If it’s Halloween, it must be time for Christmas movies

By Anita Garner

Starting the last weekend in October we’re reminded again that in Christmas movies small town living always works out best, that city people are driven and can’t put down their phones, and a holiday movie will help everyone change for the better.  This is my annual Christmas movie post.  It doesn’t really require updating because some things don’t change, but here are a few details to watch for.

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Hallmark and Lifetime Christmas movies have started.  You can still get a snack without pressing pause and you won’t miss a major development.  Thank goodness.  Our favorite plots are all still there, faithful in every detail.  Here are some things that happen in every  Hallmark Christmas movie.

1945 movie, Christmas in Connecticut. Not a Hallmark movie, but worth noting that the plot features a famous entertainer forced to learn to decorate a Christmas tree without wearing flannel.

Today’s movies acknowledge that expensive clothes could be ruined in the weather. So we get beautiful and country-fied cold weather wardrobes.

Stylish coats and mittens and scarves are crucial to the plot.
We’ve come a long way.

All this unfolds in a charming cabin or an inn. Oh but there are problems in the country too. The heating at the inn might quit or the owner is days away from eviction. Worse yet, the visitor from the city is actually a scout from some big, cold-hearted company that plans to change things.

As these movies move along, cell phones are thrown away, big job offers are turned down, snow storms create white-outs that bring commerce to a halt, forcing our hero or heroine to slow down and learn some Christmas lessons; how to toast marshmallows, trim a tree.

There will be baking, and flour may be tossed around in a getting-to-know-you romantic way. Hands will meet over cookie cutters.

Everyone is happier wearing plaid.

Turns out people in the little town are the kindest, most generous folks anyone’s ever met. Our main character falls in love with the town and also with a former sweetheart who stayed there all this time and is miraculously single.

It’s happening again right now. Christmas movies with happy endings.  Fine with me. I like my holidays predictable.

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Country Music Connections

By Anita Garner

We’re still talking about Ken Burns Country Music on PBS. People who know about The Glory Road asked, so I’m answering questions about my family’s music and how our history fits into the decades depicted in the show.

Early in the series Ralph Peer set up recording equipment in the South and pickers and singers came down from the hills to start a  country music revolution. Ralph Peer connects to our family in more than one way. (See  below.)

In the early episodes there’s shape-note singing, taught in small country churches and sponsored by sheet music salespeople. Daddy (Brother Ray) was there, sent with his brothers and sisters by his Mama, who insisted everyone in their house would carry a tune.

Governor Jimmie Davis, Louisiana’s Singing Governor, was already famous for You Are My Sunshine when  he recorded a song Mother (Sister Fern) wrote.  He was responsible for the earliest acknowledgement of her songwriting.

Johnny Cash heard Jimmie Davis sing I Was There When It Happened on the radio in the early 50’s and learned the song to please his mother.  When my Mother wrote it, the deal she was offered to get it published was to sell half the copyright to Governor Davis, whose publisher was Ralph Peer. Today our family still shares the copyright with Peer Music.  Johnny continued to record and perform the song throughout his career. (See link below.)

When Johnny auditioned for Sun Records, he and the Tennessee Two, Marshall and Luther, sang the song for Sam Phillips who, it turned out, didn’t want to record any gospel. This story appears in the movie, Walk The Line. Marshall Grant, one of the Tennessee Two, wrote a book about his time with Johnny and titled it with Mother’s song.  His book, I Was There When It Happened, is still available, I believe.  Through the movie I met Dan John Miller, talented actor/singer/musician, who played Marshall in Walk The Line.  Dan John was kind enough to play Brother Ray at a Los Angeles reading of my play.

Nashville’s A Team, fabulous studio musicians, played on Sister Fern’s recording sessions at Owen and Hal Bradley’s Quonset Hut in Nashville.  When I was writing my book and musical, Hal was still playing sessions, and was President of Nashville Musicians Union.  He was generous with his time and advice.

Mac Wiseman, bluegrass star, introduced Mother to Randy Wood, President of Dot Records, where she got her own recording contract.

The Joneses made their records later in the 50’s and their music mostly falls into the rockabilly/Southern Gospel sound, but Daddy kept his hill country/high lonesome tenor.  He married it with Mother’s blues wail and honky tonk attitude while they sang songs about Jesus.  When their music was re-mastered and released by Numero Group in 2005, some of the earliest fans came from progressive radio and college radio stations who’ve embraced roots music all over again.

I’m glad the series was produced during a time when so many of the people who played significant roles were still around to tell their stories in their own words.  Sadly, we’ve lost several of these pioneers since the show began filming.   Praise is due Ken Burns and co-producers, Julie Dunfey and Dayton Duncan.  I’m in awe of Dayton’s writing. He’s a beautiful storyteller.  And of course there’s no voice like narrator, Peter Coyote’s.

Park Hill is the mansion Ralph Peer owned in the Hollywood Hills.  My daughter, Cathleen, later worked for Peer Music (with Ralph Peer Jr. in charge) while I was on the air at KBIG radio just around the corner. Here’s one view of the Peer mansion.  Tucked away in and around the estate are guest houses, a grotto, and Monique Peer’s (Ralph Sr.’s widow) prize camellias.  Lots of camellias.  This magnificent estate housed the headquarters of the publishing company.

Here’s where Cath sat at her desk, inside the entryway, writing the company newsletter.

Peer Music represents all the works of the man who some say started it all – Jimmie Rodgers.  Daddy revered him and Cath arranged for her Grandpa Ray to have copies of all Jimmie Rodgers’ recordings.

Here’s Johnny Cash singing Mother’s song, I Was There When It Happened, at Town Hall Party in Los Angeles.  Click the picture for the video

Here’s Mother, singing, Keeps Me Busy, a song from the Numero Group album, Fern Jones The Glory Road recorded with Nashville’s A Team.  Click the picture to listen.I wrote a story, Hank Williams Was A Friend of Mine, which won several awards, including a Marin County Arts Grant.  The friendship in the title refers to Daddy, who prayed for Hank every day. I’ll post it here one day.

For years I was a voiceover (V/O) for KCET-TV, PBS for Southern California.  Once in a while I got to say things like “Coming up tonight, Ken Burns’ (fill in the name of any of his films.)”

And one almost-connection.  I lived in Mill Valley, California for years.  In that very small town I often spotted fellow Mill Valley resident, Peter Coyote, actor/narrator, and I always meant to say, “Nice job on the Ken Burns (fill in the name of the show)” but I never did.

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Ken Burns Country Music. Wasn’t that a time!

By Anita Garner

I gobbled up all eight episodes of Ken Burns Country Music along with countless other fans watching to see what we’d hear about our favorites.  I’m among a huge population of transplanted Southerners all over the world watching and making connections between the music and the writers and performers and the places in our hearts

As soon as the first episode aired, I began to hear from people asking how this telling of country music history connects with The Glory Road and the music my family recorded during some of the times depicted in the series. In every episode, there are people and places and songs and trials and triumphs connected to my parents’ own musical history

The Joneses in The Hollywood Reporter when The Glory Road play came out right after “Oh Brother Where Art Thou.” 

Brother Ray and Sister Fern’s Southern Gospel and country music are part of the same family.  If country music is a place, The Glory Road runs through it.  If country music is a community, they’re next door neighbors.  It’s all one big, colorful quilt.

There’s much about this in my book, but until that comes out, I’ll put some of the pieces together and in a couple of days I’ll post specifics.

 

The Glory Road goes to University of Alabama Press!

By Anita Garner

I believe the phrase used in publishing is, “has been acquired by.” The phrase I’m using is, I’m thrilled!

It feels exactly right to have our family’s deeply Southern stories published by an outstanding University in the Deep South. Here’s a quote about the Press from Authors Guild and BuzzFeed last week.

“University presses have long been key in the literary ecosystem when it comes to issuing original, risky work, and ’Bama’s is one of the most innovative.”

I’ll update details as I know them, date of release, etc.  Publishing takes a while. There’s the final edit we’re working on now, then design, then all the technical parts.

My editor, Pete, has, as Daddy would say “a heart for the piece.”  He’s part of a team who respect the material and are excited about introducing The Glory Road to readers all over the world.

Gratitude for saints and angels who steer a writer’s projects in the right direction.

 

1950’s picnic on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

Nita Faye Jones & Reverend Raymond Jones
Birthday picnic at Narrows Dam, Arkansas, 1952

This picture represents groundbreaking, earth-shattering, modern behavior for our family.  I see wax paper and store-bought, sliced bread. We didn’t purchase either of those items often. Most of our everyday, carrying-around lunches traveled in brown sacks with contents wrapped in brown paper like the butcher used, so the rustle of wax paper meant excitement for Jones kids, no matter what it held.

We made our own bread at home:  Two kinds of biscuits, some for breakfast and another skillet of “cathead” biscuits to be sliced and used for sandwiches.  The name came from their size – “big as a cat’s head.”  Cornbread was cooked later in the morning and Daddy usually finished off the last of it at night, crumbled into a tall glass of cold buttermilk.

Daddy had no truck with store-bought food but Mother was my ally on this occasion. Because it was my birthday, and because she loved it too, she persuaded him to buy a loaf of “light bread” and a jar of smooth-whipped pimento cheese spread instead of our usual homemade kind.  Our other everyday sandwich staples were baloney or sizzled ham. Daddy fried them and tucked them into cathead biscuits and that’s what Leslie Ray and I carried to school.

Some of the unwrapped parcels of wax paper on this picnic table held big wedges of pie, which Mother baked in the middle of the night while she worked on writing her songs.

Soda pop was allowed when we traveled and for special occasions, but there was no stinting on the everyday intake of caffeine and sugar in our house. That snazzy thermos jug on the table was filled with Daddy’s sweet tea.  He made pitchers of it every day, stirring in gobs of sugar while the tea was warm.  We also drank jars of lemonade sweetened with simple syrup.  A slender thermos just out of sight held Mother’s very strong, very sweet coffee which went everywhere with her.

The expression on Daddy’s face here is probably because he was caught mid-chew, but it could also mean, I’m eating this store-bought stuff because it’s your birthday, but tomorrow it’s back to real life.

Note the preacher at a lakeside picnic in the Arkansas piney woods is wearing a dress shirt and tie.  That was also part of our real life.  Soon after our meal, we’d pack up the car, he’d drop us off at home, then he’d head out to spend hours calling on members of the congregation who needed him.

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Dinner on the grounds – Ambrosia on The Glory Road.

By Anita Garner

Desserts from the church ladies

Homemade food was a  highlight of every All Day Singing With Dinner On The Grounds. Tables were made of planks laid over sawhorses then covered with oilcloth, then the rows of sawhorse-tables were loaded with every Southern specialty from the best home cooks in the world.

At the end of many of these tables were stools that held washtubs filled with tea with big blocks of ice floating on top and tin dippers attached with string to the handles.

Find a picture.  Find a story.  If that’s not a rule, maybe it should be. I’m surrounded by boxes and files and albums and scrapbooks.  It’s the backbone of much of what’s becoming The Glory Road., the stories, the stage play and now the book.  A photo turns itself into a scene.

That’s Mother (Sister Fern) on the left in this picture. She’s changed from her performing dress made of clingy jersey into something cooler, and she’ll change back again after dinner, the midday meal in the Deep South. She’s  probably complimenting that church lady next to her on her fine contribution to this bounty.

I was off in search of my favorites.  Somebody mistakenly put Ambrosia over there on a table with all the fruit salads when to my mind Ambrosia was a world apart from ordinary food. It was the Alpha and Omega,  the beginning and end of every dinner spread laid out at every Singing, every Revival, and every Sunday afternoon potluck at every stop on Route 66.

Mother was partial to Jell-O and she’d choose from a whole table full of it, some of it made in intricate molds, some studded with fruits, and other bowls of the red and green and orange jiggly stuff were filled with mysterious chopped items. She loved them all.

Leslie Ray headed for the chicken wings, the potato salad, then the table with all the breads – biscuits, risin’ rolls and cornbread. Daddy piled up a plate with  barbecue and beans. He wandered the grounds balancing his plate and a Dixie cup of sweet tea, in search of the cook responsible for his favorite barbecue. Reverend Raymond Jones could talk beans with anybody til closing time.  One of us had to hunt him down when it was time for the family to be back onstage.

Find an old photograph. Write some notes.  I don’t want to miss a memory.  They’re gifts that come and go when they please.

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Sending a child to do a grownup job on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

Brother Ray Jones and Nita Faye 1950’s

They had me singing on the radio in Columbus Georgia at the age of 3.  No adjustable microphone.  I stood on chairs or sometimes boxes or crates stacked up in front of a tall boom microphone. The mic faced the disc jockey/announcer/sometimes station owner operating the controls on the other side of the glass.

By the time I was 7 or 8, Daddy chose a new repertoire for me, deciding which songs would help him put across the message he was about to preach.  He taught me to sing  one of his favorites, a song with dramatic lyrics and a big buildup.  From the start it didn’t feel like something I’d ask a little girl to sing, but I performed it for years because he asked me to.  In this picture from the 1950s I’m singing “Then Jesus Came.”  Daddy’s playing steel guitar over there beside me, every now and then saying “Yes Lord” the way people in our churches worshipped out loud.

I didn’t get the full story told in this song until I heard George Beverly Shea sing it on one of Billy Graham’s early radio shows.  Then I thought, that’s how it’s supposed to sound and announced to Daddy I didn’t want to sing it anymore.

Here’s a version I like. This is Larry Wayne Morbitt, singing at a Gaither Gospel show. Larry toured with Phantom of the Opera and to my mind, his is the voice this story requires.

Look closely at the front of the pulpit in the picture.  Mother had just completed one of her chalk drawings (See previous blog) which would be auctioned off at the end of the service.

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It’s competitive out there on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

This publicity photo was taken in the early 1950’s as religion was becoming entertainment. Not all of these instruments belonged to our family’s basic traveling unit.  Some did, but others were added at different stops as musician friends joined us all over the South.

As we toured, we performed on the radio, in churches, in auditoriums, in theaters and under revival tents and as The Joneses’ popularity grew, the same thing was happening with other musical evangelists.

We’d roll into town and someone would show us the publicity flier from the last evangelist who came through. Disc jockeys at radio stations told us who played and what they sang and how they were received.

Mother was in charge of our publicity.  She handled it in an amazingly efficient way from the front seat of our big old sedan.  Occasionally we updated our photos, which were turned into wood cuts she mailed ahead for printing purposes.  She designed our fliers in advance of appearances, then as soon as we arrived in town, she talked with sponsoring organizations about whatever changes were required.

As I’m organizing photos from those years, I happened on this one, used for promotional ads in newspapers, and in programs and fliers and storefront posters.  See that picture on the easel on the right? That’s a chalk drawing done by Mother during the course of an event.  Yes, that was considered a legitimate attraction and several other evangelists did the same.

An announcer would say, not only is Sister Fern about to sing for you, but she will also put a blank canvas right up there on that easel, where she’ll create one of her unusual chalk drawings while you watch.  Music would play.  Those who’d  seen this performance before reached for their billfolds and purses.  The drawing would be auctioned to the highest bidder and  proceeds would go back into the community, into the hands of whomever booked us there.

I haven’t seen one of her creations for years now, but perhaps some of them still exist in homes somewhere along Route 66.

 

 

 

Our big surprise on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

Nita Faye Jones in the early 50’s.

We were in the Arkansas piney woods near Narrows Dam, which had just been built to harness the Little Missouri and Ouachita Rivers, creating Lake Greeson.  There were all kinds of fish for Daddy and Leslie Ray, pimento cheese on white bread and longneck bottles of Pepsi for Mother and me.

Daddy had been trying to convince Mother to settle down in a small town where he would pastor a church and tend his flock, but it was her calling we followed for years, performing, traveling the Deep South, singing, packing up instruments, moving on and doing it all over again.

One morning on the way to Hot Springs, Daddy said we were only visiting the Singing today because Mother had a new song she’d written and by tonight we’d return to our new house.

A few months back we’d moved into the parsonage where in the vacant lot between the house and the church our lives changed.  A freshly planted garden grew alongside Leslie Ray’s rabbit pens and pigeon cages.  We had a chicken coop and a giant weeping willow tree with branches fluttering almost to the ground, creating a cozy space I claimed as a playhouse.

A few steps from these homey installations in no more than a minute we could be at church, then turn around and go the other way and walk to school.  Such convenience was previously unknown, and this was clearly how we were meant to live. Not in a car.

Our town was country all the way from the outer edge where a road led to a creek and back in the other direction to the cluster of buildings around Courthouse Square.  It was nothing like the bustle of Texarkana where we kept an apartment as headquarters while we traveled.

Soon it was apparent our settling down might have something to do with Mother’s changing wardrobe.  Instead of the slinky jersey dresses with the sweetheart necklines, she was sewing cotton tops with an abundance of fabric in the front.

Here’s what you don’t see in the picture up there – the real reason we stopped touring for a while.  We got us a baby who also seemed to enjoy life among the pines.

 

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Churning – Unusual Rebellion on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

By the time my brother was 13, he was getting slippery about his comings and goings.  His moods were unpredictable and he was nearly impossible for our parents to deal with.  His new weapons were anger and silence.  I envied him all that barely-contained rage.

For a while, Leslie Ray used his paper route for freedom. If he was late for church, he said the papers arrived late. Sometimes  he skipped church altogether, a sin for a preacher’s boy, according to Daddy, and instead he went door to door collecting on his route.  Freedom from Sunday School lasted only until Daddy set up other collection times. I wanted to be just like Leslie, brave and bold. So far the best I’d come up with was moping.  When things went wrong, I was the sad one.  He was the mad one.

This is not the face of a happy boy.

 We were interpreters for each other.

“What’s your sister crying about now?”

“Nothing.  She just cries sometimes.”

Not eloquent, but given that he always knew exactly what I was sad about, it was his attempt to let me keep secrets too.

“Where’s your brother?”

“Don’t know,”

I was a fairly competent liar myself by then and getting better at it all the time. Saying “I don’t know,” when in fact I did know, was necessary to keep them from engaging in a line of questioning that might have exposed Leslie Ray’s present sanctuary.  I assumed part of his enjoyment was derived from keeping them guessing.

We never tattled on each other.  Exercising an instinct shared sometimes by children born close together, we helped each other avoid incrimination.  We were dedicated to maintaining the dividing line between Them and Us.

Leslie practiced brinksmanship, magically reappearing just before a situation required someone to go hunt for him.  His arrivals back home were cut so close, he entered the house a cartoon character accompanied by screeching, braking sound effects.  Contrary to Daddy’s suspicions, my brother was not, at the present time anyway, doing anything our parents would consider sinful, but his history of misdeeds kept them alert to all possibilities.  I wished just once without jeopardizing Leslie’s privacy, I could say,

“Go ahead, ask me that again.  Ask me  ‘Where’s your brother?’ so I could answer,

“Churning.”

Churning for Sister Coker.  That’s where he was at least once a week. Churning and listening to the radio in the Cokers’ kitchen and chatting with the family while maneuvering their old wooden churn paddle into a happy slap, glug, slap glug rhythm that turned milk from their cows into butter.  Which was a surprise at first because he was impatient, full of energy, never could sit still, and everyone knows churning takes time.  It’s repetitive.  I never lasted a whole churn’s worth, but Leslie could sit there all night swooshing that dasher around.

Spending time at the Cokers’ house was never forbidden.  They were among our most faithful church members, and their farm was one of the places we were welcome any time we could slip away. That’s why it was so odd and somehow more fascinating that Leslie Ray kept his time with them a secret.

Just down the road from our parsonage, on the way to the creek, was the Cokers’ place, where a humble farmhouse boasted a wide front porch that welcomed a steady flow of neighbors.

Sister Lastena Coker with our Baby

Sister Coker was sometimes a little absent-minded but she continued to absorb information even while seemingly in a trying-to-remember state so you didn’t want to underestimate her, because she could drop a cogent remark into a conversation when you least expected it.  You had to let yourself stay relaxed about whichever state you found her in.  She was always occupied with the farm and family and church and always offered the world a kind demeanor.  She said, about most any problem,

“Everything will work itself out directly.”

She repeatedly misplaced one or another of her favorite butter molds and when Leslie Ray showed up ready to churn, she first dispatched him to help her get everything rounded up again.

“Leslie Ray, climb up there and see if you can find that one that’s shaped like a rose. That was my mama’s favorite.  I want you to see it.  Be careful now.  Use that ladder.”

He was already on the counter, part monkey, part growing boy, and was feeling around at the very top of the cabinets where somebody, probably Sister Coker herself, kept stacking up the old, prized butter molds, and when the stack tumbled, some of them lodged in odd spaces. Leslie said,

“Here it is! It slipped down back there.  We better fix that shelf.  It’s pulling away from the wall. You got a hammer handy?”

She answered with another subject.

“Now what’d I do with that dasher?”

From his perch up on the counter, he performed a quick scan and spotted it.

“It’s over yonder. You probably took it out to clean it.”

He came back home to our parsonage carrying his handmade and quite artistic fresh butter, acting like the Cokers had made it and asked him to give it to their pastor.

Daddy was an appreciator of everything homemade and he thought Sister Coker was responsible for the recent abundance of beautiful butter on our table.  He called to Mother,

“Doll-Baby, c’mere and look at this butter Sister Coker made.  This one’s shaped like a rose.”

Leslie delivered butter to us every few days and we spread it on warm biscuits and didn’t even bother with preserves, the butter was that good. Not once did my brother reveal himself as the maker of this bounty.

When Daddy thanked Sister Coker for the butter, she said,

“Oh Leslie Ray’s such a big help,” and her statement rolled right on into that great ball of Southern church-speak where people say nice things they think someone else wants to hear, so Daddy thought Sister Coker was just complimenting him on his very trying son’s behavior.

Leslie’s secret would have been uncovered if Sister Coker had ever once said something more specific like “He’s so helpful with the churning,” or “So sweet the way he makes butter every week,” but the words never happened to fall that way into a conversation, so nobody was telling a lie.

While we lived in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, my brother spent as much time as he could with that family, helping them at butchering time, working in their garden whenever he wasn’t required to work in ours and finding something there that he needed, something more important than just being able to disappear now and then.  Leslie Ray needed to be in charge of something. The Cokers let him.

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