I have disappointed a few people in my life, and it’s hard to keep those memories from welling up and reminding me to feel the shame all over again. Does that happen to you?
I won’t get into the details of the particularly hard ones, I’m sure you have your own to grapple with, but this week I have been reminded of one disappointment in particular. That one is the time I disappointed my grandfather by giving up on guitar lessons and returning the guitar that he had lent to me to learn on.
I recently wrote about my rock star Aunt Regina and my dabblings with music and how I gave up on piano lessons. Well, what I didn’t say was that those abandoned piano lessons weren’t the only example of my inability to stick to anything that requires diligent practice.
I would guess I was around 13 or 14-years-old when I announced that I was ready to take guitar lessons. I had found a teacher and I was sure that it was going to be my “thing.” If I was to be the next musical sensation of our family, er, decade, I had to get busy figuring out what my “thing” was. All my favorite female musicians could play the guitar with varying prowess, so it was only logical that I should take it up if I was to follow in their footsteps.
My mother’s father, lovingly known to us as Daddy Jack, was a grousing old cuss but a lovable one. He was the consummate Archie and, ironically, his loving, doting wife was named Edith (Mama Edith to us), just like in the TV show. Daddy Jack lost his voice box to throat cancer when I was pretty young, but it was clear to me that he loved music, country music especially, even though I have only faint memories of hearing him sing. I barely recall seeing him play the guitar a time or two, but not often.
When I decided I wanted to learn to play the guitar, Daddy Jack got a bit enthused (as much as grousing old cusses can) and offered to lend me his guitar for the lessons. This felt like a true honor to me, he was very careful with his things, and it felt like a sign that I was meant to play. But then, I had to practice. One awkward scale after the other, fingers burning, not an ounce of a recognizable tune to be heard, it got old quick. Real quick.
My aunt tried to make me feel better about this short-lived passion, saying that Daddy Jack liked a broad neck on his guitar and that it was probably particularly hard for me to learn on, but I know that it was me and my short attention span.
When I gave up the ghost of guitar-picking and returned the instrument, I was shocked and saddened to see how disappointed Daddy Jack was. I couldn’t figure out why he seemed to care so much, but after he died years later I heard a family tale that I’d never known and it has been sticking in my craw ever since.
My aunt and mother told me not long after his death that Daddy Jack had played the guitar on the radio back in Bristol when he was young. More recently Mom told me that he played with a guy named Curly King on a show for which Tennessee Ernie Ford was the announcer. Mom’s older cousin Bernice swears that he taught Curly how to play. Daddy Jack was pretty shy and would never have sought the spotlight, so it was not surprising that it has been hard to get details over the years. For example, when my aunt asked him about teaching Curly to play, Daddy Jack dismissed it and said, “Ah, I just taught him a lick or two, it wasn’t much.”
This week, I managed to find a photo through the archives at Eastern Tennessee State University that shows a young Jack Royston standing behind another guy on the stage, while Curly King sings and strums his guitar at the microphone. As I look at that young, shy man and think about how life was back then, I understand why my penchant for picking was so important to him. When he and Edith wed on Valentine’s Day in 1942, his interest in music had to be put on hold. He shortly joined the Army, needing to provide for his new bride. My mom was born not long after he left and he didn’t come home from the war for several years. That music career was set aside for more responsible pursuits. Adulting, as the young folk call it nowadays, took over and youthful pursuits flew off in the wind.
Curly King continued to play on the radio and if you search online you can find several recordings of him with his later band, The Tennessee Hilltoppers. I wonder how far his music might have taken him. Life is full of disappointments, and it is hard to know that I was one for a good man merely hoping to see his talents in his children and their children. Thank goodness his daughter had some success, ’cause his granddaughter just couldn’t keep the beat.