you’ll know that I wrote about Skipper perhaps a half-dozen times in my many years of writing Calling Card three times a week and a column I entitled “bits & tidbits” on Saturdays in the L-C.

Did a lot of writing about folks in Clarksville, from Little League to the grave to the Negro leagues and Babe Ruth’s most-vicious foe in the old newspaper that I called home all those years ago. My time at the L-C began when Gene Washer (remember him?) hired me to work for the sports department.

After a couple years I became sports editor, then assistant city editor, special projects editor and, beneath two steady hands – former managing editor Max Moss and then former editor Dee Bryant Boaz – I was associate editor for many years.

My six-days-a-week sports columns were what enticed the late Tony Durr, the editor in the early 1980s, to put me out there as general interest columnist, a long-haired public face of the paper. I loved that, as I loved the paper.

Still love Clarksville. I left to learn more about journalism, to live near an ailing mother and to make friends and write about the people of Nashville, another town I love. Not many places where a guy can make friends with Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, Captain Midnight, Louise Scruggs, Willie Nelson, Eddy Arnold, George Jones and Kris Kristofferson.

So I don’t regret that move at all. Love Nashville and my little home above a creek. A home, by the way, that was attacked viciously by the Great Nashville Flood of 2010. (Shameless self-promotion here: the story of that flood and its impact on me, my family and old pals Bob Dylan and Barack Obama may be previewed and purchased for your Kindle, iPad, iPhone or PC at

But this column isn’t about Nashville, necessarily. Nor is it about Clarksville, really.

It’s just my way of saying “hello again” to the Queen City of the Cumberland. I’ve never left you, at least not in my heart.

There’s not a thing that I’ve done since the rainy evening of February 1988 when I cleaned out my desk and carried the contents to the old Silver Beast (my oft-featured old Saab) that wasn’t in part shaped by my experience in Clarksville and at the state’s oldest newspaper.

Some of that love of people in Clarksville and Nashville, I hope, will be reflected in this new exercise for Hank Bonecutter’s Clarksville Online.

I’ve long wanted to “return” to Clarksville, to talk with all of my friends here and to make new friends. And I actually do sneak in, now and again, for a plate of flapjacks or just to wander the streets that still carry that delicious and musky river aroma.

Go to Guthrie, Kentucky, too, mainly to see my dear friend, Bill Longhurst, or visit the spirit of Kent Greenfield and his friend (and fan of my writing) Robert Penn Warren.

But I live in and love Nashville. So, this is an opportunity for me as a freelance writer to try “coming home” in this new digital venue.

Freelance? Didn’t I say I was gone to Nashville to learn and to have fun newspapering in that city? Actually, it was a pretty successful career. Until the hatchet-waving folks began to take control in so many parts of the economy, including my beloved industry. I’d only wanted to be a newspaperman ever since I was a kid.

That ended when I was “bought out” (nice term for being paid to be escorted to the door on Porter’s Alley) 4½ years ago, just ahead of the massive layoffs that have turned most newsrooms into echo chambers for dead men walking. Oh yeah, dead women walking, too.

I hope they keep walking a long time, by the way. Hold no ill will toward newspapers. Please allow me one more kiss before dying. It’s just that the lousy bastards didn’t want me anymore, which, of course, in Korporate Amerika remains their choice.

Anyway, a couple of years ago I approached the local daily here, my dear old L-C, about writing a column again, a slice of life, or even a sort of letter from Nashville, to the folks in my old “hometown.”

Wouldn’t have cost much, I reckoned. And perhaps readers might like it. Might even help circulation in an era when most newspapers are losing subscribers.

Don’t know if that’s true here. I hope not. I do know that back in February 1982, for one brief Sunday or maybe two, we went over 24,000. How that compares with today, I can guess, but I’ll not do that.

No need to go into details here as to why the L-C didn’t welcome me back as a correspondent.

Sometimes things don’t work out.

Enter old Sawbones… I mean Bonecutter … Hank called me a week or two ago -- we’d spoken a few times through the years -- about trying this out.

He’d seen Facebook pictures of me and some old friends, most of them folks who participated in newspapering when the old L-C rocked and rolled, enjoying flapjacks down at G’s, a frequent stop on early Sunday mornings in the 1980s.

Among our main missions on that recent visit to G’s and Clarksville was to spend time with an old and dear friend, Scott Shelton, who has been battling mightily, and with his wife, the lovely Elise, another comrade from the ink wars … though she escaped decades ago and now answers questions about school bells, snow days and pants on the ground from predictable media.

Those of you who know Scott know he’s been ill. But he’s a tough little badger. In any case, Hank, also a friend of Scott’s, sent me a note and wondered if I might begin writing occasionally for Clarksville Online.

He said I could write pretty much what I wanted to write about and he’d figure out if it is worth paying me anything. If you think you’ll visit this web page to read my meanderings, please let ol’ Hank know. Perhaps he’ll want me to keep doing it… and pay me more. Personal checks also are accepted.

So I thought I’d start this new and treacherous endeavor with a love letter to my old friend, Skipper, who would have been 100 Oct. 24. Long dead, his body donated to Vanderbilt, it’s been many years since you all “knew” him as the old fellow in the pocket T-shirt, smoking menthol 100s and waving from the bench outside the Royal York Hotel. I wanted to find out who this guy was, too, back in 1982, so I sat down on the bench and asked him. His nickname was “Red,” but he told me I could call him “Skipper.” It was the beginning of a special friendship.

I won’t go into the tales he told me or even detail our years of smiles and tears of friendship. But I do know that it made me feel good to have this old friend I could seek out for wisdom on the bench outside the old hotel. And he introduced me to others who lived there as well.

Some of them became column topics. Others became friends I’d drop in on if trying to escape the cold winter winds blowing down Third while bound for my car, the previously mentioned Silver Beast, that I always parked by what once was Pedigo Hardware.

And you folks showed your grace and gentility, as so many Queen City residents began to holler “Hey, Skipper!” as you turned off Madison onto Third and saw him on the bench. With a wave of his arthritis-gnarled hand, he returned the greeting, the kindness.

“Don’t know what you ever saw in an old skid row bum like me, Timmy,” he’d say. “But I’m glad you are my friend. And I never seen anybody who could drink as much coffee as you.”

Well, that was in my 40-cups-a-day prime, now whittled to six or seven. And the smokes I shared with Skipper, butts pitched in the street because that’s what you did back then, also are long gone.

Returning a second to the topic of my friend, Scott Shelton: His dad, the late Bill Shelton -- one of a corps of my “personal advisers” on column topics and news coverage – was a dear friend of mine. He also constantly lectured me about giving up the smokes, a newsman’s constant companion. Scott says he’d be proud of me for ending a 30-year habit more than a decade ago.

Still, the meeting with Skipper and the first few paragraphs of that column are forever with me, a constant reminder of the love for the old man and for this city.

In fact in the farewell column to Clarksville in 1988, I invoked that opening “boy was it hot” phrase.

And when Skipper died in the winter of 1992, I wrote a column about him for the old Nashville Banner, my first locale after leaving The Leaf-Chronicle.

And again I used the phrase. When the Banner died – a paper I truly loved for it was as local as a big-city newspaper could be – I finished the column with that phrase and its profession of love for an old man, a dead newspaper and a mortally ailing profession. I know this new “chapter” of writing in Clarksville could only last a week, months or years.

Regardless, it will be sort of a free-form a collection of thoughts, letters from Nashville, political and musical ponderings, memories of Clarksville and -- I hope -- antidotes to cynicism. To launch it, then, I need to remind folks of Skipper. Yes, this city has changed.

The old Royal York, a concrete monument to drifters and wandering souls, now is no longer. It is filled with apartments. And the bench also is long gone.

But the other day as I wandered down Third Street, bound for pancakes and laughter with my old friends -- Scott, Jerry Manley, Rob Dollar, Rick Moore, David Ross and Jim Lindgren -- I could not help but look at that vacant spot where me ‘n’ old Skipper sat on a bench.

I can’t remember too much else about that early July afternoon 29-plus years ago.

One thing for sure, though. It was hot in Clarksville. Boy was it hot.


(UPDATE: My dear friend Scott Shelton, who recently would have turned 60, died two years ago. I still miss him. Let it suffice to say, he didn’t go quietly and often complained to me about his mistreatment at the hands of furniture store owners, lawn-crossing kids and Republicans. Most of my other friends remain alive, for now. As do I. For what it’s worth. No one in Clarksville, the newspaper or the web site, ever began running a column by me again. And I thought this was pretty damned good, so, hell, I’m running it now. Love, Tim)