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.
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.
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.
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.
We evangelists’ kids were curiosities even back then. I still get the most questions about 1) The tents 2) The music 3) The tents.
Our family’s revivals started with tents seating a few hundred people, and eventually held about 3,000. That was as big as Daddy was willing to get.
This tent resembles some of our earlier ones. Most evangelists didn’t own their tents. They were rented and arrived in a truck for local assembly.
By the mid-50’s, a different kind of tent revival appeared. Brother Oral Roberts was out there on the same path we followed, with a huge difference. Instead of the two and three-pole tents most of us rented, he owned his own, billed as “The world’s largest fireproof tent.” It seated close to 20,000.
We visited his tent the night a storm in Amarillo lifted up the heavy metal center poles and set them swinging, the biggest fear of evangelists in the Deep South.
Here are excerpts from The Glory Road (both the book and stage play) about getting ready for a tent revival. This was repeated countless times by The Joneses all over the South.
Our gospel caravan was fueled by Hershey bars and snow cones, Co-Cola and Dr. Pepper, Moon Pies from every gas station, Royal Crown Cola on the road to Oklahoma, Peanut Patties in Georgia, Orange Crush in Mississippi, biscuits and grits in Arkansas, tamales in El Paso, Po’ boys in Louisiana and baloney sandwiches all over the place.
Daddy went off to meet with the ministers of the region and the construction crew and the electricians and the people who rented us folding chairs, and a couple of roustabouts, strong men who earned their keep as soon as trucks carrying the tent and equipment rolled up to the edge of the field.
He supervised every detail of our tent going up. Leslie Ray and I could go along with him all day if we wanted to, over to a church office, to a midday dinner in a cafe with local backers and then out to the field, where sponsoring ministers floated around the site watching Reverend Raymond Jones, the charismatic evangelist, swinging a mallet and driving tent stakes into the ground alongside the crew. We’d seen and heard all these details many times, but we went along to remove ourselves from the case of nerves that struck Sister Fern Jones before just about every revival.
That first day while Mother unpacked at the motor court, the field where the tent would be was already buzzing. Trucks arrived filled with people who drove out to watch the tent go up. Children stayed home from school to see it. A circle of onlookers surrounded the proceedings all day.
Workers laid the tent sections flat on the ground then pushed them up with big tent poles and stretched the guy-wires tight. Before departing , roustabouts taught volunteers how to work the flaps every night, some flaps up, some down, employing a specific choreography intended to outsmart the weather.
Daddy and Mother always conferred about how everything would look, the sign out in front, the cross behind the podium, the altar, and Daddy had specific measurements he was comfortable with for the platform. Several steps were needed and a ramp was built for loading sound equipment and a piano. A generator was concealed behind a tent flap. Our car became our own backstage area. Every night, Leslie and I carried music and instruments and helped set up.
Another truck rolled up and deposited a piano. Daddy directed them to place it at a specific angle so the crowd could see Sister Fern and also so the music-makers could see the congregation.
A bunch of kids, including us, sprinkled sawdust on the ground under the tent. When we heard the putt-putt-putt of a small crop duster, we looked up as handbills about the revival floated down from the sky. The pilot swooped away, going on to drop the brightly colored fliers all around the area.
Rain or shine, by late afternoon long before the service began, parking fields filled with carloads and truckloads of families eating the food they packed for their trip. Crowds were already milling about even before Daddy made his last stop on the platform to check the sound. No matter how many times the sound system was checked in the afternoon, he always made one last check as the seats filled. He asked a sponsoring pastor,
“You got us some people working the flaps tonight? Sky’s mighty dark.”
“Got volunteers standing by. They’ll open every other flap if they need to. Keep it cool in there ’til we have to close ’em.”
Daddy looked up, gauging the clouds.
“I reckon we’ll just have to let the mosquitoes and lightnin’ bugs in with the sinners.”
“That’s right. If we close those flaps and a good wind comes up, y’all will all be lifted up to heaven way ahead of schedule!”
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.
The Joneses in the Hollywood Reporter
American Roots music on stage and screen
From The Glory Road manuscript, here’s a front porch homecoming.
1956: On our way to California we stopped outside Shreveport to visit Daddy’s people.
Paw Paw’s little white house on the banks of the Red River overflowed that summer with kinfolks coming to visit because our Daddy, Raymond, the firstborn of ten, was in town. With his brothers and sisters and their wives and husbands and kids, we took up a lot of room, inside and out. The front steps stacked up with Joneses and their instruments, buzzing with music and storytelling and chicory-coffee and sweet tea and biscuits and ham. Sometime during every visit, Daddy would insist everybody sing, “This World is Not My Home.”
Here are some things these two shows below have in common.
They’re both on Netflix now.
Their soundtracks are outstanding.
Both feature that song recorded by my parents.
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore, a movie released last year, has a title that echoes the lyrics. The End Of The F***ing World is a Netflix series. In the first season, the show featured an outstanding soundtrack including vintage tracks from Hank Williams, Rick Nelson, Tom T. Hall, Brenda Lee, my parents, and many more.
Brother Ray and Sister Fern Jones “This World is Not My Home” From the album Fern Jones/The Glory Road