It was a lonesome sound, almost like a cry for help or someone licking their wounds and walking back home with their tail between their legs. The background beat seemed to move along like the pace of a broken heart, where each drum kick, bass thump and guitar chord aimed to keep the soul alive.
It was the sound of country singer Hank Williams.
A child of the Great Depression and veteran of World War II, my grandfather grew up on a dirt poor farm in the Thousand Islands of Upstate New York. As a teenager, he and his cronies enlisted in the Army on a whim. He was eventually deployed to Pearl Harbor in early 1941 and was present for the Japanese surprise attack on the base on Dec. 7. He also found himself at Guadalcanal and an array of other conflicts and unimaginable experiences, for good or ill.
Following the war, he came back to New York, met my grandmother and worked on the Canadian border as a port director for U.S. Customs, all the while raising a family of five and running a successful real estate business on the side. He was a “man’s man,” someone who helped anyone in need and never wanted anything in return. And alongside his love of hunting, camping, fishing and the nearby Adirondack Mountains was his deep passion for country music.
I’m not talking about the “country” music of today. No, this isn’t about Taylor Swift, Toby Keith, Carrie Underwood, Little Big Town or Jason Aldean. It’s about real country music, where names like Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, Buck Owens, Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce and Jimmie Rodgers come to mind. Give a listen to any of those original country names and your Top 40 radio dial will remain dormant thereafter. Once you’re hooked on the real deal, you’ll never go back.
Growing up, those old country sounds were always around me. Whether it was sitting on that camp porch or riding along with my father as George Jones, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson constantly echoed from the speakers of the old Chrysler minivan, the melodies soaked into my mind. And, for many years, I kind of just chalked it up to the music my elders enjoyed.
As a teenager, I listened to what most kids my age liked – pop radio sprinkled in with some catchy classic rock songs my uncles and aunts would blast. Music is a lifelong evolution and, at that time, I was only at the starting line of my journey. I soon discovered The Beatles, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young and Led Zeppelin, onward into Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock. From there, I swung into the realms of bluegrass, mountain music, jam rock, with ventures into classical and world beats.
When my grandfather passed away in 2007, it was only a week after I graduated college. It was a crossroads of my life where I didn’t know which way was up. I wondered what the hell I was going to do now, and how I would manage without the steadfastness and guidance of my grandfather.
During the funeral and celebrations of his life, the old country music he loved played, drifting between groups of his friends and family sharing stories through laughter and tears. I found myself captivated by it. It grabbed hold of me in ways it hadn’t before. All of those melodic heartaches, drunken nights and battle scars of life seemed more real to me, where, now as an adult, I could relate to the lyrics with visions of my own endeavors. The songs also reminded me of my grandfather, which provided me some comfort and solace as I dealt with his death.
When I moved out to eastern Idaho for my first reporting job, I found myself in the high desert of the western Rocky Mountains. Scratchy local AM stations fueled my old country desires with plenty of Tex Ritter, Lefty Frizzell and Floyd Tillman. I would cruise dusty back roads and s-curve mountain routes, blaring these beloved musicians, thinking of the steps that brought me there. I also thought of my grandfather who had a lifelong urge to live in the West. He might not have made it out there, but his grandson did, with the songs of old country whistling from his lips.
Editor’s Note: Merle Haggard will be performing at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6, at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin (www.greatmountainmusic.com). Willie Nelson hits the stage at 9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 18, at Harrah’s Cherokee (www.harrahscherokee.com).
1: The inaugural Waynesville Craft Beer Festival will be at the American Legion on Aug. 31.
2: Gary Carden presents his new book Appalachian Bestiary at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva on Sept. 1.
3: Legendary outlaw country singer Hank Williams Jr. hits Harrah’s Cherokee on Sept. 1.
4: P.A.W.S. Animal Shelter will be celebrating its 10th annual Wine Tasting and Silent Auction benefit on Aug. 31 at Lands Creek Log Cabins’ Harmony Hall in Bryson City.
5: Local artist exhibit “Contemporary Traditions” opens Sept. 5 at Gallery 86 in Waynesville.