The old man was cold, on this December day, even in his long johns and wool socks, under his old bib overalls, he just couldn’t seem to get warm anymore. His old house, which started out being a log cabin that somebody built back before the War For Southern Independence, had been closed in with rough cut lumber, through the years, but the cold wind still found the holes and cracks, and sometimes, of a morning when he got up, there would be a little snow on the floor by the window. He opened the door to the old pot bellied stove that was his heat source, and stuck a couple more pieces of the oak wood into the fire. The oak wood popped like a .22 going off, but it burned easy, and there was a lot of it back in the woods behind the old house.
The old man moved over to his kitchen table, which along with two wooden chairs, a sagging arm chair and an equally sagging threadbare couch…and a metal frame bed with a straw tick mattress and some blankets and pillow…made up the entire furnishings of the house. The house was one room, which served as living and sleeping quarters, and a lean to addition that held an old three legged cook stove, with the other corner held up by two old bricks. He had one electric light, hanging down on a wire from the ceiling in the main room, and a couple of coal oil lamps to help it illuminate the rooms, held by holders screwed to the wall. His one good black stage suit, white shirt and tie, hung on a hook secured to the wall also. His other clothes, he kept in a cardboard box, neatly folded as he would wash them and hang them out.
There were two porches, one on the front, and a small overhang, with screen wire covering that made a back porch, where an old refrigerator sat. A smoke house out back, a hand dug well, rocked up and roofed over, let him draw sweet water from the Tennessee Limestone aquifer, and on further down the path, an outhouse sat.
The old man sat down in the hard wooden chair by the kitchen table, and once again stared at the post card that he had gotten a few days before, when he went down to the little post office that served the community of Castalian Springs. The post card was from his friend, Roy Acuff, dated this year of 1955, and it said, “Staley, I’m sorry you been sick and hope your feelin’ better soon. Roy”. As he read the note, that old longing came on him so strong that he had to close his eyes and massage his temples, where the pain seemed to come up from somewhere deep inside…and he vowed to get strong enough to go back to the Opry, just as he had done ever since there had been an Opry….there at the beginning in 1925. As an integral part of the Possum Hunters, his rhythm guitar driving the band, and being the very first string band on the Opry…well, he just felt a strong loyalty to the show.
And Staley Walton did get stronger, and made the Friday and Saturday night shows, sometimes when he was hurting so bad from his sickness that he just moved back into the shadows, backstage at the Ryman, sitting quietly so he would not attract attention and have to visit, in his pain. His friends, Sam and Kirk McGee, and Alcyone Bate and Lewis Crook…well, they were about all that were left of the old ones that had started this Barndance called the Opry, and in recent years, the Opry Management had more and more pushed the old ones back…just as a quick tune for the square dancers…and the little bit that the Opry paid was quickly going away. It was just the way of things, Staley knew that, but it didn’t make the absence of music in his life any easier to take.
And now, in this wintertime of the 70’s, he sat at the same old table, reading a letter from his friend and musical partner, Alcyone Bate, the daughter of Dr. Humphrey Bate, the founder and leader of the Possum Hunters, when they first sang and played on WSM’s Barndance, before it was even called the Opry. Alcyone, who had moved to California, when the appearances of her and Staley had dried up on the Opry, had written him to say that she was appealing to The Opry Trust Fund or the Musicians Union to get some money for medical expenses for Staley. He folded the letter up and put it back in the envelope…so many years….so many chords on his old guitar…oh, how the people loved to dance to their music in the old days…the fiddles and banjo ringing out with his rhythm driving it on, oh the times…as they made the trips in the old 1928 Packard that Dr. Bates had for them to travel in…them and Uncle Dave Macon…Sam and Kirk McGee From Sunny Tennessee…running up and down the two lane roads…playing school houses…tent shows…outdoor parks…shows that would sell out for 25 to 50 cents a ticket…and then make a little money on song books and pictures….then rushing back to the Opry for the weekend shows. Oh, it was a life, alright…it was a life….the old longing was coming back again, no matter how hard he tried to push it back….and with it the pain….the radiating pain that seemed to sweep over all his body….he put his head down on the table…just to rest for awhile…he needed to get up and put some wood in the stove….but first to rest…..cold….so cold….
There is no display honoring Staley Walton as the first guitar player in the first string band to play on the Opry…most people never knew he lived, let alone when he died. Most would never know the strength it took to keep going, being loyal to a Radio Show turned cash cow for the Insurance Company that owned it, and the big money folks that later bought it. He was there…not as a star, but as a back up musician whose guitar drove the rhythm, back when they did not allow drums on the Opry. He was content to be just that….in the background with his flat top. Weekends of driving into Nashville from his Sumner County, Tennessee home, maybe making seven bucks for his Opry appearance, and in the early years not even that. Staley Walton epitomized all the behind the scene musicians that made the Opry and every other country show that ever existed, work like a well oiled machine. For they, not the stars, are the lifeblood of this business of music. So, a lift of the old coffee cup, a toast to greatness….the greatness of the fiddlers, the steel men, the piano beaters, the banjo flailers, the one guy standing with a snare drum and brushes, the harmonica blowers, the mandolin ticklers….and the Staley Walton flat top guitar players…who drove the rhythm. Every Star that I have ever known, realized that without you….they were nothing.
Years after Staley Walton passed away, I found his abandoned shack, deep in the Sumner County woods, with pieces of his illustrious life scattered on the rubble strewn floor…the postcard from Roy Acuff….a news clipping from 1929, folded and carefully placed in an envelope, that was an obituary for his little boy who had died at two years of age, the letter from Alcyone Bates, trying to get money from the Opry Trust Fund for Staley. The roof of the old building had partially fallen in, but the evidence of his life and music was there. I remembered all the Friday and Saturday nights, at the old Ryman, seeing Staley Walton sitting back in the shadows, behind stage, all alone with his memories, until the time to back up the square dancers, at which time he would pick up his old flat top and make his way back on stage…where his guitar…..drove the rhythm. Stan