By Don Hedgpeth
My Daddy came home from World War II with an arch top Gretsch guitar. He knew and could play and sing most all of the songs that were on the radio back then by the Hanks (Williams, Thompson and Snow), Ernest Tubb and he particularly liked Red Foley. Some of my earliest memories are of the West Texas beer joints and honkytonks where Daddy fronted a four-piece country band called the Ross City Wranglers. Saturday nights were family affairs in those places. Kids could run and play in the unpaved parking lot, and wander in and out of the dance halls to listen to the music.
I also remember the nights we would have company come to visit, or go to someone else's house. The men usually sat in the kitchen playing music and drinking beer. The women sat and talked in another room. All those houses seemed the same: just small shotgun shacks that were the common accommodation all over the West Texas oil fields.
I grew up knowing the words to all those old country songs...back when that genre of music was called hillbilly and before the Yankees had taken over Nashville. Later on, Daddy acquired a fiddle somewhere, and even though he spent hours practicing, he never quite figured out exactly where his fingers went on the neck that had no frets. Fiddle music played nearly right is worse than no music at all, like poorly played bagpipes, or fingernails scratching on a chalkboard. Whenever I got in trouble at home, or school, my mother's direst threat was not that Daddy would whip me when he got home, but she would ask him to play the fiddle.
I have always wondered if we have a finite number of memory cells in our brains. I suspect it is so, and that this is why I have been unable to remember very much else except the words to all those old songs. When I was fifteen, I helped haul a load of watermelons from South Texas to Flint, Michigan. The truck didn't have a radio, and I would sing all those old songs to help me and the guy who owned the truck stay awake. He really liked the Wilburn Brothers' song "Knoxville Girl", and I must have sung it for him several hundred times on the trip up and back. I was paid $7.50 a day for helping him drive and the songs went with the deal. A performing musician has to give his audience what they want.
It was right around this time that I discovered rhythm and blues...black music that was played on all night radio stations from faraway places like Shreveport and Memphis. I slept on the back porch and could keep my radio on and turned down low all night without bothering anybody. That music, which was already morphing into rock and roll thanks to Sam Phillips and Sun Records, was the soundtrack for my high school years, I remember the exact moment I heard Jerry Lee Lewis doing "Whole Lot of Shakin," the same way most people remember when and where they were when President Kennedy was shot in Dallas.
I also still recall a girl from Agua Dulce and a 1955 Ford with windows fogged up on a country dirt road the night a Corpus Christi disc jockey played Buddy Holly's "That'll Be The Day" back to back all night long. My relationship with rock and roll, just like my relationship with the Agua Dulce girl, didn't last. I lost interest when Elvis left Sun Records for RCA Victor and Dick Clark started pimping for tepid teenyboppers like Paul Anka and Fabian.
By the time the Beatles arrived, I had gone back to county music, to George Jones, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. But I never liked the slick, pop sound of mainstream Nashville. I have no idea at all who the big names are in country music today, and I have no intention of taking the time to find out.
In the spring of 1964, I took a job wrangling horses on a Montana dude ranch. The job description called for someone who could shoe horses and play the guitar and sing. I could already nail shoes on and sort of sing. I got a friend to show me three chords on his guitar and practiced them until my fingers really hurt. For two weeks I made modest progress, then plateaued. After forty years, I am still stuck at the same level of proficiency as a picker. But it really hasn't seemed to matter much.
I think it was John Dillinger who said: "You can make more friends with a smile and a machine gun than you can with just a smile." The same goes for guitars. Ever since that Montana summer, for over forty years, I have been making what passes for music and making friends...not too many, but enough.
Cowboy songs, mostly the old traditional ones, seem to suit me best. My guitar playing hasn't gotten any better that it ever was. And my voice sure isn't anything to brag about. But I do know the words to a whole bunch of old cowboy songs. They are really just stories, sung instead of spoken, and I always was a pretty fair storyteller.
It has always tickled me to sing some old, obscure cowboy ballad that is unfamiliar to my audience. When I'm done, I ask if that was the best they ever heard it sung. Since most of them have never heard it before, they have reluctantly agreed that it was.
A while back, my first wife Sug, taught herself to play the guitar and started to sing. Together, we do a lot of those old country songs from back in my Daddy's day. I sure do wish he was still here and could sit in with us and sing.