Nashville 1959 – Ryman Auditorium – WSM – Smiles Before The Storm

By Anita Garner

Sister Fern Jones (Mother) with a fan

Mother’s dream had several parts.  Write songs.  Get somebody famous to record them.  Get a recording contract.  A pink Cadillac.  A mink stole. Sing at Ryman Auditorium.

Most of these had come true by the time this picture was taken at Nashville’s Deejay Convention in 1959. She appeared on Wally Fowler’s All Night Singing, originating from Ryman Auditorium, broadcast on WSM, standing alongside many Southern Gospel greats.  See her in the lineup in photos below. But the next part of the story was a storm of her own making.

When this picture came back from restoration, I was reminded of how much this looks like Fern’s happy ending, but indeed it was not.  It was just the start of her battles with the head of her record label, legal wrangling, waiting for a single from the album to be heard on radio, and the greatest  deterrent to a long tour, being away from Daddy.  She was nearly paralyzed without him nearby.

I’m in the editing process of my book, now called The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life, which will be released early next year from University of Alabama Press. This is the part where old pictures are restored to go into the book while I spend the next two weeks on the final, final pass through the manuscript.  When I send this version back to the Press it moves into copyedit, design, legal permissions (lots of songs quoted) and all the rest.

I’ll be right here with updates about my own dream, which includes telling family stories with a few songs attached.

 

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The Glory Road – From Louisiana to HBO’s The Leftovers

Mother believed her music would travel and it did, long after she was gone.  Her song, Let Tomorrow Be, recorded in Nashville in the 1950’s. traveled to HBO’s The Leftovers.  The show made poignant use of it with Fern singing over the credits. From my book, The Glory Road, here’s an excerpt about the song’s beginnings.

The setting:  Bogalusa, Louisiana, 1956. Junior is helping build a new house for the preacher and his wife. He and his wife, Marge, Brother Ray and Sister Fern are close friends during a time when white people and black people live on different sides of town.  Junior comes over every day to work on the house and on this day, he’s trying to persuade Fern to make up her mind.

**********

“Miz Jones, You got to pick a color today for the outside.  I brought some more samples.”

She glanced at them.

“Not any of these.”

“The painter’s needin’ to get started.  Once he gets here, we got to pay him for the whole time every day. Can’t bring him all the way over here and…”

‘I know, but these aren’t right.  I want the house to be this color.”

She patted the new chaise.

“Pink?  Miz Jones, I mean the outside.”

“Yes, the outside.  Pink outside, and a sparkly white roof, you know the kind?”

“I’ve seen them.”

“So pink outside and a white roof, okay?”

“Okaaaay. That’s a whole lotta pink.”

“Pink’s the most important color today, Junior. Everybody’s wearing pink and black.  Elvis Presley had his picture made in a pink shirt and black jacket that looks exactly like an outfit I made to sing in. Junior can I tell you a secret?”

“You like pink?”

“Yes I do but this is something else. I just finished writing a new song. I’m gonna tape it and send it around to people and see if somebody famous will record it.”

“Miz Jones, you oughta be recording your songs your own self.  Nobody sings like you do.  I oughta tell you what my Margie sez.  No I better not.”

“Oh yes, you better.”

“She heard you sing on the radio Saturday morning over at WHXY and she sez, Margie sez to me…”

“What?”

“She sez, Junior, that’s Rev’s wife on the radio.  I sez yes I believe it is and Margie sez, Miz Jones sings like a man.  And then she sez…she sings like a colored man.”

“No!  She did not!”

Mother put her hand over her heart.

“Junior, please tell her I am honored. Do you want to hear my new song?”

“Course I do.”

“I got the idea from my mother.”

She picked up her guitar, strummed and sang,

Don’t try to cross that river that you cannot see
Don’t try to tunnel through that mountain that may not be.

She stopped to explain the arrangement she heard in her head.

“And then backup singers come in behind me and then,”

For by tomorrow all your fears
May up and slip away
All the clouds of darkness
May turn to day
For all the trouble you have feared
You’ll find there’s grace to borrow
So let tomorrow be until tomorrow

Junior, always an active listener, said,

“Uh huh.  You tell it.”

“What do you think?”

“It’s a good one. You sure do turn a song into a lesson.”

“It’s the way my songs come to me. Back when we were gettin’ our last baby
and I was so sick, I called up my mother and she was upset that I was
expecting again but then when I told her I was scared about it she said, ‘Don’t borrow trouble.  Let tomorrow be.'”

“I don’t know how you do that.  Write a new song good as any on the radio.”

“It’s my gift from the Lord, Junior.  All my songs will be on the radio.  I know they will.”

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Here’s Fern’s recording of Let Tomorrow Be from the 1958 album
Fern Jones/The Glory Road
Featured in
The Leftovers HBO Season 2, Episode 1, “Axis Mundi”

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