By RAHN ADAMS
BOONE, N.C. (Aug. 13, 2020) – “American Pie” is playing on the 70s on 7 satellite radio channel right now as I start this essay. I couldn’t have planned it any better. Singer-songwriter Don McLean, who also scored Top 40 hits in the early 1970s with “And I Love You So” and “Vincent,” was the first successful recording artist I ever bought a ticket to hear in a bar. He played old P.B. Scott’s Music Hall in Blowing Rock one hot summer night in the late ’70s. I left annoyed because he stopped after playing just one set.
“American Pie” wasn’t in my own repertoire back then, but McLean’s other two blockbuster hits were, especially the one about Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh that opens with the haunting words, “Starry, starry night / Paint your palette blue and gray / Look out on a summer’s day / With eyes that know the darkness in my soul.” Accompanying myself on piano, I played weddings, banquets, school functions, even a reception at the N.C. Governor’s Mansion and an open-mic night at a famous Myrtle Beach bar.
Long before I wanted to be a writer, my dream was to be a famous singer-songwriter like John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison of The Beatles, or like Apple’s first signed recording artist and Chapel Hill homeboy, James Taylor. As a teenager, I also adored the group Chicago’s rock-n-roll with horns, mainly the songs written by keyboardist Robert Lamm and trombonist James Pankow. The first couple of years that I collected LPs, my purchases every payday favored Chicago and Beatles albums.
The first two James Taylor albums I bought—Greatest Hits in 1976 and JT in 1977—were on cassette. You remember those expensive and finicky Compact Cassette cartridges, right? They sounded fantastic and were really convenient, especially in the car, until your tape deck’s playback head needed cleaning. Then, if you didn’t act fast, the cussed device would start chewing up all the tape in that cassette you’d spent a few extra bucks on. But live and learn. Yes, live and learn. And keep your playback head clean.
Actually, I bought those two albums on cassette tape because James’s music had touched me at a time when I was dealing with some of the same issues that many of his songs dealt with—love, death, loss, friendship, sadness, happiness, and other feelings and situations that give life meaning—and I wanted to listen to those tunes without having to use the family’s console stereo in the living room. If Dad had ever heard “Steamroller”—the live version on Greatest Hits, anyway—it would have blown his mind, I guarantee.
So my first purchases of audio equipment as a teenager included a Panasonic stereo cassette recorder and playback deck, a Realistic stereo headset, a Realistic stereo condenser microphone and a good mic stand, those last three items coming from the local Radio Shack. Not only could I listen to prerecorded audio-cassettes; I could also make cassette recordings of all my LPs when Mom and Dad were gone. I could even set the equipment up next to our piano and record myself singing original tunes and covers.
Before I moved out of my parents’ house, I added an Akai reel-to-reel stereo tape deck to my equipment inventory. It had what was called “sound-on-sound” capability, which meant I could start layering other instruments and vocals onto the tape’s two stereo tracks. For example, I could play a song on the piano and sing at the same time, and then add Mom’s spinet Hammond organ and my background vocal to the same recording. Once I switched between the organ and my cheap electric guitar for rhythm and a solo.
I’ve continued to record my own songs through the years, working on those recordings in fits and starts. In turn, my equipment has improved. The cassette and reel-to-reel decks eventually gave way to a four-track cassette recorder called a “mini-studio” and then to an eight-track digital recorder. Simply put, the number of tracks represents how many different instruments or vocals that I can easily put on a single recording. One tune has me singing two parts and playing two guitars, piano, bass, dulcimer and drums.
Yes, I know that computer software has been available for years that would let me turn my MacBook or PC into a full-blown, multi-track recording studio. I own two or three of those software packages, but I would rather keep my recording projects as simple—or sounding as simple—as possible. As a matter of fact, my favorite recording is one of the first ones I made with that old Panasonic cassette deck. It’s just me singing and accompanying myself on a Steinway concert grand piano, with no overdubbing needed.
Speaking of simplicity, I seem to have come full circle as a musician. Earlier, I mentioned all those big-time recording artists whose records I collected and copied as well as I could with my limited talent and means. All those pop music icons might have been my musical heroes, but they were not the musicians most responsible for my love of music and for my progress as an instrumentalist and singer-songwriter. I’ve already mentioned one of my three Muses several times here. The other two are quite easy to guess.
Mom put me on stage for the first time when I was only four or five. I still remember stepping up onto the platform between the pulpit and piano at Towanda (Ill.) Community Church, listening to Mom play a short introduction, and then singing two verses and choruses of the old hymn “Trust and Obey” from memory (because I hadn’t learned to read yet). When I was six, Mom began giving me piano lessons at home, working me through the John Thompson’s Modern Course for the Piano books and our hymnal.
I knew that in her youth Mom had once accompanied Southern gospel singing groups, and that she had attended the famed Stamps-Baxter School of Music in Dallas, Texas. Also, Mom had written the music for several gospel songs that were included in hymnals published by Stamps-Baxter Music Company. In the world of Southern gospel music, that was a big deal. Her talent as a songwriter made me wonder if maybe I’d inherited the artistry or craftiness to do the strange magic of pulling melodies from thin air.
My piano lessons continued until fifth grade when I started playing trombone in Salem Elementary’s first school band. When I transferred to Happy Valley Elementary a couple of months into my sixth-grade year, I stayed in the band and was introduced to George W. Kirsten, who was my band director for most of the next seven years. The younger brother of Metropolitan Opera star Dorothy Kirsten, Mr. Kirsten was the most influential teacher I had in my 13 years of K-12 education, all things considered.
It would have been difficult for Mr. K not to have had a big impact on me, considering that he was the focus of my musical attention for so many years. A district-wide elementary school band in my eighth-grade year and all four high school bands earned superior ratings at state concert band contests. We also won several marching competitions, with the most impressive honor being recognition as the best band in the Annual Shrine Bowl Parade in Charlotte one year. Mr. Kirsten accepted nothing short of our best.
Mr. K’s favorite saying was, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” and he repeated it anytime he thought band members were slacking off. He was right about weaknesses, how one weak person in a group or even one weak attribute of an individual can result in failure. But he himself wasn’t perfect, no matter how beloved he was and deserved to be. I know from experience that he did show favoritism at times and did make some conscious decisions that promoted some band members and held others back.
My third Muse—though he surely never knew it—was Grammy Award-winning guitarist and folksinger Doc Watson, about whom I’ve already written. In addition to teaching me that learning how to handle a mistake through improvisation makes more sense than accepting nothing short of perfection, Doc told me in a 1989 interview that he and his son, Merle, had made a conscious decision not to pursue popular success on the same hard terms as certain 1960s folksingers who had traded their freedom for wealth and fame.
By then, I knew that I would never be a pop star or even a folksinger on any level approaching Doc and Merle. I had submitted demo tapes to a music producer who had invited me into his studio to make an even better demo that he had promised to play for a New York City record label. I had signed away the publishing rights to that song to the producer and then had heard nothing more from him about it. I had given up on producing an album on my own, as several other struggling songwriters I knew had done.
I had also pretty much stopped writing songs and had stopped playing my different instruments. That changed, though, after I met Doc. He had played with a Boone bluegrass group called the Blue Ridge Ramblers on two straight nights at Sims Country Bar-B-Que #2 near Shallotte, a place that hosted live old-time music and clogging—fancy square dancing—every weekend. Back home, we had visited and liked the first Sims Bar-B-Que in the Dudley Shoals section of Caldwell County. So #2 was like home.
Besides having great all-you-can-eat food—three grilled meats and all the fixings on a service line—Sims #2 had Michael Sims, just as Sims #1 had his father, Keith, who died just two weeks ago at the age of 90. Like his dad back home, Mike would circulate around the huge dining room and chat with folks. He’d often sit at our table for a few minutes and talk about everything under the sun—hunting, fishing, running the restaurant, raising a young family with two boys, and, yes, goings-on back home.
Still being homesick for the foothills, I looked forward to talking to Mike as much as I did to eating all that good food and listening to good music, even though he and I had graduated from rival high schools in Caldwell County around the same time in the late 1970s. So when Doc appeared at Sims in October of 1989—about two years after Timberley and I had moved to the coast—I was in Sims Bar-B-Que #2 heaven. Mike introduced me to Doc the first night he played, and I asked Doc if I could interview him.
Doc said that he’d talk to me before the next night’s performance only if I had my questions written out in advance—not so that he could approve them, but to ensure that the interview moved along during the limited time available. Armed with a portable tape recorder, I sat with Doc in a small room just off the “Sims Opera House” stage, and, sure enough, he asked if I’d written down my questions. “No,” I said, “but I know what I’m going to ask.” He took me at my word, and the interview lasted about 15 minutes.
Having grown up in the foothills, I focused on Doc’s local connections and on how he got started in the music business. “We played some school houses, picked some on the street, like on the back lots at the taxi stand in Lenoir,” he told me. “There was a place down there called the Hog Wallow—I don’t know why they called it that—and we used to pick there. We used to have a lot of fun picking together.” And then he was discovered. “It was a lot of hard dues-paying days,” he said, “but that’s how it got started.”
I didn’t tell Doc that I would always remember the morning his son and musical partner Merle died. I was news director at Morganton radio station WMNC-WQXX at the time, and every morning around 6:30 I traded stories with the newsman at Lenoir’s radio station, whose AM signal before sunrise barely covered Lenoir proper. On the other hand, the Morganton station’s FM signal covered much of western N.C., including the Caldwell County community where Merle had just been fatally injured on his farm.
The other newsman told me about Merle’s tractor accident, but he said the story shouldn’t be broadcast until Doc and his wife Rosa Lee, who lived near here in the Deep Gap community of Watauga County, and other family members could be notified. I doubt that Doc listened to WQXX, because it didn’t play country music back then, but I knew that the station came in loud and clear in Boone and Deep Gap. The station’s local news—and its Top 40 music—had once been my lifeline away from home at App State.
Still, I respected my radio news colleague’s wishes and didn’t broadcast what was a big story in several worlds and on several levels until my friend called me back and gave me his go-ahead. Other newsmen might not have behaved as ethically. My main competitor, who worked for a big Hickory rock station, would listen to my 5:55 FM newscast every weekday and then steal my “scoops” without setting a foot outside his studio or making a single phone call. My boss fussed at me for writing the guy a nasty letter.
When I interviewed Doc that night at Sims Bar-B-Que, I did ask if he had considered retiring from the music business after Merle’s death. “Well, I was going to,” he said, “but some financial problems came up, and I figured I’d better work another year or two. It’s just that simple.” That “year or two” ended up being 27 years with the start of MerleFest in 1988—the year before I talked to Doc—and his unfailing appearances at the popular roots music festival and at other local venues until 2015, the year he died.
Doc also told me about two upcoming recording projects—a gospel album released in 1990 that turned out to be the Grammy-winning On Praying Ground and also a collection of “old, old heart songs about mother and dad and a sweetheart being lost and train wrecks and all that kind of stuff—good songs that bring a tear.” It was 1991’s My Dear Old Southern Home. Timberley and I were still living on the coast when Sugar Hill Records released both albums. We bought both CDs at the Record Bar in Wilmington.
After moving to Boone in 1997, we ran into Doc and Rosa Lee fairly often, usually on Wednesdays in the food aisles at the Harris-Teeter supermarket or maybe at Pepper’s Restaurant in the same shopping center. We usually just said “hey” and congratulated Doc on his latest award or album release. Once, as I hurried into the supermarket to pick up an item or two, I saw the Watsons standing just inside the door and noticed that Doc was obviously having trouble pulling a metal cart free from the nested line of them.
“Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Watson,” I said. “Can I give you a hand with that cart?” Rosa Lee smiled and looked up at Doc. He nodded pleasantly and stepped back, probably assuming that I was a store employee. “I have trouble with these things myself,” I admitted, as I gave the cart handle a good shake and managed to break the cart loose from the other buggy’s clutches. I don’t think I told them that I was one of their great-granddaughter’s teachers at Watauga High or that I had met him years earlier at Sims Bar-B-Que.
But as I waved to the Watsons and then strode through the main automatic doors into the store, another shopper who had passed us outside stopped me. “Do you know who that man was you just helped?” the starstruck woman asked. I glanced back at Doc pushing the cart that I’d liberated for him, and I nodded in the affirmative before hurrying on to grab the loaf of bread or the jug of milk or whatever I was there to buy with my VIC card, knowing full well I wasn’t Harris-Teeter’s most important customer just then.
Entitled “Just One of the People,” Doc’s life-sized bronze statue in downtown Boone of him sitting on a park bench and picking his guitar is appropriate for not only his early years as a street performer in Boone and Lenoir, but also for his musical career on the whole. Like my mom and George Kirsten, Doc never pretended to be anything he wasn’t, on stage or off. He struck me as a practical man. “I was looking for something to do to take care of my family,” Doc said of his start, “so I got out there and went to work.”
That’s why I picked daisies and buttercups as symbols for this essay. They’re both simple flowers but elegantly beautiful in their own ways. And both bring simple, singable songs to mind—like the 19th-century tune “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)” and the late ’60s pop hit “Build Me Up, Buttercup.” This past spring, when we went to work in our water-bogged front yard, it was covered with buttercups. And yesterday Timberley and I spied daisies all along the shaggy shoulders of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
As Don McLean sang in “American Pie” that time I heard him at P.B. Scott’s, “A long, long time ago / I can still remember how / That music used to make me smile / And I knew if I had my chance / That I could make those people dance / And maybe they’d be happy for a while / . . . And the three men I admire most / The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost / They caught the last train for the coast / The day the music died . . . .” That’s kind of how I’ve felt through the years as I’ve lost Mom, Mr. K, and Doc.
Making music really is like casting a spell. And it’s sorcery that works both ways, blessing and cursing the sorcerers and their apprentices. Don McLean asked the big question in his song—“Can music save your mortal soul?”—but he already knew the answer, though he didn’t bother hanging around long enough to count our yes’s and no’s. I don’t know if he was headed for the coast or for a motel room up the road. It wasn’t even dark out. A starry, starry night would have been nice. But we got pretty sunflowers instead.