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.

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.

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.