As of June, 2021, I’ve lived longer than anyone else in three generations of my family, longer than grandparents, longer than Mother and Daddy, longer than my sisters and brothers. None of them got to be 80, the number I’m now celebrating. Getting to be 80 years old doesn’t feel like a random event. It feels momentous.
I’m not the only one among my kinfolk with hopes and dreams and plans and I’m mindful of many opportunities the people who came before didn’t have. I was present at the end of the lives of some of them and heard first-hand what they wished they could have stayed around to accomplish.
One of the last things Mother said to me was, “You’re lucky you were born when you were. You have choices I never had.” Both those things are true. I remain in awe of all she accomplished during her time, in places and ways no one could have predicted. I hope somehow she knows how it all turned out.
At the end of Daddy’s life, he exhibited no restlessness about his closing chapters. He spoke only of gratitude. “I have had me some beautiful morning walks.” I wish he could have had many more.
During my 80th year I have the privilege of holding in my hand a book just published. My family lived it but I was the one who lived long enough to write about it.
I’m a person of faith so none of this feels accidental or coincidental. Wherever the stories come from, in whatever form they want to take, written or spoken, I’ll keep putting them together, though perhaps not as driven as Mother and a bit more grateful like Daddy.
As soon as our family landed in a town, top of Daddy’s list of things to do was to find a radio station for our show. He preferred a Saturday morning program. That way he could promote any nearby Singings or tent revivals or concerts where we’d be performing through the weekend.
When we stopped in Louisiana to pastor a church, the station Daddy chose was playing only country music records. No Southern Gospel. But a live show could be had if you’d bring in enough fans and if you came in fully sponsored. Those were the rules.
Since we traveled constantly, The Joneses had built up a good fan base. It was a surprise though, when our first sponsor at WHXY turned out to be “The Beautiful Pine Tree Inn,” the very building where the radio station was housed. Mr. and Mrs. Pine Tree Inn weren’t even members of our denomination, but they were fans of Southern Gospel.
Then came our fifteen minutes. Each show opened with a theme song with Daddy on guitar and Mother on piano or accordion. The four of us sang that one then a few more songs from all of us and sometimes a guest, like Brother Gene Thompson, an Arkansas evangelist who came to visit and heated up the airwaves with his guitar solos. A brief devotion from Daddy, short and sweet and gentle, like the blessing before a meal, then out with the theme, which Kousin Karl, the deejay on duty, faded as he resumed regular programming.
We packed up instruments while Karl reminded listeners they could send in their cards and letters with requests and he’d make sure The Joneses got them before next week’s show. Daddy stopped by the station during the week to pick up fan mail and true to Karl’s promise, we always performed at least one request each week. In the 1950’s, songs were so short we packed in lots of music in our fifteen minutes.
Karl entertained my brother and me with his dramatic readings of Hadacol’s outrageous cure-all commercials that aired shortly before we went on the air – way too close according to Daddy. Daddy knew the magic liquid in the bottle was mostly hootch. Karl messed around with different versions of the commercials, changing them every time, performing them with and without his Louisiana accent, sometimes with a deep voice, then next time a high squeaky, anxious delivery, as if nothing would help cure that voice except this product. He’d pretend to take a swig, and magically his voice returned to normal.
Karl’s career took off. As we were leaving Louisiana, he was becoming a successful concert promoter and a scout for record labels. He continued encouraging Mother to get the songs she wrote to people who could record them. And onstage, when he had occasion to introduce “Sister Fern” his build-up to her performance was so flowery, we were surprised Daddy wasn’t jealous. Karl helped make Sister Fern’s fifteen minutes last a good deal longer.
Just before Hadacol went out of business (false advertising, owner was a swindler, numerous other charges) it was huge. Hadacol was said to be one of the biggest advertisers in the Deep South with a budget second only to Coca Cola. Here’s a sample of the kind of commercials Kousin Karl had to read. Click to listen.
By the time my brother was 13, he was getting slippery about his comings and goings. His moods were unpredictable and he was nearly impossible for our parents to deal with. His new weapons were anger and silence. I envied him all that barely-contained rage.
For a while, Leslie Ray used his paper route for freedom. If he was late for church, he said the papers arrived late. Sometimes he skipped church altogether, a sin for a preacher’s boy, according to Daddy, and instead he went door to door collecting on his route. Freedom from Sunday School lasted only until Daddy set up other collection times. I wanted to be just like Leslie, brave and bold. So far the best I’d come up with was moping. When things went wrong, I was the sad one. He was the mad one.
This is not the face of a happy boy.
We were interpreters for each other.
“What’s your sister crying about now?”
“Nothing. She just cries sometimes.”
Not eloquent, but given that he always knew exactly what I was sad about, it was his attempt to let me keep secrets too.
“Where’s your brother?”
I was a fairly competent liar myself by then and getting better at it all the time. Saying “I don’t know,” when in fact I did know, was necessary to keep them from engaging in a line of questioning that might have exposed Leslie Ray’s present sanctuary. I assumed part of his enjoyment was derived from keeping them guessing.
We never tattled on each other. Exercising an instinct shared sometimes by children born close together, we helped each other avoid incrimination. We were dedicated to maintaining the dividing line between Them and Us.
Leslie practiced brinksmanship, magically reappearing just before a situation required someone to go hunt for him. His arrivals back home were cut so close, he entered the house a cartoon character accompanied by screeching, braking sound effects. Contrary to Daddy’s suspicions, my brother was not, at the present time anyway, doing anything our parents would consider sinful, but his history of misdeeds kept them alert to all possibilities. I wished just once without jeopardizing Leslie’s privacy, I could say,
“Go ahead, ask me that again. Ask me ‘Where’s your brother?’ so I could answer,
Churning for Sister Coker. That’s where he was at least once a week. Churning and listening to the radio in the Cokers’ kitchen and chatting with the family while maneuvering their old wooden churn paddle into a happy slap, glug, slap glug rhythm that turned milk from their cows into butter. Which was a surprise at first because he was impatient, full of energy, never could sit still, and everyone knows churning takes time. It’s repetitive. I never lasted a whole churn’s worth, but Leslie could sit there all night swooshing that dasher around.
Spending time at the Cokers’ house was never forbidden. They were among our most faithful church members, and their farm was one of the places we were welcome any time we could slip away. That’s why it was so odd and somehow more fascinating that Leslie Ray kept his time with them a secret.
Just down the road from our parsonage, on the way to the creek, was the Cokers’ place, where a humble farmhouse boasted a wide front porch that welcomed a steady flow of neighbors.
Sister Lastena Coker with our Baby
Sister Coker was sometimes a little absent-minded but she continued to absorb information even while seemingly in a trying-to-remember state so you didn’t want to underestimate her, because she could drop a cogent remark into a conversation when you least expected it. You had to let yourself stay relaxed about whichever state you found her in. She was always occupied with the farm and family and church and always offered the world a kind demeanor. She said, about most any problem,
“Everything will work itself out directly.”
She repeatedly misplaced one or another of her favorite butter molds and when Leslie Ray showed up ready to churn, she first dispatched him to help her get everything rounded up again.
“Leslie Ray, climb up there and see if you can find that one that’s shaped like a rose. That was my mama’s favorite. I want you to see it. Be careful now. Use that ladder.”
He was already on the counter, part monkey, part growing boy, and was feeling around at the very top of the cabinets where somebody, probably Sister Coker herself, kept stacking up the old, prized butter molds, and when the stack tumbled, some of them lodged in odd spaces. Leslie said,
“Here it is! It slipped down back there. We better fix that shelf. It’s pulling away from the wall. You got a hammer handy?”
She answered with another subject.
“Now what’d I do with that dasher?”
From his perch up on the counter, he performed a quick scan and spotted it.
“It’s over yonder. You probably took it out to clean it.”
He came back home to our parsonage carrying his handmade and quite artistic fresh butter, acting like the Cokers had made it and asked him to give it to their pastor.
Daddy was an appreciator of everything homemade and he thought Sister Coker was responsible for the recent abundance of beautiful butter on our table. He called to Mother,
“Doll-Baby, c’mere and look at this butter Sister Coker made. This one’s shaped like a rose.”
Leslie delivered butter to us every few days and we spread it on warm biscuits and didn’t even bother with preserves, the butter was that good. Not once did my brother reveal himself as the maker of this bounty.
When Daddy thanked Sister Coker for the butter, she said,
“Oh Leslie Ray’s such a big help,” and her statement rolled right on into that great ball of Southern church-speak where people say nice things they think someone else wants to hear, so Daddy thought Sister Coker was just complimenting him on his very trying son’s behavior.
Leslie’s secret would have been uncovered if Sister Coker had ever once said something more specific like “He’s so helpful with the churning,” or “So sweet the way he makes butter every week,” but the words never happened to fall that way into a conversation, so nobody was telling a lie.
While we lived in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, my brother spent as much time as he could with that family, helping them at butchering time, working in their garden whenever he wasn’t required to work in ours and finding something there that he needed, something more important than just being able to disappear now and then. Leslie Ray needed to be in charge of something. The Cokers let him.
A version of this story appeared in Reminisce Magazine.
Daddy – 1937. Newlywed. Newly ordained preacher, Reverend Raymond D. Jones. “Brother Ray.”
The oldest of ten, he’d already helped raise his brothers and sisters, picking cotton, tending gardens, plowing fields and cooking for his family when he should have been in school, riding his motorcycle, drinking too much, honky-tonking on the weekend and dancing with the teenage singer who became his wife. She was the rose. He remained the gardener. After my brother and I came along, she was the performer. He was the teacher.
He taught us how to plant potatoes, how to cook them, how to make biscuits and gravy, and the behavior required of Southern preachers’ kids in all kinds of situations. Example: Because he came up poor and was always conscious of someone else’s lack of funds, when we had supper with members of the congregation and were offered second helpings, he asked us to say,
“Much obliged, but I have had sufficient.”
We were eager for stories of his wild days but he only told us bits and ended every telling with,
“Course I’d-a never done that if I was a Daddy then. That’s not how a Daddy ought to do.”
All his people sang parts and played instruments and studied shape note singing at a country church out in the woods. He believed in music to spread The Word, but he didn’t care much about having a featured role. His part was usually singing harmony and playing rhythm guitar.
When The Joneses’ music, recorded in the 1950’s, was re-mastered and released a few years back, the only song on the album featuring Daddy’s voice on lead was soon heard all over the place. He’d have been surprised. I can see his grin and hear his drawl.
“Well, I never!”
In honor of Father’s Day, click the picture and hear Daddy’s distinctive hill country lead on “This World Is Not My Home.”
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 featuring The Joneses’ songs, recorded 60 years ago. And thanks A P Bio producers, and the show’s music supervisor, Kerri Drootin.
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.”
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.