None of my relatives on either side were musicians. I have a cousin who plays piano in his church, but that’s about it. Music in my family came from the radio. In the late 1980s when compact discs were first becoming more popular, my Grandma Journey – always a one-step-ahead kinda woman – began amassing the first CD collection I ever saw, back when the CDs came packaged in cardboard boxes three times the height of the plastic jewel case, for record store display purposes I later deduced. Anyway, grandma’s favorites were tongue-in-cheek classic country songs. Weekends with her, we’d sit at the table in her dining room, playing rummy while a string of tunes from Buck Owens and George Jones played from that huge black player with the dancing orange lights. Songs like “Act Naturally” and “Under Your Spell Again” were regulars, but the one we heard most was Jones singing about the girl he loved in “Saginaw, Michigan”. Grandma was always quick to point out the song’s payoff line to me, in case I missed it this time. “See, he didn’t really find any gold in Alaska”, she would explain. “He lied to that guy so he could marry the daughter and go off and be happy.” She was a big fan of the underdog, my grandma. I knew back then that she and her songs were cool, and I still think so.
When I was five years old my dad bought a tow truck and began a towing service. Going along with him on a run was all I wanted out of life back then. Afternoons and weekends, I spent a lot of my youthful existence in that old blue Chevrolet tow truck while the tape deck schooled me on classic albums from Hank Williams Jr, Randy Travis, and others. But the one I remember best was the old white cassette – if you remember cassette tapes, you’ll remember they were white before record labels decided translucent plastic was more stylish – of Alabama’s Roll On. Released just months after I was born in January 1984 when Alabama was arguably the hottest band in the U.S., the set housed 4 consecutive #1 singles. I couldn’t get enough of the title track back then, but two album cuts stand out to me most now. The band’s southern rock influence is evident on the flick-your-bic-worthy “I’m Not That Way Anymore”. It’s a tale of road-weary musicians grown tame and leaving behind their wild and crazy ways, told behind hushed electric guitar solos with the guys’ airtight harmonies and written by the four band members. Even though I didn’t understand the lyrics, I was taken with slow-burning feel of the song. What you hear on the album was recorded live in Dallas and so was the accompanying music video, though it was never released as a single. The other song that made the biggest impression on me was closing track “Food On The Table”, a simplistic espousing of the staples in life. Its outlaw country-inspired back beat is coupled with an ’80s pop melody that crawls into your brain and stays there. I barely play it anymore, but hardly a week goes by that I don’t find myself tapping a foot and singing “we had food on the table and shoes on our feet…”
My timeline for these memories begins sometime in 1989. I know that because I also have a clear memory of George Strait’s “Baby’s Gotten Good at Goodbye”, making its chart run at the time, being played several times a day. These days, with a niece and nephew both five years old this Summer, knowing that the songs they hear today could be the ones that stay with them until they’re grown, I find myself resisting the urge to only play the top 40 stations and songs for them when either one is with me. Sure, they can and do sing a long with Katy Perry’s big, catchy choruses and know every word to Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” – it’s edited in my market to remove the words “bullet” and “gun”. But I also want them to hear about a Cajun’s temper when he’s ‘really got trouble like a daughter gone bad’ and the story of Tommy proposing to Katie outside the Tastee Freez. Like me, maybe they’ll wonder if those boys ever make it to the church on Cumberland Road, and they may well have those ‘big old wheels keep rolling through their mind’ too. I wonder if they will relegate the songs I play for them as old-people-music, and find their own way into country music’s past and present. It is a family tradition. Or will they come to appreciate the songs I played them are boss, or whatever slang term the kids are using for great and awesome when that day comes.
Share your first recollections of music and the people who shared it with you in the comments.