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.

 

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.

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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.

 

******

 

 

 

 

Quadruplets on The Glory Road

By Anita GarnerThe Arkansas Ponder Quads

Settling in a small town after years of traveling with our family’s gospel show was something to celebrate.  Daddy was the new pastor in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, population 1075. When we arrived in 1952, he  cautioned my brother and me, saying the behavior of a preacher’s kids would be noticed. People were already talking about the way Mother sang (and looked) and the way Daddy preached, and how unusual our church services were.

Leslie Ray and I tried to disappear, which was impossible, especially since we were the only redheaded kids around and ours were unusual parents.  We hung around Courthouse Square where people stopped to get acquainted and after “How y’all doin’?” “How’s your Mama?” and “How’s your Daddy?” next came, “Where’d you two get that red hair?”

We were still standing out when what we wanted was to blend in. We hadn’t counted on being remarked about this soon and we didn’t like it, but Murfreesboro was on the brink of change and other diversions would soon be available.

Out town was about to get its own diamond mine. On a nearby farm, people discovered diamonds in the dirt and now the owners were selling tickets, turning it into an attraction. Anybody could go out there and search. You paid your fee and stayed all day. Of course we wanted to go, but Daddy said it wasn’t becoming for a preacher’s kids to be out there digging up dirt, looking for money. We said we would be looking for diamonds, not money, but he said it’s the same thing.

About a mile from our parsonage was the home of the Ponder family. On a day made famous in the newspapers and on television, the Ponders expanded by four when their quadruplets were born. Doctor Duncan delivered the babies where the Ponders lived with their eight children. Now their modest home would hold twelve children.The Ponder Quads’ first home.

The Quads were written up everywhere and a reporter from New York came to interview the family. When his story appeared, it said the Ponders didn’t have enough chairs to sit on, that they hadn’t had enough for their other children even before the quadruplets came.

Daddy read about it to my brother and me at the kitchen table. He laid down the newspaper and huffed,

“Well I never!  Somebody sayin’ a thing like that about poor people. We have got to go get that family everything they need.”

He said he’d speak to the county Ministerial Alliance and ask every congregation to contribute, but before he could get his efforts started, a new story came out saying now that the Ponders were instantly famous, businesses would provide everything they needed.

All the babies we knew drank canned milk mixed with water in their bottles until they graduated to soft foods. Dickey and Dewey and Danny and Donna Ponder were soon photographed with the famous Pet milk can with the cow on the label while the company built a new home for the family with a room in front featuring a wall to wall window for public viewing of the babies. Other companies gave the family everything from diapers to furniture.

The new Ponder home was near the road so cars could drive by, and a large parking space was alongside so we could get out and walk up to the window. If we were lucky, all four babies might be in their custom bassinets there.

The Ponder Quads did my brother and me a great big favor. While they were lying around being famous, we hoped to fade into the background. Instead of everybody talking about the new preacher’s redheaded kids, they could now drive down the road and look through a window at a bigger curiosity, four identical babies.

With the birth of the Quads, the whole nation was allowed to point and stare, without being considered unkind. Mister and Miz Ponder and Doctor Duncan went to New York to be on television. Those babies were all anybody talked about.

We’d finally achieved our dream of moving to a small town, one step closer to figuring out what normal might feel like. Now with the birth of four identical babies, Leslie Ray and Nita Faye Jones could slip and slide around and break some rules without always being the center of attention in Murfreesboro – new population 1079.

                                                         – – – –

A version of this story appeared in a recent issue of Reminisce Magazine

Curly Headed Singer on The Glory Road

By Anita Garner

While choosing photos for my book, The Glory Road, here’s one that fell out during scrapbook page-turning.  Find a picture, tell a story. It’s the law.  If it isn’t, it should be. Here’s a story with a song from the 1950’s.

My curly-headed Mother, Sister Fern,  on the right with her bobby pins springing out all around, next to her wavy-haired Mother, Gramma K, whose hair did what she wanted it to. 

Curls were never going to be all right with Mother, when what she craved were some of those wide waves women made with giant metal wave clips.  No matter how many clips she used, within hours her curls defied her.

There might have been no performances under all those revival tents without Vaseline.   She greased up her curls and pinned then down with high resolve and after a short while, the bobby pins squirmed out again and she re-applied her Vaseline, sometimes several times on a particularly troublesome day.  Then the tears started.

Curly headed girls, she told us, were not presently in style. She took it as a personal insult that she was forced to remain curly-headed during a wavy-haired fashion period.  On the way to performances in the Deep South during the summer, sometimes her largest concern was frizz. Not what she would sing.  Not which musicians and quartets would accompany her, but how long before curly became frizzy.  The weather could turn on you just like that.

The remarkable thing was the amount of patience Daddy showed. No matter how many times she burst into tears worrying about her hair, he rushed to reassure her, his voice never showing a hint of strain.

As Leslie Ray and I became more proficient at saying things we didn’t mean, we imagined Daddy must have been answering by rote all those years. If so, he’d never admit it.  That wouldn’t be chivalrous. One of the traits that made him a popular preacher was his ability to reassure over and over again as if this was the first time he’d ever been consulted about a particular dilemma.

From The Glory Road play, here’s a glimpse of Brother Ray and his favorite curly-headed singer.

——–

1950’s.  Deep South.  Outside a big revival tent.  A quartet sings inside while Sister Fern waits to be introduced by her husband, Brother Ray.  But she’s not inside yet so he asks the quartet to keep singing while he goes to check on her.

RAY
                  There you are sugar!  I was
startin’ to get worried.  How’re you feeling?

     FERN
                 Honey, is my hair frizzy?  Because it feels frizzy.
All this humidity.

             RAY
   (moves in close, touches her hair)
No, darlin’ your hair’s not frizzy.  It’s curly is all.
You’re my big ol’ doll-baby with big ol’
doll-baby curls.

                    FERN
(takes out compact mirror, checks herself)
Are you sure? Because I can’t sing when my hair’s frizzy.

RAY
  (closes the compact gently, his fingers over hers)
I’m sure.


One of Brother Ray’s favorite duets with Sister Fern.

I Don’t Care What The World May Do

 


 

 

 

 

 


 

The Singing Cowboy on The Glory Road

Gene Autry & Champion, The Wonder Horse

                                                                ————

Daddy was a Pentecostal preacher in the Deep South with a list of sins as long as your arm he intended his children to avoid.  Too late. We were already sinners. We’d been to California.  We saw a picture show. Gramma K dropped us off at the Alex Theater in Glendale where we stayed for hours.  She knew Daddy preached against it, but she didn’t care. Now we were back home in Arkansas, dreaming of how the rest of the world might be as soon as we could get there. My brother, Leslie Ray, was at the point in our church where a person is meant to declare himself and get baptized. He had no intention of doing that. Here’s a scene from my book, The Glory Road, which also appears in the play.

– – – – – – – – – – –

Murfreesboro, Arkansas 1951
Population 1,075

Behind the parsonage, past the back yard and the weeping willow, our garden sprang forth, Reverend Jones’ agri-painting spread out in rows of different colors. Daddy’s years of living on farms taught him everything he needed to know about planting and tending and harvesting and he was determined we would also learn to grow and cook what we needed. This was the first time we’d had space for growing and we used every inch of it.

A chicken wire fence enclosed three sides, with climbing vines already moving up and a row of Marigolds around the base. He said Marigolds discourage unwanted pests. The fourth side, closest to the house, had a picket fence with a gate. Adjacent to the garden was a shed where Daddy kept tools safe and dry.

When he called us to come work in the garden, we raced to the back porch to put on our gardening shoes, which were last year’s school shoes. Daddy didn’t own casual shoes either. He gardened in his oldest hard-soled preacher shoes and pulled galoshes over them.  We went straight to the shed to pick our implements.

Daddy said,

“Nita Faye, that hoe’s too big for you.  Easy now.  Maybe we’ll give you this trowel instead.  Son, did you feed your rabbits?”

Even when the completion of an assigned chore was more a future plan than an actual fact, Leslie Ray answered the same way every time the question came up.

“Yessir, fed ’em.”

Daddy took the trowel from me and demonstrated.

“Don’t slice into things like that. Turn the dirt over real gentle. You gotta work with intention, girl, like this.”

He reached around and brought up a clump of tiny potatoes in one swoop.

He asked Leslie,

‘How about the chickens?”

“Fed ’em.”

“Son, tell me, what were you thinking, lettin’ those pigeons out on Sunday?”

“I wanted to see if they’d come home.  See if they’re homing pigeons.”

“You know where your pigeons went, don’t you?  They flew straight over the congregation just when people were leavin’ church.”

Daddy was trying not to laugh.

“The whole situation could-a been avoided if you’d-a been in Sunday School class where you belong.”

I said,

“He hates Sunday School.  Leslie Ray’s a heathen.”

Leslie said,

“Shut up Nita Faye.”

Daddy responded,

“Boy, I don’t want to hear ‘shut up’ come out of your mouth again.”

We weren’t allowed to yell at each other or hit each other, so we slung around some language to make a point. We called each other the strongest names we could think of, words that sometimes showed up in Daddy’s sermons, therefore I got away with ‘heathen’ for a while but Daddy kept tightening the rules.

“Son, you know what those pigeons did right on top of the congregation, don’t you?”

He burst out laughing and we joined in and had to stop digging, we were laughing so hard.

“You should-a seen Sister Anthony!  You better hope they come home a different way than they went!”

Daddy strode up and down the rows, a satisfied man plucking a weed, tapping a cantaloupe.

“Leslie Ray, bring in some-a them green onions.  That row over yonder’s about right. Nita Faye, you’re not doin’ so good with those potatoes. Here, dig ‘em up like this. Give ’em a little pull. Just a little. See?”

He got down on his knees again and unearthed more of the prettiest   potatoes. I copied his technique.

“Daddy, can we have new potatoes and creamed peas and cornbread for dinner?”

“We can if you don’t chop those poor little things all to pieces.”

He started to whistle, then hum, then he sang,

 I’m back in the saddle again
Out where a friend is a friend

I sang too.

Where the longhorn cattle feed
On the lowly jimson weed
I’m back in the saddle again.

Leslie taunted,

“That’s Nita Faye’s boyfriend’s song.  She loooooves Gene Autry.”

“Yes I do.  I’m gonna marry Gene Autry and sing on the radio with him and move to California and live right by Gramma K.”

Daddy said,

“Well now, Nita Faye, you can’t marry Gene Autry.”

Leslie added,

“Yeah because when you grow up he’ll be too old to marry you by then.”

Daddy kept collecting vegetables, putting them into the basket we used so the dirt could shake out before we took them into the kitchen.  He was  serious when he said,

“Naw – cause I’m not sure he’s right with the Lord.  Don’t matter if a man’s famous.  He’s not goin’ to heaven unless he gets down on his knees and gets saved first.”

“Uh huh!  I bet he’s saved!”

“Well he’s not usin’ his voice to sing the Lord’s music out in public like he ought to.  The Lord gives you a gift like that, you got to use it only for him.”

And just like that, after withering my dream of being Mrs. Autry, Daddy picked up the basket full of beautiful baby potatoes  and headed to the back steps, where he took off his galoshes and went whistling into the kitchen.

– – – – – – – – —

Here’s an old recording of my future husband singing
Back In The Saddle Again