I just enjoyed the great experience of viewing the final, fabulous episode of Ken Burns’ “Country Music” series on PBS, and I’m inspired to write the following memory down, to share with you.
I was three years old in 1952. Thinking way, way back to those days, I remember listening with my mom, to Hank Williams singing on the radio, while she ironed a big bunch of clothes. After having washed them in a very old Kenmore wringer washing machine; she hung them out on the ancient, wire clothesline, to swing, sway, and finally dry, in the sweet, Yakima country air. Finally, she unhooked the old, wooden clothespins, took the clothes down, and at last, dropped them into a couple of big, old-fashioned bushel baskets.
Did I mention that, while watching that “Country Music” episode, I was ironing six pairs of my favorite Levis? — Yep. For some reason, ironing clothes is a relaxing occupation for me. And…. I got that from my mom. That’s not all I got from her. The board I used to accomplish this task is a 1940’s-vintage, wooden ironing board that I restored myself. Mom gave it to me many years ago, when I was a much younger man. But! It wasn’t the first one she gave me. She provided me with an even cooler, older one when I first struck out on my own, at the age of 21. Having taught me how to use a steam iron and a board, she equipped me with one of each, to start me off on the good foot. And, strangely, one day, I looked at that old, rickety board, probably manufactured in a small, southern factory in the 30’s, and I threw it away. This was before recycling; so it went straight to the garbage. I replaced it with one of those horrible, cheap, metal ones for a while. And then, one day, when I was in my mid-30’s, Mom said, “I found another old ironing board the other day. But I guess you won’t need it because you have the one I gave you when you were 21?” And I had to say, “Well, Mom, I threw that one away”. Instead of being hurt or angry with me, since she had such a big heart, Mom, hiding a knowing smile, asked me if I liked whatever I replaced it with, to which I had to reply, “No, and I hate ironing”. Well, she told me to take the board.
I did just that, with a glad heart. But when I got it home, I noticed it needed some work. I think someone had used it to practice using a hammer, because it had about 100 nails pounded into it, at random, all over its surface. And, the legs were just about falling off. When I tried to set it up, it collapsed: “BAM!”. Well, that wouldn’t work at all, would it…. So, I spent an hour with the nail-pulling part of a hammer, and with a little screw driver, and I fixed that board. It was transformed from a piece of junk, into a useful object, which I’ve loved for years.
I couldn’t wait to go downtown to Target, to buy an ironing board cover; only to discover that the ones they sold were really, really ugly. But I needed a cover, so I bought one. Now, the rugged beauty of the vintage board is hidden; but I know what’s beneath that ugly cloth.
Let’s return to 1952: Mom was ironing clothes, I was sitting on the floor a few feet away, and we were listening to the one and only Hank Williams singing one of his heartfelt songs, streaming out of our little Philco radio. — I’m not sure what song he was singing — “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”? “Setting The Woods On Fire”? “Moanin’ The Blues”? — Not sure. But it was a Hank song, so take your pick, beause they’re all great. Heck, I have an album called “40 Great Hank Williams Songs”, and all I can say is, “What? Only 40?”
Did I mention that my very own Daddy was the disc jockey who was spinning the records Mom and I were enjoying so much, that morning? Yep. Over the years, Daddy (Al Bowles) worked at almost every Yakima radio station. I think at this time, he was manning the control room at KYAK Radio.
Dad did it all, every day: he spun records, he announced, he read the news. And when he wasn’t on the air, he was running all over Yakima, selling advertising for the station. He also wrote and produced his own ads. — Anyway, the experience of sitting on the floor, while Mom happily ironed away, listening to my own dad, known as “Cowboy Pinkeye”, playing those now-classic records, was a really good one; one of many that I cherish to this day.
And, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the radio! Mom and Daddy met on the radio! They met, magically, when Mom called up to ask Daddy to play a request. She wanted to hear “Tiger Rag”. Now, I’m not sure if he was able to play that particular song (her very favorite), because it definitely did not fit the “C&W” category. But, he was bowled over by the sound of her sultry voice, with her thick Tennessee accent. He kept her on the phone just long enough to talk her into meeting for a date. — Long story short: they met, they married. They made two babies: my slightly older brother Al III, and yours truly.
At the time of this story, we lived a little ways out of town, in Lower Naches. And, that floor I was sitting on was not just any floor. It was the creaky floor of the local parsonage, an old, old house that stood next to an even older church. — You see, Daddy didn’t just spin country records and parade around town on a mule. He also preached! (That became quite awkward when he later went to work spinning rock and roll records, while continuing to preach on Sundays.)
Let’s stick this in here: it was because of his radio job that Daddy became a preacher. I know. — Odd. — Odd, but true. The station manager sent him to interview the cowboy gospel singer, Stuart Hamblen, who had pitched a huge tent on Yakima’s outskirts, in order to present his Cowboy Church Of The Air Revival. Mr. Hamblen had been a wild rockabilly singer back in the day. When he found the Lord, he turned his back on the wild side of life, started recording gospel music, and started presenting his show on syndicated radio. He had a huge hit with “It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)”. He traveled all over America, to big towns, and small, to sing songs and save souls.
Right before Daddy left the station to go to Mr. Hamblen’s hotel to interview him, his two best drinking buddies at KYAK said, “Ha, ha! Don’t come back a Christian, Bowles!” And that is exactly what he did. His half-hour interview with Stuart Hamblen turned into a life-long friendship; and more importantly, it pointed Daddy in an entirely different direction in life. — I’m too young to recall this, but we went to one of Mr. Hamblen’s big tent revivals, to hear him give his testimony and sing his cowboy gospel songs. He saw Mom leading my brother Al III and me up the walkway, and he remarked to the big crowd, “Well, look at that lovely woman and her two beautiful boys, coming up the aisle.” — Of course, he knew it was Mom, Al and me. — We knew him!
I mentioned to you that Mom gave, or taught me a lot. Well, Daddy did a lot for me too. In fact, he gave me my start as a singer — in church. When I was a little older, say five or so, he gave up his regular church gig to become a traveling preacher. He preached in churches all over Yakima, and the Valley. And, he had me sing “Zacchaeus Was A Wee Little Man”, at Sunday evening services, in churches all over the area. I don’t know if I’d have become a professional singer without Daddy’s help and encouragement. I learned to enjoy singing in front of people. — Give me a crowd to sing for, and I’m in Seventh Heaven!
Not to be outdone, Mom, who by the way, would have celebrated her 100th birthday this very month, sat me down and taught me how to play the guitar. In her teens, she played uke in a late-1930s ukulele band. Her older brother Claude, who was born sometime between 1910 and 1918, was a Jimmie Rodgers super-fan, who sang and played like Jimmie. Mom’s band most likely played some Jimmie Rogers tunes. I know this — Mom could do his blue yodel; and she taught me how to do it. — Mom also played guitar. She didn’t have her own, as far as I know, so she must have played Claude’s. And in 1963, she taught me my first guitar chords. The very, very first song I learned how to sing and play was “Darktown Strutters Ball”, a way-vintage Dixieland “jazzer” that Mom taught me. — Mom would often repeat the story of Claude being a Jimmie Rodgers fan. After all, Jimmie Rodgers, and also the legendary Carter Family, made their iconic, ground-breaking recordings in Claude and Mom’s home state of Tennessee. And Mom was proud of that fact. Why, her niece, Billie Mae, was even married to a Carter. — I never met Uncle Claude. He was murdered (shot) by a jealous husband! I don’t even know if he was 30 years old, or what. — But isn’t that story right out of a country song?
Around 1970, I took the singing I learned to do at Daddy’s church services, and the guitar chords that Mom taught me, and I learned a great number of the songs in the Jimmie Rodgers, Carter Family and Hank Williams songbooks. And I sang them in taverns and bars all over Yakima. That would include the Mayfair, the Happy Hour, the Caravan Inn, the Country Cousin, the Silver Moon, as well as many venues in the Lower Valley. I don’t know if any of that would have happened had I not found myself in 1952, sitting on the floor, listening to Hank’s records, spun by my Daddy, while Mom ironed away her blues.
So when I do my ironing, these memories come flooding back, and I smile. I think about what a great life I’ve had. While it’s great to look back, I’m also looking forward. To tomorrow — to 2020. — And I’m thinking of all the places I’m going to visit, in my six pairs of perfectly ironed Levis!
Mom and Daddy both passed in 1995, just months apart. Like Johnny Cash in the “Country Music” program, Daddy hung on for as long as he could, without her. Which was only a few months. — And the Circle is unbroken.
BTW, I don’t remember this, but I guess I was paying close attention to another performer Daddy liked to play on his Cowboy Pinkeye radio show. Because he and Mom both told me that the first intelligible thing I ever said was, “Ah-hah!” Which of course, was the signature call of the great Western Swing bandleader, Bob Wills.
Bonus coverage: Here’s the lyrics to a song I wrote, just for you:
“Iron Out The Blues”
When I get the blues, I get my iron out. Yeah, when I get the blues, I get my iron out. I iron my jeans, run around the kitchen and shout!
I got my iron, and you know I got my old board. I got my iron, and I got my board. When I’ve ironed out my blues, I dance around and thank the Lord!
Iron out the blues, iron out the blues! Makes you feel good to the tips of your shoes. Folks may think your crazy, — when you iron out — your blues!
This story was inspired by correspondence with one of Yakima’s best drummers and best people, Stan Ruehlow, with whom I played many a honky tonk in the 1970’s. Thanks, Stan.
For more on Cowboy Pinkeye: https://randybowlestories.wordpress.com/2014/09/09/cowboy-pinkeye-was-my-dad/
For more on my life at the parsonage: https://randybowlestories.wordpress.com/2014/10/07/growing-up-in-the-parsonage-of-a-little-country-church/