The old man stood in the shadows, back stage in the large, historic theater, leaning on his push broom next to the wheeled cart that held his cleaning supplies, listening to the loud music and screaming crowd. His arthritis was aching bad tonight, his hands twisted and swollen, and although he could no longer make the chords on his guitar, he could still hold the broom well enough to get by. He was lucky the theater manager dimly remembered his theater history, when the old man had stood on that stage, sharing the show with Hank Williams, Sr, Red Foley and Minnie Pearl. Yeah, it had been 63 years ago, now, and he had just been 24 years old, but already had his number one song on the charts, hmmm…..man, it don’t seem more than yesterday. Those were the days, man, rolling high, drawing the crowds, selling the records. He would have to make a point to meet this young Star when he came off stage, tell him a few stories of where it all came from, this Country Music…..yeah, that’s what he’d do.
He had been hungry and cold, the day he came and applied for the Janitor position at the old theater, but then, seemed like he always felt hungry and cold, in his late 80’s, but able to lie and pass for a somewhat younger age, because he really needed to find work. The flop house where he had a bed was threatening to kick him out if he didn’t come up with some money. Come up with some money…man, that used to not be a problem…not for him in the glory years….now, it was old age pension, and a small retirement check each month from the Musicians Union which together just barely paid for the lumpy bed, a meal a day and a bottle of Thunderbird Wine about once a week.
He had watched the buses pull up in back of the theater, bus for the young Star, bus for the band, bus for the sound and lighting crew, bus for the Merchandise. Yeah, times sure had changed since he and his band traveled in a 56 Chrysler touring car, five people jammed together with instruments, bass fiddle tied on top, then later went to a station wagon and a trailer which was a heap better…and finally in 1962, he had enough hit records to buy his first bus, an old Flex that he had bought off of Carl Smith, a beautiful custom job that Carl had babied for several years during his Hit Period. Tour buses became the way to go and he moved up to an MCI in the years that followed, with a special stateroom in the back where he could go to be alone with his developing habits. He was the darling of Country Radio and he just knew it was never gonna stop.
But by the 70’s it did stop and fortune seemed to stop smiling on him. He had developed a pill habit in the 60’s and graduated to Coke and alcohol in the late 60’s and early 70’s. While he was drying out and kicking the habit in rehab, his old manager had run off with the secretary, taking all the singers money when he left. Never did see the old rascal again, heck he was probably laying up in some South Sea Island somewhere, but the real kicker was, he also did not pay the Income Tax he was supposed to be paying. They took it all. The bus, the record royalties, writer’s royalties, sound systems, instruments. Gone, all gone. The good times wife, became bad times gone, and took the house, which was all he had been able to save from the “come and take-it guys”. He tried to shake it off and get up and come back strong, all he had to do was clean up and get back to work.
He kicked the habit all right, but the run he was on had passed him by. The bookings stopped coming in, from the rep he had gotten during his pill and drinking times and shows he could not meet, cause he was just too sick to sing. By the 80’s, radio had completely forgotten him, he couldn’t get in the door of any of the old major record companies that used to be chasing him. He had a brief flare up in the late 80’s, but the Independent label he was on went belly up, owing him money. Boy, if only………
The old man snapped back from his memory trip, jerked back to reality with the loud music climax and pyrotechnics going off….the girls in the audience screaming and reaching out wanting to touch the torn jeans, fancy boots, that no cowboy would be caught dead in…or touch the body underneath, as the Star stood on the very edge of the stage, pelvis thrust out, proud and flushed with the applause…not even aware that he had been about a half note off on his vocal performance, but the old man’s ears had picked it up instantly. Dang, he thought, on-key must not matter anymore in this new music, used to be a matter of pride with us in the old days. I might be old and hard’a hearin’, but I could sure hear that bad note. The crowd was going crazy, screaming and hollering…encores taken, pelvis flashes more prominent…light show pulsing and sweeping….da..dummmmm! The drummer finished his frenzy and it was over.
As the Star headed off stage, the old man took a step forward to maybe shake his hand and share a few stories about how it used to be…kinda becoming music buds, maybe, or… but the moment was lost when the Star shouldered past him, almost knocking him off balance, never knowing or even caring that he was going past real country music history. The Star headed for the bus, with his security detail pushing fans out of the way, he, looking neither left nor right, ignoring the imploring hands reaching out to touch…
Yeah, sure different times, I reckon, why after the show we did here, those 60 some odd years ago, Red, Hank, Minnie and I went out and sat on the edge of the stage and signed pictures and autographed albums for over two hours after the show…..but, they are all gone now, all the greats that I toured with….I don’t know how I managed to stay on as long as I have….I sure miss those folks, the musicians and the fans…all gone…all gone…..ah, but I remember the times…yeah….back in….
The old man pushes the broom, picking up litter left by the show crowd…the crew has torn down and loaded up, the buses backed up and headed out to the next show, the crowd all gone home…and the theater is all his. As he is surveying the darkening theater, he feels a deep pain, almost like an electric shock, going up his neck and shoulders. He staggers a second, regains his legs and walks back toward the stage. A strange melancholy has taken hold of him….a yearning, for he knows not what…but, something that he’s had but is now gone.
He walks out on the stage….finds the very center, where he had stood before….he looks down at the old torn stage boots that he still wears under his work uniform, a remembrance of what was, as the pain in his chest seems to radiate throughout his body. He coughs a couple of times, trying to ease the pain in his throat…opens his mouth to utter the first line of his biggest hit, feeling it well up inside him, oh, to just sing it one more time…..” When you’ve loved…..” his breath runs out, leaving him reaching for the next words…which never come.He senses a presence on both sides of his body, he thinks of Hank….Red….Minnie….as the spirit departs the old worn body, and he feels a peace at last.
The old man slowly crumples to the floor, in the exact center of the stage, where he stood with the greats so many years ago….so many years ago….so many………….
Epitaph for The Old Man That Time Forgot….
It’s raining and cold in the old graveyard where the Theater owners decided to put up the money for the simple burial of the old man who worked for them. There was no service, in fact no one came for the final rites except the Theater manager, who had given the old man the janitorial job. He stood there, rain dripping from the brim of his hat, as the gravediggers did the final pat down on the fresh mound, gathered up their tools and walked away. He was gonna miss the old man who told him those wild stories of being a country music star, not that the man believed him, but they were entertaining to listen to. He had been the one to find the old man, lying in a heap in the center of the stage of the theater, early the next morning when he came in to check on things. Finally, feeling kinda depressed, and for sure cold and wet, he walked to his car and left.
Later that week, the theater manager had found some addresses in the old mans personal items in the locker backstage in the theater. He notified the person whose name was on the paper, and thought little more about it.
In Nashville, the news of the old man’s death had started to circulate and the newspapers and trade press had got hold of it. This started a very public cat-fight between his two ex-wives and assorted kids over who had a right to his old record royalties and songwriter rights. It had been years since the old man had even checked the status of a career that used to be, but, a record company in Germany had bought the rights to many of the old mans records, put a boxed set of cd’s out and people, who had always loved his work, had bought them worldwide. The record company, unable to find a mailing address for him, had accrued the royalties and they were holding them for him. Some hot, new artists had re-cut some of his old songs and there was a pile big enough to get the cat-fight going pretty good. The old man would have been laughing his head off at the two ex’s and the ex’s assorted kids as they feverishly sought the money from the old mans creative works.
Meanwhile, the old man, who had felt such pain in his final moments, came to himself, with no pain, in the midst of a light that was even brighter than the spotlights that he remembered from the old pickin’ days. There was music all around him…why, that sounded just like Red Foley….is that Patsy?….Ernest…Mr. Acuff….Chet….Oh My God!…and a voice deeper than J. D. Sumner’s deep voice answered, “Yes, I’m right here, my son….we have been waiting for you…the band knows all your songs…and Ira Louvin wants to sing harmony with you”……..
In the Heavenly Band, which I intend to play and sing in, there are no age limits, no Union dues, no promoters sneaking out the back door with the ticket proceeds, no hard back seats to have to try to sleep, sitting up for hundreds of miles of Road Touring, no club owners who try to beat the traveling musicians out of every dime they can, no crooked managers to run off with the secretary and take all the artists money with them, No IRS agents that hold up your precious guitar, that you have carried since you started in the business, and told the auctioneer to see what these folks would give for it……no, it is the Band That Knows All Your Songs, Background Vocals that sound just like Angels, guitar players that don’t even have to use a capo to play all your chords, all your family and friends around that have gone on before you to prepare the way…You talk about singing to the choir….every face around you is lit by a light of happiness and joy….you’re singing with the finest harmony singer that has ever been….God is patting His foot to the beat, and King David is saying, “See, Heavenly Father, this is the music I been telling you about”.
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