Listening to “Willie’s Road House” on Sirius XM last week, I heard a song I hadn’t thought of in maybe twenty years, maybe longer: OC Smith’s “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp.” The song was a hit back in 1968, or at least I think it was a hit, though on whose charts, I’m not sure. Could have been Soul, could have been Pop, might even have been Country. Or all three. You don’t hear many Black people singing on “Willie’s Road House;” Charley Pride’s about the only other “classic” Black country artist I can think of off-hand.
I’m not writing, though about the intricacies, or near absence, of racial minorities in country music. I’d rather write about the memory of this one song, and how it entered my life.
My grandmother, whom we called “Nanny,” came home one afternoon from a trip to K-Mart with a package for me. She smiled as she presented it to me. I knew by the shape and size of the package that it was a record album, one of those formerly archaic and now very cool vinyl 33 and 1/3 discs. When I opened it, though, I paused. I was hoping for The Beatles, or maybe Paul Revere and the Raiders, or in a pinch, The Monkees. What I got, however, was OC Smith’s The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp, featuring the now standard “Little Green Apples,” which was one of Nanny’s favorite songs. Many artists recorded that song, so how and why she picked OC’s version, I didn’t know then, and never, to my dismay, found out. I suppose she liked his resonant baritone, the way he sang with “feeling.”
She would have never used the term “soul,” at least regarding music, especially “Black music.” I don’t think she would have used that term either regarding “Sacred music,” her most loved genre. In fact, her favorite song, at least as far as I can remember, was “How Great Thou Art,” particularly as sung by Tennessee Ernie Ford, though she appreciated Jim Nabors’ version, too.
When I opened the record, she insisted that I play it right then. I think I had seen OC on either “American Bandstand,” or maybe the “Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour,” so I had heard of him. I wouldn’t have asked for his music, though, and I confess to having felt skeptical—a twelve-year-old boy’s default position—when I placed the needle into the groove. And then I listened.
Over the next few months, as I acquired other records, I found that I turned to OC more often than I would ever have imagined. I learned the lyrics to the title tune, to my favorite, “Long Black Limousine,” and also to Nanny’s favorite song.
Who can say why a song speaks to an adolescent boy, or a seventy-five year old widow woman? How little we know about what in a lyric takes our grandmothers back somewhere; what scenes they recall; what people, now lost, they see again?
During that year, Nanny bought me two other albums of my choosing. She wrote a check to K-Mart when I wanted Tom Jones’ 1965 debut, Along Came Jones, featuring “It’s Not Unusual” (his theme song), “Autumn Leaves” (which both Nanny and my mother loved), and “Spanish Harlem,” a song I adored (and adored even more when I heard Aretha’s version). And then she wrote another when I finally got my first Beatles’ album: the American amalgam, Yesterday and Today. Even my Big Band loving daddy had to admit that the title song was “pretty.”
Of these three albums, the only one I have left is The Beatles’ record. How, or why, I let the other two go, I can’t say. Call it the whims of a thoughtless young man—one who might have decided trading in a Smith or Jones for a Costello or Springsteen made too much sense. It has long since stopped making any sense.
Through the years—and while I still had them–I played these albums, and so many more, when I studied, when I read, when I needed to sing along, or when I needed to find a way to sleep. And in the past ten years, ever since I turned to writing seriously, I’ve found how the stories within these songs can help conjure, or bring back stories of my own: of my past; of the people no longer near me whose love nurtured me and gave me more to think about and remember than I can ever put down in lyrics or words.
Though I’ll keep trying, as I listen to all of these records of my life, on repeat, or in random shuffle.
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