By now I’ve long overstayed my welcome. The sun is crying down on us reflecting off Music City so all I can see is burning white everywhere through the blinds. Inside, the camper is hot and my clothes are stuck to my back. Catherine is as chipper as usual so I take my chances and keep inquiring, jotting notes, leaning forward on the little couch as Freddy stares through his aluminum roof, through the clouds, up into his Milky Way song scape. I press on. After all, amidst the disease, the drugs, the music, the fame, the laughs and sadness there is still one story greater to be uncovered, something more real: the immense love that Catherine and Fred share, despite the stranglehold working against them, is perhaps more compelling, even to my music ravenous ears, than anything else.
Though it seems almost too personal for a ‘music interview’, I have to ask, “How did you and Freddy meet?”. She beams and blushes a little eager to answer the question. “I was dating his son’s best friend”, she says cooly, “I took one look at the album and I was like ‘Oh my god, I’m in love'”. Her answer catches me off guard and suddenly I see a side to Catherine I have not yet totally seen: the love struck teenager, vulnerable, awed by Powers and while it sounds much like a fairy tale for a young girl to fall for a picture on a record, the light in her eyes now, the softenness in her cheeks as she reminisces and relives her first sights of Fred proves her dream is real, as real as the mechanical bed, as real then as it is now.
“I had fashion shows out there. I was an auctioneer. Models would come in with their outfits and I’d auction ’em off. He would come to my shows. I’m trying to make him mine. I’m not for sure how, he was such a roustabout. My father when he found out I met Freddy Powers and Merle was like, ‘Baby girl, that’s getting to meet my heroes but keep your lil’ ass away from him.'”, she giggles a little. I can see she’s reliving that conversation. “My daddy heard all the stories about the parties ’cause he was a big fan. So daddy wanted me to stay away from him.”
“And I wasn’t sure if he was really as interested in me as I wanted him to be. He was coming to my shows. Yet when he would come he would bring a different women, a different girl and he would buy dresses for them or for models but never for me. My girls one day was like, ‘That guy is crazy about you’ and I’m like, ‘Oh yea? So why did he bring so and so to the show?’ There was a blizzard and we lived atop of Kingsbury Way which is in Lake Tahoe and I had a show down in Carson City. Well it was only eleven miles down the back side of a mountain but in a blizzard eleven is like a hundred miles ’cause of the mountain and all theses curves but there was a blizzard and I looked out the front door and who walks into the door -and we didn’t have hardly anyone make it to the show- who walks in but him. And I was like, ‘Aright, if the man walks through a blizzard then he’s as interested in me as I am in him.'” I can see Freddy at first masking his smile, masking his affection for Catherine with models on his arm and expensive dresses in theirs. Always a little sly he keeps returning with a new woman, showing his interest through a veil, until the night he trudges a hundred miles through the snow, his tires spitting on friction, seas of sleet on the face of his windshield, the hood frozen down, visibility is gone, his path lit by the thought of her face alone. They meet and ignite.
“Yea when I saw that picture on the album I fell head over heels in love and when I met him I knew he was gonna’ be my man. It was pretty quick. I had broken up with my boyfriend. He had broken up with his girlfriend. We didn’t wana’ hurt anyone’s feelings so we had an affair. We had a secret affair for the first year we were together. We were together for six years before we got married. We were on a camping trip with his brother when he was looking at the map and mapping out our route and he noticed Lovelock, Nevada and he said, ‘Hey mama, we going through Lovelock, Nevada! What else do people do in Lovelock but get married! You wana get married?’ I was like, ‘Are you kidding?’ and we ended up getting married in Lovelock, Nevada”. I think about people I know who have gotten married young, spontaneously, on the road, amidst adventure. It could be viewed as rash but some people like to think of it as utter certainty. Hundred thousand dollar weddings sometimes bare marriages that last less than a year while shotgun weddings on the highway can last a lifetime. I guess a ceremony becomes less important when love becomes crystal clear.
Again, I revel in the Southern ruggedness and charm because what Catherine attributes to her bond with Freddy is not ‘stars aligning’ or E-harmony words like ‘compatibility’ or ‘soul mates’ but something more tangible, more Texas, more real: respect. “I’ve found that without respect, you can’t love”, she nods authoritatively, “and there’s no one I respect more than my husband”. The honor she bears for Freddy is unlimited, unabashed and courageous. What work could be treacherous to a hired caretaker she handles with laughter and grace in her effort to stretch out she and her husband’s loving companionship as long as humanly possible. “My main goal is I don’t want him to not know who I am when he does go. He’s the love of my life, my one and only. There’ll never be anyone after him. I will be single and I thought of it, I’ll be alone, by choice. One is that I’ll never find anybody that I’ll love and respect as much as him. And from the moment I met this man I grew to understand what respect was. Through so much respect for him, of course, I fell in love. Finding someone I respect as much as I do him -I probably won’t. And if I did find somebody that I possibly could respect and possibly could love, the first time they ever said, ‘Okay that’s enough about Freddy Powers’ I could no longer love or respect them. I know I’m gonna hear ‘It’s time to get over him’ and ‘That’s enough about him’ so I’ll be by myself and I’ll be happy. I’ll be happy being in love and still married to his memory.” These words spill out of Catherine’s conscience with force and I am stunned. Like a sudden burst in a damn her thoughts and feelings roll freely from her tongue and I finally see the whole core of what she stands for, what she is struggling to hold on to, what Freddy yearns to touch and keep but cannot. This time Catherine is crying but she’s not bowing or concealing her tears in any fashion. Taken by the wave of emotion and expression, fearless before the pain, she speaks through the tear drops as if they were just old rain. This isn’t a music story. This is a story about love. A story where, amidst the greatest odds and towering challenges, love somehow prevails and more, fulfills.
Amazingly, the same undying love and respect Catherine and Fred share so too does the entire country music community and really anyone who’s ever been around Fred. “Freddy is probably one of the most well respected and well liked men in anything”, Catherine says plainly. His students seem to hail his name too. “Any musician that’s ever played with Freddy even today they’d tell you he was the greatest teacher they ever had. He has taken musicians that were totally disregarded and people said, ‘I don’t think so’ and Freddy was one of those that could see what they were beyond that moment and what their true potential was and Freddy would hire ’em and teach ’em. He’s taken fiddle players people laughed at and turned them into the most wanted and sought after.”
“I’ve been in the room more than once where I had to bow to him myself because the whole room is bowing and I’m the only one standing. I look around and I see everyone is down like this”, she imitates a religious stance on one knee, head down in honor, ” and I’m having to do it too. A room with 3000 people in it -I had to bow because what else am I to do? Stand there? One time he was on stage, John Rich started it. Freddy started singing a song and John just stopped what he was doing, he took his hat off, went to his knee, started bowing. When he did, Big Kenny followed suit and then the rest of the band followed suit. Then it was everybody out to the audience. Next thing I know, everyone was on their knees in the audience to where I had to drop. I couldn’t believe I’m in a room where everyone is bowing to my husband. It was pretty doggone special.”
“When he went out on the Last Of The Breed tour with Willie and Merle and Ray Price, when people found out he was going and was going to be on that tour I had over 100,000 hits on our web page. Freddy only did one song at the show. When he walked out on the stage the first night it happened it took Merle and Willie back a moment because it was when all three of them were on stage. Merle, Willie and Freddy and when Freddy walks out, before Merle hardly got Freddy’s name out, the crowd just went crazy and Merle looks over at Willie and puts one hand on his hip and goes, ‘Well, well, well’. When Freddy finished his song of course they applauded but he started to turn and walk away and when he did he turned back and he saluted them and the crowd went to pandemonium.” I can see Freddy trailing off the stage, shaky from the Parkinson’s, a stoic look of fierceness before the crowd and then with the quick twist of the hand the entire building shakes back in thunder. Freddy doesn’t need to coax the crowd anymore, the conversation of respect between the music family and he was spoken a long time ago.
Catherine finishes, “I know that even though they’ve taken him off hospice, and he knows too, his days are numbered”, she says boldly. “He may live another year but then again he may not be here in three months. He’s at the final stage now that he’s lost all abilities. Things are shutting down, they are slowly shutting down. It will eventually goto his liver and lunges.” Catherine speaks the words that most wives won’t hear or ponder. She is fearless and strong and willing to bear the painful thought of death, probably, in order to give herself and Freddy a safe landing. He, sheerly by his impossible sticking around and conjuring up sweet utterances from the frozen ground, shows his love back.
Soon our conversation diverts to today’s country music, politics, Korean War veterans, the deficit, government, “beaurocratic bull crap”, how “we’ve had our last legal election”, and how “we’re gonna appoint our first dictator”. This woman has real thought and awareness. She is not just some singer’s wife. And what began as an interview is now a conversation between two friends. I am a newcomer and was made to feel at home here immediately. Fred and Catherine are surrounded by love and filled with its song and spread the sound to all. I don’t really want to leave. I don’t know why. Freddy shows no signs of jumping out of bed and Catherine is looking down at the floor now, running out of things to say. But I am somehow drawn to the tight confines of their trailer. In here, in this little bubble, Nashville and time seem to mean nothing. There is something so crystal clear and honest going on in here that much else, even the bright lights and luring sparkles of stardom in Nashville, seems trivial in comparison. Their entire lives have been built around each other. Despite the modest earnings from Fred’s legacy, despite the skeleton-like immovability of Parkinson’s disease, despite the new changing world around them, Catherine and Fred carry on in their own little world inside the trailer. Everything they touch, right down to the very camper that is their home, shows purposeful sacrifice for the sole purpose of making their lives, however unique, difficult or impossible, work together in harmony.
When I leave Catherine says goodbye and she says my name softly on the first syllable and lifts on the second. People up north do it the other way around. The lift feels like a kind send off but also a touch of mystery. I know she’s not sure who I am or if she’ll ever see this article that she interviewed for over the past two days. When I walk back through music row and see the gigantic billboards of pop stars, waving flags, glitter and shine I know that in that humble little trailer, tucked in behind some mysterious house, quiet and small in a forgotten crumbling parking lot, is one of the last pieces of real love and real country music, drifting away in Nashville.
Now it’s Wednesday, July 3, 2013 in Bolton, Connecticut, 4:00 pm yankee time. The farm I grew up on and am working on is as green as it will be all year and the sun turns it all to a misty yellow. I get a text from Catherine Powers. My throat starts to ache. It’s the first message I’ve gotten from her since Nashville. ‘Freddy died’, I think to myself. I put my fist over my mouth and shake my head slowly preparing for sadness. I didn’t finish the article in time either. Time swallows again. But then as I read the message a ceremonious celebrating rush pierces, sustains and fills my whole body and erupts out of my top in a smile. “Big thank you to Willie Nelson for everything he does for us all”, I read, “Without him lifting a finger a doctor came in and discovered fluids on Freddy’s spine, drained it off, he woke up and said, ‘Good morning Mama. I love you!’ – first words since Saturday. Willie had done a fundraiser for Dr. R.W. Van Boven for brain trauma research so this doctor, knowing Willie and Freddy’s history and friendship, he took over Freddy’s case and in a matter of hours Freddy started showing improvement. Thank you doctor and thank you sweet Jesus.” I jump for joy, quite literally, shaking up the old farm house. My father probably thinks I’m intoxicated. I text Catherine back, “That’s the best news I’ve heard all trip. Thank the lord.”
Just over a month later, on August 4th, I’m scanning my Facebook news feed and a post from Catherine appears: “Well the ironman pulls through again -doing so well he’s ready to book a show, actually sang some for Tanya Tucker and Billy Joe Walker Jr yesterday, even called Moe Alan Monsarrat about going to France. He told him, ‘Bottom line, you work hard with this physical therapist and practice your singing and at the end of the eight weeks we’ll book a gig.'” The same smile that arose on my face a month earlier rises again. A great feeling of possibility and hope fills me like a balloon and I float about the farm for the rest of the day.
I don’t know if Freddy ever made a miraculous come back. I don’t know if he played a gig in France. I doubt it. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. I’ve since told this story to many and when I finish it and tell people about Willie’s discovery, Freddy’s sudden recovery and Moe’s offer it brings bursting looks of brightness, amazement, cascading smiles and, in most, tears. I watch people that never met Freddy or Catherine and know little to nothing about them shed tears of joy. This is a man that you can never count out. The sheer belief and possibility of another gig, for a man as deep in his condition as he is, to me, is as amazing as going about and doing the thing itself. The deed was belief.
I am incredibly grateful and indebted to Catherine and Fred for inviting me, a stranger kid from the North, into their home last June. Meeting Freddy and his wife has been at times unimaginably heartbreaking other times heartwarming beyond all of my expectation. ‘The day I met Freddy and Catherine Powers’ is a story I will cherish and retell for the rest of my life. When I catch up with Catherine on the phone now it does not feel like I’m talking to an interviewee, it feels like I’m talking to a friend. This is the kind of love everyone who comes in contact with Fred and Catherine feel, upon immediate arrival.
The day after I interviewed Catherine about Freddy’s story I was woken up early in the morning, on the hard wood floor of a house I was staying in on Shelby Ave in Nashville. It was the house that Kacey Musgraves used to live in and threw basement Honky Tonks in downstairs. That morning I woke up with a little melody in my head and the words ‘still in my dreams I can see her’ ringing over and over. I knew right away this was a song about Freddy Powers, about how he is incapacitated but still able to touch, hold, love and laugh with Catherine, if only in his dreams. Taken, I grabbed the guitar and went outside and finished the melody. Over the next few days I finished the lyrics. I don’t take full credit for it. I believe Freddy had a hand in it, maybe put a bug in my ear while I was asleep. This is my tribute song to Freddy, spoken in his voice. Thank you to everyone who has read and followed along. Your support, comments and additions to the story have been as meaningful as the story itself.
Lyrics to the song are posted here if anyone would like to follow along.