by the Night Writer
(Originally written, September, 2019.)
All my life, there has been music playing. And growing up, that meant country music, so I started watching the Ken Burns country music series on PBS, expecting to hear some familiar songs and stories. Turns out, the music isn’t the only thing familiar. I see the images, and hear the voices, and always the images and voices of my family are superimposed in my mind.
From the hard times of my grandparents’ hard-scrabble beginnings, through the challenging post-Depression and war years of my parents’ childhoods, to the records they brought home as adults and the radio stations they tuned to, country music was the quilt that patched it all together. My grandfather was born on a farm in rural Missouri (though almost all of Missouri was rural then), his large family scraping an existence and posterity out of the soil. When he was six, their house burned down and the family lived in the barn and outbuildings until his father could afford to rebuild. His annual clothing allotment as a boy was a pair of new overalls, two union suits, a shirt or two in good years, and cheap shoes that would be worn-out pieces of flapping cardboard by the spring, when it was time to go barefoot anyway. I saw the b/w images of the Carter Family, and the Maddox Brothers and Rose, but it was also the barefoot boy with the slingshot on the rocky farmstead that I was seeing.
The pictures and home movies of the young stars like Johnny Cash and others were a punch in the gut. The wavy hair, skinny arms in short-sleeve shirts, the wistful smiles, the hands holding a can of beer and a cigarette (when they weren’t holding a guitar) – that was my father and his brothers relaxing after their many labors as I was growing up in a succession of backyards in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Indiana. I see the pictures, and I know that even though they couldn’t see the future that I have seen, they believed in it.
And, of course, the series has to run now, in late September. Today is my father’s birthday, he would have been 84. He knew the roots and the rocks stretching back behind us, but never knew his great-grandchildren, yet the circle – as they say – is unbroken. And, as the song says, “I can’t stop loving you.”