This was the summer of 1954, and Hank Williams had been dead for a year and a half – dying in a moving car in a snowstorm in West Virginia on New Year’s Eve. But we didn’t necessarily know that. We just knew he was a voice, a plaintive voice, on the jukebox.
The diner was in a hamlet called North Creek in upstate New York. I was staying a month with people who were (are) like family to me. Many evenings after supper, Jimmy, who was six days younger than me (that’s how our mothers met) and I would hitch-hike the 7.7 miles to the Red Diner. We were 15.
The diner had a corner with, as I recall, a pinball machine, and guys could drink a beer and play the jukebox. I was a city kid – no doubt made that point way too often – and my main connection with “country” or “western” or “hillbilly” music was from Gene Autry records and seeing him in the rodeo in Madison Square Garden.
Hank Williams was no Gene Autry. He was a phenomenon unto himself – wailing and courting, letting it all out, six plays for a quarter, as I recall. “Hey, Good Lookin’,” “Jambalaya,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
It was an education for this city kid, and the education goes on, in the PBS series that is pulling me to the tube, two hours every night, all this week. It is about America – hard times, nasty times, lynchings and injustices but also the contribution of African-Americans to the swath of American music. I learn something every minute – the old icons I saw at the Ryman in the 70’s and 80’s, long after they were young and hungry and immensely creative.
I heard them first on the jukebox in the Red Diner in North Creek – Webb Pierce, Hank Thompson, Eddie Arnold, Pee Wee King (later my Louisville neighbor), Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb.
There was also a woman’s voice, as piercing as Hank Williams’, cutting into the noise in the Red Diner. Her song was a reply to Hank Thompson’s “Wild Side of Life,” which blames women for leading us poor men astray. Miss Kitty Wells was having none of it. She, too, borrowed an old Carter Family tune, and she lectured the men: “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels.”
In the smoky, noisy corner of the Red Diner, we were getting a dose of feminism, although we hardly knew that.
Her song had been banned on some chicken networks, fearful of offending (male) listeners and (male) sponsors, but I never heard any of the farmhands in their clean boots and jeans, or the townies, or teen-agers like me, debate Miss Kitty’s point. Lady had a point.
After our hour or two in the Red Diner, we got out into the cool night air, crossed the street into the woods to pee into the Hudson River and then point our thumbs homeward.
The PBS series makes me think about the jukebox in the Red Diner. As of Tuesday, the series was up to 1953.
No Patsy Cline, no Loretta Lynn, no Dolly Parton, no Emmylou Harris, no Lucinda Williams, no Iris DeMent. Not yet. Kitty Wells passed in 2012, at the age of 91. She was there first.
* * *
Bio of Kitty Wells:
"Among the things that have long fascinated people about Jesus and explain his enduring appeal is his method of dialogue and teaching. "He asked a lot of questions and told a lot of stories in the form of parables. In fact, parables form about a third of Jesus’ recorded teachings. The Gospels were written decades after he died, so his questions and parables clearly left a deep impression on those who bore testimony to him....
"Some of Jesus’ questions were rhetorical; others were meant to challenge or even provoke. In some cases, Jesus used questions to parry attacks by religious authorities who set traps for him. In others, he used questions to enter more fully into the lives of others and to help people look at the state of their hearts. He asked people about their fears and their faith. Jesus used questions to free a woman caught in adultery from condemnation and to inquire whether people considered him to be the Messiah. He probed deeply into questions not many had asked before him, like “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
---(Peter Wehner, long-time White House consultant and writer, in the NYT last week about Jesus Christ’s method of teaching by asking questions.)
"Would that I could mention all the illuminating details in this biography, for example, why Wells praised Black Americans so highly, saying, 'I took a mighty liking to these gentle, human, dark-skinned people,' and 'Whatever America has to show in heroic living today, I doubt if she can show anything finer than the quality of the resolve, the steadfast efforts hundreds of black and colored men are making today to live blamelessly, honorably and patiently, getting by themselves what scraps of refinement, beauty and learning they may, keeping their hold on a civilization they are grudged and denied.''
-- "How H.G. Wells Predicted the 20th Century," Charles Johnson, NYT Book Review, Nov. 19, 2021. ***".
...the monsters arrive."
"They come in a deafening, surging swarm, blasting from lawn to lawn and filling the air with the stench of gasoline and death. I would call them mechanical locusts, descending upon every patch of gold in the neighborhood the way the grasshoppers of old would arrive, in numbers so great they darkened the sky, to lay bare a cornfield in minutes. But that comparison is unfair to locusts.
"Grasshoppers belong here. Gasoline-powered leaf blowers are invaders, the most maddening of all the maddening, environment-destroying tools of the American lawn-care industry."
---The great Margaret Renkl, from Nashville, one of my favorite NYT bylines, Oct. 26, 2021.
(She describes our Long Island enclave to every decibel, every stink.)