Follow the song.

By Anita Garner

I’m unloading the dishwasher.  Music is playing.  Randy Owen (Alabama Band) sings one of my favorite old hymns with The Isaacs and I’m right back there in places where I first learned the song.  Follow the music to the Deep South during the ’40’s and ’50’s and find a story.

Off the highway and down a dirt road, nearly impassable during heavy rains, in a clearing just big enough to embrace a small building, stands a sweet little church.  It was built long ago by a community who walked miles to get here or rode in wagons carrying food to share after worship. We make the trip decades later in our big old very used sedan.

This church has no full-time pastor.  It’s not much different from the circuit-riding preacher days of Little House On The Prairie.  Daddy, one of several ministers from other towns, travels here to conduct worship or sometimes to say words over a departed member of the congregation.  They don’t meet every Sunday.  They meet when a minister is available.  Today it’s our family’s turn.

It’s a Sunday afternoon, after Daddy has already preached at our own church.  Mother’s home resting, waiting for the birth of our new baby.  If she’s well, she sometimes comes along to sing, but today it’s Daddy, my brother, Leslie Ray and me.  A visiting preacher might bring his own guitar, but it’s not necessary. It doesn’t take many souls to fill this chapel with song.

Today, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, when I hear families blending like Randy Owen and his cousins in Alabama and The Isaacs’ exquisite harmonies, I think of my family singing our own homey version when any one of us started off with this song.

Click the picture for Randy Owen with The Isaacs,  I Need Thee Every Hour

******

 

 

 

Quilting on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

After childhood years spent hanging around with prolific quilters, I remain untalented in that department, but I’m an appreciator.  When Leslie Ray and I were little, quilts were a big part of our lives.  We touring Gospel Gypsies slept on pallets on the floor made of piles of old quilts.  When Daddy pastored, congregations furnished the parsonage with everything we needed.   Colorful quilts arrived, many of them made from scraps of cloth that had already seen several lives.

Those were my favorites.  Each square came with stories attached. Stories were vital for young children without roots. I remember specific quilt squares. I remember tears in the eyes of a woman piecing together a tribute to someone recently departed.

The quilts in our life weren’t fancy patterns.  They were patchwork, a piece of a skirt a little girl wore to school, a snippet of one of her brothers’ shirts, flour sack remnants. Some quilts were thicker than others, stuffed with batting inside for warmth, and while they did the job during cold winter nights, the insides eventually separated and formed clumps. Nobody cared.  Nobody treated the clumpy quilts different because of their shape.

We traveled the Deep South in the 50’s with old quilts in every condition. When they were finally no more than shreds, Daddy and Leslie Ray wrapped them around the amplifier and guitars and microphones and other equipment in the trunk.

When we stayed a while in parsonages, we kids went along to Quiltings.  A Quilting was a regularly scheduled gathering of a group of women in the home of whichever one had a quilting frame.  The frames were big wooden things suspended up near the ceiling and lowered by a rope pulley.

Quilts-in-progress came down when the ladies arrived and chairs were situated all around, where a roomful of women making tiny stitches connected colorful pieces of cloth.  Their hands moved in age-old rhythms while they engaged in conversation.

In addition to plain old everyday necessary quilts, a quilting group took turns working on each other’s special items. A quilt for a new baby. Graduation. Engagement. Hope chest. Wedding. Shut-ins.

We kids were allowed to stretch out on the floor under the quilting frame and because we were out of sight, the ladies forgot little children were  listening.  After any Quilting, my brother and I left with more information than we should have.

When it was time for refreshments, we made our presence known.  In every Southern home, whatever the economic resources or lack of them, some cook had a specialty that showed up when the quilting sisters came over.

A few years back, I mentioned to friend, Barbara, that I no longer have even a remnant of a family quilt.  She, a San Francisco jazz singer with many other talents, took my sad story to heart and made me this lovely piece.  She handed it over saying, “Now you have a quilt.”

I still love most old things better than most new things, but this wall hanging Barbara made is the exception.  Not long after she completed it, she was gone. Another quilting story for another time.

******

You gotta help somebody.

By Anita Garner

Patsy & Loretta & Kris & Johnny

Music stories touch on the close relationships between Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash.  In each case, one got out in front a bit and reached back to bring another one along, to make a living writing, performing, touring, getting steady work in the music business, maybe getting on The Opry.  Patsy had hits, met Loretta, loved her and looked out for her.  Kris wrote great songs but when he met Johnny, he was a janitor at a recording studio just trying to get someone to hear them.  Johnny listened.

In the 1950’s, Mother (Sister Fern Jones) was writing songs and looking for a recording artist to record one of them.  Her options were limited.  She wrote and performed only gospel. She needed to find  a popular artist who also sang “inspirational” songs now and then.

She handed her packages to my brother and me to take to the post office, packages containing tapes of her singing her songs.  One went to the home of The Singing Governor, Jimmie Davis, in Louisiana, the man with the hit song, “You Are My Sunshine.”

We didn’t know how she got his attention in the first place.  We didn’t ask.  We were young kids, not that curious about our parents’ activities that didn’t concern us.

It could have been Kousin Karl, a country radio deejay, who let everyone know how much he liked the music sung by Sister Fern.  Karl was well connected and he emceed shows all over the place.  It could have been  gospel recording artists appearing on the same bill with her or musicians from all over the South who showed up to accompany the singers.

Did Sister Fern fit into that group of people who reached back to help?  Did she ever promote someone else’s work?  Daddy did.  Helping other people was his job as a preacher, and it was also how he believed, but if Mother helped other people, she never spoke of any such relationships.

We didn’t find out until after she passed.   Going through her files (multiple tall filing cabinets chronicling her life in music) there were audition tapes and rough music manuscripts and head shots and demo records sent to her from strangers from all over the world, hoping she’d connect them with someone else.  I don’t know how those people found her address and phone number, but they reached her in surprising numbers

She kept all the material she received and copies of her responses, handwritten on those self-carboned note papers.  To some, she offered names and addresses of contacts.  By then there were multiple television shows featuring gospel music and she seemed to know all of them.

Once in a while today we hear a right-place-at-the-right-time story, but not as often as we used to.  Back then, without any apparent expectation of reciprocity, country and gospel performers helped each other.  It’s how things worked.

I hear Daddy saying from the pulpit, “You gotta help somebody,” and then I have to go listen to this song.

Billy Eckstine, “If I Can Help Somebody” (Nat King Cole show, 1957)

******

 

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.

******

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.

******

 

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.

***

 

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.

******

 

 

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.

******

 

 

 

 

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.

******