By Anita Garner
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.
Billy Eckstine, “If I Can Help Somebody” (Nat King Cole show, 1957)