The Learn It part  of Week 3’s Slow Clothes post is awfully long, but anyone who loves guitar music might still enjoy reading. For those who want to cut to the chase, here’s the last line: From Dad, I see that it’s never too late to learn, never too late to write a new narrative on life.

Read It

I love books of short stories that you can weave into a busy life. This is E.L. Doctorow’s All the Time in the World: New and Selected Short Stories. I’ve read the first short and it’s surreal and dark. I like it enough that I’ll probably gobble up this book.






Wear It

I can’t wear vintage every day of the world! For Week Three’s Slow Clothes post I just plopped this funky 1970s enamel pin on a sweater. This one once belonged to a good friend’s Mom. It reminds me of one we gave my Mom one year for Mother’s Day, when I persuaded my oldest brother (a.k.a. Mr. Moneybags) that she would rather have a piece of jewelry than a Fry Daddy.







Here’s Dad capturing a few last minutes of practice before my niece’s wedding.

Learn It

My Dad has a keen mind and memory. That’s been a blessing and a curse to him and everyone around him.

Before he retired, he was a federal mine inspector. He could recite the most obscure parts of the law that regulated health and safety for coal mines. I wasn’t there to see it, but I suspect he enjoyed firing his wit like a weapon against owners and managers who flagrantly violated the law and refused ordinary diplomacy.

My grandfather and his contemporaries died with black lung because they worked in an era when no one gave two hoots about mine safety. Dad did care about that. Fortunately, he didn’t mind making enemies. When you grow up believing that your own father doesn’t love you, what difference does it make if you’re despised by some jerk who cares more about money than people?

Dad’s Vintage Guitar

A few years ago, Dad inherited a neglected old guitar once owned by his uncle, Marvin Smith. Marvin was an amazing guitarist whose love and support mitigated Dad’s childhood, a well-remembered period of his life that can only be described as less than perfect. After restoring this now-vintage guitar, Dad began a rigorous self-study, practicing several hours a day. Never mind the fact that he couldn’t read a note of music; he quickly overcame that.

A casual observer of his disheveled garage would be shocked that the same man could approach anything with meticulous care. When Dad sold a large collection of valuable shotguns and started collecting guitars instead, we knew he was serious. He began hanging out with professional musicians, listening, and finally playing with them at weekly sessions.

He started asking me questions about music. I don’t have answers. Considering the nine years of piano lessons and music camps he paid for, I feel ashamed of my ignorance.

He takes audio courses on perfect pitch to help him learn how to identify a note just by hearing it. “That’s G!”  he’ll say.  Hotdogging his new talent, he strikes an obscure chord and challenges me to name it. “I don’t have a clue, Dad,” I say. “I never got that far.”

Last week one of his musical heroes passed away. A former member of the Grand Ole Opry, singer-guitarist Billy Grammer was renowned for his unique approach to rhythm guitar. When he first went to Nashville, one night he was asked which part he wanted to play. “I’ll take all three,” he said.

The Beginning of Western Swing

In the 1940s, it was considered audacious if not impossible. Strings had simply been background before that. Billy was part of a coterie of guitarists who followed a new style credited to Bob Wills, where Big Band hits were put to string instruments. When the Big Band era ended, this style evolved into Western Swing and eventually influenced country music.

But Billy Grammer was much more than a musician to my Dad. He was a beloved friend who shared common ground. Billy grew up in a large family of 13 kids, just down the road from Dad’s family home. His family was like Dad’s—poor. They swapped stories and laughed about their hard-scrabble lives of abject poverty.

“People existed on what they could raise themselves,” Dad said of the times. “There were no jobs and there was no money” He revels in Billy Grammer’s success. “It’s been great seeing someone who grew up as poor as we did, making it to the Big Time.” Dad loves to tell the story about an aunt who eloped. When her family of 10 woke one morning and found her gone, they hardly missed having one more mouth to feed. All they had to say was, “She took the toothbrush!”

In those days, people got together at home, played music, told stories, sang and danced for entertainment. At these gatherings, Billy and his siblings were required to perform by their father Archie Grammer, who studied music in the Army Band during World War I. Archie was one of the few people in the area who had formal musical training. Dad’s Uncle Marvin learned as much as he could from the Grammers, playing with them at these large gatherings. When he turned 16, he left home to play in New Orleans. By the time he returned to Southern Illinois in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he was playing Western Swing and carrying the guitar my Dad now owns.

Before Billy’s death he joined Dad and other friends at big weekly gatherings of musicians from all over Southern Illinois. Those events attracted professional players who fancied they might rival the great Billy Grammer. Billy and Dad burned up the highways to Anna-Jonesboro, Illinois where they fondled and shopped guitars with cronies.

Billy treated our family to private concerts in the sunroom  (aka the guitar room) of my parents’ home. “Whether he was playing at the Grand Ole Opry or in your living room, he always put the same amount of effort into it,” Dad said. “You couldn’t just play. Everything had to be done a certain way. Marvin was like that, too.”

Billy Grammer loved what Dad had done to restore Marvin’s old guitar. He loved playing it and helping Dad relive Marvin’s legendary talent. Is there any higher form of friendship than one that helps you cherish a lost loved one?

Was Marvin as good as Billy Grammer? I don’t know. When I was a kid, I remember listening to Marvin play guitar in dim fluorescent light until well past midnight, when Mom would finally drag Dad away from my grandparents’ vibrating house. “We need to get these kids to bed,” she would say.

Before his death, Billy autographed Marvin’s old guitar for Dad. When I see him playing, I sometimes think it is propelling him backward and forward at the same time, helping him synthesize the past and amplify its saving graces. From Dad I see that it’s never too late to learn, never too late to write a new narrative on life.