Storybook House on The Glory Road

A song can change everything.  At a crucial point in childhood, an Oklahoma pastor and his wife introduced my brother and me to new thinking about what was and wasn’t a sin, and the lesson came with a Broadway soundtrack.

Reverend and Mrs. Franks –  Sayre, Oklahoma, 1950

Sayre  was a convenient stop on Route 66 between our revivals in Amarillo and Oklahoma City.  When we were there we didn’t stay in a motor court, the way we usually did. There was plenty of room for all of us in the Franks’ farmhouse just outside of town.

It was a big old house, once filled with their kids, now all grown and gone.  Nothing inside was new, but it was spotless and every possible surface was covered with handmade doilies, starched and ironed.  A lace runner decorated the top of the old upright piano in the front room.  There was often a vase of flowers up there too.  A house like that which once sheltered a large family needs a big dining table and they had one covered in embroidered tablecloths, so many different tablecloths you could change them every day if you wanted.  After supper, Sister Franks let me decide which cloth to put on for tomorrow.

I memorized everything; comfortable upholstered furniture, lace curtains at the windows, soft faded rugs on the floor, family photographs everywhere, fragrance of cookies just baked and a hint of dinner to come from the kitchen.  It may have been much like other homes up and down the roads leading into that small town, but it was unique to Leslie Ray and me, a revelation to  young travelers on The Glory Road.

I was 8 and had been singing with our family since my debut on the radio at age 3.  Leslie was 10 and about ready to refuse to sing anymore.  He moped at every stop in every town until someone handed him a fishing pole and pointed him toward a creek or a lake or a stream.  Anyplace would do so long as he could be up and gone at sunrise.

When Daddy was a pastor and we lived in a parsonage, Mother’s sheet music was stacked on top of the piano.  Every knock at the door required hiding the music, the songs  Daddy considered worldly. He didn’t want church people to hear Mother playing and singing that kind of music because he said all talent must be devoted to Jesus.  At the Franks’ home the sheet music was right up there on the music rack where everyone could see it.

Sister Franks was a wispy little thing.  Her worn piano bench easily held one older church lady and a skinny gospel gypsy.  We two sat there for hours. She seemed to own all the sheet music to every popular song. She nodded when it was time for me to turn the page for her.

She asked,

“Nita Faye, are you learning to read music?”

“No ma’m. Not yet. But Daddy does and Mother does some and Leslie Ray’s taking piano.”

“Well I think it’s just wonderful, you and your parents singing together the way you do.”

“Daddy says if he had any kids who couldn’t sing, he’d have to send them back.”

She laughed and laughed.  I was thrilled she enjoyed my joke.  My only joke.  Well, Daddy’s joke really, and always well received by church people.

She played while we talked.  “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.” I hadn’t heard it before.  She explained it was based on music by Chopin.  I hadn’t heard that name before either.  Then she changed the mood and the style and the tempo and asked,

“Do you know this one?”

“I heard it on the radio.”

It’s “Surrey With The Fringe On Top.”  It’s from a Broadway show called “Oklahoma.”

“You and Brother Franks go to the show?  Picture shows are a sin.”

“Broadway’s not a picture show. It’s a place in New York City where people put on plays and sing and dance.”

“Dancing’s a sin.”

“Not that kind of dancing.  They don’t hold onto each other.  They just dance around on the stage is all.  I’ll tell you what.  If they ever make this into a picture show, I’ll be sneaking in to see it, even if I have to drive into Oklahoma City. Do you want to learn the words?”

She hummed a pitch note, plinked it on the keyboard, indicated the words on the sheet music for me, then started off.

“Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry.”

We sang together,

“When I take you out in the surrey,

When I take you out in the surrey

With the fringe on top!”

Mother called from the back of the house somewhere. Sister Franks said,

“Run see what your Mama wants.  When you come back, we’ll go into Elk City.  You can help me pick out curtains at Penney’s.  Maybe we’ll get us a grilled cheese and a Coke at Woolworth’s.

I was reluctant to leave until she promised,

“And then I’ll teach you the words to the rest of the music from the show.”

That visit to Sayre, Oklahoma was a first glimpse for Leslie and me into the daily lives of other preachers in the same sect, and with it the realization that people in the same church were allowed to believe in different ways.

The house became a snow globe memory I traveled with for years.  Out on the gospel trail, I could shake it just a little and see the chairs with doilies on the arms and Sister Franks’ purple irises in a vase on the coffee table.  Shake it again and hear the music from Oklahoma.

Father’s Day – The Gardener on The Glory Road

Daddy – 1937.
Newlywed.  Newly ordained preacher, Reverend Raymond D. Jones.
Brother Ray.”

The oldest of ten, he’d already helped raise his brothers and sisters, picking cotton, tending gardens, plowing fields and cooking for his family when he should have been in school, riding his motorcycle, drinking too much, honky-tonking on the weekend and dancing with the teenage singer who became his wife.  She was the rose. He remained the gardener.  After my brother and I came along, she was the performer. He was the teacher.

He taught us how to plant potatoes, how to cook them, how to make biscuits and gravy, and the behavior required of Southern preachers’ kids in all kinds of situations.  Example:  Because he came up poor and was always conscious of someone else’s lack of funds, when we had supper with members of the congregation and were offered second helpings, he asked us to say,

“Much obliged, but I have had sufficient.”

We were eager for stories of his wild days but he only told us bits and ended every telling with,

“Course I’d-a never done that if I was a Daddy then.  That’s not how a Daddy ought to do.”

All his people sang parts and played instruments and studied shape note singing at a country church out in the woods.  He believed in music to spread The Word, but he didn’t care much about having a featured role. His part was usually singing harmony and playing rhythm guitar.

When The Joneses’ music, recorded in the 1950’s, was re-mastered and released a few years back,  the only song on the album featuring Daddy’s voice on lead was soon heard all over the place.  He’d have been surprised.  I can see his grin and hear his drawl.

“Well, I never!”

In honor of Father’s Day, click the picture and hear Daddy’s distinctive hill country lead on “This World Is Not My Home.”

The Glory Road – It’s the hokey pokey all over again

So many rewrites.
Put stuff in.  Take stuff out.  Shake it all about.

This project was bass-ackwards from the start but in a lovely, unexpected way.  If you’ve heard some of this chronology before, don’t stop me now or I’ll lose my place.

My brother and I had a pact since childhood that we’d tell our stories in a book someday.   Probably after both parents had passed.  After both Brother Ray and Sister Fern were gone, it was time. Leslie Ray turned into an attorney.  I turned into a writer/broadcaster, so guess which one had the writing to do.  And guess which one asked all the time, “Got anything I can read?”

I started to write a book, but short stories came out first.  Don Barrett, broadcast colleague and dear friend,  read what I wrote and referred me to literary agent, Carol Schild Levy. Don worked with her husband in the movie industry and made the introductions.

Carol read my story, Musical Houses, from the collection that was meant to become The Glory Road.  She said she’d like to see it onstage.  Why not turn it into a play?  So we did.  Carol and her husband Marvin Levy and directors, David Atkinson and Greg Zerkle North and actors and singers and musicians from all over contributed to multiple staged readings in Los Angeles.   The talent!  Busy performers who  act and sing and create  goosebumps find time to participate in so many ways between their own shows, keeping odd rehearsal times, to help new works find a place onstage.

Then comes feedback from professionals, from audience members and from the creative and management teams.  The comment repeated most often was “more music.”  There was another problem. The cast was too large. In one version, we removed the young kids.  Cast minus two.  In another version, we removed the older kids. Cast minus two more.  Then more performances, concentrating on the couple, Ray and Fern.  That seemed a big enough story to tell, but everyone missed the kids.

The last reading at the Hayworth Theater in Los Angeles was the next-to-last time I saw my brother alive.  Within weeks he was gone. I stopped writing anything for a long time.

I needed to finish the book that began with stories that turned into a play.  So I did.  Finishing the book sent me back to the play, where I’m working now. Revising.  We’ve put the kids back in, which means taking out something else.  And we still need to add more songs.

Gramma K (you’ll meet her in both the play and the book) used to say if she had her druthers, she’d make three new dresses instead of altering one.  I hear you, Gramma.

Now the cast size is larger than the last version of the play, but the kids are back and talented young actors who can sing parts will find work onstage because of it.   When we finish this version, there’ll be another reading and we’ll see where The Glory Road takes us next.

Click the photo below to hear “Precious Lord.”