After the video ends, I come to. I am back in the trailer now, giddy. I feel as if Catherine has let me in on a little secret by showing me the tape and she has. It’s a country music gem yet unscathed by the outside world – a little gem Hag and Powers fans would kill for and I have it all to my own and for that I am deeply grateful. Catherine is ahead of me again: she has a scrap book open to a page showing Freddy’s awards. She and I hover over the binder as I watch her finger scan the laminate and I listen carefully to the thoughts uncovered by her pointer. The news clippings, photos and detail prove a showcase compiled quite meticulously. With each page she turns, we work backwards. First she shows me the flyers and snap shots from Fred’s most recent awards shows. “Recently he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Nashville Songwriter’s Association International. He was recognized and honored by the Center for Texas Music in 2011 and is a finalist for the title Texas State Musician. He also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Texas Music Academy the summer of that year. Then, in 2006 he was inducted into the Western Swing Society Hall of Fame, was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Hall of Fame and he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Texas Guitar Association. All of Freddy’s stuff is in an archives museum, the Wittliff Collections. All his videos, newspapers are all there at Texas State University”.
My mind jogs. ‘Songwriters hall of fame?’, I think. “Can he still get a hit?”, I ask aloud. Catherine looks at me despairingly as if to say, ‘you’re kidding right?’. “He’s too country for country”, she says waving her head, partially mocking the phrase and I nod and I think I really do understand. “Can I walk next door and play something for George Strait? Yes. But will it get any airplay? No”, she crows. “Someone just recently told me he’s too country for country”, she pauses waiting to level the claim, “two weeks later, we went number one on Americana charts with Merle Haggard’s version of Freddy’s ‘Road To My Heart” I love that she uses ‘we’. The full title is On The Road To My Heart “Catherine’s Song”. “It was my wedding present from Freddy”, she says, “he wrote it for me on our honeymoon.”
For six years in the 2000’s Freddy toured the states and Europe backed by the veteran cowboy group Stop The Truck (with guitarist Steve Carter). During the 1990’s Fred created, co-produced and co-hosted a TV program with Bill McDavid called The Rogers and Hammerhead Show, which was nominated for a Cable ACE Award.
Eager to continue Catherine soon tells me the story about a song Freddy wrote a few years before he began his television show. “His most memorable song that he ever wrote, his greatest achievement, is ‘Little Hotel Room’. He actually got to sit on the piano bench with Ray Charles and teach it to him line for line, chord for chord. It was 1985 or ’86”, she suggests. Then she walks over to Freddy’s bed and just as a high school sweetheart sinks endlessly into her lover’s big eyes, she leans on Fred and asks him. He hisses something indistinguishable and mute to me. “1985”, she smiles, solely attune to his voicing. I nod, “What was it like?”. Searching back in time she responds, “Thrill of your life -they were sitting in a New York studio when Merle came in the room and said, ‘Hey, Ray Charles is next door recording. We got anything for Ray Charles?’ Well Freddy had wrote ‘Little Hotel Room’ (his version) years ago and when he first played it his bass player said, ‘dang, that sounds like a Ray Charles song!” So when Merle walked in and said, ‘we got anything for Ray Charles to record?’, Freddy’s going, ‘oh, yes we do!'”, Catherine nods her head in approval. And now I see the off white studio: Merle bursting into the room -a star, star struck, jostled. Then I see Freddy on a mahogany bench rubbing shoulders with the blind prodigy whose black head reels back into a gaping smile and an attentive Powers, in ecstasy, teaches him the words and chords, the feel, of how to fly his homespun craft.
Much of Freddy’s time in the 70’s was spent songwriting and performing shows in Vegas, Catherine explains. But before he we was a full time songwriter Fred took the role of an act many might not have expected: a slapstick comedian and banjo player. She puts in another home video. The door for the tape clicks and a low wining sound begins. Black and white figures flash out of the tube. Suddenly I am taken to an old Vegas style saloon. Powers is showing his ‘mask’ -an edgier side of himself, contrived from blackface, show music, his imagination. His eyebrows pop and twist like a magician’s fingers. He contorts his face into glaring, comedic, epitomized emotions. Like Three Stooges he and his band prank and toy with each other. Powers tells self deprecating, sometimes vulgar jokes between performances of Dixieland Jazz tunes played by tuba, banjo and drums. Eccentric, intense, almost manic, with a fast changing energy, he moves about the stage with a weightlessness that could balance even the drudgery he endures now. While the act does not reveal the full spectrum of Powers’ talents “the banjo is what made him the guitar player he became”, explains Catherine, “because he took his banjo licks and combined them with his guitar licks and that’s what gave him that unusual different style of playing that everybody recognizes him for.” Surprisingly, Freddy’s famous jazz chords were learned in his banjo days. Freddy’s comic bout not only made him a more versatile musician but also gave way to some notoriety as well. In those days marketing was old fashioned: elbow grease and self sufficiency. “Freddy owned his own night club. One way to guarantee yourself a gig back in the day was to own your own night club. The Tonight Show was in town. He called them and told them he had a great act and they should come by. Back then you didn’t have promoters, ads, ecetera. He called them and got them to come over. Free beer, duh”, she puts up her eyes and flips her palms up comically.”Little did they know, he was the act”, she laughs. “Sure enough, they ended up on the Tonight Show and did about 4 or 5 Tonight and Today’s show, with three banjos and a tuba.”
Interestingly Freddy’s leap into slapstick came less out of choice and more out of a rebellion against the music industry. “His sister had gotten a cut by Hank Thompson or Eddy Arnold“, Catherine begins, “and Freddy said, ‘wow, I can write songs and get a paycheck writing songs’. He did get a couple on the radio and got radio play. Back in those days it was easy to take advantage of young songwriters and entertainers. One of his first songs was stolen. He got no credit for it. ‘There she goes, she’s walking away'”, Catherine sings in surprising elegance, as the fitting lyrics speak both of a distant lover and coincidentally Freddy’s deal, this dream gone awry, walking away from him. “It was very discouraging for him. He thought he’d broken into the business. He realized he didn’t appear on the album. Then it happened again with the Wilburn Brothers. Now he got credit on the album as the writer but he never got paid. He got ripped off.”
Somewhere is a lesson in there, I think to myself. Freddy could have given up. Or, he could have kept pressing against the steal vault of the recording industry. Instead, he switched gears entirely, chose a less glorified path in slapstick but ironically it was there he learned the chords which became essential pieces to his best, most memorable works. What feels at first like failure is most often a mysterious step towards success. Had Freddy not fallen out of the industry early on, he might have kept writing standards and slowly faded away as another orthodox country act. Instead, he got turned down, switched to banjo playing where he learned an exciting jazz-country style that was hardly a concept until he and his comrades stormed Nashville later on.
Before Freddy’s fallout with songwriting and his mainstay as a slapstick/banjo act, he “got hooked up with” stringed instrument teacher and aficionado, performer, Texas musician, Paul Buskirk. However, the way in which Freddy made an impression on Buskirk is quite unusual. “Freddy just so happen to move into the same apartment complex as him”, Catherine recalls, “and he had all sorts of instruments and Freddy could tell just by the way this guy dressed that he was somebody. So Freddy would open up his door and sit there and play and sing as loud as he could until he got this guy’s attention and sure enough, low and behold, Paul Buskirk was infatuated with his singing and musical abilities. They became close friends. He took him under his wing, taught him everything he knows, all the way down to smoking marijuana.” We both laugh. Like moving smoke I am taken to Freddy’s old apartment and for a moment I am there. His tall windows are cranked open, trumpeting outwards. Lush green leaves flash their undersides in a massaging wind, bouncing a strong nasal voice around the entire building. His door is opened so far that the doorknob is indenting the wall. A young Freddy Powers, eyes wincing and head raised, hollering at the sky, is burning though melodies from his tiny balcony-like quarters, pounding his music box to acoustic distortion. An older, half annoyed, half curious Buskirk follows the sounds, approaches the door from the side and dips his head into the already open room. Powers, blazing through a song like no one is listening and yet with vague hopes that just one man will, has shut eyes and is unaware of anyones presence. For a moment Buskirk watches in silence and all his grievance and suspicion melts away into pure conviction. Freddy and Paul formed a life long mentorship after that unlikely introduction. Freddy’s quirky and enigmatic antics paid off dearly. He met Buskirk and in 1953 “Paul took Freddy over to meet Willie Nelson”, Catherine says fondly, “He thought Willie had great songs and was going to go somewhere. Freddy was one of the first ones to record a Willie Nelson song, ‘Heartaches Of A Fool’. Through Paul they both learned a lot about chords and arrangements. Paul Buskirk, was both their mentor.”
“Freddy was always the banjo and guitar player”, Catherine adds, “but he learned a lot of other instruments: from trumpet to bass and in this time, the early 50’s, he toured with Sonny James as bass player.”
While learning from Buskirk, Freddy was also a barber. “That was the thing to do in those days for musicians because you hold your own hours”, says Catherine. But before he began cutting hair, touring with “The Southern Gentleman” Sonny James, hollering down stranger’s hallways and juggling banjos, Freddy was in a group that people who know Freddy now chuckle at when they hear the company: the Marines. “At age 15 he ran off to join the military -the Air Force at first. They realized he was too young, sent him home. Dad went and got him but sure enough next year he did it again. He ran off and joined the Marines and when he went in the guy looked at him and said, ‘are you 18? You don’t look 18’, and Freddy signed up and lied about his age again. But of course they found out and called his dad and his dad finally agreed he was determined. He wanted to be in the military because of John Wayne movies”, she brightens by the innocent dream. “He finished high school in the Marines. He was restricted to a military base until he was 18. He got his education in the Marines. Me moved up ranks real fast, became sergeant, staff sergeant and then CID, Criminal Investigation Department. It’s funny to folks now: he busted people for marijuana. He burned it in a pile and sometimes you’d get up wind and have to get away from it. So people now are always like, ‘Can you imagine? Freddy Powers, running for his dear life from a little weed smoke?'” My eyes go wide as I imagine the image. Catherine, excited, continues, “People would steal from each other too. They’d put investigators in, get no where, put commanding officers in, get no where, but when they put Freddy in to talk, they sang like a canary”, she draws out the A in ‘sang’. As Catherine paints his adolescence I begin to see a more dynamic Powers: stubborn and adventurous as a child, and yet sly and charming, able to disarm, always funny, musical but loaded with so much more. It becomes clear to me that his personality is the spring well of his lyrics, was a catalyst in his ascension to the top of the industry and is just as special as his playing. In ways, his playing is his personality, in musical form: stubborn but adventurous, sly and yet charming, able to disarm and always threaded with humor. Therein lies another lesson probably. In music, invention hardly ever outweighs the outpour of one’s raw character.
Journeying back to his childhood Catherine explains, “Freddy grew up in a music family. Everyone in his family was pretty much all talented as far as singers, songwriters and guitar players. His dad was a fiddle player. His mom was a Vaudeville singer and piano player. She was with her family band and her sisters so he had a totally musical upbringing. They had their own family band with Freddy playing guitar. Everybody in the family played. Freddy won his first talent contest in school singing, doing a duet with his sister. Growing up listening to mother, growing up listening to Floyd Tillman -songs like that, they had so much meaning. They tell stories.” Freddy’s story begins in a cradle rocked by talent and performers.
“Freddy was raised in Seminole, Texas but actually born in Oklahoma”, Catherine finishes for a while now, pausing, looking around. It seems we end with the beginning. Taken by the silence I am soon there. It is early fall, October 13, 1931 in Duncan, Oklahoma. I am back in a hospital but this one is different: there are porcelain sinks, creamy yellow walls, chrome tubing, shiny tile floors and the nurses have pressed paper hats and long white dresses with lap covers. Through the windows the leaves are just beginning to wrinkle and feather away. I can smell the odor of the changing ground mixing into each room. In a small steel frame bed a new born Freddy Powers squirms in his mother’s rhythmic arms, his eyes are fat and closed, he’s soaking up sound only, and soul. She’s humming something – Jimmie Rodgers’ “Sleep, Baby, Sleep”. Outside the sun filters through the clouds, lighting the long, complex, glory worn path of a legend, and his sealed eyes have not yet fathomed to even open. Wrestling in his mother’s arms the baby, tiny Fred Powers, cannot conceive what or who he is, much less the man he will become, and the adventure that awaits him. Birthdays are important for Fred. This past October he turned 82 “which is the third birthday he wasn’t suppose to see.”
My tribute song to Freddy Powers:
Lyrics to the song are posted here if anyone would like to follow along.