November 29, 2013


Long Way Home (Rosanne Cash, 11/25/13, Oxford American)

Memphis was bursting with music. It was a hot stew of musical urgency: blues and Southern gospel, rock & roll, the "hillbilly" music that came to be called "country," and the new strains of rockabilly. At the same time, at the other end of the spectrum, Tommy Dorsey was performing at the old Claridge Hotel the year I was born.

Radio station WMPS played the Louvin Brothers, and WHBQ had DJ Dewey Phillips, whose show "Red Hot & Blue" was enormously popular with young people. After my dad's first single was a hit, he did an interview with Dewey from the Chisca Hotel, a popular gathering spot. After listening so faithfully to Dewey, this must have been a huge moment for Dad. WDIA employed the first black disc jockeys, including Rufus Thomas and a guitarist named Riley B. King, who played live on the air and soon came to be known as B.B. My parents listened to all three of these stations, and absorbed equal parts of the blues, Appalachian harmony, Southern gospel, and rock & roll. All those strains imprinted themselves in the most profound way, and my dad became who he was out of that brilliant amalgamation.

My parents' best friends were Marshall and Etta Grant and Luther and Birdie Perkins. Marshall and Luther had been mechanics who worked at the same car dealership as my Uncle Roy, who was also a mechanic. Automobile Sales, a large DeSoto and Plymouth dealership, was at 309 Union Avenue, just down the street from Sun Records at 706 Union. When my father was discharged from the Air Force and returned to Memphis, my uncle Roy picked him up at the bus station and then took him over to Automobile Sales to introduce him. Marshall told me that when my dad walked into the mechanic's bay he looked up, saw a lanky, dark-haired young man standing in the doorway, and that the hair on the back of his head stood up and chills went down his back. He knew.

"Roy says you boys pick a little music," Dad said to Marshall and Luther. "Very little," Marshall answered. "Maybe I can pick with you sometime," Dad responded. And that was the beginning.

Marshall and Luther and Dad gathered at Marshall and Etta's home at 4199 Nakomis Ave. to play primitive rhythms on three guitars and sing old country and gospel songs, and a little band was formed. It was decided that Marshall should play bass, so he taught himself how to pick out a boom-chicka-boom rhythm on a stand-up bass. Etta, Birdie, and my mom played cards in the kitchen while the men practiced and began to forge a style out of their limitations.

My mom and Etta became like the closest of sisters. They were always together, and then when Dad, Luther, and Marshall went on the road, Mom and Etta were close companions and a two-woman support group. When Dad and the Tennessee Two started performing in the area around Memphis, Dad would leave my mom and me and later Kathy at the Nakomis house with Etta. We'd go to bed, and Dad would come to get us after the show, late at night or in the early morning hours, to take us home to Tutwiler, then to a new house on Sandy Cove, and then eventually to an even nicer house on Walnut Grove. Marshall said he always thought I was asleep when Dad lifted me onto his shoulder, but then he'd see my little hand pat Daddy's back as we walked to the car. I suppose I already knew that a touring musician had a hard life.

Marshall and Etta moved to Hernando, Mississippi, in the 1970s, but they never gave up the house on Nakomis. It became a place of memories for them, filled with souvenirs from the decades Marshall and Dad were on the road together, closer than brothers, from the first rudimentary attempts at music, through the Sun Records years, through staggering success and inconceivable fame, my dad's drug addiction, my parents' divorce, Dad's recovery from addiction and chronic relapses, a devastating lawsuit between them, and eventually, sweet reconciliation in their later years. One of the few times my dad got really angry with me was when I came to Marshall's defense during that lawsuit. Dad forgave me quickly, however, in a letter he wrote me saying that he knew my instincts were those of compassion.
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Posted by at November 29, 2013 8:31 AM

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