Saturday, June 13, 2015

All the chapel bells will ring for Jim Ed Brown ... friends remember the voice of a good fella

Note from Flapjacks: When Jim Ed Brown died the other night, I wrote a quick obituary for Reuters News Service. But in the process of gathering information, I had much more than they needed. Which was fine.  I thought someone else in Nashville may be interested in publishing this, but I was wrong. Been wrong before, so no big deal.  Well, I liked the guy. I didn’t know him as well as I know (or did know) some of the old school country musicians, but he was a kind gentleman with one helluva voice. If you are interested, his funeral is 10 a.m. Monday June 15 at The Ryman. Here is the obit no one wanted, but perhaps you may wish to read:  

 Jim Ed Brown didn’t live quite long enough to participate in his Country Music Hall of Fame induction set for this fall.

Brown, 81, a Grand Ole Opry star for more than a half-century and just elected to the Hall of Fame this year, died Thursday night at Williamson Medical Center in Franklin after a battle with lung cancer.

“He had class and style,” said his old friend (and mine) Bobby Bare Thursday night, voice cracking shortly after learning the news.

“He was not an Arkansas hillbilly. He had class and he had style and he had a great voice…. He was a real artist,” said Bare of his friend of more than 50 years.

Jim Ed Brown’s “class and style” showed through in the body of work he helped create since leaving behind his upbringing without electricity and conveniences on the family farm in Sparkman, Arkansas, where every Saturday night the Brown family would gather around a battery-powered radio to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on Nashville’s WSM-AM.

Bare said his earliest recollection of time spent with Brown goes back to 1963 “or somewhere in there. I remember we were doing a show somewhere down in Arkansas and I went with him to his mom’s house one morning and she cooked breakfast for us.”

Brown’s ability to mimic the voices of the stars – Hank Snow was his best – eventually got him into a talent competition at a radio station in Little Rock, Arkansas. While he didn’t win the contest, he and his sister Maxine were asked to appear again on the radio station, where their harmonies were developed and then sprung loose on their first  Top 10 Country hit, “Looking Back to See,” written by the duo.  Sister Bonnie joined to make it the trio that is being inducted into the Hall of Fame this autumn.

As The Browns, Jim Ed, Maxine and Bonnie had country hits with “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow, “I Take the Chance” and “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing” and their trademark hit, the glorious and honey-coated “The Three Bells.”

After the sisters retired Jim Ed Brown continued as a country hit-maker as a solo artist on singles like “Morning” and “Sometime Sunshine”  and his signature tune, “Pop a Top,” which later was a hit for classic country stylist Alan Jackson.  “Set ‘em up my friend….”

Brown also continued to make music as a celebrated duet partner with Helen Cornelius on a string of hits including their No. 1 country hit “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You.”

An Opry royal, Jim Ed really never stopped being interested in singing, and in 2013, Bare produced a single by Brown, “In Style Again.”  “I became a brand new fan of Jim Ed’s when I was in the studio,” said Bare Thursday night. “I’d forgotten how good he sang.”

That single then was used as the title track of an album put out by Brentwood-based Plowboy Records, which is run by Shannon Pollard, grandson of longtime Brown pal Eddy Arnold, who died in 2008 at the age of 89. (I loved Eddy Arnold. And Shannon’s a helluva guy, too.)

Shannon said Jim Ed’s  relationship with his grandfather dated back to the 1950s and included a joint appearance with The Browns at Carnegie Hall.

As for recording the new album in the summer of 2014 after a long absence from the recording studio, the Opry star “really wanted to do it,” said Pollard, adding “his voice was fantastic.”

Before he became desperately ill, Brown had planned to participate with Bare and some other veteran performers on one of the stages of this week’s CMA Music Fest in Nashville. “I knew three weeks ago that he wasn’t going to make it,” said Bare, adding the show would go on, but he’d miss those wondrous tones of his pal.

The Browns’ official induction into the Hall of Fame will come in October.  However, Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern, Hall of Famer and friend Bill Anderson and Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young visited the hospital June 4 to present him with a medallion commemorating his Hall of Fame membership.

“Fame is fleeting, hit records change every week, award show winners and nominees change every year, but being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame will be forever,” Brown said.

Pollard remembered that Jim Ed was mentored by his grandfather and visited Arnold regularly when the Tennessee Plowboy was hospitalized in his final days. 

As for Jim Ed’s decision to record again, label chief Pollard said “He knew we had the label that was up and running. He wanted to put more music out, and it worked out.”

He said the memories of Brown’s friendship with his grandfather made it doubly hard for him to accept that the singer had died.  It was like saying goodbye to his grandfather all over again, he allowed, sadly.

“We’ve been preparing for this for several days,” said Pollard. “I got to say my goodbyes to him and I was very honored that I was able to do that.

“He truly was an inspiration to me throughout this whole battle he fought.  He knew he was not leaving the hospital, but he still was trying to make everybody feel good.”                 
All the chapel bells will be ringing....

Monday, January 26, 2015

Now Ernie will urge them to play two in heaven

“Let’s play two!” the kind, old gentleman said to St. Pete the other day.

 Perhaps as some folks speculate, they always play doubleheaders in heaven…. I’ll probably never find out for a variety of reasons, the least of which is poor hand-eye coordination …. I know that on that slice of Chicago green called Wrigley Field that’s all  the gentle and genteel first baseman wanted.  Doubleheaders.

“It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two,” Ernie Banks would say often as he worked his bat (a slight enough guy, he did hit 512 homers), or whipped the ball around the infield as a shortstop and later a first baseman.

“Mr. Cub,” as he was known throughout baseball, died Friday night at 83 years of age.  I’m 63 now and the fact I can remember scores of games attended with Ernie at the plate or with his glove … and his smile …. Means I’m pretty old too….  More a relic of late fall than a boy of summer, for, after all …. Mr. Cub retired in 1971, almost 44 baseball seasons ago.

And I can remember like it was well, at least some hazy replica of yesterday (when all my troubles seemed so far away, etc.) when watching this almost dainty-footed ballplayer dance around the bases or throw across to Ronnie Santo at third to … most times … get some lousy Mets or Reds player out.  Rose wants to slide in head-first? Hit him in the face with your glove, Ronnie.

Wrigley Field has, of course, been deemed the trendy place to see ballgames in the last few decades. Except for the blasphemy committed when lights were installed, Wrigley’s sort of the pastoral, vine-walled diamond that time forgot and where the Cubs never really learned how to win.  For generations younger than mine, it is a great place to buy a $10 Old Style and a lukewarm hot dog and enjoy an evening without really caring who wins as long as your iPhone is charged.  These selfie-centered folks are there to be seen.

 Me, I rarely had time for the lukewarm hot dogs on those great spring and summer afternoons at Wrigley Field.  I was too busy keeping hope alive. It always was a beautiful day for a ballgame when I could stop by the players’ entrance on Waveland Avenue and get a greeting or a handshake from Ernie or from Ronnie.  Ferguson Jenkins (who spent some off-seasons with the Harlem Globetrotters). Billy Williams. Randy Hundley. Don Kessinger. Jimmy Hickman …

Remember the Twiggy Hartenstein-Don Drysdale pitchers’ duel on the front end of Billy Williams Day’s doubleheader? Perhaps the Koufax-Hendley rivalry a few years prior? Gotta love the Ghost, even if he was a denizen of Chavez Ravine.  

No need to sneak past armed security to ask for autographs, as these guys – in those wonder years of the pre-9/11 world – would stand among you and your buddies like human beings.

“Let’s play two!” we’d yell at Ernie as he arrived. Or as he left after the Cubs lost one. … Let’s play two. Get ‘em next time.

Hope. The final frontier, as far as I’m concerned.  Usually it is fruitless to hope.  But how could you not when this slender No. 14 with the seemingly oversized first-baseman’s mitt was around to spread optimism in the beautiful confines of Wrigley Field.

  It hurt when I learned that Ernie Banks had died Friday.  A lot. I mean, he was old and everything, but that single act assured one thing: The most-popular Cub of all time never would play in a World Series …. Or see his team play in one (depending on what the afterlife holds in store, of course).

Ernie almost made the World Series in 1969.  We all did. How many afternoons did Jimmy Hart and I climb into the old Falcon or take the train down to the neighborhood near Wrigleyville, park, walk a few blocks and pay $1.25 for a bleacher seat?

Left-field bleachers were not the territory of digital-technology millionaires and their arm-candy lackeys back then. It was where the guys went who loved the game but didn’t have a lot of money to spare.   

Another buck and half and you could, or at least so I was told, buy your first illegal beers at age 17. Or was that 14? No ID? No problem.  Or so I’ve been told.

It was back then that the Cubs were going to be World Series champions, almost destroying their myth.

There was no goat, Bambino’s ghost or anything to blame, but the Cubs always finished well down in the standings.  There was joy in Mudville… I mean Wrigleyville … that summer.  I’d go to the games to cheer my favorites, as in seasons past. But this was special.  Hope. Hell, they got it in the bag.  Don’t they?

Ronnie “Pizza Man” Santo -- with his heel-clicking dance to the locker room after yet one more Cubs victory – was really my all-time favorite boy of summer.   Jack Brickhouse, who like Santo and now Ernie is dead, was the announcer back in those pre-Harry Caray days.

“Hey hey and holy mackerel, no doubt about it, the Cubs are on their way,” he’d sing on WGN after each victory made it seem that the Wrigley dwellers finally were going to play well into the autumn of ‘69.  I’ve got that on 45 rpm around here someplace.

But, as the Mets proved by dismantling the Cubs’ near-insurmountable lead as the season waned, Ernie and Ronnie and the rest truly were Boys of Summer. Period. Not a single Mr. October among them.

 Disappointing, sure. But then so is life. And we learned to cope with that by being devoted fans of the North Siders.

Nowadays, of course, there also are a lot of fans who find it trendy to cheer for the more successful Chicago franchise, the South Siders, the White Sox.   For me, Comiskey Park was only a place to go if the Cubs were out of town.  Hell, I don’t even know what the name of the White Sox field is now.

I long ago lost track of my pal, Jimmy Hart, a year younger than me, but equally interested in sneaking off to the beach at Lake Michigan and puffing Swisher Sweets while sharing a pilfered-from-the-home-fridge Meister Brau.  We worked together that summer at the Park District – where I would try to get the Jeep to literally fly when I gunned it over the top of a hill.  Rat Patrol-style. If you’re old enough, you’ll understand that. If not, well, hell with it. Just read on.

A lot of our time also was spent lining the ballfields for Little League games. No Dixie Youth up there, folks.  I had not yet made the Land of Cotton my home.  It was a simple process back then.  You’d put spikes from where the corners of first were and the corners of second and third and down the foul lines to the home.  Then you’d tie string to each spike, to form a diamond.  And then use that string as your guide while rolling the little pail filled with lime around the field.

I think there are more precise methods now. But I have to admit that lining the fields was my favorite part of my park district job. That and driving the Jeep to the bakery for the daily donut run.  Two bucks an hour and all the donuts you could eat. A great way to live, partly because we went to work before 6 a.m. and got off in the early to mid-afternoon those summer days.  Those summer days…. Wrigley Field was perhaps 25 minutes away.

Catch the last few innings. There were no bastard lights at Wrigley back then.  Baseball was (is?) meant to be played in the sunshine.

That’s where Ernie would be, basking in the sun, a trickle of sweat on his brow, when he’d say “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two.”

I know that reality set in when that summer ended… prematurely … with the “Ya Gotta Believe” Mets -- led by singer Tim McGraw’s illegitimate father -- playing successfully through the autumn. The feat by gentlemanly Gil Hodges’ team helped prove that Leo “the Lip” Durocher was wrong. (Does anybody else remember how much fun it was to have “Nice Guys Finish Last” Durocher helming the Cubs while Eddie Stanky managed the Chisox?) Talk about kicked dirt and epic manager-umpire squabbles.  Screw you. Screw me blues.

 I was sad… as usual, I suppose… when the Cubs swooned.  

When that summer ended, I went off to college, to Iowa State University, where I studied hard and had a lot of fun.

Anyway, I was off on the great adventure of growing my hair and hanging out with National Guardsmen and radicals, attending Panther meetings and reading Muhammad Speaks.  Enjoying a late-night philosophic discussion with Allen Ginsberg after he performed most of “Howl” straight through, concert style at C.Y. Stevens Auditorium. Of course I had, as I pointed out, a fair amount of fun, especially at Tork’s. You had to be there when the call for quarters rang out at our table. Jocko. Titsy. Nardholm. Carpy. Dogshit. Schultzy. J-Dub. Eggman.Captain Kirk. Those were among my companions at various times over those years.   Uncle Moose usually had to go home on weekends to tend to the hogs.  Moose is dead now. I have remained in touch with Carpy. And Captain Kirk just sent me an airbrush T-shirt dedicated to a man we all know as “Flapjacks.”  Hear from Nardholm and Titsy’s wife occasionally.

Still, the days of the carefree summers when Jimmy Hart and I would go down to see Ernie Banks and Ronnie Santo play were done. Jimmy “had” to get married that fall. Back then that was what they said when a young woman and a young man made that life-changing “mistake.” Great girl. Great friend. Pretty baby.   Last time I heard from Jimmy he was a social worker in Tampa and his dad had a gas station in Winter Haven. Of course Jimmy was divorced.

So, by the time I got home the next summer, 1970, Jimmy Hart was folding diapers and I was on my own. A complete unknown. Letting my hair grow and hanging out backstage with Vanilla Fudge.  Sometimes shaving at least one side of my face.

Sure, there would be more stealthy trips to Wrigley, where pigeons always seemed to use me for target practice, before I uprooted common sense and made Nashville my forever hometown.  See me wasted on the sidewalk in my jacket and my jeans….to paraphrase my good friend Kris Kristofferson.  Or perhaps “once my future was shiny as the seats of my pants are today….” 

Still that summer of 1969, when the Cubs should have won it all, but faltered, remains among the best summers of my life. Partly it was because I could go see these ballplayers and shake their hands. Partly it was because of the optimism of seeing Billy Williams tag one to left field or Randy Hundley catching the fiery fastballs of Ferguson Jenkins.

Partly it was because it was the summer after I graduated from high school and I’d already been dumped by the girl I took to prom. I didn’t know she had a boyfriend who was away at college. So it was kind of a shock to go to her house the week after I graduated, three weeks after we saw Modern Jazz Quartet on Rush Street after the dance was ended, to see the boy friend. (Yes, that was a good thing. That cunning cheerleader became a high-profile, Bush-appointed Republican judge in Florida, so I think our ideologies would have separated us anyway.)   I mean, all I was saying was Give Peace a Chance. Still am saying that, you know.

What that previous paragraph means, I’m not sure. Perhaps it was just that it was during that summer, that wondrous time of hope, I had to come to terms that life offered a box of chocolates filled with caramel hope and red cream despair. 

The summer of 1969 was when reality began to settle in. When the optimism of Mr. Cub almost was realized.  Emphasize “ALMOST.”

It was Woodstock and ‘Easy Rider’ and an era when I was glad I was going to be a college student and wouldn’t have to join big strong men in Vietnam.  "Lay down your books and pick up a gun, we’re gonna have a whole lot of fun," Country Joe McDonald would tell me on my record machine.  The future is plastics, the fat guy told Benjamin Braddock.

I went 1A in the draft after the first “lottery.”  I felt safe, but still war threatened my quiet world of academia (as some might define my rambunctious years). Later in life when I needed something to make me feel better, I always have cheered for the Cubs and believed in hope and dreams. 

I mean it. I still do.

 Ernie Banks always said: “It’s a beautiful day. Let’s play two.”

He’d also say: “Wait ‘Til Next Year.”

Hope always stands a chance as long as this great man, Number 14, brings out his bat and occupies … momentarily at least…  a portion of my mental bank of memories. 

Now he’s dead.  Hell. Let’s play two.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Saluting and thanking Miss Dixie, songwriter, journalist, wife of Tom T., damn fine woman

“Tim, you are one of us. It’s OK,” she would say. Or words to that effect on the occasion when I would call or visit Fox Hollow.
It was a great compliment to be considered “one of us” by Dixie Hall, Miss Dixie, the fantastic songwriting wife of songwriting genius and soft artistic soul Tom T. Hall.

It has been awhile since I saw Miss Dixie, who was 80 when her long battle with a brain tumor ended Friday.
I knew she was ill and often wanted to call the house to, if nothing else, offer reassuring words to Tom T., a guy I love as a musician, artist and as a human being.

I was advised against that, as there was no joy out there in Fox Hollow and the man who sang of “Old dogs, children and watermelon wine” and so many greater tales was having enough trouble without having to deal with a run-out-of-the-newspaper-business journalist …
Although he has on many time asked me to join him for Old Farts Movie Days. Ralph Emery, Tom T. Hall, Bobby Bare (I think) and others go to the matinees to see movies their wives didn’t want to see.  “We like action movies,” Tom T. would tell me.

By the way, I am always flattered when Tom T. tells me I am a part of his collection of “Old Farts.” 
Kinda the equivalent of Miss Dixie’s referring to me as “one of us.”

Show people, artistic people, good people, guys who like watermelon wine, banjo pick “The Beverly Hillbillies” or dress in black…. Those were the ones she was talking about. Including an old newspaperman.
A lot of them are gone now.

So’s Miss Dixie. Probably trying to organize a bluegrass band in the after-life. Uncle Josh. Earl. Lester, Monroe … get ready, cause this lady loves to make bluegrass music. Hell, Hartford, get your fiddle prepped.... 
My first adventure with her was long, long ago. Tom T. – who I admire more than most people – had pretty much retired, as country music fans were beginning the transition from loving songs of near-literary substance to loving songs about pickup tracks, pretty butts, barbecue stains on white t-shirts and beer.

Not that Tom T. doesn’t like beer. He also likes bourbon in the glass and grass, you know.
Anyway, years ago Miss Dixie ran an animal rescue shelter down in Franklin. I can’t remember the name of it now. And it really doesn’t matter. Was it “Animal Land?” Doesn’t matter.

She was as much an advocate for the lost and discarded four-legged friends back then as say Emmylou Harris has become recently. Dixie gave up her soapbox years ago.
But back then, when there was a good newspaper in Nashville, I wrote a regular column called Real Life for the Nashville Banner.  

I was state editor for many years there, charged with overseeing the collection of news from outside Nashville as well as state government and U.S. government coverage.  After that period, I became features/entertainment editor to give that department a little more news edge.
But during all my 10 years at the old Banner, I wrote that column that appeared on the local front for many years before transitioning over to the Lifestyles front.

The premise was simple: Everybody has a story, we’re more alike than different, we share the same hopes, dreams and fears, no matter our religion, skin tone or preference when it came to life and distilled spirits (threw that one in for Tom T.)   
Basically, I’d wander around the city and the Midstate and just drop in on people, sit with them, get them to share their stories with me so I could share them with readers.

But I didn’t just drop in on Miss Dixie. Back then she was still running that animal shelter and she and her friends made jams and preserves to sell to help support the shelter. She also had an annual Christmas at Fox Hollow “open house,” where people could make contributions to tour the comfortable home on the side of a hill in Northern Williamson County, a home  dressed up in its holiday finery.
I decided a column about Miss Dixie and her animal shelter fund-raisers was something I wanted to do, so I called her house – back then you could actually call country stars at their homes without going through handlers – and asked if I could come out.

It was my first trip out there. I’ve been several times since. Most of what I remember, for after all I am an “Old Fart” and hence have the privilege of not remembering things clearly, was that when I drove up the hill to the house, Tom T. Hall – one of my wordsmith heroes – was driving a tractor, tilling the soil. Well, actually I think he was cutting the grass (he likes grass, remember?)
He had one of his dogs on his lap, presumably helping him steer. 

I finished the long uphill drive and pulled up behind the wonderful home – not an estate, but a home, a place where good people live – where they lived.
The shed where she made her jams and preserves was across the parking area from the house. In her later years, she and Tom T. used this space for their bluegrass music adventures. They both wrote fine bluegrass songs and encouraged other bluegrass performers to come there and record.  Being a bluegrass performer seldom equals being wealthy. So if bluegrass performers were out there recording, they also had a place to stay.

Courtesy of Miss Dixie and Tom T. 
Some of those musicians were/are friends I’ve made over the years and they always bragged on the generosity of Fox Hollow.

In any case, I spent most of a day with Miss Dixie back then, stopping for awhile to visit with Tom T. when he finished his tractor driving for the day and prepared to settle in for a nap.
Tom T. is known for writing some of the greatest songs in country music history.  He also is known as a guy who likes to go to bed early and get his rest so many years after experiencing the midnight, after-show bitter cold of places like Des Moines, Iowa, while he was a touring troubadour.

Apparently I made a decent impression, for years later, when I was working at a much-lesser newspaper (that still sort of exists) and in charge of entertainment coverage, I went with my entertainment writer Peter Cooper to help cover the funeral of June Carter Cash.
June, it should be noted if you don’t know already, was the daughter of Dixie’s all-time favorite woman, Mother Maybelle Carter, the guitar-slinging matriarch of country music.  As I walked into the church narthex to go inside the sanctuary and cover the funeral.  I saw Tom T. and Dixie standing against the wall.

I went over to re-introduce myself, as I’m basically nobody, but she stopped me in mid-sentence.  “Tim, you’re one of us. I know you.”
It was the same service at which I had to choose between greeting Robert Duvall (“hey, consigliere, how ya doin’?”) or Billy Joe Shaver.

Billy Joe has told me frequently in years since that I made the wrong choice by picking him, but I had to remind him that even though I spoke with him, I eventually shook hands with Duvall, who I still mentally associate with a bloody horse’s head in the bed of a Hollywood big shot. If you’re not a Godfather fan, you don’t get that. But that’s OK.
This is so much rambling here as memories flood back.  Miss Dixie and I only crossed paths a few times in the years since, but she always reminded me “you’re one of us” – which made me feel special, especially since the dues to join the rest of them was simply to be a bit artistic and have some soul.

Years later, she convinced Tom T. to take me down to the barn where he did his oil painting and he and I didn’t talk much about music. Mainly brush strokes.
Dixie also became one of those people I’d call when someone in the music business died. If she didn’t know the person well, she knew who and where I should call for information.

This is not really a portrait of “Miss Dixie,” but rather a sort of rambling lamentation, reflections of the few times I was around this generous woman (and her brilliant husband of 46 years).
The last time I guess I had a long conversation with her came in March of 2012, when Earl Scruggs died She had been a great friend of Earl’s and of his late wife, Louise. (Louise, by the way spent most of one day helping me track down Bob Dylan … “If anybody can get him, I can,” she said, when I said I wanted to get his reflections on the day that Johnny Cash died.) I loved Louise, too.

I never heard from Dylan.  But Louise kept calling me to tell me she was on the hunt.
Anyway, this isn’t a story about that day. It is a story about now, the first day after “Miss Dixie” finally succumbed to her long battle with a mortal enemy within her.

When I heard she had died, I knew that it was a precious release from pain and agony for her. But I also knew that this particular bright spot along my 40-year-long and well-rutted road as a journalist was gone.
I hadn’t bothered her or Tom T. in recent months. That was on the advice of Peter Cooper, who became one of their truly close friends.

But I thought about it, about them and about her often.
“Tim, you’re one of us,” she would say.

That simple phrase is enough to make a washed-up Old Fart feel pretty special.

Rest in Peace, Miss Dixie. You were one of us.