City of Dreams

How One Musician Made His Way to Nashville

This article, written by Marty, appeared in InReview - February 15, 2000

I’ve always been a dreamer. It doesn’t cost a dime to dream. However, I’ve caught a ride on some dreams that money couldn't buy. I took up dreaming early on when I was growing up in Philadelphia, Mississippi. My family’s house was about a hundred yards from the train tracks. From my bedroom, I listened to the screams of the trains as they plowed through the night. They touched something inside of me that made me restless. And I liked it.

One afternoon, one of those trains stopped and I went down to the tracks to get a closer look at what made all that noise that moved me. The first thing that caught my attention was a man standing by a boxcar smoking a cigarette. He was weaving like some of my uncles did after they’d come in from a fishing trip in the delta. I suspected that he might have been drinking Schlitz beer. His clothes were ragged and his hair was wild. We struck up a conversation and when I asked him, "What do you do for a living?" he said, "I’m a hobo." He told me big stories about traveling to places like Arkansas and Alabama. He dazzled my mind until life returned to the train, then he hopped up into the boxcar and disappeared into Northern Mississippi. When I got home, I told my mother, "I’m going to be a hobo, so I can travel." It was just a flash that illuminated yet another in the long line of dreams I had running in my head.

I was 8 years old when that happened, and I was already searching for what it was that I was meant to do with my life. I was career-minded. I had already joined the service, serving my country by way of the Cub Scouts. Before that, I thought I was going to be a mortician – that is, until my friend Butch Hodgins snuck me behind the scenes of his uncle’s funeral home and showed me the table on which they embalmed people. I knew right away that I couldn't handle that. I think the real reason behind my fascination with the funeral business was the image. The guys at the funeral home always wore sharp suits and drove the longest Cadillacs in town. I admired that.

I was a door-to-door greeting card salesman for awhile, until I scored a better paying job – one that landed me on top of a Sears & Roebuck riding lawn mower. I called it landscaping, but a better job description would’ve been "yard boy." One of the yards I wanted to maintain belonged to a preacher named Sam Monk. It was a classic Southern showplace across town, and it featured magnolias, azaleas, roses and tulips. I believed that if I was able to get that job, it would break me into the upper echelon of property management all across central Mississippi.

One day I hitched a ride to Brother Monk’s house to ask him if I might have the privilege of cutting his grass. I didn't get the job – he told me that he took care of it himself – but I did manage to talk him into giving me his horse. I called my Aunt Waldine to see if she’d let me keep it at her place, and she told me to bring it on out. But Brother Monk didn't deliver the horse until a week later. When he arrived, I remember thinking to myself that the horse looked a lot better back in town! In the light of the country and alongside competition in the pasture, he wasn't much more than a pitiful bag of bones with a brand-new sucker for an owner.

I was curious to see if he could carry me, so I jumped up on his back. He took off running across the field like a million watts of hot-wired hell had hit him. I jerked on the reins, screamed, cried and begged him to stop. And he did... when he came to a barbed-wire fence. I kept going until I kissed a pine tree on the other side. My cousins ran over, helped me up and walked me back to the house. I gave them the horse for helping me and resigned on the spot from being a cowboy. It was another dead-end dream.

While I was in the house, icing down the knot on my head, I heard Johnny Cash’s live recording of "Folsom Prison Blues" on the radio. It mesmerized me. It caused my heart to fill up and spill down inside me. That one song multiplied the feeling I had the first time I heard Johnny Cash’s music – which was when I was 5 years old – and proceeded to change my life. His voice was the thunderbolt that melted the locks and chains off the world of music that lay hidden in the corridors of my soul. It drove me to my unplayed guitar and caused me to fall in love with the language of open chords and flatwound strings.

I spent the next few weeks learning songs. A traveling salesman who supplied records to local record shops in our part of the country was staying at the motel where my Aunt Doris worked. She told him that I was learning to play music by listening to records, and he sent me word that he would get me any recordings that I wanted to hear.

The first album I asked for was Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. When it arrived, I played it over and over. I couldn't get enough of it. Cash’s charisma, combined with the electricity of a room full of wired-up convicts, jumped out of the grooves of that record and into my brain. The power of the songs, coupled with Cash's storytelling ability, was stunning.

After living with that album for a while, I began to see the world from a different perspective. All of a sudden, those trains that passed our house sang a different song. What had originally sounded like a scream now sounded like a low, tortured, wildcat moan. Some nights it haunted me, because I felt like it was calling my name. When I saw the local jailbirds on the chain gang swinging Kaiser blades, cleaning off the ditch banks on Highway 19, I studied their faces to see if I could get a peek inside their souls. I felt like I had something in common with them. It was just a matter of time before I, too, would be released.

Playing the guitar and singing songs was my escape. My favorite place to perform was my Grandpa Stuart’s front porch. It was my theater of dreams: It was Folsom Prison; it was Woodstock; it was the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. It was anywhere I wanted it to be. I played lots of concerts for the pine trees, crows and clouds. The first standing ovation I ever received was from the mailbox.

One afternoon, while I was playing, the pines whispered just enough breeze across the front porch to move the rocking chairs back and forth with nobody in them. I knew it was the presence of the Holy Spirit. I could feel it in my heart. The Spirit sat down on me and gave me the vision of taking those imaginary concerts out of my grandpa’s front yard and into the world. It was the feeling I’d been searching for all along. It was more than a dream. It was a call on my life. A power welled up inside me that made me want to step down off that porch and go to the bottom of the driveway, walk up the dirt road to Highway 19, turn left and start walking toward Koskiusko, then Vaiden, Senitobia, Clarksdale, Oxford, Grenada straight into Memphis and, finally, Nashville. That’s where I felt the music coming from.

Music kept flooding me. I soon discovered the sound of bluegrass. My dad bought me a mandolin. In a year’s time, I had learned to play it well enough to ask for a job with a group of local legends called the Sullivan Family Gospel Singers. Enoch Sullivan hired me and sponsored my crash course in life on the road. I spent the summer of 1971 playing George Wallace rallies, backroad holiness churches, camp meetings and bluegrass festivals throughout the remnants of the Old South. I loved every minute of it. That summer I discovered applause, late nights, freedom, a world of people who loved music as I did, girls, money and fun. When it came to an end, I was miserable. Getting thrown back into an existence where names like Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs were virtually nonexistent was not exactly the kind of life I was looking for anymore.

I got expelled from school for reading Country Song Roundup instead of a history book. My teacher told me that if I’d get my mind off that trash and get it onto history I might make something of myself. I told her that I was more interested in making history than learning about it. She sent me straight to the principal’s office, but I just kept on walking until I got home.

The summer before, at a bluegrass festival, I’d met Roland White, a guy who worked in Lester Flatt’s band. He’d extended the invitation for me to come to Nashville and go on the road with Lester for a weekend. This seemed like the perfect weekend to do it. I called him, he cleared it with Lester and I pleaded with my folks until they agreed to let me go. I had a feeling if I could just get to Nashville, the rest would take care of itself.

I traveled the 430 miles from Philadelphia, Miss., to Nashville, Tenn., in a Greyhound bus. I was so excited I stood the entire time and talked the driver’s head off. In those days, the Greyhound station was across the street from the Ryman Auditorium. When the bus stopped and emptied its cast of cutting-edge transients onto the street, I stepped out onto the sidewalk and stared at the Ryman. I knew it was the front door to my future.

That weekend turned into a career. Lester invited me to join the band. I fell in love with Nashville and with fame, fortune, the road and all its trappings. It was my utopia. The ultimate parlor of cool. I never saw a right crowd or a wrong crowd, just people on a journey. It was one big eccentric family and I wanted to find my place to fit in. It seemed like the perfect setting for a dream come true, so I settled in and called it home.

Since then, I’ve been around the world a dozen times. I’ve seen every state in the union except Alaska, busted hundreds of guitar strings and become a slave to caffeine. I’m famous at most Waffle Houses throughout America. I’ve had hits and misses. I’ve scooped up fame, gave it away, almost lost my soul, got it back, seen the blackest of black, the purest of white, been to jail, played the White House, married an angel, been in and out of style too many times to recall, made some good records, then finally made one I loved. It didn't sell, and it cost me my deal. Oh well. I still live by the standard that the heart is more powerful than the chart. There’s always another deal. As they say in Music City, "It all begins with a song."

And that’s what I’m doing a lot of right now: writing songs. And lately, I’ve been practicing the fiddle. And I’ve got some square dancers on hold. Because any day now, I suspect country music will go up in flames. It’s bound to crash and burn so that it can find its heart, reinvent itself and live again. When that happens, I’m determined to give Nero a run for his money. Rome ain’t got nothing on us. This town knows how to put on a show. We’ve done a good job of it for years.

I’ve said "so long" to the days of Hillbilly Hollywood in all its rhinestone glory. I loved it; I miss it; it had soul. Sometimes when I get lonesome for it, I go and visit. It now lives among friends and neighbors in an abandoned skating rink out on Dickerson Road. As Thomas Wolfe once said, "You can’t go back to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of time and memory."

It’s true, but I still love to dream. Mostly about the future, heaven and such celestial things. I feed off the words of Jesus and the promise of spring, and I still thank God for "Folsom Prison Blues."

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