I lay on my mother’s bed on Saturday nights until I was eight and fell asleep to the muffled voices of The Grand Ole Opry. My father in the front of the house working on his sermon, Mama would take charge of the radio as the last shots of Gunsmoke were fired. The Opry meant the coming of a sleep that I resisted, but its distinctive sounds, the shape of songs grown familiar only through those Saturday night shows, filled the space between us until her world was my world and her stars were my stars.
Mama was a big woman, five feet seven inches and fleshy enough, even in her prime, to call herself big boned. She could hide her emotions in a mask as stoical as bluegrass music. But there was a hint of moody sensuality about her as well and mischievousness in her smile. Her eyes, like her hair, were dark brown.
One of twelve children, she grew up in an unpainted house in the hills near the Tennessee River in West Tennessee. The house had neither electricity nor plumbing. It was all bedrooms, three of them across the front, two beds to a room, with a kitchen in the back. She went to grade school at the one-room Doe Creek School where my grandfather taught, then walked four miles to Scotts Hill for high school. It was a hard life and left deep scars on the children, something those romantic songs about growing up poor usually fail to mention. Still, some of our best times were when she would tell me the old stories about growing up poor, isolated, and in a crowd of brothers and sisters. She would laugh until tears filled her eyes, and I, not really understanding the stories but loving the laughter, would roll on the floor beside her.
She found a way out when my father preached a revival near her home. At 16, she quit school to become a Methodist minister’s wife, first in rural “circuits” of three and four churches with names like Campground, Church Grove, and Palestine and later in a string of small-town churches in Western Kentucky and West Tennessee. She taught herself most of what she needed to know by watching and reading, and she lied about her education and age until there was no need and then out of habit.
Her life, our life, was orchestrated to avoid criticism, about our clothes, our car, our grammar, our manners, our intelligence, about the state of our souls. She rose at five daily and worked until mid-afternoon cleaning the house. In the evenings, particularly in the summer, she often visited with neighbors. As her extensions, my sister and I felt a lot of pressure to make a good impression as well. Violating one of her rules was a major offense, and she would ridicule you no matter how public the situation. Still, not all her rules were about making a good impression. She was the least racist person from my early childhood, and she insisted I work at treating everyone the same. She also had a wonderful sense of humor and could be very funny even about all her pretenses.
In 1954, we moved to our first brick house. The house, a four-bedroom Tudor, stood amidst old money next to a matching church on a bluff that overlooked the Mississippi River in Hickman, Kentucky. Methodists move their ministers periodically, so we were used to finding our place in the farm towns of Western Kentucky. What we weren’t used to were the plantation airs of Hickman, the colonial houses, the big cars, the fur stoles. This was cotton country, and the large farms that filled the river bottoms made it seem more like the Mississippi Delta than the Kentucky we had known.
The town was a testament to the power of the river. A seawall, that’s what we called it, stood an alley away from Main Street and wound itself around the downtown and west to the poorer sections to keep out the high water that had flooded the streets in the 1920s. More than a hundred concrete steps climbed from the downtown to the bluff where the town’s ruling class could look at the river from their picture windows but find none of its trouble in their yards.
A few families controlled most of the rich river-bottom land and sat atop a class structure that was mostly poor people, black and white. We were part of the town’s small middle class, but much of the town’s aristocracy attended our church, and our lives straddled the class lines that divided the town. Hickman was both an alluring and foreboding place. Closer to her dreams of the good life than she had ever expected to be, Mama drank in the small town elegance of that sleepy river town and turned off The Opry. For Mama, Hickman was a place too grand for country music.
In the years to come our lives changed in ways none of us would have predicted. The summer after my fourth grade year, we had to start facing the ongoing problem of my father’s health. Daddy suffered from a number of circulatory ailments that were heart related and were the longtime consequences of rheumatic fever and a shooting accident he suffered as a boy. That summer he had very serious arterial surgery and his health for the remainder of my school years steadily declined. My mother’s mental health deteriorated in step with my father’s illness. She withdrew more and more into herself and increasingly medicated her fears and worries with prescription drugs. The shadow of those years and the ones that followed hangs over many of the stories I tell. But before there was a shadow, a light shined from the radio on Saturday night, the room was full of music and my Mama loved me like a song.
(Some of this material appeared in “That Same Lonesome Blood,” Oxford American Music Issue, 2001.)