It’s early April in Austin, Texas. Eric, Marie and I are huddled together on a damp brick patio, hoping for a rare drizzle to subside while we interview Steve Carter, the smiley lead guitarist for locally famous cowboy reggae group The Mau Mau Chaplains. After filming we step back into Steve’s living room where he puts his acoustic guitar on one knee and begins singing Merle Haggard songs as sweet as the day they were born. Glued in awe we listen to his stories about swapping songs with Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, hanging out with country legends, fantastic parties, road trips across seas and he keeps mentioning this name, one that I’ve never heard before, though it’s strangely familiar and stands on its own two feet. “Freddy Powers wrote most of these songs. He’s like a father to me”, Steve says dead pan, nodding and still picking. “You should interview him when you get to Nashville. He has Parkinson’s disease so his wife might have to do some of the talking but he’s the best guitar player I know, perhaps the best man I know.” The sincerity in Steve’s voice leaves me intrigued and mystified. I am in my head as we leave, pondering the prospect of a legend.
In May in New Orleans, the sun is leaking through the folds of sprawling spanish moss as I lean against a hot dumpster in front of a row of pastel shanties. I call Catherine Powers, wife of Freddy, thanks to a phone number Steve emailed me a few weeks after his interview. She answers politely and frankly in a raw southern tone. “Steve is our god son”, she clarifies, “We’d be happy to have you anytime during the first week of June.” I run up the stairs to our apartment at top speed, three steps at a time, smiling and singing childishly for the new found connection. In my head I picture their home: large, rural, open, breathing, with a white back porch, yellow and orange flowers along the sides, a grey wooden fence, arbors, a big bright green backyard and fields of wild shrubs beyond it as far as the Tennessee woods.
Now it is June, in Nashville, the heat and glare is rising up from the asphalt, bouncing off road signs and burning my face as I nervously wander down the sidewalk of Music Row East, looking for house number 20, the home of Freddy Powers. I arrive. A black steel fence surrounds the small brick building which is skirted with brown mulch and trimmed evergreens -a caricature door front among a tight row of dozens like it. I press the door bell waiting for the distant grumble of feet inside. Nothing moves or murmurs. After more tries I tip toe in the mulch and try to see through the curtains. The house feels empty like a barricade. I call Catherine. “We’re out back honey, come ’round back and find us here.” I walk around the house and to my surprise I see a camper in the backyard lot, propped on one foot, no vehicle hitched to it. The screen door swings open and I climb the narrow sideboard stairs of the trailer. I smell hospital, feel the shag rug conform around my shoe and my squinting eyes are relaxed by the closed blinds inside the lone parked RV- the unlikely home of country legend Freddy Powers.
She greets me sweetly, with every bit of strength, hospitality and charm a southern woman can carry. Catherine is a remarkably attractive woman. She is funny and speaks fast with sass and certainty. Inside the camper is magazines, black and white pictures of singers, memorabilia, news clippings and a couch. A cute curly red haired Cass Hunter smiles politely and waves from the kitchen. Overwhelmed, I stare around the room looking for Freddy. I’m expecting him to hobble in with a handshake or stroll up to me in a wheel chair and ask my name. I turn around in the cramped space. Suddenly there he is, hidden and folded into a giant mechanical hospital bed. Bright white sheets drape over him, half covering his mostly naked and vacant body. His caved chest swells and shrinks in tiny breaths. His sunken face makes the look of panic. His body is frozen except for his damp shocked eyes aiming at the ceiling and a slight flicker in his finger tips. I get myself to smile. I put my hand on his and say shakily, “Great to meet you Freddy, thank you for having me.” His eyes turn slowly to meet mine and his lips make room but only ghost sound arrives. He is trapped. Immediately overcome with fear and sadness I turn back to Catherine and hang onto her every word. In the background Freddy gargles up long blank wheezes of throat phlegm curling from his gut, startling me every so often. With a lightness that against all odds defies the gravity of this room, Catherine begins their story.
“We moved to Nashville in September of 2012 because Vanderbilt doctors are the best doctors in the world”, Catherine nods and begins taking us to each moment and place she recalls. Moving backwards through time we begin in the present inside this stale hospital. Autumn’s western sky projects out of the giant institution windows, streaming light boxes, horizontally printing gold on the floor. “When I brought him to the hospital on September 18th they didn’t think he was gonna make it through the weekend”, she pauses for a second looking at me above her glasses to bring out the irony. “Of course he survived, he went past that week, then another six months, he survived, now we’re at 9 months, he survived. The man is a pure fighter. He was released from hospice care on Tuesday, the first day ya’ll came.” I struggle to make make sense of it all and to connect the story of survival to the deflated man in bed. But I haven’t yet learned what ticks behind that still mask of his. She goes on, “They’re releasing him because of his physical he did the other day. First off, the doctor was amazed at his age, he has less wrinkles then I do, and I’m 60!”, Catherine grows louder, laughs and shines. “Doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him physically other than Parkinson’s. His liver and lungs are in absolutely great shape. His heart is as strong as a 30 year old’s.” Contrary to science and fate, Freddy is pressing on, defying the grips of disease. Catherine is his catalyst.
Amazingly, music still is too. “Just two years ago, we did his final tour in Europe after his inability to play guitar. There he was, in his wheelchair, still singing, performing”, she smiles and looks over at him, proud of her husband. “Up until this last year he was still performing. He lost all ability by this last hospital visit. November of last year he managed to goto a songwriters fest and though not everything was audible he managed to sing. His jokes weren’t audible but his singing was. He sang and got one of the biggest standing ovations. Even now he’s written three new songs in the past year and he’s working as executive producer for Mary Sarah.” I shake my head smiling in awe, disbelief and still some confusion. How can this be? This man puts to shame any musician who ever wined over broken strings or a sore throat. With or without the use of his limbs, fingers and voice he breaks a hard mold and produces from almost nothing. Catherine explains, “Freddy can’t play guitar so now he has to have a co-writer, someone to play guitar and come up with melodies. The latest song he wrote is called ‘Dreamin‘.The writing for it took place at Flora-bama.”
As Catherine recounts the memory she brings us to the center of it. We’re at Flora-Bama bar and venue, home of the annual Frank Brown International Songwriters Festival on the Florida – Alabama line. Her story takes us to the plastic beach chair where Freddy arrives. “He walks in and immediately spills out the song”, Catherine tells, “It was written on a paper plate and napkins. It was all they had right in front of ’em, cause as soon as he walked in and they started talking about songs, he started, as clear as a bell, rattling off lines.” I picture Mary Sarah and company frantically scribbling down lyrics on the Dixie plates as Freddy, from his crippled cell of solitude, speaks out of silence. Knowing him incapacitated and mute in his hospice bed now I imagine the sudden clarity and burst of lyrics quite like a geyser: a rare, powerful emission, possible only by a long build up and a divine hand of release. “It’s a song I know that’s been in his head ever since the last hospital visit”, Catherine assures, “it’s kind of that song like what he and I are going through right now. It’s about being able to see you again and touch you and hold you, even though you can’t.” Her voice suffocates and trails off. For the first time, Catherine falters. She catches herself as she bows in sadness, rises again, then wipes away the water fogging her eyes.
Shaking off the pain and composing herself, she smiles in recoil and continues by telling of the other two songs Freddy has most recently conjured. Now her story takes us to a kitchen table where country star Gary Nicholson sits with guitar in hand, entranced by his idol Freddy Powers. Gary smiles over at the rusty old man as the two work side by side, lending hands across a generational gap and a communication barrier like a son who assists but admires the father; the father, despite great withering, still bestows knowledge down to the younger man. Catherine explains, “He wrote this song with Gary Nicholson and it was called ‘Don’t Ask Me How I know’. It’s basically about a guy having an affair with his best friend’s wife and the message is ‘she’s not being truthful to you but don’t ask me how I know.'” She squints in admiration of her husband’s art and I nod in approval of the ‘Long Black Veil’-like song before me. As each word about Powers’ story impresses me I am more perplexed by him, the silence in sheets next to me in the corner. Catherine finishes, “The other one is being saved for a movie. It’s called ‘The Saddest Goodbye Of All Is Hanging My Guitar On The Wall’ which took Freddy three years. He started working on it when he realized he was losing his ability to play guitar. When he first started he was able to play a bit. He started to get depressed and frustrated with the disease. Every time he’d start to get into it, he’d get so far, then get upset and get mad and lay it down, so it took him three years. With the help of Gary Nicholson he finished it.” Powers, probably saddened to hand over the composing job he has cherished and perfected over decades of practice, still pervades. No ego, disease, or even the farewell to his very movement and independence will break him or limit his chances of success and creativity.
Despite the collapse of his body and voice Freddy perseveres and rides on, still writing. Just like Stephen Hawking solves quantum mechanics in death like meditation, inside his chamber, his cave of solace and mystery Freddy Powers is scribbling lyrics. His brain is very much vibrant and alive, able to love, be loved and produce art -the highest tenants of life. The enigma of his productivity amidst perfect stillness, quiet and paralysis is incredibly fascinating. It echoes of Buddhist philosophy in which the silent, barren one is most alive in the mind. Catherine recalls, “Over the past few months I’ve actually heard some of the lines. I’d walk by and he’d say something and I’d go, ‘What?’ and he’d say, ‘Oh, I was just thinking of something in my head.’ Then when he writes it and I hear it I realize he’s been writing this for months, just laying in his bed.” To think of a single line is most commonplace for a singer but to treat the mind’s eye like a pallete, a book, a canvas for composing complete works over the course of months is remarkable. “Just last night he started spilling out lines. I know right now he’s in the process of writing another song.” So as his body deteriorates further Freddy begins song number four. A warrior inside an irresponsive body, the man’s will to write songs is machine-like: automatic and undeniably fierce, almost blindly resilient, as if failure and surrender were unfathomable. It’s obvious he was born to do one thing. With watery eyes, Catherine offers a lyric all her own; of writer, fighter, and her lover Freddy Powers she points out, “You can take the life out of the body but you can’t take the music from the soul.”
-Nashville, Tennessee, June 2013.
My tribute song to Freddy Powers:
Lyrics to the song are posted here if anyone would like to follow along.