Musing City USA … November 20, 2012

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Just about a third of my life.

Driving down I-65 South yesterday heading to Nashville, I realized I had spent twenty years–in two stints–living in the country music mecca. It gave me pause–because I am not a country music artist, nor really am I what you would call a conventional gospel picker. I am just kind of my own thing, which is often the best excuse for being truly erratic. So I had to ask myself, how did I end up spending so much of my life in this Tennessee capital?

Growing up in Central Ohio, I had a predilection for gospel music, so it did seem logical to me, when I graduated from high school, to at least take a stab at where such sounds were not only permissible, but promoted.

I remember the first time I drove into Nashville and went to Dickerson Pike–to Jimmy Snow’s church. Jimmy Snow is the son of Hank Snow, a legend in the business. I was a punky, inexperienced yokel–but you see, I had this new song, called Resurrection Day, and I decided to perform it with my nervous little green combo–and received a standing ovation from the audience.

I recall the first time I drove to Hendersonville, Tennessee, to record at the House of Cash, and during the session for our album, Johnny, himself, walked in, introduced himself, and struck up more than a polite conversation with us bunch of confirmed nobodies.

I had to laugh to myself when I considered the number of times I walked up and down Music Row, from one publisher to another, sharing my songs with bored office employees, who more often than not, found a bit of glee in dashing my hopes with negative comments.

Then I remembered meeting Dottie Rambo. Dottie was that beautiful combination of earthy, spiritual and humorous which rarely comes our way in the human family and should always be treasured. She loved me–plump bundle of insecurity that I was–and even graciously recorded one of my songs on her album. It’s quite an astonishing honor to have one of the greatest gospel songwriters cover your tune.

Then there was Marijohn Wilkin, who wrote One Day at a Time. She was my mentor and friend. She recorded an album for me that enabled me to chart on the religious radio stations.

Taking another trip up to Hendersonville, my van passed by the city park, where we took a 25-piece orchestra called the Sumner Pops, of our own founding, and in the presence of five thousand folks, put on a July 4th show, melding local talent and our ability at arranging and conducting.

There isn’t a school I pass on the way in that doesn’t conjure a memory of a performance, in which we took a very special show to the young humans, encouraging them to be creative and open-hearted to their fellow-man.

I had a house on Bayshore Drive, where I built a swimming pool, a couple of additions, a circular driveway and tossed in a gazebo. Of course in the long run, it was rather ludicrous, because nomads like myself make very poor landlords. We’re just better with sheep and goats.

Yet in that city, I wrote ten books, recorded fifteen Cd’s and penned thirteen movies. It was a strange sensation to return to Music City after all my touring this year. I’m coming back to have Thanksgiving dinner with my family, which is congregating like a bunch of misguided birds to a location where we can nest and fellowship for a few days.

But as I drove into town, I thought to myself, “I lived here for one-third of my life, but it was never my home.”

The realization did not sadden me. Nashville is a place where I built a house of faith. Sometimes that’s the best we can do, folks. We may not be able to change the world or even redecorate the rooms. The best we can do is leave clear evidence of what we thought was important, what we believed and how fruit was born through our lives.

Nashville was never my home. I saw too much of the underbelly of lingering prejudice and false piety for me to ever embrace the community and kiss it square on the mouth. I saw a false sense of security over Southern hospitality, which was often dished out in sparing helpings to those who had stood in line the longest. I experienced a reluctance to change, simply because the word connoted something other than the fraternity philosophy. I always loved the people, I just didn’t always buy in to the pills that were being swallowed.

It’s good to be back, though. It festers memories, good and bad, joyous and sad, but in all cases, earth-shaking and ultimately fulfilling.

I would like to have been closer to this town where I hung my hat for so many years but I always found it a bit difficult to join into “whistling Dixie”–and maybe it’s just not in my character … to “look away.”

The producers of jonathots would humbly request a yearly subscription donation of $10 for this wonderful, inspirational opportunity

Iffers … July 10, 2012

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What if Mary and Russell Cring hadn’t had an argument sixty-one years ago about his numerous trips to Canada, which transferred itself into make-up sex, and culminated in a pregnancy?

What if I had decided to stay on the football team instead of pursuing the arts? Would I have ended up tackling running backs rather than blocking scenes for screenplays?

If I hadn’t asked Elizabeth Ristine out on a date, would all of my circumstances be uniquely changed–or even reversed?

If I hadn’t flown to Arizona to steal her away from college, against the wishes of her parents, would there be anything in my life that remotely resembles what it is today?

If I hadn’t boldly taken those first two songs I wrote when I was nineteen years old and gone to the recording studio in Columbus, Ohio, to press them on a 45 RPM record, would I ever have gotten the courage to do it later in my life?

If I hadn’t received the confirmation of winning the Midwest Regional Talent Exposition, would I have had the gumption to go to Nashville and think I was worthy to be heard?

What if I had skipped that Rambos concert, where I plugged one of my songs?

What if I had failed to go on the Teddy Bart Show in Nashville and never received that phone call that hooked me up with my producer, Marijohn Wilkin?

If I had skipped that brief excursion into Mobile, Alabama, would my son, Joshua, still be alive?

If a twist of fate and blind luck hadn’t produced the pregnancy of my last son, would I have been able to endure the death of Joshua and push on?

If I hadn’t moved to Sacramento, would my son, Jerrod, have ever met his wife, Angy?

If I hadn’t made the trek up to Tacoma, Washington, would my friend, Kathy, be free of her abusive relationship and my friend Richard, have followed me back to Nashville, where he ended up dying with friends–instead of alone, with strangers?

If I hadn’t decided to leave the road in 1991 in order to give my children back their own lives instead of lives entwined with mine, would they have the opportunities they enjoy today?

If I had listened to the nun at the convent in Birmingham, Alabama, who told me I had no right to pen a novel on the life of Jesus, would I be sitting here holding I’M … the legend of the son of man?

If I hadn’t done 1,123 five-minute radio broadcasts in Nashville, Tennessee, during the 1990’s, might the spark of my zeal for art and God have gradually slipped away?

If my friend, Janet, hadn’t been running away from a husband who abused her, would I ever have had the opportunity to be a friend to her ingenious sons?

And if Janet hadn’t come into my life, would there ever have been the Sumner County Symphony–with all of its delicacies, intricacies and beautiful twists and turns?

And if the housing crisis of 2008 hadn’t come along, would I have gone on the road, traveling to thousands of people to share my message, living out of a suitcase, enthralled with every moment?

And if I hadn’t come back to Nashville to take care of the house and close up shop, would Deahna have ever come into our lives and joined our family and brought me to today, where I now sit, waiting for the birth of my new grandson, Johann?

If I hadn’t awakened this morning with the idea to write this jonathots about “iffers,” would some person in South America or Germany have missed an insight on his own life that propelled him them in a fresh direction?

God gave me a life. I gave back to God my choices.

God stayed with me. I stayed with God.

The end result?

We both worked with my choices, God adding His grace–to collaborate for a wonderful life.

   

The producers of jonathots would humbly request a yearly subscription donation of $10 for this wonderful, inspirational opportunity

MJ …

Question 3: Can I keep going if it doesn’t get better?

April 27, 2012

 

The producers of jonathots would humbly request a yearly subscription donation of $10 for this wonderful, inspirational opportunity.

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I met her quite by accident.

I had finally manipulated my way into getting a guest spot on the Teddy Bart Show in Nashville, Tennessee. It was one of those regional talk shows common in the 1970′s and had quite a following in a three or four state area. At least, that’s my memory. The show had never invited a gospel group onto perform before, so it was quite a victory to be appearing on the venue.

It was great. After the performance, I received a phone call from some unknown gentleman who told me that he was a representative for Marijohn Wilkin. I knew the name because she was a fairly well-known songwriter at the time, having just penned, performed and promoted the songs, One Day at a Time (Sweet Jesus) and I Have Returned.The man on the other end of the line said that he had set up a meeting for me with Ms. Wilkin for that very afternoon. He gave me directions and informed me that I needed to be there promptly at 1:30 P.M.

Well, you can imagine–I was thrilled. I had gone from being a Central Ohio boy whom nobody liked because I wouldn’t “work a job” and persisted in pursuing music, to being a fellow who had a group that won some contests, transforming into a bit older guy who had one of his songs signed by a group called The Rambos–a popular gospel group at the time. And now, having just appeared on the Teddy Bart Show, I was being pursued by a successful artist and writer for further consideration.

So as requested, promptly at 1:30 P.M., I, along with my group, arrived at Buckhorn Publishers on Music Row in Nashville, walking in the door like I kind of owned the place and announcing myself to the secretary. She stared down at her appointment book in bewilderment, disappeared into a nearby office and I realized there must be some problem. After what seemed to be an interminable delay, a slight woman finally appeared from the inner office, wearing a scarf on her head, dangling earrings and greatly resembling a gypsy princess. Her voice was husky–like she had been up for two or three nights straight, screaming at a parcel of kids. She was a bit gruff, so she kind of scared me, but through the hoarse voice and gruff mannerisms, I received an invitation to come into her office with my group.

She proceeded to explain that no appointment had been made for us and that the gentleman who called on the phone was an old alcoholic buddy of hers who occasionally pranked innocent boys and girls from Ohio who came to Nashville looking for fame and success, throwing her name around to make himself look important. I was humiliated–devastated. I was in a strange lady’s office who had the entire garb and persona to cast a spell on me.

She didn’t. Instead, she asked to hear our music. We stayed there for the next four hours and talked, laughed and cried. She became my friend. She was my producer. I spent hours and hours at her lovely home on the outskirts of Nashville, talking about music, playing music, meeting famous people and swimming in her pool–warmed to a perfect 98.6 degrees.

I remember many things about that experience, but one of the things I will always take with me is that Marijohn would occasionally fall apart. She wouldn’t show up at work and they would tell me that she was at home, trying to get over “a spell.” When I inquired further, I was given no information, and the attitude was that I should keep my nose to myself. I don’t do that very well, so I decided to drive out one time during one of those spells, to find out what was actually going on. During the drive, I had all sorts of imaginations–drug addiction, alcoholism, and … well, I was young. My brain went kind of nutzoid.

When I arrived, she was alone in her living room with her legs propped up–reading. She welcomed me in and I knelt down next to her, took her hand and asked, “Marijohn, what’s wrong with you?”

She quietly set her book aside and removed her reading classes, looked me in the eye and said, “Son, I have cardiovascular disease. Every once in a while it just hurts to move, think and breathe, and if I just shut down for a season, I appear to get better.”

I asked her if there was anything they could do. She said they were doing that–and more–but still, there were times where nothing worked as well as general “stoppage.” She also said she used those times to write, think and pray–and to look deeply into her soul. She jokingly told me that without the cardiovascular disease she might avoid all of those things.

I felt like I had stepped on holy ground. The room was so quiet, so preciously charged with spiritual energy, that I was unworthy to be there and was an interruption instead of a blessed presence of visitation. She sensed my awkwardness and said, “I’m glad you came. But you must understand–if it weren’t for this problem I have, I would never have written One Day at a Time (Sweet Jesus). I may have never have written anything at all. I would not call this condition my friend, but it is an enemy that fools me from time to time by providing me with unexpected gifts.”

I excused myself, went out and got into my beat-up Volkswagen Beetle with the dent in the nose and headed back to Nashville. I learned something that day. Here was a woman who had no particular prospects of her situation ever getting better, who ignored bitterness, rejected complacency and eschewed self-pity–to continue to produce the gift that life had provided for her.

Since that day, my youthful frame has gained miles of carriage usage. I, too, have developed pains. I, too, have acquired “spells.” And every time I am accosted with my own mortal aching, I remember that morning in that living room, where I knelt by the side of a brave woman who looked on her affliction as an affection that lured her towards beauty.

I try to do it myself. I try to be brave. I try to put my feet up and let life go by for a few minutes, so that God can come in for just a little while.

Marijohn lived for many years. I suppose the cardiovascular disease finally caught up with her and took her for one eternal “spell”–to a place where she could perpetually be creative. I suppose that will happen to all of us eventually.

Until then, our only job remains to keep going–even if it doesn’t get better.

 

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