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.


I doubt that Andrea Bocelli and Doc Watson ever met each other, but they sure had a lot in common, and not just blindness.  Both men saw things the rest of us don’t, and turned them into great music.

Arthel “Doc” Watson lost his sight before the age of one from an eye infection.  His parents taught him to work hard and take care of himself – and all of his life, he did.  He bought his first guitar with money he earned helping his brother chop down trees, and then he taught himself to play it.  By the time of his death at the age of the age of 89, he had won 7 Grammy awards and a Grammy lifetime achievement award.

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And what a lifetime it was.  He not only wrote and played and sang songs, he created a whole new style of guitar picking.  He had a world-wide legion of devoted fans who listened to his music and went to his concerts and were dazzled by his artistry and captivated by his genuine warmth.  He was a fine musician and a fine human being.

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Andrea Bocelli, the superb Italian tenor, was born with poor eyesight and lost it entirely after an accident on a soccer field at age 12.  By then he had already fallen in love with music, learned to play the piano and other instruments, and at age 7 decided that his voice was the best of them.  At last count, his recordings have sold more than 150 million copies worldwide.  Bocelli, like Doc Watson, has a devoted following who appreciate not only the quality of his voice, but the passion he brings to the interpretation of great music.

I once heard Doc Watson say that losing his sight made his develop and rely on his other senses, especially his hearing.  He told of playing hide-and-seek with his brother, and being able to tell where the brother was by listening for the tiny sound of his movements and breathing.  He developed a keen ear for voices, and if he heard you once, he knew who you were.  Unquestionably, he brought all of that to his music.  He listened to fiddlers, took apart their technique in his head, and adapted it to his guitar.  It was unlike anything guitarists had ever heard, and the best of them adapted and built on his unique style.

Bocelli, with his keen ear, finds and uses the subtle nuances of his songs.  In an interview a couple of years ago, he talked about the value of silence.  “Even in the most beautiful music there are some silences, which are there so we can witness the importance of silence.  Silence is more important than ever, as life today is full of noise.”  Listen carefully to Bocelli sing, and you hear how beautifully he uses silence.  He appreciates that even more because his life is consumed with sound, not sight.

I thought of Doc Watson and Andrea Bocelli when I was speaking to a group of children about reading and imagination.  “Imagination,” I told them, “is what you see when your eyes are closed.”  It’s the pictures in your mind that are triggered by everything else in your world – what you see, hear, taste, feel.   And if we don’t have use of our eyes – like Bocelli and Watson – our imaginations are even more exquisitely cultivated by the senses we do have.  I believe those two wonderful musicians give something unique and special to those of us who admire them because they are using their imaginations to the fullest.  In this way, they see things others miss.

When I write my stories, I’m in a sense writing with my eyes closed.  I’ve entered the world of the characters I’ve imagined.  I can see and hear and touch them, watch them move about and bump up against each other and make sparks and a story.  My job then is to give them free rein, to be honest and faithful with them, and to trust them to lead me through the underbrush and find the path.

If I do that, things turn out fine.  And in a very small way, I get fleeting glimpses of what artists like Andrea Bocelli and Doc Watson see.  It’s beautiful.

The Astronaut Who Wouldn't Go Away

On the way to another tale, I found Ronald McNair.  I was doing some background work for a post on explorers and exploration when I read his compelling story, and it warrants its own treatment.

McNair, you may recall, was one of the 7 crew members who were killed when the rocket carrying the space shuttle Challenger blew up just after liftoff in January, 1986.  He was on the shuttle as what NASA called a “mission specialist,” in charge of several scientific experiments that were to be performed on the trip.  He never got to do that job, but when he died, he left an incredible and inspiring legacy of accomplishment.

Ron McNair was a true pioneer, and he started young.  He grew up in the 50’s in Lake City, South Carolina – a place and an era when racial segregation were both law and practice.  In the summer of 1959, when he was 9 years old, he went to the Lake City public library to borrow books.  The librarian refused to serve him, and young Ron refused to leave.  The police and his mother were called, and when the dust had settled, the librarian relented and he went home with the books.  The Lake City library is now named for him.

McNair was, in so many respects, an uncommon man and a brilliant student.  He earned a degree in engineering physics from North Carolina A&T University, then went on to a PhD in physics from MIT and a job as a physicist at a California research lab.  He became nationally recognized for his work in laser physics.

In 1978, NASA opened a competition for its astronaut program.  10,000 applied, and McNair was one of 35 selected.  He flew on Challenger in 1984, the second African-American to go into space.

But McNair’s passions went far beyond physics and space flight.  He played the saxophone and played it well, and he wanted to take his music into space.  He worked with a composer on a saxophone solo which was to become part of the composer’s upcoming album, and planned to record the solo during the 1986 Challenger mission.  The shuttle disaster prevented that, but I have to believe there’s a haunting saxophone solo somewhere out there amid all the cluttered noise of space.

If McNair were here to be interviewed today, looking back on a brilliant life in science, leavened with a love of music, I think he might harken back to that summer day in 1959 when he refused to leave the Lake City library without the books he wanted.  When I read about that, I thought about the college president I interviewed not long ago who told his students, “Don’t let anybody steal your dream.”  Ron McNair wouldn’t let anybody steal his.  He combined intelligence, curiosity and creativity with stubborn persistence.  It’s a pretty good recipe for success.

A host of posthumous honors have been heaped on McNair since his death – buildings named for him, scholarships established in his honor.  But I believe the one he would be proudest of is that Lake City library.  It stands as a simple but proud monument to – and a shining example of -- a kid who just wouldn’t go away.

My All Time Favorite True Christmas Story

They are a vanload of pilgrims, climbing through the swirling snow of a late December night from the Denver airport up toward ski country – a family from Missouri, another from North Carolina, a couple of college kids headed home for the holidays.  And the Guitar Man.


He wears jeans and a faded leather jacket.  His luggage consists of a duffel bag and a battered guitar case – a six-stringed Martin or Gibson probably, wood worn bare by the brushing wings of a million notes and chords.  He’s in his late twenties and he has a nice smile.  But he has a road-weary look about him, sort of like his guitar case.

The van driver is a jolly sort who keeps up a running conversation with his passengers, partly to relieve the boredom of the trip he makes up and down I-70 so many times that every boulder, every snow-crusted pine is etched in his subconscious; but also because he’s genuinely interested in people and he full of the holiday spirit.  He’s got Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops playing “Good King Wenceslas” on the stereo.  And he wants to know who the pilgrims are and where they’re from.  That’s how they get to know that they’re Missourians and Carolinians and college students, trading names and places and bits of personal background here in the warm temporary intimacy of a rubber-tired cocoon.

The last to speak is the Guitar Man, who says he’s a folksinger.  He’s been traveling the East, playing coffee houses and college campuses and small bars, trying to figure out if he can make a living with his music.  He’s soft-spoken and engagingly modest and the rest of the passengers can hear the music in his voice – a traveling troubadour, a man who tells stories in song.  And he has a story of his own.

There’s a lady in Frisco, a little mountain town just off the interstate.  A rather special lady, or at least she used to be.  She and the Guitar Man were more than friends once upon a time not loo long ago, until the music took hold and pulled him out on the road.  The Lady in Frisco begged him not to go, but it was something he just had to do.  The music was strong inside him – stronger, he thought, than love.  So he went, hoping that maybe love would wait.  During these long months while he was out there in the coffee houses and bars, the Guitar Man and the Lady in Frisco haven’t spoken or written, not once.  That was the way she wanted it.

Now, on this snowy night just before Christmas, the Guitar Man is headed back to Frisco, back to the tiny apartment where the Lady lives, carrying his duffel bag and his guitar and his heart.  The Lady in Frisco doesn’t know he’s coming.  And he doesn’t know what he’ll find when he gets there.  Maybe there’s someone else.  Maybe she’s so hurt and disappointed, maybe she thinks he’s so unreliable, she doesn’t want to see him any more.  She may not let him in.  But he’s come all this way to try.

The Guitar Man’s fellow pilgrims are all but struck dumb y his bittersweet story and by the anticipation of what’s to come.  The Guitar Man will be the first passenger to disembark, and all of the others will get to see if the Lady in Frisco turns him away.  If she does, he’ll ride on to the next town and find a place to crash for the night.

The van climbs on, past the meadow where the buffalo herd hunkers against the frigid night, past the rocks where the big-horn sheep scramble by day, up and over the Continental Divide.  The driver and the pilgrims are quiet, lost in their thoughts, considering the Continental Divide of the heart where east meets west and sometimes the altitude and the bitter wind are too much, where even the most resolute traveler has to turn back and seek shelter elsewhere.

On the stereo, the joyous strings of the Boston Pops ring out, “O Come All Ye Faithful.”  But the pilgrims hear another song of another season:  Ramblin’ Man, why don’t you settle down; Boston ain’t your kind of town; There ain’t no gold and there ain’t nobody like me.

And then they’re in Frisco and the van is crunching along a back street, pulling up in front of a row of one-story apartments.  Inside the van, you can hear a pin drop.  The Guitar Man climbs out.  “Good luck,” the driver says.  The Guitar man smiles, closes the door behind him, hoists his duffel bag and guitar case, and climbs the steps.  There’s a Christmas tree in the window, all decorated with colored lights and tinsel.  But for the pilgrims in the van, their faces pressed to the windows, it won’t be Christmas unless…

The Guitar Man knocks.  The door opens, the rectangle of light framing a young woman in a bathrobe.  The folks in the van can’t see her face very well, but they can imagine surprise, shock, maybe even anger.  Or maybe nothing.  That would be the worse.  “Come on lady,” somebody in the van says softly, “let him in.”  But they stand there in the light for a long moment, the Guitar Man and the Lady from Frisco, oblivious to the cold, the rest of their lives hanging in the balance.

Then she steps back from the door, making room for him.  The Guitar Man turns and gives the van folks a thumb’s up and then he enters and closes the door behind him.  In the van, they’re cheering and crying.

The pilgrims move on into the night, now lovely and silent and at peace with itself, all of them touched in some deep place of the soul they had forgotten was there.

The Only Thing That Really Matters

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Paulette and I have just spent a week with our 5-month-old grandson Paul, and I came away from the experience reinforced in my belief about what should matter most in our lives.  The short of it is the thing called relationships, and that encompasses a vast territory in this business of being human. 

I had a great time with Paul.  Paulette did most of the feeding/napping stuff, and I was around to lift, tote, fetch, change diapers, and entertain.  Paul loves to be carried, so we spent a lot of time in close verticality.  He’s at the age where his eyesight is fully developed, and he takes a keen interest in everything around him.  He wants to see, touch, feel, and put things in his mouth.  I provide a good bit of the locomotion to help him do all of that.

But it’s not all just toting the baby around.  Paul and I had a regular routine that includes educational and cultural development.  We sing together.  I am partial to “She’ll Be Comin’ Around The Mountain,” and “Froggy Went A’Courtin’.”  Paul chooses to overlook my less-than-sterling singing qualities, and when I launch into one of the songs, his face lights up.  We play the piano together, and again, Paul doesn’t mind that my pianistic dexterity is mostly of the one-finger-at-a-time sort.  Paul plays one fist at a time, a much advanced technique.  I think I can hear some Chopin in there somewhere.

We also practice our Spanish.  Buenos dias, Pablo.  Como esta?  Muy bien, gracias.  Next we will advance to the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, from the original Spanish, of course.

The main thing is that we are simply together.  We are building a relationship that will be a work in progress as long as we are both on the planet together.  We will give to and take from each other in ways large and small.  I will have his back and he will have mine.  Paul will always know that no matter what he does or who he becomes, I will love him unconditionally.  In doing so, I’ll get the same back from him.

I explored the business of relationships in my novel Captain Saturday.  My hero, Will Baggett, is Raleigh’s most popular TV weatherman, pretty much caught up in his minor local celebrity.  But then suddenly and precipitously, Will loses his job, and in taking stock of the wreckage about him, he realizes that it includes his relationships with the people he should cherish most – his wife and nearly-grown son.  The story is how Will, laid low by fickle fate, tries to re-invent himself and re-capture those damaged relationships.  I’ve had a good number of folks say that reading about Will Baggett prompted them to take stock of their own lives and see if there are some things that need mending.  For a storyteller, that’s the ultimate payback. 

I think some of the most important relationships we build are those with people who are younger.  We all have somebody younger, and when we pay attention, invest time and energy in them, and let them know in a thousand ways that they’re important to us and themselves, we help them build good foundations.  In turn, it enriches our own lives.

I believe we naturally think a lot about relationships during the holiday season.  We remember those who are no longer with us, and take stock of our feelings for those who are still here.  Relationships can be tricky and tough, because we human beings are a messy lot and we are prone to get things tangled up when we deal with those we’re supposed to cherish.  But building, strengthening, and maintaining relationships is what life is all about.  We’re all connected, all precious in God’s eyes, and all worthy of acts of love and kindness.

We often hear about the things we can’t take with us – fame, fortune, etc.  I prefer to thing about the things we leave behind, the bonds we have with family, friends, and indeed all of God’s great creation.  That’s the only thing that really matters.

From Tragedy, Art

I’m so glad I discovered Sam Baker.  I heard him interviewed on my favorite National Public Radio show, “Fresh Air,” by my favorite interviewer, Terry Gross.  Sam Baker ‘s life is an riveting story, the centerpiece of which is terrible tragedy that he has used to reshape his life and transform it into songs that touch deep places in our souls.

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Baker was a vigorous, athletic young man in 1986 – 32 years old, a former football player, a rock climber and whitewater river guide.  He was in Peru on a train bound for Machu Pichu, seated with a German family – husband, wife, 16-year-old son.  He was engrossed in conversation with the teenager when a bomb, planted by terrorists, went off in the luggage rack above them.  The German family were killed, and Baker was horribly injured: brain damage, mangled limbs, blown-in eardrums.  He calls his survival a miracle, and 17 reconstructive surgeries later, he is a singer-songwriter of uncommon grace and poetic beauty.  Many of his songs reflect on that horrific day on the train, but there is nothing in them of self-pity or unreconciled darkness.

Sam Baker has a new album, his fourth, Say Grace.  Rolling Stone magazine called it one of the top 10 country albums of 2013, but there is nothing of the rock-influenced pickup-truck, woman-done-me-wrong, hard-drinking stuff I think of these days as country.  Baker’s songs are things of gentle beauty, things of the soul of a man who has been to the brink, survived, and – instead of giving up – opens his heart for the rest of us.  iTunes says, “Baker informs his songs with a sense of life’s fragility, as well as gratitude for small everyday miracles.”  Baker himself is a pretty big miracle, but he takes joy and sustenance from the small ones he sees around him.  There is a sadness to some of them, but a reflective sadness that sees beyond itself.

My favorite song on the album is the last one, “Go In Peace.”  It is full of wonderment, hope, and benediction.  I hope Mr. Baker won’t mind me quoting from it:

Go in peace, go in kindness, go in love, go in faith.  Let us go into the darkness, not afraid, not alone.  Let us hope by some good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.

I take from that a sense that Sam Baker has gone in peace, arrived at home, and found that it is in his own heart.  He has made peace with life as he knows it, healed at the broken places, and is profoundly aware that it has given him a gift to share.

Sam Baker has turned tragedy into art, and I think a great deal of art is born of tragedy.  Artists of all stripes pour out their hearts -- in music, painting, sculpture, stories-- and find some measure of solace and strength in the doing,  a way of dealing with inner demons.  Winston Churchill painted, calling it a refuge from the severe bouts of depression, “the black dog,” that sometimes overwhelmed him.  Had he not painted, would he have been the monumental figure who led his nation through the dark agony of war?  Maybe not.

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Sometimes, even art can’t suffice.  Vincent Van Gogh, that giant of post-impressionism, died in1890, age 37, from what’s believed to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound after a lifetime of anxiety and mental illness.  Of his 2,100 works of art, some of the best came during the last two years of his life.  A struggle against madness by a genius who left behind incredible art, but failed to save himself.

Sam Baker lived through tragedy, came to terms with it through his art, and when he is finally done, will leave us with those things he celebrates in song – peace, kindness, love, faith.

When you get a chance, listen to some Sam Baker music.  And go in peace.  

The Music of Writing

            My grandmother was a piano teacher.  Widowed in middle age with four children, she made her living by sharing her love for music with several generations of young folks, me included.  The popular book for beginners back then was “Teaching Little Fingers to Play,” which is about an apt a title for any book I can imagine.  Thousands of little fingers stumbled across the keys of her Story and Clark upright piano, and many became proficient, a few truly talented.  I fell somewhere just shy of the middle.

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            I wish I had stayed with those piano lessons longer, but at a point in junior high school I got a job and discovered girls, and left the lessons behind.  Still, there are things about my hours at the keyboard of that Story and Clark that have stayed with me.  I can read music, I understand harmony, I have a good feel for rhythm.  The basics.

            Music has always been an important part of my life.  I sang in the high school glee club and church choir.  I became a teenaged disc jockey and worked my way through college spinning records for stations in Tuscaloosa.  I came over time to an appreciation for just about any musical genre  you can imagine – rock, pop, country, bluegrass, classical, jazz.  I retained enough of those basics of composition to write the songs, music and lyrics, for two stage musicals.  I hear music in my head, and some of it is new stuff.  I know enough to put it in a lead sheet and then turn it over to my music professor friend, Dr. Bill Harbinson, who arranges it into what I call “real music.”


            Music informs my storytelling.  I figured out early on in my playwriting career – from studying the work of talented people like Rodgers and Hammerstein – that a song in a play should illuminate character, advance the plot, or (hopefully) both.  The songs should be an integral and seamless part of the story.

            Music and lyrics are woven into my novels.  In Old Dogs and Children, Dorsey Bascombe plays the trombone, and he tells his small daughter Bright that “a trombone is the sound of God breathing.”  In my new book, The Governor’s Lady, a bluegrass band “makes the air dance with their fiddles and guitars and banjos.”  And Pickett Lanier, later to become a governor and presidential candidate, writes and sings a song for his new wife Cooper:

            If I was a three-legged dog, two legs front and one leg rear,
            I’d rouse myself in the evening time, get my three old legs in gear;
            Leave my place in the cool, cool shade, drink my fill of Gatorade,
            And hippity-hop to you, my dear.

            It says a lot about Pickett, and not for the better, that he puts aside his guitar and turns to politics.

            Music has also given me a sense of the rhythm of a story, especially one played out over the length of a book.  To me, a good story has an ebb and flow to it.  It can’t go at break-neck speed all the time.  It needs moments to pause in the cool, cool shade and ponder.  Those are important moments to me in discovering who my characters are and why.

            So it started there on the bench of my grandmother’s Story and Clark upright as she patiently taught my little fingers to play.  Now, when I write, she’s always at my elbow.

Robert Inman’s previously-published novels – Home Fires Burning, Old Dogs and Children, Dairy Queen Days, and Captain Saturday – are available on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, and Kobo in e-book format.