Mama Cooper and Creedence: A Musical Journey

It’s a Saturday afternoon and my 11-year-old granddaughter and I are driving down a backroad singing along with Creedence Clearwater Revival from her iPhone.  Devanna knows all the lyrics, and I can join in on the choruses.  There’s a Bad Moon A’Risin’, I’m belting out in my best imitation of John Fogerty. 

Devanna is a bit surprised that – at my advanced age – I know anything at all about Creedence, or any other musicians you might call “cool.”  And I’m a bit surprised that an 11-year-old is into all that great music from the 60’s and 70’s.  But we grin at each other and keep belting.  I Heard It Through The Grapevine.  Which, as a former newsman, I’ve always considered a perfectly good way of disseminating information, especially when it comes to being jilted by your honey.

I tell Devanna that my musical tastes gallop off in a thousand directions at once.  I love and appreciate rock, country, folk, classical, jazz, gospel, anything that has good lyrics and a decent melody and beat.  I’m partial to Fleetwood Mac and the New York Philharmonic, Willie Nelson and Thelonious Monk.  My automobile is pretty much basic transportation, but it does, by golly, have satellite radio.

Where did this musical eclecticism come from?  I’d say it began with my grandmother, Mama Cooper, who was a piano teacher in my Alabama hometown.  When I was old enough to sit on the bench of the Story & Clark in her parlor, she started teaching me.  I stayed with it until I was old enough to chase girls, but by then, I knew the basics of how notes go together to make a composition, which key had three flats, and how 4/4 time differed from ¾.  And I had a growing notion that you didn’t have to be stuffy about your tastes, that there was all sorts of good music out there, in all sorts of genres.

My immediate family enjoyed music.  Mother played the piano, Dad had a nice baritone voice, and on family trips, they and we four kids sang a lot.  Down By The Old Mill Stream, Where I First Met You, With Your Eyes So Blue, Dressed In Gingham Too, etc. etc.  I played baritone sax in the high school band and sang in the choir at Elba Methodist.  And I launched my broadcasting career as a teenage disc jockey at WELB, the Mighty 1350, playing everything from Ray Charles to The Florida Boys.  After that, I disc jockeyed my way through college in Tuscaloosa.

Fast forward to 2002, when I had an idea for a story that seemed to work best on a live stage.  Not only that, I started hearing original songs in my head, and they seemed to play a central role in telling the story.  And so “Crossroads” was born.  I remembered enough of those basics from Mama Cooper’s piano lessons to put notes on paper and flesh out the words and melodies.  A fantastic composer, Bill Harbinson, took my hen scratching and turned it into a wonderful musical score.

The play sold out 26 performances at a professional theatre in Blowing Rock, North Carolina and launched my career as a playwright.  Seven other plays followed, one of them another musical, “The Christmas Bus.”  They’ve all been published and are performed by theatres across the country.

So yes, Devanna, I know a little bit about a lot of music.  Enough, you might say, to be dangerous.  I can sing the chorus to Bad Moon Risin’ and I can hum the melody to Symphony Pathetique.  It’s all in my head and it enriches my life in ways more numerous than I can count.  It can summon all of the human emotions, and maybe some I never imagined before.  I recommend it as an essential part of the human experience.

Thank you, Mama Cooper.  And thanks, too, to Creedence.

On The Air With Swap Shops and Obituaries

I took a trip to my past a few days ago, and it’s worth telling about.  I was interviewed at the studios of a radio station in Cherryville, North Carolina about the upcoming premier of my new play, “Liberty Mountain,” and it was like going home.

I began my long journey as a communicator in junior high school at the weekly newspaper in my Alabama hometown – first working in the print shop, then learning to report and write.  But when a fellow started a radio station in Elba, I was intrigued.  There was a minister who, as a part-time job, did local news for the station, and he invited me to contribute stories – not just write them, but deliver them on the air.  So a couple of mornings a week, before school, I would go to his pastor’s study where he had a microphone set up, and I would present my stuff.  Wow!  My family and friends could hear me on the radio.  Instant celebrity.  I acquired a new girlfriend.

Then the station manager offered me a job as a disk jockey – working after school, weekends, and summer vacation.  From pastor’s study to studio, operating the control board, reading the news and commercials, and playing records, an inordinate number of which I dedicated to my new girlfriend.  We played “Top 4O” music – Ray Charles, the Platters, Johnny Cash, cool stuff.  My air name was “The Boogie Man.”

I parlayed that experience at WELB (“the mighty 1350) into a college education, disc jockeying my way through the University of Alabama at stations in Tuscaloosa while I got a communications degree.  And from there I went on to a thirty-year career in television news at stations in Montgomery and Charlotte.

But I never lost my affection and admiration for hometown radio, and as I sat in that studio in Cherryville, it all came back.  Just before we went on the air for the interview, they were doing the “Swap Shop,” a staple of hometown radio.  Want to buy or sell an item?  Send in a post card or call on the phone and get on the air.  Connect with your friends and neighbors, one of whom may be on the lookout for that “Sly and the Family Stone” vinyl LP you have for sale or may have that two-gallon crockpot you’ve been pining for.  It’s an electronic community flea market, free for users.

And then there’s the “Obituary Column of the Air,” another time-honored hometown radio tradition.  Obits provided by the local funeral home, read somberly by an announcer, a brief chronicle of the lives of those among us recently departed, along with information on services, memorial gifts, and the like.  In a small town, you’re likely to know the folks they’re talking about.  Family, friends and neighbors.

Radio has changed a good deal since my days as a teenage deejay.  Stations – especially in sizeable markets – are owned by big conglomerates with cookie-cutter ideas about what folks ought to be listening to.  In many cases, programming is automated and the live announcer personality has been swallowed up by a computer.  But search around the AM dial, and you’ll still find echoes of that very local, very intimate radio of the past.  The best of it remains, and for a small-town kid like me, it’s the best radio there is.  It’s my roots, and I’m grateful.

Robert Inman’s novels – Home Fires Burning, Old Dogs and Children, Dairy Queen Days, Captain Saturday, and The Governor Lady – are available on Amazon Kindle, priced at $3.99.