grandparents are the greatest. the way their voice cracks a little. the way everything reminds them of something else that happened a very long time ago. the way they know everything about everything and can fix everything. the way their eyes look the same in the old photographs that they show you. i recently read that the elderly are the most content of any age group and i thought it a shame we have to wait so long to come to grips with ourselves. jason solley, one of the guitar players in our band and whom we refer to as simply “solley”, has one of the most genuinely kind men i’ve ever met for a grandfather. you can feel it in his handshake and his eyes and i suspect that this has always been the case even though i’ve not seen any pictures of him in his younger days. he has been present on numerous evenings that we have been in concert and on one particular occasion, a little over one year ago, he commented to his beloved grandson that, and i quote, “you boys sound wonderful but you should really do a bluegrass number. you know i love bluegrass. it is in fact the superior variety of music.” solley was kind enough to relay his sentiments and, had it come from any source other than a man of such generous heart, we could have easily taken offense. you see we don’t play bluegrass music and in effect he had suggested to his grandson that what we had just offered was indeed music of an inferior variety. i at first dismissed such a request, due to the obvious; no one owning a banjo nor desiring to up to that point. but i began researching the genre if for no other reason than you should never be too hasty in neglecting the advise of your elders. and low and behold i stumbled into the eschatology of bluegrass.
at the age of thirteen marty stuart found himself on the road with lester flatts, a bluegrass legend, and found peers in the likes of roy acuff, ernest tubb, bill monroe and grandpa jones. any friend of lester’s was a friend of his by reasons of proximity. after lester died, the next band he would join would be johnny cash’s. marty has grown into a living history of country music. with an extraordinary solo career melding bluegrass, rockabilly and country into a single amalgamation while building a reputation for his gifted guitar and mandolin skill, his sparkling bejeweled stage attire, and his very large and fabulous hair, he has continued to embody the definitive spirit of what country music is. exactly a week after jason solley had related the sentiments of his grandfather regarding bluegrass music, he again came to me and proclaimed, “we need to have marty stuart help us with the bluegrass song.” i said, “i never said we were doing a bluegrass song.” jason responded, “we should. it’s a superior musical form. and we should get marty stuart to help us.” i said, “well of course we should. but, that would require someone actually knowing marty stuart. i don’t know marty stuart. you don’t know marty stuart. none of us knows marty stuart, not that we are doing a bluegrass tune.” exactly one day later, we walked through the back doors of a performance hall in nashville tn and there was marty stuart, in complete marty glory. he wore a black suit that was aglow in rhinestones sparkling down both sleeves and spanning his back in the shape of a very large cross. his hair was flawless and bigger than mine. he wore shades. now you must be extremely cool to attempt wearing sunglasses indoors and not provoke ridicule and i tell you that his sat so casually i did not even noticed them until later while catching my reflection in them as we stood exchanging phone numbers. i could feel his stare through them and i had the distinct impression that he was sizing me up. trying to make up his mind about something. it would be another year before we were again in the same room as marty but as he shook our hands goodbye and spoke what would be for us a memorable line, “boys in the immortal words of little richard i believe there will be a divine moment when we are all together,” i decided that i should settle on which bluegrass tune we would start learning.
it was a sunday afternoon when i heard my wife yelling from our tv room, “david! this is it! this is the one!!!” i ran from my office to where she was, trying to formulate possibilities as to what could provoke such volume and entered the room to johnny cash singing “i saw the light.” she had both watched and participated in hours and hours of my pouring over bluegrass lyrics and tracing historical threads of song origins and authors and stories surrounding the songs and knew i was currently busy with the search in my office. as johnny sang from the tv i started rattling off information about the song to her. i went on about how the original melody was a tune called “he set me free” and how it was thought that hank williams had borrowed the tune and that it was just the way it was done back then, melodies were interchangeable and fluid things. while i talked johnny stood on stage waving his arms as a large crowd sang along and i knew she was right, this was the one. i called jason. a year later we were in nashville again and it was marty’s voice on the other end of a phone. “boys, meet me at the warehouse,” he said.
“the warehouse” was north of town in hendersonville. he had told us to, “look for the black cadillac,” which i thought was just perfect. what greeted us inside his storage facility was florescent lighting and a wall of what appeared to be show clothes; racks of suits singing with colored piping and gleaming jewels. shelves and shelves of boots. tall boots. short boots. black boots. red boots. boots of every shade of the visable spectrum. and in the corner, stacks and stacks of instrument cases. we began to wander in, drawn by the barrage of shimmering luminescence, when marty said, “not yet boys. first we talk.” that’s when i noticed the circle of chairs properly arranged. and so we sat down and we began to talk. a year’s worth of anticipation for this moment, whatever it was to hold, and what immediately followed was perfectly disappointing. “so you boys like red bull,” he asked? “uh, i guess. yes. it is really tasty,” we responded. “yeah, i like the red bull,” he said. this exchange went on for forty five minutes. a year’s wait to talk about red bull and other equally triteful subjects. looking back i think he was stalling, still trying to make up his mind, deciding whether we were good or bad. that’s what i’ve grown to love about him and his contemporaries. for them every moment is about good and bad. the struggle is visible and real. i think maybe that’s how folks like hank williams and johnny cash could sing about the bottle one second and jesus the next and why hank was able to write one of the most meaningful gospel songs of all time; because every moment was about light and dark and sometimes the dark won but the struggle went on and he knew light would win in the end. then suddenly marty leaned forward, letting his shades drop down his nose just enough for his eyes to catch mine directly, and he said, “david, i’ve got something for you.” with that he got up and made for one of the racks lining the wall. i followed slightly behind him as thoughts began careening in my head of perhaps a jacket with my bejeweled name on it or some knee high boots in orange, and then i thought i heard him muttering something about cinderella.
as he reached the wall of clothes he bent down and pulled a fairly understated suit from the lowest rack. he had that most fantastic grin. taking it off it’s hanger he said, “turn around.” i did. then i most definitely heard the distinct word “cinderella” come from behind me very near my ear as he slid the lightish blue jacket onto me. “boys, cinderella!” he announced as he spun me around to face him. the grin had grown impossibly larger and bore the most complete satisfaction and he was now muttering, “i knew it. i knew it,” while shaking his head. i said, “yeah. wow. fits great. cool. really.” “button it,” he said. i did. he laughed out loud. “cinderella boys. cinderella,” he proclaimed once again as he scurried off to another corner of the room while we stood in a huddle staring at each other. it was obvious to all, that the jacket did indeed fit like a glove and it is also obvious that i am not of the average build, as i am extremely tall and thin, and i will admit that i had up to this point in life not tried on a jacket that fit so well. but this was still all very extremely odd. marty was back from his rummaging about in the corner with what appeared to be a boxed record set. he plopped it down on the table. “that’s this one right here,” he said tapping the cover as we gathered around and leaned in. what i saw sent my heart to my throat. it was an album cover of hank williams, wearing the very jacket i had on. i was having trouble breathing. all of a sudden the jacket felt very tight and heavy. i will never forget the sudden weight of it. in that moment i recalled a television show i had seen a week prior that counted down the top gospel songs of all time. the number two song had been connie smith, marty’s wife, singing “how great thou art” and the number one song of all time had been hank williams’ “i saw the light”. the video footage they showed was of him on stage in this very jacket. i was trying to remember if i had told marty which song we were planning to do. i hadn’t. and i started to stammer to him but he was gone again. “david. come here. i want you to see this,” he said from the other side of the table. he was tapping at something again. i walked around to where he was and leaned over. it was “i saw the light”. it was the original handwriting of hank. these were the words that had formed for the first time on paper. the letters were scrawled and there were misspellings and lines scratched through and then you could distinctly see on paper where things really started to flow. “marty,” i said. i sounded out of breath. “the song we are planning to do is ‘i saw the light’.” he smiled the same smile as i’d seen earlier when he had pushed me away to observe the jacket’s fit, “well i’ll be,” he said. i thought immediately of little richard’s words.