As I look at the heartbreaking images of the flooding in Tennessee I can’t help but think about the legacy of country music this area has given us. And country music reminds me of my father.
My father is a quiet guy. Living with my mom and I he didn’t get to talk much. He also is a Vietnam Veteran which means there are whole blocks of time in his life that he won’t talk about. But my father did share one of his greatest loves with me – often after he had drank more than a few beers – and that’s country music.
My father loves country music. That may not be a strange statement as more than 46 million country albums were sold in 2009 boosted by hot country star Taylor Swift.
But I guess my dad wouldn’t be consider your typical country fan. As an African-American man born in Alabama he grew up loving old time Blues. I can still remember as a child getting up in the middle of the night and sneaking down stairs to sit on the steps leading to our basement to eavesdrop on my parents having a grand ole’ time. I would smile broadly as I heard my mother and father laugh and cackle as they sang along to the likes of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and Otis Redding. It was a rare observation moment that I will cherish always. Both my parents worked and my father, who worked a lot of overtime and stayed on the night shift, rarely was home when I was awake. He even worked on Christmas and Thanksgiving. A burden he bore to send me to private schools. But once in a while, he and my mom would get together and pour over their more than 300 LP’s and recreate a simpler time without bills, mortgages and car notes. It’s because of my parents hella’ vinyl collection that I became an old soul when it came to music preferring old school R&B rather than pop music. But it’s because of my father that I knew about Johnny Cash.
I used to tease my father mercilessly as he would stay up late, drinking Miller Genuine Draft and watching Country Music Television. He was the only black guy I knew who loved to listen to the Holy Trinity of Country Music – Haggard, Nelson and Cash.And of course the most famous black country music singer that no one considered black – Charlie Pride.
One day I asked my dad where the heck did a black man get his love of country music. He was watching CMT and was in a rare talkative mood. And that’s when he told me about Cowboy. Back in 1960s, I think 1968, Cowboy was like my father, a skinny, fresh out of high school kid drafted into this man’s Army and trudging waste deep in jungle and water in Vietnam. My father and Cowboy shared time in Vietnam. They were roommates or trench mates or whatever and during the break from carnage, killing and murdering – my dad told me war was five minutes of hell and about 23 hours and 55 minutes of boredom – Cowboy would make my father’s ears bleed with his constant barrage of country music. “He would play country music all the time,” my dad said. “At first it drove me crazy but then I began to like it.” Cowboy was white, from Texas but just like my dad he was poor and had been drafted. They found out they had a lot in common and most of it had to do with country music. Cowboy never came back alive from Vietnam but his love of country music stayed in my dad’s heart. My dad was downright wistful when he spoke of Cowboy that day and in that one exchange I learned more about my dad than I ever did.
Ever since then country music has had a special place in my heart. I started listening to Pasty Kline, Johnny Cash and a host of other old school country music stars. And of course Garth Brooks was big while I was in college in Missouri. Listening to country music made me feel closer to a man I had a difficult time getting to know. And when I went to the Grand Old Opry in Nashville I couldn’t help but smile and think of my dad and the timeless moment we shared together talking about country music.
If you want to help victims of the Tennessee floods donate to the Red Cross here courtesy of my fellow Blogathon Blogger B.J. The flooding in Nashville is being overshadowed by the apocalyptic oil spill in the Gulf, but Nashville needs some love too. So if you can, donate and if you can’t give money you can always pray. Thanks!