MARION – It was at the restaurant dinner table the other night, a couple of days before the conclusion of Ken Burns' monumental public television project on the roots of country music in America.
The folks at the table were more philharmonic than folk, more opera than Opry. Or so I thought. And discussion got around to wrapping up dinner soon. “We want to get home to watch Ken Burns. He's supposed to talk about Loretta Lynn tonight.”
Astounded, but I shouldn't have been, either by their interest or the magnetism of the boyish-looking genius with the Beatle mop haircut.
To whatever topic Ken Burns turns his attention, it becomes water cooler – and dinner table – talk for quite a while. Recall his exploration of the Civil War? People who didn't know Antietam from Anaheim were debating Gen. Burnside at the bridge. And kindly old Shelby Foote became a slow-talking folk hero of sorts. Then came baseball. And jazz. And World War II and Vietnam.
Now it is country music in America. And it is glorious. I'll grant you this: Either you like country music or you don't. Not much in the middle. Hank Williams is the hillbilly Shakespeare, as Burns called him, or he is unbearable with that nasal twang. No middle ground. Same with Willie and Waylon and Merle and Johnny and Kris. And I just made my point. If you are a fan, well then, you know who Willie and Waylon and Merle and Johnny and Kris are. No surname needed. Not Nelson or Jennings or Haggard or Cash or Kristofferson. If you are not, well, I probably shall not bring you to the front to repent.
But grant me this: They are one of us, each in his or her own way. Loretta Lynn is one of us. Born and reared in Pike County, Kentucky, just down the road from the great migration from Johnson County to Grant County and Wabash County to work at General Tire back in the postwar years. Loretta was a Webb. Sister of Brenda and Jay Lee and Peggy Sue and all the others who went to Wabash High School. Their widowed mother later married Tommy Butcher and lived out her life in Wabash. Brenda went on to become Crystal Gayle – she of “Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” which you certainly heard somewhere. She's still married to Bill Gatzimos from Wabash after 48 years. She's one of us; she's Brenda Gatzimos.
None was more one of us than George Riddle. Born and reared right here in Marion, northeast Marion. He came just this close to being a star. Right on the edge. Ran with the big dogs, but just never quite made it. Wrote dozens of songs. One – “She's Lonesome Again” – was recorded by Ray Charles, forgodssake! And the other night, right there in Ken Burns' show, there he was. There was George standing on stage right beside The Possum, George Jones. They – the two Georges – were close for years. Riddle played guitar for Jones. They traveled together. Probably drank a few together. One George recorded the songs the other George wrote. Both are gone now. Our George died back in 2014 after wrestling with cancer.
And you must permit me a couple of personal notes here. A few years before he departed, George and I talked about his youth. “You wrote a story about me when I opened for Tex Ritter up at the Honeywell Center in Wabash 50 years ago,” he said.
I denied it. “No, George. I wrote about Tex and his water glass of Jack Daniels backstage, but I don't think I wrote about you.” “Yes you did. I can prove it.” Next time I saw him he pulled out a faded newspaper page. Yup. There it was. Picture and story about George, with my byline at the top.
Then there was the time that Waylon Jennings came to town. He sang in the gymnasium of what is now the Grant County Family YMCA. It was the Memorial Coliseum then. I'd shoved my way to the front, camera in hand, just as he was winding up “Rainy Day Woman.”
Song ended. He went silent, stared at me and said for all the world to hear, “Go ahead and take it; this is as good as I get.”
And then there were a few minutes with Willie Nelson in Fort Wayne. I'd been photographing him from a safe distance as he talked with fans. As they departed, he motioned me over, stuck out his hand to shake, and said in that quiet, Willie way, “And your name would be what, sir?”
I honest-to-God could not remember my own name. I've got a picture of that: Me and Willie, right there.
Dayton Duncan, who wrote for Ken Burns, wrapped the whole thing up and put a bow on it the other night. County music, he said, is “a complicated chorus of American voices joining together to tell a complicated American story.”
Indeed it is. And it is our story, yours and mine.
Ed Breen is the retired assistant managing editor for photos/graphics at The Journal Gazette. He wrote this as a commentary for WBAT-AM in Marion.