All because of Elvis…

Our name in lights! TraveLodge Motel, Pascagoula, MS 1974

In 1956, Heartbreak Hotel by Elvis Presley was released. That’s also the year I was born. I have heard Elvis music all my life. When I was nine years old, while visiting my grandparents in Jackson, Tennessee, I saw him on the big screen for the first time at the Malco Theater in a movie called “Tickle Me.” That did it. Seeing him in a “Rock and Rollicking Storm,” as the movie poster proclaimed, was enough to make Elvis the person I aspired most to be.

In the 1960s, my family and I lived in Jackson, Mississippi and Elvis churned out several movies each year. I saw all of them many times over. Back then, at the Lamar, Paramount and Capri theaters, you could pay the fifty-five cent admission fee once and sit through as many screenings as you wanted. With each Elvis movie, from the marginal to the magnificent, I became more enamored with the image of the star. Who could beat a life of traveling, singing and always ending up with the prettiest girl in the picture?

But it was September 14, 1970 that absolutely changed my life. We had moved from Jackson to Pascagoula, Mississippi on the Gulf Coast, not far from Mobile, Alabama.  To my absolute delight, Elvis was going on tour again for the first time in a decade and Mobile was on the itinerary. Mom got tickets for me and my across-the-street neighbor Monte Childress to go and see the King in concert. Elvis was thin, agile, charming on stage and sang his heart out at the Mobile Municipal Auditorium that night.

I did it his way

1970 was also the year I began teaching myself how to play the guitar, as many of us did in Pascagoula High School. From the ninth grade until I was a senior, I tried to perfect every Elvis nuance, learn every song and even his famous scarf-throwing technique. Other classmates learned songs by contemporary artists of the day – James Taylor, Cat Stevens, John Denver, and Janis Joplin. But I threw in with Elvis, occasionally adding songs by Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond and Kris Kristofferson.

With other good friends who enjoyed music, my first band was born: Les Kerr & The Blue Suede Band. We played talent shows, pep rallies, Junior Civitan meetings and wherever we could get people to listen to us play Heartbreak Hotel, Don’t Be Cruel and Burning Love. Bandmember Garry Downs’ mother made a shirt with a very high collar for me to emulate tall collars on Elvis’ jumpsuits. I still have it. It’s lime-green (it was the 70s) with a subtle floral design. It went well with my scarves.

1972 w/Garry Downs & Butch Thompson, Jr. Civitan party

We really thought we had hit the big time when we appeared on “Pas-Point Spotlight,” a 15-minute TV show broadcast on Saturdays on WLOX TV in Biloxi. Many of our high school

Doing my best moves at a pep rally, 1973

friends watched me curl my lip, grab the microphone and wink at the camera as we sang Can’t Help Falling in Love to the local TV audience.

Good Rockin’ Tonight

I saw Elvis in concert two more times in Mobile  in 1973 and 1975. While he gained weight over those years, he never lost the magic he had with an audience or his magnificent voice. The tickets from those  concerts are among my most prized possessions, as is one unused ticket for an Elvis Presley concert scheduled for August 28, 1977 in the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis, Tennessee. I had bought that ticket while in college at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, not far from Memphis, and it broke my heart and the hearts of many around the world when  he died before that show could go on.

Tickets for the three Elvis performances I saw and one for the scheduled Memphis show he never got to play.

In college, I got into bluegrass and the great singer-songwriter boom that was taking place. Then blues, New Orleans music and my own songwriting. However, I don’t think there are any pop, rock or country singers of my generation who were not influenced by Elvis’ performing style in some way, whether they admit it or not.

If I can dream…

I did get to live a dream from my “Elvis years” thirty years later in Nashville. The Jordanaires, the vocal group who sang on so many Elvis records and appeared with him on the Ed Sullivan Show and other historic performances joined me in the recording studio.   They were nice enough to sing on four songs of mine for my Christmas on the Coast CD, including the title song, which is about Pascagoula.  They more than lived up to my expectations as vocalists and as gentlemen.

Recording with The Jordanaires, 2002

Before you’ve “left the building…”

If I could say one thing to Elvis today, it would be something he said himself many times: Thank you. Thank you very much.

Al Parker & Phil Howell “bop-bopping” while I sing lead, Beta Follies, 1972

Copyright 2011, 2020 Les Kerr

Visit Les Kerr’s web site at www.leskerr.com

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The Why

The Christmas story is beautiful, meaningful, sacred and true. It tells how Jesus came into this earth, becoming God and man at once. Luke told us how it happened and what was to become of the Christ child.

But I believe the best description of why it happened was recounted by John in his description of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus years after His birth. In two verses, John, in chapter three of the book in the Bible that bears his name, gives the most succinct and definitive meaning of Christmas. He best describes “the why,” with the words that follow:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” John 3:16,17, King James version, the Bible.

Thank the Lord and Merry Christmas.

Text and photo copyright 2019 Les Kerr.

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The Pilgrim

Chris Gantry, Douglas Corner Cafe, Nashville, April 2019

My first awareness of Chris Gantry came when I heard his name in the spoken word introduction of Kris Kristofferson’s song The Pilgrim: Chapter 33 in 1971. Iwas a high school student who played guitar and had become fascinated with songwriting. I hung on the words of my heroes, including those of Kristofferson. As I practically memorized the album notes, I read that Chris Gantry had also played guitar on the record. “He must really be something, to be the subject of a Kristofferson song and to play on the record,” I thought. As I continued to follow songwriting, Chris Gantry’s name was one I heard frequently in the 1970s as part of the new cutting edge realism movement sweeping Nashville.

Years later, after I moved to Nashville, I saw Chris Gantry on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium. With Kristofferson. On two different occasions. Chris was introduced as a special guest each time and once recited a poem instead of singing a song. “That was bold,” I thought. I began to listen to Gantry’s music, past and current. He is a man who doesn’t bow to trends.

In 2019, I finally met him at a small place he was playing in Gallatin, Tennessee. I told him my story of learning about him via “The Pilgrim.” He has probably heard the same story from others many times but he politely listened. Then I asked him to play the song. Chris declined, saying that he would be uncomfortable playing a song written about him. When I told him I learned it in 1971 and still played it, he handed me his guitar and said, “Go ahead.” There I was in a situation that I could only have dreamed of years before. Playing Chris Gantry’s guitar, singing a song written about him, and having him join in on the chorus, which he did. What a moment. Then, he asked me to play one of my own songs. Up until then, I had been joyfully excited. Now, I was nervous. When I finished, I handed his guitar back to him and he told me he enjoyed my song. To call that a personal highlight would be an understatement.

As time has gone on, I have watched and listened to his music many times. His song, The Ghost of Music Row is a testament to his determination to stay true to himself. Always choosing the course his soul guides him to steer, Chris Gantry follows his art. Or does it follow him?

Text and photos copyright 2019 by Les Kerr

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Accidental poet

Maple Leaf Rag: A New Orleans Poetry Anthology – 40th Anniversary Edition

As a songwriter, I hardly ever think of the words I write being presented without music to accompany them. But every now and then, someone else sees value in my words without having music attached. It is an honor to me when that happens.

Several decades ago, Everette Maddox, a legendary New Orleans poet and character, and I became friends. He invited me to perform my original songs at his weekly poetry reading at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans. That was the beginning of some beautiful friendships that I am proud to maintain today. After Everette died, Nancy Harris took the helm of the weekly reading. A fine poet herself, Nancy has extended the courtesy of an invitation to sing at the readings for many years.

A few years ago, John Travis, another New Orleans friend, asked me if he could include a few of my lyrics in Maple Leaf Rag: A New Orleans Poetry Anthology, a periodic book he publishes. I was honored and immediately said, “Yes!” Now, two of my song lyrics will be included in the 40th Anniversary Edition of Maple Leaf Rag. Again, I am surprised and proud that John thinks enough of these words to include them without the music attached.

Here are the two pieces: Below the Level of the Sea, inspired by New Orleans, itself, and Inspiration and Bar Scotch, whose inspiration was Everette Maddox. Song links are also included, in case you’d like to hear them, as well.

Thanks for reading and listening. As for me, I’ll keep on writing.

Below the Level of the Sea

The Maple Leaf Bar is down on Oak Street                                                                                         That always seemed ironic to me                                                                                               ‘Cause there ain’t no “Oak Leaf Bar” over on Maple                                                                   But I guess that’s just the way it’s meant to be                                                                                  This is a crazy, mixed-up town; the dead are buried above the ground                                  And a funeral is a party, yessiree                                                                                                    You may have lost a life-long pal but soon you’re struttin’ down Canal                                       You know, we do it all Below the Level of the Sea

Tennessee Williams used to live here                                                                                               He rode that streetcar named Desire to irony                                                                          ‘Cause there ain’t no “Louisiana Williams” living up in Memphis                                           But I guess that’s just the way it’s meant to be                                                                           This really is a writer’s town – you live your life and you write it down                                     Your story’s sticky like the humidity                                                                                         You’re just living what you think and it all comes out in the ink                                            And you know we do it all Below the Level of the Sea

From the River to the Garden District, dramas do unfold                                                     Those crawfish-eating lawyers use Napoleonic Code                                                               Well-bred New Orleans debutantes can stand you on you ear                                                  Just like those little Cajun girls raised on Dixie beer

Carrollton Station ain’t no roundhouse                                                                                         But this lonesome streetcar’s here to get some juice                                                                 Just like a streetcar, I have found out                                                                                          That rollin’ with the flow ain’t running loose                                                                               Oh, I may never settle down but she’s my Lady, she’s my town                                                     Her rhythm and her blues are part of me                                                                                    And when those saints go marching in, you’ll see this lonesome boy again                                And I know we’ll do it all Below the Level of the Sea                                                                       I want to be back down in New Orleans                                                                                   ‘Cause those saints go marching in Below the Level of the Sea

Words and Music ©1988 Les Kerr O.N.U. Music (ASCAP)                                                  Click to hear musical version

Inspiration and Bar Scotch

He could read for umpteen hours, summoning his powers                                                        To conjure up the syllables that kept us all enthralled                                                                    Words were his best friends; they were with him at the end                                                      When he said, “He was a mess,” was how he’d like to be recalled

On that barstool toward the right at the Maple Leaf each night                                                 He quoted Twain and Shakespeare verbatim, as we watched                                                        New Orleans royalty, the King of Irony                                                                                  Eighty-proof poetry                                                                                                                 Inspiration and Bar Scotch

A distinguished man of letters, I’ve never seen one better                                                         He could climb out of his mind and into yours on just a phrase                                            From New Yorker magazine to the streets of New Orleans                                                           He chose drinking and strong thinking as the way to spend his days

It wasn’t just the words, but the way he used to say ‘em                                                          That brought you in to know the joke on life that he was playin’

By the time I came to know him the seeds that he’d been sowing                                          Had rooted deep and deadly and spread with kudzu haste                                                      Still, out of the dark shot his bright creative spark                                                                   With his pen, he proved his life was no American waste

On that barstool toward the right at the Maple Leaf each night                                                He quoted Twain and Shakespeare verbatim, as we watched                                                         New Orleans royalty, the King of Irony                                                                                   Eighty-proof poetry                                                                                                              Inspiration and Bar Scotch                                                                                                          Words and Music ©2015 Les Kerr O.N.U. Music (ASCAP)                                                  Click to hear musical version

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Text and images copyright 2019

 

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He was a “char-actuh” – remembering Dr. John

Dr. John exits waving to a crowd on its feet. Photo copyright 2013, 2019 Les Kerr

About 5:15 Thursday afternoon, June 6, 2019, I was listening to Nashville’s fine Americana radio station WMOT FM and noticed that a Dr. John song was playing. I’ve heard Dr. John on that station many times before and was happy to hear him again. Then, a second song by that piano man with the gravelly voice was played and, by the third one, I began to get a sad feeling. Three songs by the Good Doctor might signal some bad news. Afternoon announcer and station program director Jessie Scott confirmed my fears after the third song played. Dr. John, aka Mac Rebennack, had died.

Those of us who grew up in Pascagoula, Mississippi in the 1970s listened to a lot of AM radio from New Orleans. The rock giant, WTIX (The Mighty 690!) was our go-to signal for what the nation was listening to on the Top 40 charts. Admirably, WTIX was also very loyal to the great musicians of New Orleans, including Dr. John. After Stevie Wonder’s current hit played, the next song would just as likely be one by The Meters or Dr. John. When Dr. John’s Right Place, Wrong Time became a national hit, we felt like our musical tastes had been validated. Everyone cheered for him with that far-out phrase of the seventies, “Right On, Doctor John!”

I have always been a music fan and I love to attend concerts. Seeing Dr. John on stage was an eye-opening (and ear-opening) moment for me. As I began to set my sights on singing, playing and writing for a living, I began to observe Dr. John’s stage shows as a student. I realized what a wizard he was at weaving incredible musicianship in with unbelievable showmanship. The Doctor could cure whatever ailed anyone in the audience as he drew upon his rich knowledge and experience of New Orleans’ musical history, prescribing some of his own contemporary funk as part of the remedy. Among the best places I ever saw Dr. John in concert was in New Orleans at the Jazz and Heritage Festival. He was at home there literally and figuratively.

Another fine show was in Nashville in the 1990s. He was on a bill with Little Feat and B.B. King. It was a magical evening from start to finish.

In his own parlance, he was a “char-acter,” a charmer, a big ball of talent and a sincere entertainer. By sincere entertainer, I mean that he treated his audience with respect. He always assumed, wisely, that we knew what he was about and he never talked down to those of us watching him play.

My favorite rendition of the New Orleans classic Iko Iko is by Dr. John. But of his original songs, One 2 A.M. Too Many, written with legendary songsmith Doc Pomus, paints a picture so real, it’s obvious he had lived some of that gritty story himself during his legendary wild years of decades ago. For me, it’s the highlight of his 2001 Creole Moon album, and among the best of his entire repertoire.

In 2013, Dr. John was interviewed at the Country Music Hall of Fame. I attended and wrote the following account of his conversation. If you would like to read about that great conversation between him and Nick Spitzer, keep reading.

Beyond that, I’ll just say, Rest in peace, Dr. John, and “Jockimo Fe Na Nay.”

“Doctor” Dr. John in Nashville, 2013

Dr. John plays as interviewer Nick Spitzer watches

It must have been the right time. I was definitely in the right place. Dr. John entered the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Ford Theater for a one-hour interview and performance in conjunction with the Americana Music Association Conference in Nashville September 19, 2013. He was greeted with a standing ovation by those of us in the packed theater as he walked in with interviewer Nick Spitzer, host of American Routes, a radio show that emanates each week from New Orleans, Dr. John’s hometown. The night before, the good Doctor, aka Mac Rebennack, had been presented the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance. If you have ever seen him perform, you know he deserves that accolade.

In the Ford Theater’s green room, where Dr. John had been prior to the interview, are Hatch Show Prints commemorating others who have been the subjects of similar programs. There are posters featuring legends including The Jordanaires and Kris Kristofferson. When Dr. John began to speak, he seemed to be in awe that he was in the same company as guitarist James Burton and banjo innovator Earl Scruggs. “I would see dem cats on the road off and on when we played on the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit,’ and the ‘Bucket of Blood Circuit’ years ago.” He did clarify that the Bucket of Blood Circuit was not as dangerous as the Chitlin’ Circuit, despite its name.

Name that tunesmith

Spitzer asked the gumbo-rhythm guru if he preferred to be addressed as Dr. John, Mac, or something else. Dr. John replied that he had been called a lot of names in his life, some he wouldn’t want to mention in public, drawing empathetic laughter from the crowd. In May, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of fine arts by Tulane University, which prompted Spitzer to ask if he should now be called “’Doctor’ Dr. John.” The answer, with a chuckle, was, “You ain’t the first cat to lay dat ‘Doctor’ Dr. John bidness on me since it happened.”

In addition to Dr. John, Tulane bestowed honorary doctorates to the accomplished New Orleans composer, arranger and performer Allen Toussaint and Natasha Trethewey, Poet Laureate of the United States.

Hello Dalai

And His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters. The doctorates were presented at Tulane’s graduation ceremony and the Dalai Lama was the keynote speaker.

“I don’t think the Dalai Lama understood my ‘New Orleans-ese,’” said Dr. John. “His ‘interpretator’ axed me, ‘are you alright?’ when I was talking to him.

“I thought, ‘das pretty cool, bein’ interpretator for the Dalai Lama!’”

T-Boned

When the talk got around to music, Spitzer asked the Grammy winner about his beginnings. Dr. John’s first instrument was guitar. He took lessons as a child from a teacher he referred to as “Papoose” and played on his first recording session at age fourteen. His style was so influenced by blues great T-Bone Walker, he got the nickname “Little Bone.” “I never really cared for that,” he said.

Working sessions with Frankie Ford, Art Neville, Danny Barker, Huey Piano Smith and other New Orleans legends, he got a good music education, starting in the 1950s. It was Barker, he said, who taught him “ho’-house versions” of certain songs that he later cleaned up to record himself. As Dr. John began to play piano, he met Professor Longhair.

“Fess had his own terminology for how he played,” he said. “When I axed him how he did something on the keyboard, he would say, ‘Man, das a double-crossover,’ or ‘I’m jus’ doin’ overs and unders.’ He made up his own names for all dat.”

Spitzer then asked Dr. John to play a little of Professor Longhair’s piano style. “This isn’t too early in the day to play Professor Longhair, is it,” the interviewer asked. “Well,” replied man nicknamed the Night Tripper, “I’m a ‘night people,’ myself, but I think I can play it o.k.”

And he did play it o.k., to say the least. As the last note of a “double-crossover” rang, the hour was over and Dr. John exited, just as he had entered, to a standing ovation.

Click images to enlarge photos.

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Text and photos copyright 2013, 2019 by Les Kerr

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From the Tallahatchie Bridge to the company store

 

The Tallahatchie Bridge

Today is “the third of June,” and since I am not in the Delta, I can’t tell you if it is sleepy or dusty this year. Most likely, it is both. But I can tell you that each year on that date, the song that begins by telling us what day a famous, fictitious mystery occurred runs through my mind like the river that created the fertile soil perfect for growing cotton in my home state, Mississippi. Ode to Billy Joe conjures fond memories of seeing the songwriter who made it famous, Bobbie Gentry, in concert, while the song was still high on the charts.

 

As I have written before, Jackson, Mississippi has always been a city that appreciates the arts. During the 1960s, when I lived there as a boy, my mother made sure to take me to as many concerts as possible. She took me to see everyone from Carl and Pearl Butler and the Wilburn Brothers to Andy Griffith, Dinah Shore, Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Andy Williams.

This album played on this "hi-fi" many times.

This album played on this “hi-fi” many times.

Among my fondest memories was the concert at the Mississippi Coliseum that featured one of my heroes, Tennessee Ernie Ford. I still have our old Sixteen Tons “thirty-three,” (as my mom called LP vinyl records) which has a crack in it from all the times we played it in our house. In looking at it now, I realize that in addition to the Merle Travis-penned title song and Woody Guthrie’s Philadelphia Lawyer, several of the other songs were written by Ford, including my second favorite on that album, Shotgun Boogie.

Opening act

Bobbie Gentry was Tennessee Ernie’s opening act. Ode to Billie Joe had recently been released and she was the toast of Mississippi (and the rest of the country). This was an extra treat for us in Jackson since her song brought something about Mississippi to the national stage besides civil rights conflicts. Her literate, well-written and superbly performed record produced smiles and positive energy about our state around the world.

She wore a baby blue pant suit and delighted the audience with her kind words about Mississippi and other musical references including the song Mississippi Delta, the flip side of Ode to Billy Joe. Years later, when a movie based on her hit was released, she told Johnny Carson that Mississippi Delta was originally the “A” side of the record but “Billy Joe” ran away with programmers’ and audiences’ hearts.

In addition to the songs she had recorded, Gentry sang the first song she ever wrote. It was about her dog, “Sergeant.” I especially liked that one because I also had a dog named Sergeant. I’ll always remember the lyrics to her song:
“Sergeant, Sergeant, Sergeant, Sergeant, my dog Sergeant is a good dog.”

And then, she sang “THE song.” Sitting on a wooden stool playing a classical guitar, she played Ode to Billie Joe to several thousand mesmerized fans. I probably don’t need to tell you that she received a standing ovation. Bobbie Gentry singing Ode to Billie Joe in Mississippi. What a moment.

The importance of being Ernie

Other artists may have been hesitant to follow such a performance but if Tennessee Ernie Ford was nervous, he never showed it. He confidently walked on stage holding something I had never seen before – a wireless microphone. It had a little antenna that transmitted his voice to the sound system. “Neat,” I remember thinking. His opening number was Chuck Berry’s upbeat song, Memphis, Tennessee, and the “ol’ pea-picker” proceeded to charm an audience that had already witnessed greatness just a few minutes earlier.

When Sixteen Tons arrived on the set list, Ford started by snapping his fingers and asking the audience to snap, too. The coliseum has a total capacity of about 10,000. It was fairly full that day, and that show might have been a sell-out. That many people snapping their fingers in time with Ernie was impressive. From the first snap to the last “owe my soul,” the lyric that slows down, we stayed with him. As the standing ovation began, Ford said, “I could have used y’all on the record!” More thunderous applause.

From the Tallahatchie Bridge to the Company Store, all of us who were there were transported from Jackson to the Delta and the coal mines for a couple of hours of pure enjoyment. When times like that happen, the magic of music and the good will it can provide become tangible. As do the vivid memories years later for music lovers like me.

Text and photo copyright 2015 by Les Kerr. Click here to visit Les Kerr’s CD and download catalogue!

Originally published June 4, 2015

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Pickin’, shellin’ and tellin’

Tomatoes “Make sure they’re not too soft, boy. I don’t want tomato juice all over the backseat of my Buick.” My first lesson in choosing tomatoes, around 1972. I think about those words from my grandfather every summer as tomatoes, green beans and other fresh vegetables become so plentiful.

Granddaddy had spent fifty years working on the railroad, first in Louisville, Mississippi, then in Jackson, Tennessee.  He started before the Gulf, Mobile & Northern merged with the Mobile & Ohio to become the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio. He retired when the GM&O merged with the Illinois Central. By the end of his career, he was Master Mechanic at the Iselin Shop in Jackson and in charge of the GM&O mechanical operations in five states. While he said he retired because he didn’t like the idea of a GM&O-IC partnership, his age and health also played a part in his decision.

I will always be grateful that he moved to Pascagoula, Mississippi to live out his last years with my family. He had an apartment with a little front porch in our backyard. Come summertime, my mother would give Granddaddy and me the assignment to fetch fresh

My Granddaddy, Dewey Pittman, beside his prized Buick LeSabre

My Granddaddy, Dewey Pittman, beside his prized Buick LeSabre

vegetables for her to cook for supper. I had just learned to drive and he and I would pile into his 1967 Buick LeSabre, of which he was so proud, and hit the road in search of goodies for the table. My parents figured that I could get practice driving without too much danger since that car was about as big and strong as a GM&O RS-3 diesel locomotive.

Our favorite spot was a vegetable stand near Tillman’s Corner, just across the Alabama line. We’d get on Old Highway 90 and and point the snout of that big Buick toward the east and light out with all eight cylinders rumbling under the hood. I was driving on the “4-lane,” by then but Granddaddy and I preferred the scenery on the old coast highway to Interstate 10, the quicker route. We would pass yards with chickens in them and old service stations still operating with pumps that had the little ball at the top that vibrated and looked like a bubble as gasoline flowed through the hose. Eventually, we’d stop at the vegetable stand.

Continuing education

I got quite the extracurricular education on how to pick the best looking tomatoes, butter beans and black-eyed peas. “Be sure to get a few sorta green tomatoes, so they’ll ripen as the week goes on,” Granddaddy would say. “You don’t want ‘em to get ripe all at once.”

Copy of the timetable of "The Little Rebel," Granddaddy's favorite train

Copy of the timetable of “The Little Rebel,” Granddaddy’s favorite train

My coursework continued once we got back home and spent the next day or so shelling beans and black-eyed peas on his porch. As our fingers turned a little blue with the stains from pea shells, we talked about life. He told me stories like the one about the old engineer whose daughter and son-in-law had presented him with a cigarette lighter engraved with his initials on one side and a steam locomotive on the other. The proud engineer showed the lighter to everyone in the railroad shop before his next run. The next day, Granddaddy saw him lighting up with a wooden match. “Where’s your fancy lighter?” Granddad asked. “Well, I was so used to tossing dead matches out the window of the cab,” the engineer said, “I accidentally tossed my new lighter out as we went over a trestle.”

Or the one about the diner in Cairo, Illinois where a railroad man named Yankee Johnson advised Granddaddy to, “Tap that apple pie on the top with your fork before you eat it.” When Granddaddy asked why, Yankee, who stuttered, replied, “If a r-r-roach d-d-don’t run out of the p-p-pie, that means he’s still in there!”

When I told Granddaddy that some buddies and I had started a band, he said, “Who’s the leader of this awk’stra?” He seemed impressed that I would be the bandleader and then told me about the time my grandmother had made him take her to see “that Russian Sympathy” in concert. His personal musical preference leaned more toward Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs than classical “sympathy” concerts.

So now when I head for the farmers market in search of tomatoes, I make sure to pick a few ripe ones and a few green ones. And I’ve never ended up with tomato juice on the backseat before I got home.

Click here to listen to Dewey’s Tune, a song Les wrote about his grandfather.

Text and photos copyright 2013 by Les Kerr. Visit www.leskerr.com

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Stan Lee’s Fury

When Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee died this week most reports of his death included the super hero characters he created, such as Spider Man, The Incredible Hulk and the Fantastic Four. But the Lee creations that helped me get through summer camp and learn the importance of loyalty and justice all wore military uniforms. In the 1960s, I was addicted to the comic book series featuring Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, a rough, tough U.S. Army unit fighting the Nazis during World War II. Although they had no super human qualities, they represented the machismo and bravado necessary to whip Adolf Hitler’s army pretty much all by themselves.

I collected and kept each issue I could find so I could go back and read about the exploits of Sgt. Fury again and again. At twelve- to fifteen-cents per copy, the price was even in a nine-year-old’s budget. Stan Lee was credited with writing many of the stories. The personality of each commando demonstrated Lee’s desire to show many sides of America to elementary school students like me. “Reb” was a Kentuckian whose dialogue bubbles exuded a southern drawl.  “Dum Dum,” the tough guy, spoke with the grammar of stereotypical black and white movie boxers of the 1950s. “Gabe,” the unit’s black member, had been a jazz trumpeter in civilian life and “Dino” and “Izzy” represented New York’s Hell’s Kitchen and America’s Jewish culture. It is my belief that Lee wanted his young readers to know that people of all backgrounds could work together for a common cause.

I was so impressed with Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, I named my dog “Sergeant,” when my step-father found him in the woods near his Jackson, Mississippi marina and brought him home to me. The canine Sergeant proved to be just as loyal and upright as his comic book namesake. He also lived up to the name of Sgt. Fury’s unit when he chose to howl.

Beyond the story lines, some of the most entertaining parts of all comic books were found in the advertisements. The ads for Charles Atlas-style body building programs made all of us kids feel inferior. Kits to start million dollar businesses by selling flower seeds and greeting cards made young would-be entrepreneurs yearn to succeed. And, of course, I would still like to have a pair of “genuine” X-Ray glasses.

Through Sgt. Fury, Stan Lee proved that unbelievable super powers were not imperative in a person’s quest to do right. Fury’s commandos didn’t miraculously fly through the air or leap twenty feet in the blink of an eye. They fought real, historical injustice, teaching a little history along the way.

Text and photos copyright 2018 by Les Kerr.

Click photo to order Les Kerr’s new live CD!

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Playing Guy Clark’s guitars

With Guy Clark holding a guitar he built.

With Guy Clark holding a guitar he built.

On a September morning in 2013, I found myself in the home of a hero. I had come to Guy Clark’s house to interview him for a column in 2nd & Church, a quarterly literary magazine published for several years in Nashville. Guy is one of the songwriters I admire most and I have followed his work since the mid-1980s. Sitting at a table with him in his home talking about songwriting was something I could never have imagined those years ago when I discovered his music for myself.

The theme for the magazine issue was Ernest Hemingway. Guy co-wrote the song Hemingway’s Whiskey. He had some interesting comments about the man considered by some to be America’s greatest 20th Century author. But this is about my experience of being with a songwriting hero.

Guy Clark not only played guitars, he built them. I asked if there were similarities between writing songs and building guitars. “Sometimes I draw that comparison,” he said. “You have to take care with what you’re doing. I like to think of writing songs as art and poetry and at times, I feel that building guitars is the same thing. Except writing is so cerebral. You’re just sitting there staring out a window trying to come up with something from a pocket full of bar napkins from the night before. I’ve got one bar napkin that says, ‘my life was a blank bar napkin ‘til I met you.’”

As we continued to talk he reached toward a Flamenco-style guitar near him, handed it to me and said, “Check this one out. That may be my favorite.” I had told him that I had played some of his songs about the Texas Gulf Coast when I played clubs along the upper Gulf frequently in the 1980s and 1990s. He asked which ones so I played him a little of Blowin’ Like a Bandit, his song about shrimping. I played one verse and realized that there I was, playing a Guy Clark song for Guy Clark. On a guitar Guy Clark had built that he may consider his favorite. In Guy Clark’s house. Wow.

The label inside the instrument was unlike any I had seen before. “I prick my little finger and smear blood on the label and then sign through it,” he said.

Then, when I thought life couldn’t get any better, he handed me a steel-string that he had also built. “I also build these to play on stage, but not this particular one.” It had no strap-pin or electronics for amplification. “That one sounds so good, I decided to keep it in the house,” Guy said.

“Do you mind if I put a pick to it,” I asked and he said, “Sure. That’s what you’re s’posed to do.” I pulled a pick from my pocket and played him one of my songs, Old Lighthouse.

“Thank you very much for letting me play your guitars,” I said as I handed it back to him. “Oh sure,” he replied, “I love it when other people play ‘em.”

In his song Dublin Blues, Guy refers to witnessing excellence in viewing Michelangelo’s David and da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, not to mention hearing Doc Watson pick the Columbus Stockade Blues. In my own case, I haven’t seen David or Mona Lisa. But I have heard Doc Watson play Columbus Stockade Blues and many other songs and I agree with Guy about that. Now, I’ve had a visit with Guy Clark and the opportunity to play his guitars. For me, that ranks right up there with anybody’s milestones of excellent experiences.

Text and photos copyright 2013, 2018 by Les Kerr.

Les Kerr-CMA Music Fest

Click this photo for a video of “Old Lighthouse.”

 

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In reverence of reverie

Are “devices” “the vices” of our age? No. It is our dependence upon anything with a screen that seems to make them so.

As an independent career person, I strive to  to lead a balanced life between personal happiness and success as an entertainer and freelance writer. Through books and podcasts by career coaches Michael Hyatt, Ariel Hiatt, Seth Godin and Dan Miller, I picked up some tips that have really helped.

In 2011, I began making lists each night of my day’s successes and what I needed to do the following day. When I heard Miller say that Henry Ward Beecher called the morning’s activities during the first hour, “The rudder of the day,” I began to take a serious look at what I did upon waking. Instead of going straight to my phone or computer to check messages and see if I need to put out fires, I now read as I drink coffee. My morning fare always includes a short devotion from a book by Presbyterian minister P.J. Southam and a bit of the Bible.  If time permits, I’ll read part of a book or a newspaper.

Reclaiming Conversation author Sherry Turkle, songwriter Les Kerr

More recently, I read a book called Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle. Its basic premise is that technology isn’t bad, it is our addiction to it that is causing people to literally avoid talking to one another if they can send a text message or an e-mail instead. (Aside: to me, the word “text” is not a verb. It describes printed words.) My friend Dr. Randy Cross invited me to a conference at Calhoun Community College in Decatur, AL to listen to Professor Turkle speak and to meet her. She was fascinating and illuminated the issue that seems to be an epidemic.

Considering all of this input on the non-stop inundation of information which can consume us all if we let it, I wrote a simple song called In Reverence of Reverie. I sing it to remind myself to take a deep breath, look around, appreciate my surroundings and never pass up the opportunity to look someone in the eye, have a conversation, shake a hand or offer (or receive) a hug.

Click image to see video of Les performing In Reverence of Reverie

In Reverence of Reverie
Words and Music by Les Kerr

In reverence of reverie, I’m turning off my phone
There I’ll be with all my thoughts
So I won’t be alone                                                                             
No multi-tasking, reply-asking
Message on a screen
I’ll be aware of what is there
A moment just for me

So many think they’re on the brink 
if they have to converse
Face-to-face seems out of place
To them, there’s nothing worse
Than speaking without tweaking
And no edits before, “Send.”
But there’s a choice: a sound, a voice
A smile from a dear friend

Devices have divided us; 
We can’t see eye to eye
It’s text or instant message, 
Information on the fly
Avoiding all emotion, 
We just pass along the facts
And if we need to laugh or cry, 
We’ll find an app for that

I’d like to say we’ll see a day 
Not built upon the trends
Of social mediocrity 
And never-present friends
It’s haunting and it’s daunting
But there is hope, in the end
Let’s ditch the hype. 
Let’s talk, not type,
And we’ll be better friends
In reverence of reverie, 
I’m turning off my phone

Words and Music Copyright 2016 
By Les Kerr/O.N.U. Music (ASCAP)
Click to download song In Reverence of Reverie

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online music catalogue.

Text and photos copyright 2016 by Les Kerr.

Originally published July, 2017.

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