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.
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.
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 grasp the story told in this song the way it could be until I heard George Beverly Shea sing it on one of Billy Graham’s early radio shows. Oh that’s how it’s supposed to sound. I announced to Daddy I didn’t want to sing it anymore.
A voice like this is what the song requires. This is Larry Wayne Morbitt singing at a Gaither Gospel TV show. Larry toured with Phantom of the Opera. He can hit those notes.
This is one of our good Sundays. Preacher’s son in a respectable suit. Preacher’s daughter in a cotton print. New baby…they’ll get to her soon.
Here comes summer in the Deep South, early 1950’s. Daddy in white dress shirt and tie, double-breasted seersucker suit. Panama hat. Polished shoes. Leslie Ray wanting nothing more than one of those suits for himself. He was still in his old gabardine. He liked dressing up and wasn’t interested in everyday clothes.
Cotton was what kids in our town wore to school. Nicely faded shirts on farm boys, girls in prints, some made from flour sacks, others from the yard goods store in Courthouse Square. Everybody looked alike. We started out fine in our new school and then Mother got restless.
She was a creative insomniac. At night she wrote songs. She painted. She baked risin’ bread and clover leaf rolls. She sewed. After she invented her famous plastic and nylon net corsages and sewed up all the clingy jersey dresses her closet could hold, she turned her attention to us. We’d been down this road before, roped into her projects, protesting all the way. Daddy was exempt because a Southern Preacher dressed a certain way and that was that.
Mother announced she’d bought some McCall’s patterns for boys’ shirts and girls’ dresses. She put them together with slippery, man-made fabric in big flowered prints and sent us off to school, me wearing an unusual dress with loads of trim and my brother in a short-sleeved flowered shirt with fancy shaped pockets. We hated those clothes. We didn’t want to be polyester kids in an all-cotton world.
My brother was quick with a solution. His new shirt didn’t remain intact even one full day. He came home with both pockets dangling and some flimsy (to my ear) story about how it happened. I was jealous I hadn’t thought of a way to injure my new dress. Playing tag at school soon did it. One sash pulled right out of the back and before going home, I helped the other one rip. I put on a sad face when I revealed the damage. Mother said,
“You won’t be getting any more pretty dresses like that one, missy.”
And to my brother,
“What were you thinking, playing rough like that in your good shirt?”
Our reprieve came when we learned we were getting us a baby. Gramma K came back down South from California to stay a while. She was an expert seamstress, with her own peculiar tastes in children’s clothes. The baby arrived and immediately Sister Fern and Gramma K started their competitive back and forth about what the baby would wear. Though both designed original garments, their output was nothing you’d want to see on an infant. Here’s a scene from The Glory Road:
Mother was confined to bed. Church people immediately adopted our baby as their own. The Women’s Missionary Council made baby blankets and quilts with thousands of tiny stitches. They chose pink and jonquil colored flannel and sewed it into soft gowns and they prepared the baby for her attendance at future church services by trimming the smallest dresses I had ever seen with embroidery and crocheted edgings.
These women who looked after their own husbands and families and kept clean houses and cooked three meals a day and worked in the garden too, also produced exquisite handwork and with their investment of time, they rendered the start of a new life profound.
Their work was so delicate, it was like Cinderella’s ball gown in the movie. Disney creatures brought Cinderella’s dress to life, all of it removed from reality, with fantasy embellishments drifting into place. That’s how beautiful our baby’s new wardrobe was.
Churchwomen came over and stayed to talk with Gramma K , who appeared at the kitchen table wearing full makeup and flashy jewelry and her California clothes. Sister Coker was the voice for all the other churchwomen, and she enjoyed a special relationship with Mother. Nothing Mother did or said seemed to bother her, and vice versa. Sister Coker assured Gramma the Jones baby would want for nothing.
In our church, babies were dedicated, but not sprinkled. The water was saved for later. By age 12, which was considered the Age of Reason, there would be full-immersion baptizing in a nearby creek.
There was talk of the women making a special dress for the dedication. Gramma got her dander up.
“I believe I’m capable of making what my grandbaby will wear.”
Sister Coker, experienced with the opinions of strong women, put on her most reasonable tone.
“Oh Miz Kalbaugh, we thought with all you have to do…”
“Yes, I am busy…”
Gramma was in charge now.
“…so I guess we could put our heads together and come up with something…”
“Oh having your help will be such a blessing!” Sister Coker beamed as if she had all the time in the world and nothing would give her greater pleasure than to come over to our house and soothe the two high-strung women in residence.
Daddy would say the prayers of dedication over his infant, and Mother, when she got well enough, would stand in front of the congregation holding our new baby, the way it had been done forever. Sister Booty said,
“Maybe we should wait on the dedication until Sister Fern feels better and let her decide about the dress. Lord knows she’s so artistic, she might already have something in mind.”
Mother sent word out from the bedroom that she would be happy for the church’s assistance with the dedication dress. She did have a preference. She wanted the dress made of dotted swiss, the softest they could find, on a pastel colored background. If the yard goods store had only the stiffer kind of dotted swiss, would the women please soak it in Ivory Snow first to soften it? And could they make a little slip of lawn to wear underneath, and trim it with grosgrain ribbon to match the dotted swiss? No sooner were her wishes expressed than the women were on their way to turning them into reality.
From her bedroom and with the help of the women in our congregation, Mother began designing clothes for the baby like nothing she’d made before. They were beautiful and appropriate. Our baby had a few years ahead of looking good until Sister Fern regained her full strength.
Here’s Mother’s new pastor’s wife costume. At Daddy’s request, she’d already raised her plunging necklines and toned down the amount of cling in her skirts, but this was as far as she was willing to go. She left honky tonks behind to follow him, but she never renounced her fondness for clothes that were shiny.
My brother and I heard Daddy’s carefully chosen words about the proper apparel for each church occasion and when Mother stepped outside the parsonage to go to the funeral that day, we caught a glimpse of his expression in the second it took him to hide his surprise with a compliment. He told her she looked so beautiful he should take a picture. She beamed. He clicked this one and off we went.
It was a summer funeral on a day hot enough to require the use of the paper fans provided by the funeral home.
Past rows and rows of men in dark suits and church women wearing black and brown and navy, Sister Fern, a beacon glowing in satin and perspiration, stepped near the coffin to sing.
One of the songs requested often for funerals during the 1950’s in the Deep South was “Whispering Hope.” Mother loved a church organ, but not many of our churches had one, and when she recorded her first album this is the only song she recorded with an organ.
Here’s “Whispering Hope,” written in the early 1900’s and interpreted here in the 1950’s by Sister Fern Jones with The Revelators Quartet.
My brother and I were not happy little harmonizers on The Glory Road. Daddy was following his calling to preach, Mother followed her calling to sing, but we two believed our true calling was to amble down a country road somewhere that led to a house of our own, a school we’d go to every day, and friends who’d know us from one year to the next. Just because you can sing harmony it doesn’t mean you always want to.
We were on the tent revival circuit, booked for months in advance and from time to time the family needed to refresh our presentation. Daddy said we’d best practice before we get to Amarillo. He enticed us into learning our parts by singing songs we liked on the radio. We started off with The Sons Of The Pioneers’ Tumbling Tumbleweeds and when we had our parts down on that one, he switched to What A Friend We Have In Jesus in the same key.
Long stretches of Route 66 through the Deep South offered nothing to look at except tumbleweeds, giant puffs of them rolling free on the highway or stuck to a fence. Daddy played a game with them.
A huge tumbleweed clump was minding its own business somewhere in Texas and as we got closer it loomed about half-a-car size. The motion of our big old sedan invited it to dance. It floated up and plopped on the windshield, covering the view. Leslie Ray said, Daddy you better stop but Daddy said, watch this.
Instead of stopping and freeing the thing, his game was to keep driving and speed up, then brake quickly trying to get it to release itself. Man against nature. It wasn’t safe, but not much about car travel was back then.
Here are The Sons Of The Pioneershelping two young Gospel Gypsies learn harmony.