I’ve been sitting with a lesson learned from one of my favorite books on country music I’ve ever read, Peter Cooper’s Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music – my favorite Christmas present of 2020 that, yes, I just deemed an all-time favorite, just a week and a half after the fact. Equally sobering and humorous, above all else, it’s a book written by a true fan of country music.
Don’t let me tell you, though. Let me quote something that stuck with me, an amateurish hobby writer: “Objectivity is dispassionate. And we’re in the passion business. We’re trying to make people feel something different than what they felt before they read our words … Who would I be to be objective about George Jones, or Emmylou Harris, or Ray Charles, or Tom T. Hall? How could I be objective about music, which is inherently subjective? Objective about people? How? And why?”
The specific chapter that excerpt stems from is about Tom T. Hall, a songwriter who, I was delighted to find out, stuck a tennis shoe on top of his head whenever he tried to write a song, to remind himself that he was a regular person, rather than a hoity-toity “songwriter.” It’s more authentic to be a person over a perfect person, in other words.
“Objective about people?,” though, is the question that sticks with me most. It’s my wake-up call that comes on Jan. 3, a night I just can’t sleep. My grandfather died this past New Year’s Day, just eight months after my grandmother, and his funeral was the 4th, a strangely rushed date due to COVID, though neither of them died from it. The book offers a scary, sobering sort of comfort for me, and inspires me to honor them the best way I can, because I know I wouldn’t be the country music I am today without them starting me on that journey.
Before that story begins, though, I need to make like Hall and stick a tennis shoe on top of my head, so that I remember I’m a person simply honoring two of my heroes.
They both, simply put, got me interested in country music, though I’m not sure they meant to. They were the ones to pick me up from school everyday, where my rides home would consist of the 10-or-so minutes of the country music playing on the radio. There would be talking, of course, about how my day went and what we were going to have for supper and all that, but sometimes this young, hyperactive kid just wanted to hear the music. I wasn’t a die-hard fan at that point, though sometimes I’d switch from the radio over to the CMT music video channel at their house. I grew up with YouTube, yet seeing those videos on the “big screen” just sort of blew my mind, never knowing which one might come next, or which song would play next on the radio. It’s the simple, ordinary things in life that will shape you the most, I believe. I wasn’t being handed a free education; I was a sponge learning on my own how to appreciate the simple entity that would later define a huge portion of my life.
I think that was intentional, though. What I learned to appreciate from both of them was of a subtler variety, how to listen and appreciate the music I loved. But I wouldn’t know it until later. Truthfully, my early memories of loving country music were relegated to those car rides – even the big ones to the grocery store – and during the few hours of my day I was with them. Those memories are like fragments, and my grandfather, God rest his soul, was an utterly lovable goofball. He was one of those people who didn’t quite like where country music was heading (in 2008-ish – I can only imagine what he’d think now), but loved even the stupidest of songs and wasn’t necessarily a purist about it. Yes, I’m talking about songs like Brad Paisley’s “Ticks,” Billy Currington’s “People Are Crazy,” Tim McGraw’s “Last Dollar (Fly Away),” and Trace Adkins’ “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” among so many others. I guess, if anything, there’s something to appreciate about someone who loved what they loved and didn’t apologize for it. Though there were many times when I, simply opening the car door to get in and drive away from school, would be greeted with a blast of either, say, “I’d sure like to check you for ticks,” or “oooh-eee, shut my mouth, slap your Grandma.” I never could understand that man to the fullest extent, but I loved the side I knew.
Now, there isn’t much to say about my grandmother at this point. She also loved country music, but she wasn’t quite a fanatic about it. She knew the power of a good song when she heard it and stopped to appreciate it when it came on – her favorite being Josh Turner’s “Long Black Train,” at least, to my understanding. Oh, many a time when “Honey, zip it, my song’s on” would echo through the car on those rides home. I learned from her – if only subconsciously – how to listen to music, and to give it your full, undivided attention. We owe it that much. It seemed so weird as a kid, especially for something that, to me, sounded nice, but acted more as sweet background noise, above all else.
Something changed on a random day in June of 2010. I was then thirteen years old, and the only person to accompany me on my ride home from school that day was my grandmother. She was pretty quiet. “OK,” I thought, “plenty of time for music.” But the radio was silent. She told me, “Your grandfather suffered a stroke.” I, not knowing what a stroke then was, only said, “Oh … is he gonna be OK?”
The answer was: yes, sorta-kinda, though it drastically changed nearly everything about him. From that day on, he had trouble speaking in full sentences and his mobility was limited. He still enjoyed the power of good country music. And, by that point, my slight childhood fascination had blossomed into something of an obsession. Spotify would debut just two years later, but here I was, collecting every CD I could and religiously following the charts to keep up with the acts that interested me. It seems so old-fashioned, especially for its time. But it was the thrill of the hunt that fostered a deeper appreciation I can’t seem to get back in the age of endless consumption … especially when there’s no need for a hunt anymore, really.
I met somewhere in the middle with my grandparents on country music. I hadn’t then grown to appreciate the legends, and for all I cared, acts like George Strait, Alan Jackson and Reba McEntire may as well have invented the genre. Again, another thing that changed when I got older. Now it was up to me to communicate with my grandfather the best I could. I won’t pretend that music was this special connection we’d always had. Again, loose fragments at best. But those loose fragments stuck with us, especially for a man who had lost everything but his mind. I recall one time, in 2013, when I went to visit my grandparents just a few days after Christmas, where I brought along my brand-new Johnny Cash boxset. I had planned to play it for him while I worked around the house, his eyes beaming with excitement at the thought of it. Cash, Charley Pride and George Jones – they were his favorites. And yet when I started with “The Rock Island Line,” all he told me was, “sit.” For a man of few words at that point, all I could do was, well, sit. My grandmother joined in shortly afterward, and it was there where those aforementioned lessons of learning how to sit and appreciate music truly clicked with me. Clichéd or corny as it sounds, the power of music is something special, and it brought the rarest sort of magnetism to the room that day.
My grandfather lost even more afterward – the ability to speak even a few words (down to one or two, on a good day) and the ability to read, but he never lost his mind. I can’t tell if it was the stress of taking care of him or if dementia really is hereditary, but eventually, my grandmother also suffered. The earliest sign, to me, came when my mother and I took her grocery shopping one day, where she proceeded to the seafood department with a confused look in her eye, wondering where the pork chops were. A man with his mind but not his body; a woman with her body but not her mind – what kind of sick torture is that?
I can’t be angry now, though. After our care was beyond him, my grandfather was placed in an assisted-living facility, where the best thing I could then do for him was to bring him cool souvenirs from the concerts I attended. God, it sounds mean just typing that, as if I taunted him or something. But I mean it endearingly. You see, after George Jones died in 2013, my mother and I made it our mission to attend every concert we could where a legend preformed. It was there where my country music education truly blossomed: from schooling myself on the wonders of Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn that same year, to seeing Dolly Parton, in 2016, just down the street from my where my university was located, to filming “Amarillo By Morning” at George Strait’s farewell tour, and showing him the footage … and watching those eyes beam again – the only communication I needed, really. I guess it was my way of saying “thanks,” and my way of offering a present with every trip, be it a hat, t-shirt, picture or something else.
But to be trapped in your body and know what’s happening right before your very eyes, that will suck the joy out of anything, even one of the few pieces of joy you think can’t be taken away – a love and appreciation for music. Whenever I’d leave, I’d always tell him, “you be good, buddy,” but it just felt like something I said to try and ignore the elephant in the room. It was interesting watching the parallels of my grandparents’ respective declines, even if I’m hesitant to call it that, given how just fighting through every day counts as its own victory. My grandfather was slowly losing his joy while my grandmother was becoming more child-like and carefree everyday. That was, of course, fine, and while I don’t want to sugarcoat the pain and stress that comes with caring for a person suffering from that sort of disease, the moments of joy helped both of us hang on. Ironically enough, on what would otherwise be drab, boring days, I’d sometimes watch the CMT music video channel with her, just as I’d done nearly a decade before, when I was the one to look at that screen with a child-like fascination. She didn’t understand what was going on a lot of the time. I recall one time when, during the station’s “throwback” video moment, Keith Whitley came on to sing “I’m No Stranger to the Rain.”
“Oh, I love him! Is he still making music, Zack?” God, I just didn’t have the heart to tell her. “Yep, sure is.”
But, like with my grandfather, I could tell, even if just for a brief moment of time, the pure joy it gave her to experience music. If anything, for her, it was like rediscovering an old favorite time and time again, every day, all day. It helped me see that same joy in other moments with her, even as I and my mother were losing her. Every day would end the same, “we’ll lock you in, you be safe and call us if you need anything.” Again, just words, ones she’d forget about five seconds later.
And again, while they didn’t die from COVID, I certainly blame the pandemic for their end. With my grandmother, she, ironically enough, ended up in the same nursing home as my grandfather. For rehab to fix her broken hip. From an accidental fall. On Jan. 6, 2020. The fucking timing. A lockdown in March put an end to the progress she couldn’t make over time, from the exercises she couldn’t remember to do or how to do, to only getting to see us for Skype appointments. She understood why we couldn’t come and visit anymore, because of “that flu going around,” but I don’t think she remembered, and despite what the certificate says, I think she died from being scared and alone, and I hate that. It’s nobody’s fault, but I hate it anyway. Nurses told my grandfather, because we, obviously, couldn’t. I thought he had trouble talking before; I can say, with absolute certainty, that of the few Skype appointments we were allowed with him, up until his death, I can count the number of words he said on one hand.
Well, aside from the questions.
“Where is she buried?”
“How did it happen?”
“Why did it happen?”
How the hell do you answer that? Do you be truthful? Does it matter at that point? To answer your question, Maddie & Tae, yes, you can certainly die from a broken heart. I watched it happen. Twice.
Despite that, I remind myself of the good memories, brought mostly on by music shared. I remind myself I was losing them anyway, and that I couldn’t do anything other than prolong internal suffering. I try not to sit with it too much.
As I go through their house to sift through their belongings, I come across a few things I never knew they had – a briefcase full of cassettes, a few rare, illustrated books I could tell might not be available with the wave of a wand on Amazon dot com (the thrill of the hunt was back, if only momentarily!), and a crate of vinyl records, with rare finds and a wider array of artists and styles than I ever could have imagined they’d enjoy. How did I never know about these? Who liked what records? How did they obtain these books? That Roger Miller record is yours, isn’t it, grandpa? And that Jim Reeves one is for you, right, grandma? Ah, now I’m the one with questions, and I’m several years too late in finding the answers. But that’s OK. That I have them at all helps remind me of what I’m taking with me and passing down.
There are, of course, others in my life who have inspired my love for country music, down to the tiniest details of what I love and why I love it. Maybe you’ll hear about them some day, if I can find the words. But as for the people that started this crazy journey, it’s easy to pinpoint the source. So for now, I’ll lock you in, and, hey, you be good, buddy, for it’s time to close my laptop and get this damn tennis shoe off my head.