I spent the morning with some old friends I hadn’t seen in years. I kind of bumped into them almost by accident. It was a joyous reunion for me since I’d known many of them since my boyhood. But there were a lot of tears as well. I soaked two handkerchiefs and most of a third when they revived old memories of some of the happiest events in my long life. The truth is that most of my old friends and acquaintances are dead. Some have been gone for a number of years. As is the case when one is almost eighty, I recognized some of their faces but I couldn’t remember their names. As is my habit nowadays I wait for someone to call them by name and then the pieces come together.
This is a marvelous age we live in. I spend a lot of time on my computer but until recently not as much as I’d have liked to. You see, my provider wasn’t allowing me to download at the same speed as the rest of the region. I finally grabbed a technician working at a relay station and he got the ball rolling to where I can now watch videos and stream sports from the U.S. to my home in El Salvador. This is what brought me and my old friends together.
Country music has been the center point of my life as far back as I can remember. I loved listening to my sister’s records on our Victrola and radio programs from Newark, NJ to WSM’s Grand Ole Opry in Nashville when it played on WEAF in New York. When I had access to my sister’s radio at night or on weekends, I’d find WWVA’s Wheeling Jamboree or some other popular programs from across the Mexican border that were powerful enough to reach Piscataway, NJ.
As a teenager in 1953 I started singing and picking my Gretsch guitar at local gigs and with some moxie and pushes from my friends found myself being part of the “local talent” in Grand Ole Opry package shows in some of the larger venues in Northern New Jersey. Back then the stars were just regular people who traveled by car to sing and play and mix with the people who came to listen. I got to meet and become friends with many of the true country performers of the 50s and 60s.
Television brought country music superstars into our homes. “Ozark Jubilee” was hosted by Red Foley. The Grand Ole Opry had specials. People like Jimmy Dean, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and others came on as summer replacements and some became regular shows. Then there was the most durable country show of all, “Hee-Haw”.
Meanwhile, I was playing in different clubs in New Jersey and attending every country concert that came to the area. And there were plenty. I’ve got a fortune in autographs to prove it. But what affected my life and my twenty-five year career was the friendship and counsel from the many popular stars of the day. I learned to appreciate their humility despite being adored and even worshipped by millions of fans across the country who bought their records, listened to them on radio or TV, and drove for miles to see them in person.
That’s all past history. Now we’ve got YouTube and videos of my heroes performing live or just audio with photos. The country music TV channels that taped their shows are able to bless old-timers like me with short and lengthy videos of my idols at the beginnings, highlights, and ends of their public careers. A series of “Family Reunion” videos hosted by Bill Anderson that go back several years caught my eye yesterday. I spent part of yesterday afternoon watching different episodes and couldn’t wait to pick up where I left off this morning. Some of the old-timers were doing their best to recreate their hits of twenty or thirty years earlier. Nashville’s best studio musicians played the original arrangements and made the experience of watching more real for a fan like me. But as the camera would pan the many stars listening and also reminiscing, I could see how the years had taken a toll by the age on their faces and the many stories they told of their contemporaries–in the past tense.
I don’t recognize the names of current award winners nor do I listen to their music. It all sounds the same to me. I came across an impressionist whose specialty is the older country singers. He’s very good both with the voices and the movements. His name is Johnny Counterfeit and he’s on YouTube. The golden age performers were unique and easily distinguishable one from another. Even their bands were unique. Today’s “country” music seems to be played by singers with stock voices and bands that blare jazz chords.
If you’re from my generation, check out classic country music on YouTube or search for “Family Reunion”. You might get teary as I did running into my old friends.