CHELSEA, Ala.—We’ve been on the road all week. And I’ve been listening to Willie Nelson on my radio. I’m listening right now. He is singing one of my favorite songs.
“In the twilight glow I see her,
“Blue eyes crying in the rain,
“When we kissed goodbye and parted,
“I knew we’d never meet again…”
I turn it up because I am a sucker for this tune. Though, I’m not sure why. When I was a boy, the lyrics never made sense to me.
After all, nobody with blue eyes ever cried in the rain for me. And I certainly didn’t have blue eyes. My eyes are gray. My mother used to say my eyes were the color of our pump shed.
Even so, there’s something about this tune that moves me. I can close my gray eyes and go back in time.
And I see my father’s work bench in the garage. A radio sits beside a chest of mini-drawers that is filled with bolts, nuts, screws, washers, and rubber grommets.
Crystal Gayle is singing “Don’t it Make my Brown Eyes Blue?”
Then Willie begins playing over the speaker. My father turns it up.
“Love is but a dying ember,
“Only memories remain,
“Through the ages, I’ll remember,
“Blue eyes crying in the rain…”
And I am holding a GI Joe doll, watching a tall, skinny man work on something beneath a shop lamp, holding a screwdriver.
He does all his own repairs, this man. Because he believes it is wasteful to hire people to do work you could do yourself. Just like it’s disgraceful, and even unforgivable, to throw away refrigerator leftovers.
The people I come from are proud and self-sufficient, and they are not above eating ten-week old meatloaf that has turned Sea Foam Green. They cut their own hair. And their own lawns.
When I started travelling a lot for work, I hired a yardman to cut my grass. It only made sense. But it felt wrong. I was so guilty about it that I couldn’t sleep. If my father were alive, it would kill him to know I pay a guy to mow my lawn.
I don’t know why I just told you that.
Things have changed a lot since the days when I played with GI Joe. Today’s radios have replaced Willie’s style of music with country singers who have backup dancers.
Over the years, country music kept sinking lower, until it sounded about as interesting as your Uncle Lou using the bathroom in his RV.
Almost every song on modern country stations seems to be about girls in tank tops, or beer, or knocking boots. Much of this music is performed by young men wearing jeans that have been pre-ripped, or young women dressed like centerfolds.
They can have it.
Because I still remember Loretta, and George, and Johnny, and Merle. And I will always remember Willie.
I remember sitting in Chastain Park, in Atlanta. I watched Willie Nelson play to a tame crowd. It was drizzling rain. And Willie invited Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn onto the stage.
People went crazy. It sounded like the crowd was going to tear the place apart. Then a hush fell over the audience.
The rain fell harder.
In this moment, Willie could have played any song and we would have loved him for it. He played “Amazing Grace.”
Though, to tell you the truth, I couldn’t hear Willie’s voice because Jimmy and Rosalynn were singing too loud.
It was a great moment, seeing Jimmy and Rosalynn singing a hymn in inclement weather. It was like watching your grandparents warm the front pew.
Jimmy and Rosalynn weren’t twirling, waving hands, or hopping up and down like the young people do at the megachurch my cousin attends. They were just singing.
I don’t have anything against megachurches, but my cousin’s church has a fog machine.
Before Willie, Jimmy, and Rosalynn got to the third verse of the hymn, they were joined by Kris Kristofferson, and Merle Haggard’s boys, and seven thousand other people singing.
No fog machines.
And it reminded me of growing up the way I did, with simple people who were not fancy dressers. People who used weekends to do work around the house.
I come from a father who, just for fun, would separate bolts and screws and put them into little Dixie cups. A father who loved Jimmy Carter. And Willie Nelson.
After Willie sang a few more hymns, Jimmy and the others left the stage. It was still drizzling. And we all knew Willie was going to play it. All seven thousand of us. We just knew.
He started playing the familiar song.
I closed my eyes. All of a sudden, I was in my father’s garage. Holding a GI Joe doll. Watching a skinny man. He was alive again, and he was beautiful. Even if only in my memory. He was happy. And so was I.
“Someday when we meet up yonder,
“We’ll stroll hand-in-hand again,
“In a land where there’s no parting,
“Blue eyes crying in the rain.”
Don’t it make my gray eyes blue.