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by Robert G. Cowser

On a warm spring evening earlier this year I drove to the county nursing home. The building is located approximately two miles from a four-lane divided highway that bisects Weakley County, Tennessee. After I left the main road, I drove past three or four houses, their front yards lush with blossoming shrubs—japonica and bridal wreath. One home owner was weeding a bed of fuchsia.

Two weeks before my visit to the county home I had stopped at a dry cleaning establishment in Martin where Willard Adams steam cleans jackets and suits. He operated the business as its owner for thirty years or more; then he sold it. A few weeks after the sale, the new owner asked Willard to come back to the business as an employee. He has been working there ever since even though he celebrated his eighty-fifth birthday a week or so before I stopped by the business.

My purpose in contacting Willard was to get permission to hear his string band, the Tumbleweeds, perform at the nursing home. Once a month the band plays bluegrass and gospel music for the residents of the home. Willard is the lead guitarist; he is accompanied by two men on amplified guitars and another on an acoustic guitar. Each of these three musicians is in his late sixties.

Willard is the primary singer, but each of the other men takes a turn as a vocalist. A middle-aged woman with dark hair, whom Willard introduced simply as Barbara, also leads some of the songs. That evening when Barbara stood up to sing, I remembered seeing her in the office of one of the other nursing homes in the county when I took absentee ballots to the facility. Apparently she was one of the administrators.

After I parked my car in front of the nursing home on the evening the Tumbleweeds were scheduled to perform, I spotted Willard Adams taking a speaker from the trunk of his car. I offered to carry into the building the other speaker he brought. Upon entering the recreation room, I saw four rows of senior citizens waiting to be entertained by the Tumbleweeds. Some of those in wheel chairs had rolled themselves in; attendants pushed the chairs of others into the room. The attendants positioned the chairs so that the occupants were facing the musicians. Two shorter rows of folding chairs had been placed at an angle to the left of the larger group of chairs. Trying to be inconspicuous, I took a seat in one of the chairs in the second row.

One reason I wanted to hear the Tumbleweeds is that I remembered my parents talking about how much they enjoyed listening to the music performed by a string band composed of other seniors who lived in Saltillo, Texas, their home town. The group, led by a neighbor, Clyde Floyd, was simply called the Saltillo Band. I never heard the band perform, but I assumed that the kind of music they played was similar to the music played by the Tumbleweeds.

The band led off with a fast-paced tune called “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” a song I had heard on a CD recorded by George Jones. Willard led the other men and Barbara through the lyrics, which contained the refrain “Waitin’ for the mail train to come back down the track.”

When I heard the musician with the acoustic guitar, the chords took me back to my childhood. The year I turned six my cousin, Glen Wardrup and his wife rented the farm just north of our farm house. Glen and Aline had just married the year before and were expecting their first child. Neither was twenty years old. Despite their poverty, Glen somehow managed to buy a guitar. One summer evening he brought the guitar to our house. My parents, a bachelor uncle who lived with us, and my younger brother were all on the front porch, where we spent almost every summer evening. My brother and I were sitting with our legs dangling over the edge of the porch. The full moon provided the only light we had.. On summer evenings my mother rarely lighted the kerosene lamps inside the house because even the small flame on the wick generated heat in the stuffy bedrooms.

In the semi-darkness that evening Glen sat on the edge of the porch and strummed the guitar. I was captivated by the sound. I can’t remember the tunes he played, but my guesses are “The Wabash Cannon Ball” and “The Great Speckled Bird.” “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” was also a popular tune at that time.

Before Glen and Aline moved away at the end of the year, they invited their neighbors to a dance. My parents took me and my brother, who was three years old, with them to the dance because they had no one to leave us with. I was six years old. Aline insisted that my mother come to the dance, with or without her children. A local fiddler played for the dancers, and two men accompanied him on guitars. “Over the Waves” and “Under the Double Eagle” were favorites with the dancers as was “Turkey in the Straw.”

I wonder whether Willard Adams’ band has ever played these tunes. When they finished playing “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” I and two or three others in the audience applauded. I had not looked behind me at the rows of listeners, but I began to wonder why the others did not applaud the band’s performance. The Tumbleweeds played the kind of music these seniors grew up listening to. Why hadn’t a larger number of them showed their appreciation? Later I stole an opportunity to glance at the group behind me. The hands of several looked lifeless as they lay open in their laps. Apparently, many were too weak to raise their arms and clap their hands together.

One of the seniors who did applaud after the band finished “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” was a bird-like woman with bright eyes. She sat to my left in the short row of folding chairs. When the band struck up “Singin’ the Blues” and Barbara began to sing, I noticed that the woman began to pat her right foot.

One documentary broadcast on Public Broadcasting System’s American Experience featured the legendary A. P. Carter family. A. P. Carter was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains where life was hard. For generations, farming was one of the few ways to earn a living, though the rocky soil was a stiff challenge. According to the narrator of Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the PBS show, the mountain people depended on their music to help them endure the harsh life that fate dealt them. Playing instruments such as the banjo and the autoharp and singing provided therapy for these mountaineers. Mitchell Gaynor, a medical doctor, praises the benefits of singing. Singing even one note is therapeutic, he says.

How many of us in the exclusive audience that evening sang along in spirit with Willard and Barbara that soft summer evening at the nursing home?

© Robert Cowser
"They shoe horses, don't they?"
Guest Column, August 1 , 2008
More Columns by
Robert Cowser

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