Roughly 30 years ago, my mother — then a young nurse in a small rural hospital — was recruited by the county to be on night call for a dying 92-year-old woman whose family had promised to keep her out of the nursing home. The house was remotely located, so rather than send Mother alone, we’d pack our family of five into the Rambler, and Dad would pilot us through the swamps and backcountry to where the small wooden house sat hunched in the trees at the end of a short dirt drive. I was very young — not yet four — but I remember wolfish dogs looming through the moonlight, some tethered to brush-bound Packards, others circling the Rambler, stopping to strain at the windows. Usually we waited with Dad in the car — uneasily, I remember — but at least once I followed Mom inside. I remember the woman’s son, Henry, ushering us in, solicitous and polite, though always with a bit of the mad scientist’s assistant about him. Henry’s mother died shortly thereafter, and I don’t recall ever seeing Henry again. For three decades, the dogs and trees and old cars distilled themselves into a handful of images — a moon-soaked hillbilly gothic.
I walked up that driveway again last month, this time in full volunteer fireman’s gear. The day before, Henry, in his 80s now, had called some neighbors, said he was having trouble with his furnace. Later, someone saw smoke, and called the fire department. When they arrived, and fought their way inside, they found Henry on the floor. It looked like he might have gone back in to unchain one of his gang of dogs. Whatever the case, he lay dead, two dogs draped over his body as if to shield him from the flames. I was gone the day of the fire, but when it re-ignited the next day, I was part of the small crew that returned. Oftentimes the only way to completely extinguish an extensive fire is to pull the structure apart, and so after we chopped and sprayed and sweated most of the morning, a backhoe was called in. Slowly and implacably, the articulated steel arm drew and quartered the house, and as each scoop swung past, we soaked it down.
In dying, the old house gave up a lot of history. Beneath the shabby, weather-beaten exterior, patched and teetering with trash, were signs of grander times: a hand-turned pilaster, the remnants of a parlor. Deeper still, the original body of the house was a bulwark of hand-squared and fitted logs. And tumbling from scoop after scoop of sodden ashes, signs of something even more surprising: the skeleton of a banjo, the pleated bellows of an accordion, the shell of a mandolin, bits of a Victrola. And records. Stacks of them, thick and vintage, some melted, some expanded and separated into layers, others apparently pristine. I knew Henry had been a mechanic, knew he had mowed cemeteries, but I had never heard anything about the music.
“Oh yeah,” said one of the firemen, “he gave lessons in the old days.” Later that week, someone stopped in the implement store where my brother works and allowed as how Henry could “play anything with strings.” A local man who still picks bluegrass and country gospel for church groups and nursing home residents told me how Henry taught him licks as a child: “He’d give you fundamentals, get that metronome going. He had a down-to-earth style.”
Right before we rolled the hose up and headed home that afternoon, a Grandpa Jones album tumbled out atop a pile of ash and old bedsprings. Louis “Grandpa” Jones died three days later.
In 1929, at the age of 16, Louis Marshall Jones billed himself as “The Young Singer Of Old Songs.” Talk about hip — 60 years prior to alternative country, Jones was already doing the retro thing. When Jones was 22, his co-host on a morning radio show accused him of being slow and grouchy; of acting like a grandpa. The name stuck, and with the addition of high-topped boots, fake mustache, wire-rimmed spectacles and bright suspenders, so did the schtick.
Singing and flailing on his banjo, Jones worked the radio-show circuit, formed a gospel quartet with Merle Travis in the ’40s and made his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in 1946. He had a handful of hits here and there, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1978. Most of my generation came to know him through Hee Haw, of course, and he remained with the show until its end in 1992.
While most performers cling to their youth, Grandpa eased into old age like he’d been waiting for it all his life. He gave his last performance at the Opry in January; he died February 19 at age 84. When I heard, I thought of that album on the ash pile, and those banjo skeletons. It struck me as coincidence more than karma, but it did set me to thinking about these two lives, lived over the same eight decades: Grandpa carving out a career that sustained him but didn’t consume him, Henry living his idiosyncratic loner’s life, refusing the company of anyone but his dogs, the indignity of his position outshone by the dignity of his choice. Both men were more than they seemed.
Beyond the Hee Haw clowning, beyond the reclusive old man with his dogs and beached Packards, were two men who found joy in the same pure sounds, whose fingers could coax living history from the strings. For a few days, I despaired over Henry’s lost recordings and instruments. But the more I pondered it, the more I found a kind of holiness in the idea of all that music just rising into the air, leaving nothing to be picked over by mortals. If I despair anything, I despair that for 30 years, I lived within a short Rambler ride of a man who could teach mountain music, but in the end, with the “old days” eclipsed by noise, had no takers.