The Singing Cowboy on The Glory Road

Gene Autry & Champion, The Wonder Horse

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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.

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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.

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

 

 

Memories and music stick together.

Mother was our scrapbook keeper, saving stories about us and our evangelist and musician friends during the 1940’s and ’50’s. These books were much too big to travel in the car on The Glory Road.  They stayed on a shelf in the apartment we rented in Texarkana while we toured the South.

When we made a quick stop before hitting the road again, she tucked  clippings inside, often adding handwritten captions. Something about watching her work with them set her apart for a few hours from the mostly unsentimental person we knew.  Always nocturnal while the rest of us were early risers, you’d find her at the kitchen table long after we’d gone to bed, still drinking strong coffee, adding stories with her scissors and tape.

Every time I turn a page now, edges crumble, leaving a trail of scraps on the floor.  I’ll preserve these using whatever technology works best.

 

 

On The Glory Road – Johnny Cash changes things.

Fern Jones, my mother, a transplant from juke joints and honky-tonks, was the wife of a small town preacher in Arkansas when she started writing gospel songs.  She married In her teens, got religion and turned her church songs into rockabilly.

In a story from The Glory Road, my book-in-progress, Johnny Cash heard a song she wrote and sang it for his audition at Sun Records (performed in the movie Walk The Line by Joaquin Phoenix.) Though Sam Phillips at Sun recorded the song, he didn’t take to gospel at the time and didn’t plan to release it until he got Johnny to sing some grittier stuff first.

Johnny became a star who sang what he wanted to sing.  He performed I Was There When It Happened  everywhere throughout his career and included it on several albums, so this one song Mother wrote was recorded by a big ol’ bass-singing country boy on his way up and it changed everything for her.

Watch Johnny and the Tennessee Two perform  I Was There When It Happened on the Town Hall Party  TV show in Los Angeles in the 1950’s.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pp70V6a8r00

 

 

 

 

 

 

On The Glory Road – The Music Moves

While Daddy was a young man attending shape-note singing lessons taught in a country church by traveling sheet music salesmen, Mother was lying about her age to sing in honky-tonks.  When they got together, things got interesting.  They mixed her Saturday night and his Sunday morning sound and made a whole new thing.  After WWII they moved their music out of  churches and took it on the road.

I hope you’ll follow along each week as I  post updates from The Glory Road projects.  It began with short stories and essays, next a stage play (a story for another day) and now a book manuscript. My goal is to help preserve the music and these glimpses of American history.

Early recordings blended Mother’s honky-tonk alto with Daddy’s hill country tenor.  Years later, their recordings have been re-mastered, re-released and are heard everywhere, on television, in movies, on the radio, on streaming services and everywhere music is available.

Here’s an excerpt from the book manuscript.

 All Day Singing With Dinner On The Grounds.

Kousin Karl took the stage and the crowd shook off their post-dinner torpor, ready to be entertained.  He welcomed everyone back and made a few announcements, ending by reminding us there’d be plenty of food left out there at suppertime.  After the crowd rustled and scraped and quieted some, he hollered,

“Ladies and gentlemen – THE JONESES!”

Daddy called out the key to the pickup band. A piano player started off and the crowd laughed as they caught on to what was happening.  Brother Janway eased in from the side, chasing the first piano player away.  He bounced around, playing some boogie woogie first, then slid into the intro to the familiar song Daddy and Mother were about to sing.

Daddy paced and grinned, guitar strap slung over one shoulder, strumming as he walked over to the piano shaking his head, pretending to be shocked at Brother Janway’s antics.  The two buddies always had fun up there and their schoolboy foolishness had everyone smiling.  

When Mother joined Daddy onstage, he moved over next to her and leaned in so close it looked like he was about to kiss her, then he stepped away again, always in motion before returning to share the mic with her. They started off on one of Daddy’s favorites, with Mother taking the lead and him singing harmony.

       By and by, when the morning comes

       All the saints of God are gathered home

       We will tell the story, how we’ve overcome

       And we’ll understand it better, by and by

Daddy was always a crowd-pleaser yet it appeared to be accidental. He never held onto a note any longer than he had to.  When she sang she laid every ounce of emotion she could muster into a note before sending it out to the audience.

Here are Sister Fern and Brother Ray singing “By & By” from their first album, “The Joneses Sing,” recorded in the 1950’s.

On lead guitar, fellow evangelist, Brother Gene Thompson

Thanks, NBC for playing my parents’ music.

Thanks, NBC, for featuring The Joneses’ songs, recorded 60 years ago. And thanks A P Bio producers, Seth Myers and Lorne Michaels and the show’s music supervisors. Credit is due also to the team that keeps The Joneses’ music playing.  Numero Group, Bankrobber Music, and Secretly Distribution.  Two albums are now combined into one package called The Glory Road.

We started watching A P Bio because it’s clever.  When the first episode began, we were surprised to hear Mother (Fern Jones) singing her rowdy version of  “I Am A Pilgrim And A Stranger.”  Click the album cover to hear the song.

 

 

 

 

The most recent episode featured a duet from my parents’ 1958 album, “The Joneses Sing,”  especially poignant because it features Daddy’s hill country tenor on “I Don’t Care What The World May Do.”  He didn’t record often.  Both songs were a perfect fit for the show –  says their daughter, without a lick of prejudice.

Click the album cover below to hear the song.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The contrarian teacher is played by Glenn Howerton, the principal is Patton Oswalt and the classroom is populated with talented, quirky students.

 

Bacon has magic in it.

 

Bacon has magic in it.  The aroma.  The sizzle.  The taste.  The grease.  Bacon grease is a staple for Southern-born cooks.  We put it in cornbread and biscuits and a good gravy roux isn’t possible without it. Sometimes it’s butter and bacon grease creamed together, but only one of those is crucial.

Gramma kept a grease can like this near her stove.  It had a strainer inside because some people filter out the chunky bits.

 

 

Here’s my jar.  Layers of delicious bits are in here. I scoop them up and they go right into my cooking.  When the jar runs low, I render bacon just to refill it. Put bacon on to cook and every creature in the house gravitates to the source. Two times lately I’ve been cooking up a couple of pounds of bacon while repair people were here working. The refrigerator service person and the pilot light fixer both left with slices of bacon and paper towels.

I come from a family of gospel gypsies, led through life on the road in the Deep South by a preacher and a singer. Our big sedan was filled with musical instruments and Daddy’s cooking implements. A cast iron skillet went everywhere with us, providing suppers from hot plates in motor court kitchenettes. A jar of bacon grease made every trip.  Sometimes supper was only cream gravy, featuring fresh milk from a nearby dairy, poured over anything – rice, potatoes, or leftover biscuits, and in a pinch, over white bread we picked up at our last stop.

If we stayed at a tent revival site for a couple of weeks, we’d get fresh churned butter nearby, which of course, didn’t go on the road with us when we left, but the bacon grease jar, refreshed, emptied and cleaned, was the constant companion.

A sale on thick-cut bacon is still cause for celebration around here.  There’s always room in the freezer.

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Music this week is “Tea For Two” from our friend, Colin Tribe, in England.

 

 

 

Kinky Boots

Listen to this blog here.

I love to tell this story. It’s about generous performers, actors and singers, and four degrees of separation.  Greg (North) Zerkle directed a reading of my musical, The Glory Road in Los Angeles.

At the last minute, one of our actors had to drop out to take another role.  


Brent Schindele  said, “An actor I know is in town right now appearing in The Lion King at the Pantages.  Let’s see if he can do it.”

Brent Schindele

Brent contacted Eugene Ware-Hill, who came over from The Lion King and without rehearsal, performed at our reading.  He was magnificent.

                                                             Eugene Ware-Hill

Fast forward. Eugene is in Kinky Boots on Broadway. The Grand has a crush on a rock star, Brendon Urie  who sang a lead role in the show this summer. Her girlfriend was traveling to New York and would get to see the show.  The Grand couldn’t go. Heartbreak.

I asked Eugene if he could please get her an autograph. He did even more. He sent a Kinky Boots playbill with a personal note from Brendon addressed to the Grand. This treasure occupies the place of honor in her room.

              Playbill from Kinky Boots

I think about how these four degrees of gorgeous proved what our grammas used to say, “Pretty is as pretty does.”

And wait  – one more.

The musician playing this ukulele version of Lullaby of Broadway is Colin Tribe. Colin lives in England where he teaches, arranges and performs.

                                           Edward and his grandpa, Colin Tribe

Colin’s YouTube channel is linked below.

Or reach him here:

colinrtribe@btinternet.com

Putting On A Show

Getting a play onstage is taking a lot longer than I thought, even though I’d been warned repeatedly that it’s generally years from genesis of idea to actual performance.  Colleagues tell stories about the development process, about rewrites and readings and workshops and more rewrites.  But it’s my first play and I’m only now feeling the truth of their words. 

 

Add into our process the fact that both parties involved are also working on other things at the same time – and I can see now how a a play could hang around for years before debuting onstage. 

 

Since mounting this play occupies so many of my thoughts and nags me constantly, even when I’m doing something else, it seems like a good time to chronicle some of the “making of.”

 

The play is called “The Glory Road” and it’s recently been revised (again.)  We’ve whittled down the cast size and focused the action on just one main story (You don’t even want to know how many storylines were woven through earlier versions) and now we’re talking with theatres about moving forward to an opening date.

 

The “we” in this story is me and the director, Greg Zerkle, who’s been with this project for years and is responsible for urging me (I’m the playwright) to trim and focus and simplify staging and timelines and make all manner of efficient, dramatic changes.  I only follow his advice when I agree with him (it is my story after all) but it’s surprising how often, after arguing my point for hours, I do eventually agree and we come up with a compromise that we both think enhances the play.  This is no accident.  This happens because Greg is, I believe, a genius with a vision.

 

Greg’s a multi-faceted theatre talent.  He acts and sings and directs and is performing right now in a show at Laguna Playhouse.  A few days ago he closed in a revival of South Pacific in southern California.  So we work between his rehearsals and the rest of our endeavors.

 

Greg’s wife, Cindy Marty, another multi-talented actor and singer, is gracious about the amount of time Greg spends on The Glory Road. Cindy performed at our most recent reading in Los Angeles and knocked our collective socks off.

 

So far the “making of” is fascinating.  I never thought something as painful as editing could prove to be so satisfying.  Maybe I’ll post as we progress, and we’ll all find out together whether the end result was worth all these years. I’m hopeful. 

 

In the meantime, if you’re interested in background information on our subject matter, see www.thegloryroad.com.

 

Ó Anita Garner

 

 

 

Genius In The Details

I’ve just spent a week in Los Angeles working with Greg North, (Zerkle) the director of my play, The Glory Road. I’m back home with a notebook filled with changes.  Gramma K, an expert tailor, used to say “It’s easier to make a new one than to alter the original.”  But for many reasons, altering is often the chosen route to completion of a creative project.

The computer isn’t the best thinking place for me anymore.  I think elsewhere and come back to the keyboard to type.   The real work happens while I’m walking around the village or on the ferry going into the city, or cooking or folding laundry.  But when inspiration continues to avoid me, I have another plan.  

I go in search of genius, hoping that the trip will start ideas flowing again.  In the same way that reading biographies of overcomers opens a new window, so do these field trips.  It’s uplifting to walk where genius walked and talked and worked.  There’s always the possibility that if I stand where they stood, something might rub off.

I visit the workplaces of two undeniably brilliant individuals, at the Charles Schulz Museum, an homage to everything Peanuts, and the Luther Burbank Cottage, Mecca for garden lovers.  Both are in Santa Rosa, California, about an hour north of where I live.  Tours are a good way to begin, but guides by necessity deal mostly with the overview.  They speak of awards won, of the subject’s ties to other famous people, of the place where he was born.

I’m looking for more.  I want to see how they endured the days that were spectacularly nonproductive.  After the tour groups disperse, I look for the minutiae that tethered each of these famous men to earth.  Was he an early riser?  How many hours a day did he work?  What did he eat?  Did he have hobbies?  Who did he love?  Who loved him?

I want to know, did the realization of his goals offer even a small degree of immunity from strife?  Or did he bump into his own saboteurs; the insecurities and loneliness and even the near-crippling fears many of us encounter on the path to making something.

When we look at a creative icon who’s now departed, we’re always looking backward.  We see a whole lifetime of output, an entire body of work.  I want to know how he handled the chunks of time when things didn’t go right.  So I ask about the dry spells.

Charles Schulz used ice skating and long walks to cheer himself.  He built a rink near his studio and his visits there were a vital part of his routine.  Every day he sat at the same table in the snack bar, ate the same food, and watched the skaters.  Merchants at the nearby mall report that Schulz was a frequent visitor, not so much a shopper as an ambler.  They grew accustomed to the lone figure walking around, deep in thought.

Luther Burbank grew himself an escape route.  He took leave of his greenhouse in Santa Rosa and traveled the bumpy road to his experimental farm in Sebastopol to work and sleep in the modest cabin at the site.  He walked and thought and wrote in his notebooks and on his way to developing the Shasta daisy and the Burbank potato, he also documented some of the days when nothing bloomed the way he had planned.

Charles Schulz said he was driven to make cartoons because it was all he was good at.  It was his primary form of self-expression.  Charlie Brown, he said, was the manifestation of his own vulnerability.  At the museum, my favorite spot is the replica of his office.  The renowned storyteller’s drawing board shows the physical effects of his labor and I am more heartened by its worn wood than by the rooms filled with acclaim.

Luther Burbank didn’t consider himself a visionary, but rather a hard-working scientist who kept experimenting until something good came of it.  The museum in the carriage house adjacent to Burbank’s cottage is suitably informative, but I return to the tiny room at the rear of the greenhouse and to the desk where he kept his notes.

Both Schulz and Burbank fit my definition of genius.  I can feel it when I’m in the places they once were.  It’s comforting, on my own tedious workdays, to know that in the midst of lives filled with so many accomplishments, each of these men put great store by the one trait they prized above all others – discipline.  They kept showing up.  I can do that.

Ó By Anita Garner