The Gift of Music: What I Learned from my Tone-Deaf Dad
At age 19, I learned shocking news about my dad: he wasn’t my biological father. This put me into a tail spin, the fallout of which lasted for years. Why hadn’t he told me? What did this explain about our similarities and differences? Did he love me more because I was adopted or less because I wasn’t “his?” This was a particular shock because as the only daughter and youngest child in a family of brothers, I was a daddy’s girl. Now, was he really my “daddy” after all? After a brief season of angst, what ultimately emerged was a deeper, richer appreciation of the man who didn’t have to be my father — he chose to be. And while that may sound like a Brad Paisley song, it is nevertheless our family truth. Here are the facts: I was a rather dramatic child who was always into things and he nevertheless saw good in me. He was generous in spirit, loyal, athletic, moral, and he had a strong faith which he lived out sincerely. He was also hilarious but you had to listen very carefully to know this about him because his humor was quiet and gentle. My dad also gave me a love of music. He encouraged me so strongly, I suppose, because, God love him, he had no musical skill whatsoever. He nevertheless sang in the choir, sang along with his records, banged on my piano, and played his own electric organ. Nothing could stop him even though he was self-aware he had no talent. After years of faithful attendance in his church choir, he finally got his big break—he was assigned a solo! He was so proud and practiced every night, which made it particularly sad when his solo was ultimately taken away after a few weeks of trial runs. He said he understood but it was heart-breaking to watch as I knew he wanted to sing just that one time. North Carolina born and bred, he was raised on country music (of the ilk that we now call classic country or even before that time…think: Sons of the Pioneers). He listened to WSM 650 Grand Ole Opry each week and knew all of the musicians and advertisers. By the time I came along, he listed to 1960s-1980s artists such as Glen Campbell, Barbara Mandrell (he had a not-so-secret crush on her), the Statler Brothers, Randy Travis, Loretta Lynn, Charlie Rich, and George Jones, to name a few. I therefore had the odd experience of listening to the Beatles, Janis Joplin, and 70s singer-songwriters with my friends while simultaneously being a hard-core closet country music fan. By 1987, it was clear that my dad was dying. At some level, I knew he was leaving me soon and I knew exactly how I needed to honor him…we needed to go to the Country Music Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. Unlike present day, the CMA awards show were then closed to industry outsiders so I couldn’t buy tickets outright. With fingers crossed, I therefore placed a classified ad in the Sunday Nashville newspaper, The Tennessean, asking if any CMA members had spare tickets I could buy. I eagerly sat by my telephone that Sunday in hopes someone would call (yes, we had to “wait” by phones back then)—and someone did. It was none other than the president of the CMA herself who was none too pleased that I was soliciting tickets! My heart sank as I realized this gift wasn’t going to happen…but then it did. Within minutes the CMA executive was taken by my father’s story, and his lifetime love of country music, and my desire to please him…so she so generously offered us not only two tickets to the televised awards show but also invitations to the after-party at the Opryland Hotel. I was stunned and I still am as I write this today. Thank you, CMA, for a gift that means more than you’ll ever know. So, off we went for a wild weekend in Nashville with my mom and friend in tow. I had professional hair and make-up, a sequined outfit (so 80s!), and my dad looked resplendent in his tuxedo. He was barely able to walk due to breathing difficulties but he had an adrenaline boost that night and made it throughout the long evening. The televised award show was amazing and my dad saw all of his favorites. Both Barbara and Randy were there that night if my memory serves me well. Afterwards, we mingled like we were “somebody” at the CMA party in the presidential ballroom at Opryland Hotel. Two people mistakenly mistook my father for an long-term Opry star (Hank Snow) which thrilled him to no end. However, despite all the energy and excitement of the CMA awards, my most indelible memory of the weekend — and my father — came the next day at the Ryman Auditorium. Known as the “Mother Church of Country Music,” the Ryman is where country legends performed on the Grand Ole Opry before moving to its new location. As my father sat down to rest on a pew near the back of the converted church, he explained that he had sat right there many years ago with his own father. That startled me as I never knew he had been to the Grand Ole Opry before but I let him rest as I walked around to tour. A few minutes later I noticed something different about my father as I gazed across the auditorium. He was sitting motionless, staring ahead center stage. When he hadn’t moved after several minutes, I became concerned and quietly moved towards him. As I approached him from behind, I realized he was utterly absorbed in memories—almost in a trance. He could surely hear, see, smell, feel what it was like that night with his father, hearing the sounds of the country superstars and legends before him. I don’t know the actual date he was there, but I wish I did. I just know that being in the presence of the Mother Church of Country Music allowed my ill father to get lost in comforting memories, if only for awhile. I took a picture of my father sitting there that day, now lost, but this moment is profoundly etched into my mind and remains one of my most poignant memories of him.
My dad died soon thereafter of a rare disease known as CREST after being misdiagnosed by 16 doctors. He also died just a week shy of an appointment at Mayo Clinic which makes it all the more difficult to accept since I’ve always wondered if they could have saved him. Now, at age 53, I’ve had decades to struggle with my surprise identity as an adopted daughter of a great man. So, here’s my conclusion. He brought out the best in me by his own example: work hard, be tenacious, laugh, love music, and sing out whether you have the ability or not. Yes, he was and is my father in every sense, and the biological/adoptive matter is no longer an issue. After all, his life stories are my life stories, and mine are his. He is my daddy, after all. Happy Father’s Day, Joe Rogers Sutton.
[Reprint from CNN iReport, June 21, 2015] http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1251354