Preface - Country Music: The Masters
Somewhere among the back roads of the Old South on the gospel trail with the Sullivan Family Gospel Singers, camp meeting revivals, George Wallace campaign rallies, Connie Smith coming to sing at the Choctaw Indian Fair in my hometown, Johnny Cash's ABC television show, the sound of Lester Perkins' guitar at Folsom Prison, Porter Wagoner's rhinestone suit winking at me, Bill Monroe giving me his mandolin pick, and Lester Flatt offering me a job, I identified my calling, my destiny. It was millions of miles ago and what a journey it has been. In the beginning, I came to Nashville from the land of Jimmie Rodgers, looking for a place, a place to belong inside the world of country music.
It was around 2:30 on the Thursday morning of Labor Day weekend 1972 when I first set foot in the city some refer to as the "Athens of the South." I had ridden the bus 430 miles from Philadelphia for what was supposed to be a weekend visit with Roland White. Roland was the mandolin player in Lester Flatt's band. I had met him on the bluegrass festival circuit the previous summer. We had become friends and, at the end of the run, he had invited me to come to Nashville. He also remarked that he would ask Lester if I could "ride along with them for a show or two."
Labor Day weekend seemed like a good time as I was beginning the ninth grade and loathing every minute of it. I had just come in from my first season on the touring circuit with the Sullivans where I'd graduated from a crash course in Bohemian Pentecostal wanderings. I'd discovered applause, flashy clothes, late nights, adventurous girls, constant motion, money, the Holy Ghost, music, music, and more music, and I loved every minute of it. I'd grown accustomed to it. But now that school had started, I had to give up all those things. I felt as though the circus had dropped me off at the edge of town and left me behind.
To entertain myself in class one day, I took a copy of a Country Song Roundup magazine to put inside my book and read. I got lost in a story. My teacher walked up behind me and knocked the books out of my hands. She informed me that if I'd "get my mind off of that garbage and get it onto history" that I might make something of myself. I informed her that I was more interested in making history than learning about it. That remark got me dismissed from school. I went home and called Roland and took him up on his offer for a visit. After some pleading with my family, they finally consented for me to go to Nashville for the weekend.
When I stepped off the bus that morning, I was expecting Roland to be there to meet me. He was nowhere in sight. Thirty minutes later, he still hadn't arrived. As I waited, I couldn't help but notice how dark it was. No moon, no stars, the only movement in the sky was the night birds.
I had always dreamed of coming to Nashville. However, I didn't think I would get here this fast. I wanted to live in the land of rhinestone suits. It was country boy Hollywood, the air castle of the South, a dream factory. I didn't see much glamour before me that night at the bus station, though. Mostly a steady stream of tear-stained travelers who looked as if all their dreams were shattered, coming and going into the abyss of the Greyhound corridors. The first live music I heard in Music City came from a harmonica-playing street performer. He was standing over a manhole cover with steam forming around him. It gave him a phantom-like presence. He played "Pins and Needles In My Heart" by Roy Acuff and then moved on without staying a word, and not a soul seemed to care.
I was beginning to get anxious as Roland was nowhere to be found. I picked up my bags and walked to the other side of the Greyhound station in hopes that he might be waiting there. He wasn't. What was waiting on me was a vision that I had not counted on seeing. I came face to face with the Mother Church of Country Music -- the Ryman Auditorium. Just the sight of the place nearly drove me to my knees. The Ryman represented so much to me.
I'd collected stories about the Ryman. I'd read about Hank Williams encoring his song "The Lovesick Blues" on the Grand Ole Opry nine times one Saturday night. I knew of Johnny Cash dragging the microphone stand across the footlights on one of his bad nights, an incident that got him dismissed from the show. I was aware that on a Saturday night in 1945, a young banjo player from North Carolina named Earl Scruggs auditioned for Bill Monroe in one of the dressing rooms. After Monroe heard him, he was hired. It was from here that Monroe, along with Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise, and Cedric Rainwater went on to blueprint the music now known as bluegrass.
As I stood there, I recalled sitting on my Grandma Stuart's lap in her kitchen out in the country. We listened to the Opry underneath the glow of a naked light bulb the Saturday night after the tragic plane crash that claimed the lives of Patsy Cline, Cowboy Copas, Hawkshaw Hawkins, and their pilot, Randy Hughes. The show that evening began with a prayer and a moment of silence. I could hear people sobbing and weeping. Although I was 400 miles away, I still felt the weight of their tears.
When I stood in front of the Ryman tabernacle that first time, it was eighty years old and I was thirteen. I felt a sense of belonging behind those doors. It didn't matter to me that the building looked weary and in need of repairs. Some of the windows were broken or boarded up, but somehow her dignity seemed intact.
The atmosphere around the place was seedier than anything I'd ever seen. Lots of winos stumbling up and down the alleyways. Busy like rats, shadowy forms of hookers, and edgy people moving fast. Signs that read "The Wheel," "Night Club," "Demons' Den," "Adult XXX," "Peep Shows," "The Ernest Tubb Record Shop," "Grammer Guitars," and "Live Country Music" all beckoned. I was filling up my eyes with country music history, low life, and flashing neon signs when I heard Roland call my name. I felt as though I'd been rescued. He told me that he'd been at a jam session and lost track of time. He apologized, and then we climbed into his 1965 Chevrolet Impala and headed north of town to his home. Even at that unlovely hour of the morning, his wife and children got out of bed to welcome me.
The next morning we gathered our things and went to Hendersonville, Tennessee to board Lester's bus to go on the road to Delaware. He and Ernest Tubb were but two of the old kings who kept their buses parked at a place called Higgins' Gulf Station. Roland was one of the band members who drove the bus and he wanted to arrive early to prepare it for the trip. The bus was a late model, 1950s converted Greyhound Scenic Cruiser, a double-decker touring coach. The lettering on the side panels read "Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass, sponsored by Martha White." It was a funky, unkempt shell of a bus with the original seats still in the lounge area. A clothesline with a curtain sewn to it was the wall of privacy that separated the front lounge from the bunk area. The bunks were steel Army cots bolted to the floor. Two galvanized pipes were fixed at the rear of the bus for hanging clothes, and that was the décor-- barely the basics. As primitive as it was, I instantly liked it. It had character, and I could feel the history on its walls. I was proud to be standing on this bus. It felt like the rock of ages. A serious submarine, it was a carrier of war horses, architects of sound, men of prominence, musicians whose names carried weight. I knew which seat Lester sat in without being told. Even his seat commanded respect. Roland was also in charge of Lester's guitar. When he brought it on the bus, he let me open the case and look at it. I wanted to pick it up and play it, but I didn't dare.
A forest green 1970 Cadillac Coupe de Ville pulled into the parking lot very slowly with the headlights on. I suspected that it had to be Lester and it was. He parked the car, got out, and gave the keys to a black man named Tom who worked for Higgins. Lester offered him a cigarette and then it lit it for him.
Flatt was sporting Ray Ban sunglasses. He was wearing a Charmadine navy blue suit with red hand-stitching around the lapels, a baby blue shirt, and white patent leather loafers. His hair was combed back, East Tennessee style. He walked slowly and with dignity.
The first time I had ever laid eyes on Lester Flatt was the previous summer at Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana. I'd stood and waited outside the door of this very bus in the parking lot, looking for an opportunity to meet him and shake his hand. I had a speech all rehearsed. When he emerged from the bus, the words I'd planned to say somehow got lost inside me. I could only gather enough courage to say, "Mr. Flatt, could I please get your autograph?"
It's approximately a quarter of a mile of dusty road from where his bus was parked at Bean Blossom. I followed him the entire distance. I studied everything about him as he moved slowly through the sea of people. It was like watching a king moving throughout his kingdom. Out of respect, everyone seemed to step aside. Country people, hippies, bikers, musicians, people of all ages spoke to him in reverent tones and reached out to touch his hand as he passed. It was an awesome sight. One older gentlemen wearing overalls took off his hat and, after Lester had passed by the man, took out his handkerchief and wiped tears from his eyes. I was standing in another parking lot now and it was time to leave. I stepped up on the bus and reintroduced myself to Lester. He told me he was glad that I was along and to make myself at home. Roland then introduced me to all the band members, and each and every one of them welcomed me and treated me like they'd known me for years.
It is roughly twelve miles between Hendersonville and Gallatin, Tennessee. During the course of that twelve-mile stretch of road, I sat down next to Lester and told him what kind of guitar he played in the 1940s when he was a member of Bill Monroe's band. I informed him who had owned it since then and where it was now. I named all the duets that he and Monroe had sung together. I mentioned my favorite songs that he had written over the past thirty years. I recited a chronological listing of most of the band members from the Foggy Mountain Boys' inception in 1948. I told him that I considered him to be the most influential lead singer in the history of bluegrass music. I also shared with him the positive effect that Flatt & Scruggs' music had on our home as it lifted the weight of racial hatred that had swirled around Philadelphia, Mississippi in the summer of 1964. I almost choked when I said how sorry I was that he and Earl had split up, and I told him how much my family and I loved them. Those were the things I had wanted to say to him the year before. And then I said, "Your guitar started sounding better after you stopped using Mapes brand strings and went back to the ones you used to use."
He looked around the lounge of the bus and smiled. All the guys looked kind of amused. He looked at me as if I were an alien. There was a stretch of silence. He crushed his Doral Menthol cigarette out on the floor of the bus with the heel of his shoe. He then took a drink of water that he'd brought from home in his Coleman travel jug and pitched what he didn't drink toward the windshield of the bus. As he slowly put the cap back on the jug, he kind of grinned at me and said, "Just where in the hell did you come from with all of that?" I said, "Mississippi." He shook my hand. I knew I'd made a friend.
Later in the day as we traveled up Interstate 40 eastbound, Roland and I went to the back of the bus and started playing music. He played the guitar and I played the mandolin. We were into an old fiddle tune called "Bill Cheatum" when Lester came back to go to bed. He stood and listened to us play and at the end of the song he said, "Why don't you work up a couple of numbers with Roland and do them on our show this weekend?" Then he turned and walked away. I asked Roland, "Did he mean that?" and he replied, "If he said it, he meant it." At the next stop, I called home and tried to tell my family what had just happened. I talked so fast, I doubt if anybody made any sense of it.
The weekend event was an upper East Coast style folk and bluegrass show. People like Roger Sprung, Don Stover, Don Reno, Bill Harrell, Joe Val, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, and Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass each played four shows in two days. Lester featured me on all four sets. The crowd responded, I loved it, and Lester seemed to enjoy it as well.
As the sun went down at the close of the Sunday show, Lester asked me if I'd have a talk with him. He told me that he liked what I'd played and sung for the last couple of days. He indicated to me that he believed I had it in me to play music for a lifetime and that I was what he termed a "good trooper." He suggested that I had a lot to learn and that I needed a place in which to establish myself. He went on to say, "If we can work something out with your folks and your schoolwork, I'd like to offer you a job," and concluded with, "If you can stick around Nashville for a few more days, we tape our Martha White radio show at WSM on Tuesdays. You can join us as well next Friday night when we play the Grand Ole Opry."
It seemed like a divine appointment. The one that set me on my way and marked the true downbeat of my journey. It was a gift placed in my hands to use at will. I've squandered it countless times since then, but at that moment, Lester's offer seemed to be surrounded in a pure white celestial beam of light.
Again, every time the bus stopped from Delaware to Nashville, I'd find a pay phone and plead with my parents to let me stay a few more days so I could play at the Grand Ole Opry. I finally got their consent. Somehow in my heart, I had the feeling that my life was about to change -- and in a big way.
On a cool Friday afternoon, I rode into downtown Nashville with Lester. He parked his Cadillac behind the Ryman. I could hear the applause from outside as we moved toward the building. I proudly carried Lester's guitar and walked beside him into the backstage area of the Ryman. Entering the Grand Ole Opry with Lester Flatt would be no different than walking into the Vatican with the Pope.
The Opry is the quintessential country frolic or as Dr. Charles Wolfe calls it, "A good natured riot." It was a sight to behold. The squaredancers were performing when we walked in. Their red-and-white checkered shirts, white scarves and pants, and clicking shoes were spinning and twirling to the music of the Fruit Jar Drinkers. They were showing out on the boards of the stage that had been stomped on, sung on, and played on for more than three quarters of a century. Music seemed to fall from the rafters of the place. The building is a queen. A queen who knows the hearts of her children, as if she has the invisible knowing of one who has seen it all.
I walked out into the audience so I could see the show from their perspective. The house was filled with the smell of popcorn, sweat, coffee, and tradition. The people sitting in the pews looked like most everyone I'd ever known out in the country in Mississippi. Hard-working salt of the earth folks. It was a sea of friendly faces. The audience and the performers seemed in perfect harmony with each other, the common bond being the songs that songwriter Harlan Howard said consisted of "three chords and the truth."
The Opry is done in thirty-minute segments that are sponsored by different advertisers. Lester hosted the Martha White Flour portion. We took our places behind the gold curtain and when the announcer called, "Make welcome Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass," the place exploded. The curtain went up and there I was on top of the world, a vantage point I'll never forget. I don't remember what song we played, although it was probably a fast one. I was moving quickly and getting baptized with a fresh fire all at the same time. It was a surreal experience.
After the song was over, I drifted into the wings to watch the show. Lester introduced a couple of singers who went out and sang their hits. During the last commercial as the segment was coming to a close, he walked over to me and said, "Why don't you and Roland sing 'Love, Please Come Home' when we go back to end the show?" When our time came, he introduced me and told the audience that this was my first time on the Opry. He also dedicated the song that Roland I were about to do to my mom, dad, and sister who were listening down in Mississippi. It was a 50,000-watt greeting card. I hoped the air was clear that night so the signal would be strong.
"As you read this letter that I write you
are the first words of "Love, Please Come Home." The song lifted off right, it had presence. It was locked into the moment. The band played it well and Roland and I sang our hearts out. When it was time for me to play the solo, I had to stand on my toes and aim the mandolin into the air as if I was shooting at birds to get the notes into the microphone. When the song ended, the crowd kept cheering. The applause would not stop. By then, Tex Ritter and his band had crowded in behind us. Roy Acuff and his band were there, as well as journalists and onlookers around the stage who pushed in to witness an Opry moment. It scared me and I thought I had done something wrong. I turned around and looked at Lester who was grinning. I said, "What do I do?" He answered, "Do it again."
It was then and there that I was made welcome into the family of country music. Thanks to Lester Flatt, that acceptance was instant. I now felt a part of the lineage of musicians who were heirs of the original vision of country music dating back to The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and beyond. I knew that I had been ushered in at the roots level, the area of country music that had served as an honest voice for a rough cat, pioneering America. A place where the power and sustaining force of credibility to the music are offered up. A place that will always serve as a guiding light when the music loses its way and stumbles at the feet of a trend.
I felt honored to be among the glorious parade of the sons and daughters of the mountains, the valleys, the plains, the bayous, and the cotton fields. A people who brought their culture, their heritage, their very hearts and souls as their gifts to the microphone. This era of country musicians was the rural conscience. Their works were elegant, uncharted, filled with naked emotions. As Connie Smith says, "Theirs was a cry of the heart." Bluegrass, western swing, honky tonk, old-time music, traditional country music, and gospel music -- which was at the heart of it all -- found a home inside country music. As Time magazine once wrote of The Carter Family's music, "In the light of perfect beauty, tears are the only answer." The same can be said for all of the music made at the inception of country music.
For most of the first year that I was in Nashville, I lived at Lester and Gladys Flatt's home. I was fourteen and I couldn't drive. In order for me to go anywhere, I had to go along with Lester, and his buddies became mine. Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubb, Stringbean, Grandpa Jones, and Roy Acuff became my poker pals, fishing buddies, and musical compadres. It seemed an important event every time any combination of those men got together. During this period, I went to New York City for the first time. While there, I walked into a bookstore in Greenwich Village. On the walls were some beautiful photographs of Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis which were taken by a jazz bassist named Milt Hinton. I learned that day that Mr. Hinton had always carried his camera along with him to concerts, recording sessions, on tour buses, or wherever the family of jazz was gathered. He had unprecedented access to all the titans. It was easy to see that his subjects trusted him. Those images in the bookstore inspired me to get a camera and begin documenting country music. I called my mom, who is a photography buff, and asked her if she'd get me a camera. She did and then mailed it to me. I terrorized everyone with my new camera. Some of those early shots appear in this book. As time went on, I realized how precious each and every frame is. By the mid 1970s, the times were changing and so was the world of country music. This became a reality for me with the murder of Stringbean and his wife Estelle. They came home on a Saturday night after two shows at the Grand Ole Opry only to find two thugs inside waiting to rob them. Stringbean suspected something and he went in the front door firing his .22 caliber pistol. The robbers killed him. Estelle had parked their car and heard the commotion as she walked toward the house. She tried to run, but one of the robbers chased her down and killed her in cold blood. Stringbean and Lester had shared the same agent and were booked on the same shows many times together. He traveled a good deal with our band and I loved him. It was unthinkable that anyone would harm such a gentle soul. I could not bring myself to go back in that house until recently. I wanted to face it and photograph it. When I finally got the courage to go, I was astonished to see how little had changed. It was as if time stood still on that Saturday night in 1974.
It wasn't very long afterwards that Lester started experiencing health problems. His quality of life wasn't very good after 1975 and he died in May 1979 at the age of 64. Those deaths marked the first of so many people I've loved and lost in the family of country music.
The second and only other steady job I've ever held was with Johnny Cash who went on to become a lifelong friend and my neighbor. A friend of mine named Danny Ferrington was building a guitar for him. I kept up with the progress of the guitar and went along with Danny the day he delivered it to John because I wanted to meet him. When we shook hands, I heard thunder. John, or J.R. as I called him, kept on shaking my hand. Finally he said, "Good to meet you, son. Where've you been?" I said, "Getting ready." Soon he asked me to join his band. I stayed for the next six years. It was like riding a mad dog cyclone across planet Earth. Hanging around J.R. Cash was an amazing adventure. He was a photography enthusiast, and he encouraged me to bring my camera along wherever we went. He personified history in motion, and he was always cool about being photographed.
One of the most enduring memories I have of touring with him is a trip we made to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1983. The Cash show performed a benefit concert for the people of Shannon County, South Dakota. It was and still is the poorest county in the United States. The conditions surrounding the Lakota people are deplorable. I fell in love with those people that night, their beauty, wisdom, and integrity. I've gone back to Pine Ridge ever since. One of the discoveries of that first trip was getting to see some of the masterful portraits done of the Native Americans by Edward S. Curtis in the early 1900s. They were beautiful and timeless. His love for the Native Americans that he referred to as "the vanishing race" is evident. It became Curtis' passion, his life's work, his legacy.
As the eighties moved on, I couldn't help but notice how so many of the people, places, and treasures of a music and culture that I loved were vanishing the same as Curtis' beloved Indians had decades before. New sounds and new stars were emerging and re-energizing country music. I was glad because I was in line to be a part of that changing of the guard. However, I could not make peace with breaching the musical heritage of country music just to expand the audience. I was of the belief, then and now, that the entire story should move into the future and no one should be left behind. Country music is America's music, the language of the common man and woman, true-life blues set to simple melodies. The family of country music should never be a house divided.
It's a natural setting for folk heroes. From the Singing Brakeman Jimmie Rodgers, the Coal Miner's Daughter Loretta Lynn, the Man in Black Johnny Cash, the Queen of Country Music Kitty Wells, the Okie from Muskogee Merle Haggard, the Red-Headed Stranger Willie Nelson, to the modern day stars, country music is a music by the people and for the people.
The people included in this book are all masters. They are the people who laid the foundation and carved inroads through the wilderness for generations of country musicians to travel. It's a road that's paved with dreams and tears.
I'm a dreamer. So is Merle Haggard. The two of us get together and have big talks about country music from time to time. Hag recently said to me, "You know, Jimmie Rodgers' songs are the very finest. He was the best. I wish he were still here. He was in and out of this world so fast, I can't help but wonder sometimes if he really did exist."
I think Jimmie Rodgers exists. Perhaps he's a reclusive ghost who lives somewhere beyond the edge of the universe. Of course, proof that the Father of Country Music walked among us can be found in his Victor recordings made in the early days of the twentieth century.
His guitar hangs in a vault in Meridian, Mississippi. I once sat in a chair he made. I've held his striped railroader's hat. I have one of his brakeman's lanterns, and the briefcase that contained his songs and was laid inside his casket on the funeral train from New York City back to Mississippi.
Like lightning, his voice still cuts out of the southern darkness as it has every Saturday night for many years between the hours of midnight and 3 a.m. It comes by way of WSM and the Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree in Nashville.
-- Marty Stuart
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