My mom made the best biscuits and gravy in America. You may be rolling your eyes, but it’s not just a bold statement from a proud son, so stay with me.
I have been captivated by the new Ken Burns documentary on country music. My dad and mom were dedicated fans. Mom grew up in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, what was then a tiny town next to the growing city of Tulsa. She loved Bob Wills and often heard him perform live. I remember as a small child, sitting on my mom’s lap, laughing as she would sing a rousing version of Wills' hit “Take Me Back to Tulsa.” She called herself an Okie and wore the moniker proudly.
My dad was from Sesser, a small coal-mining town in Southern Illinois. My dad always thought of himself as a “hillbilly,” and I guess he was. I grew up in my younger years eating more rabbit and squirrel than beef and pork. I became quite skilled at chewing and spitting out the buckshot without damaging my teeth.
One of my father’s closest friends as a child was Billy Grammer. Billy had a big North American hit in 1958 titled, “Gotta Travel On.” It was top 5 in both the country and pop charts and was equally as popular in Australia. Many of the old timers will remember that song and probably not know the name of the artist that made it famous. "Gotta Travel On" was a medley of his only hit, but Grammer is legendary in Nashville as a studio guitarist and regular on the Grand Ole Opry.
Mom and Dad met in a country and western bar in Salem. They married in 1953 and moved north to the Chicago area to find employment. The Chicago area was being flooded after the war with people from Southern Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee, seeking employment and they brought country music with them.
My earliest childhood memories were of Saturday nights, sitting with my family and many neighbors at our old Grundig Radio, turned to WSM in Nashville, Tennessee, listening to Billy Grammer and the other stars of the Grand Ole Opry.
As Grammer would tour with various country artists and would find themselves in or around the Chicago area, my mom would always invite Grammer and any of the traveling performers to our home for biscuits and gravy — and they came. George Morgan, Grandpa Jones, Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff, Merle Kilgore and many others all found their way to our home, often arriving after midnight in taxi cabs and leaving around sunrise.
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I watch this excellently produced documentary and feel like I am seeing old friends. I remember meeting Loretta Lynn for the first of several times, very early in her career and backstage at the Hammond, Indiana, Civic Center. Grammer introduced us to her and said she was new, but would soon be the new "First Lady of Country Music.” She grabbed my shoulders, looked at me and proclaimed that I was the “prettiest little boy she’d ever met.” She pulled my head to her chest and hugged me. When she went on stage she said, “There is the most beautiful little boy backstage and I sure wish I had his eyelashes.”
I met her again several times over the next few years and she always gave me a hug. She may have been the kindest and sweetest person I ever met. I later told my teacher I met the First Lady and she asked, “Lady Bird Johnson? And I responded, “No, Loretta Lynn!”
When I was 19, I auditioned and played drums for one night with Ray Price. Price asked me if I’d like to play a few additional nights and I enjoyed the privilege and opportunity to travel a short time with one of the greatest country stars of the 1960s and '70s. This is around the time where “western” was dropped and the music emerged as simply “country.” At the time, Barbara Mandrell and her family were traveling as the warmup act for Price and she and her family, like Ray Price and Loretta Lynn, are truly among the finest people I have ever met.
There are no absolutes, but the openness, kindness and lack of “star-ego” is what I think of as I think back to meeting these performers. They were wildly popular and known all over North America and beyond but there were no false pretenses or air of entitlement. They felt as though they were as lucky to meet their fans as the fans were to meet them.
I was a young witness to these performers and the making of the history of country and western music thanks to my dad’s love of the music and his childhood friend Billy Grammer. Billy took us backstage in almost all of the Chicago area venues and introduced us to the biggest stars of the day, then brought them to our home in Hillcrest subdivision in Kankakee to relax and eat what George Morgan proclaimed to be “the best biscuits and gravy in America!”
As I get older, I find that I become more emotional. I sit on my couch watching the Burns documentary and am surprised at the moments I break into tears at the site of, what feels like, old friends.
Thank you, Ken Burns, for capturing, organizing and sharing this important history of the times and music. I am grateful and I know I am not alone.
These are memories I will cherish the rest of my life.