My father was many things: a farm kid, a country boy, a ditch-digger, a quick study who hated school, an automotive repair genius, a Vietnam veteran, 5’7” and 155 pounds on a good day. Newt Williams was a Southerner, a capital-R Redneck, a loyal brother, a dutiful son, a proud parent. But he was not a singer.
For nearly two decades, my mother said he “couldn’t carry a tune.” That was just the divorce talking. Daddy could hear and repeat notes. He had a clear, confident tenor voice and a strong sense of rhythm. The problem was that he could never recall more than a few lines of any song. Textual memorization never did fit into his hands-on world. “Happy Birthday” was probably the number he knew best—but even then, he still sometimes faltered. He had to hear a tune scores of times before it would burn into his brain. Only then could he remember enough to sing a few lines.
And sing a few lines, he did. Daddy was always singing: at 5:30 AM under the weird orange glow of the bathroom heat lamp; while cranking open a family-sized can of Dinty Moore; while tearing kudzu out of the azaleas that grew between the clothesline and the outhouse. He sang while barreling down Interstate 20 in a worn-out station wagon he never could completely rid of Lowcountry dirt; while inspecting a broken vacuum cleaner; while cheering us up or calming us down.
My father sang from behind his safety helmet in the skin-scalding light of the arc welder. He sang from the back of a lowboy trailer as he tied down machinery with chains weighing as much as he did. He sang from a dinky motel room in Charleston as he and his brother planned their construction equipment exodus under the looming violence of Hurricane Hugo. He sang while sweating clean through his work uniform in hateful South Carolina heat, and while waist-deep in brackish, evil-colored water as his crew installed a drain culvert. He sang while picking up the day’s seventh load of three-inch Schedule 40 PVC pipe, and while accidentally reversing the tractor clutch pressure plate on which he had just spent $200 and a trip into town.
Not knowing what was to come for himself or for any of us, Daddy belted out his three or four chosen lines no matter what. Chances are he sang a few bars of something as he drove to the job site the morning my uncle shot him twice in the back of the head at point-blank range.
Daddy may have burst into song wherever and whenever the urge struck, but he was particular about his audience. He sang to my sister and me, to our mother before they split, to our stepmother and step-siblings, and to our cousins—but not to his own friends or siblings. His songs were for those closest to him, and conveyed the love that his words usually did not.
His catalogue, too, spoke volumes about his life and times, which often brimmed with bewildering loss and deep regret. His setlist included hard country singers such as Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and Waylon Jennings. “Countrypolitan” and the Nashville sound, à la Jim Reeves and Charlie Rich, showed up now and again. Movie musicals, 1980s pop hits, Christmas classics, one-off novelty tunes, and most everything Elvis were in there, too. If a particular medley appeared in our school marching band’s show one season, Daddy would add a couple of those numbers to the rotation. Gospel standards also sneaked into his repertoire. This made sense for a man who, every trip home, attended his elderly mother’s tiny, nearly dead Methodist circuit church in the hope that one day he might finally let himself believe the unbelievable.
Though I have not heard his voice in nearly seventeen years, the songs my father barely knew still comfort me. As I stand in line at the drugstore, Glen Campbell’s voice on the PA melds into Daddy’s: “I am a lineman for the county, and I drive the main roads…” As I stare into the lunchmeat case at the grocery store, the “oooh-wah-aaaaah” of Huey Lewis & the News’ “Stuck with You” startles me into tears. Fragments of hooks and choruses in pedestrian locations ambush me with reminders of my father. The melodies and words coalesce into a musical Morse code from beyond: I’m proud of you. You can make it. You know what you’re doing.
But I do not know what I am doing. I have never written publicly about my father. I have no idea what shape these posts will take, or even how often I will be able to post them. Some of the “Daddy songs” I remember may be wrong. What if I mistake one I heard on television for one of his numbers? What if my words cannot adequately convey the beauty, hurt, and longing behind the lyrics?
What if, what if, what if?
Three years ago, immersed in crises, I visited my father’s grave in Heard County, Georgia, for just the third time. With a heart freshly seared by the brand of absolute and undeniable professional failure, I lay on the red earth and poured out my sorrow. “I’m sorry, Daddy. I’m a disappointment. I tried so hard, but I really am a loser. It’s stupid to pretend I’m anything else. You said I had potential, but I don’t. I just don’t.” I could hardly breathe for the crushing sadness. “And nothing I do is going to fix things—not now. Not ever. I’m so sorry, Daddy.”
The next night, I dreamed I was trying to cross the raging torrent that Little Wehadkee Creek—my favorite Alabama childhood swimming hole—had become after an epic storm. Beneath a brutal and massive concrete overpass, the Little Wehadkee rushed through the culverts at levels far above flood stage. The roar of the near-white water so filled my ears that I could not even hear my own screams. Knowing I would drown whether I remained onshore or attempted to cross, I froze at the water’s edge. Trees, cars, homes, and children’s stuffed toys swept helplessly past.
While alive, Daddy adamantly refused to believe in an afterlife, which made his presence in this dream even more bizarre. Suddenly, there he was, dressed as always in brown long-sleeved Dickies, lug-soled boots caked with mud, sunglasses and welder’s soapstone pencil sticking out of his shirt pocket. Without warning or explanation, he grabbed my arm and bounded across the first roaring channel, pulling me shrieking along with him.
In single bounds, together we broad-jumped twelve, fifteen, twenty feet at a time, barely getting our toes wet as the water eddied below us. Crossing the wider parts of the floodwaters, we sometimes rested on low concrete pillars that appeared in the middle of the rushing water. Then we sprang high and safely to the next foothold.
The last swirling section reached at least fifty yards beyond our perch. On the other side, I could see dry land and people huddling together. But there were no pillars in this part of the flooded creek—no, nothing but more terrifying, churning water waiting to suck me under for good. I looked again to my father. “Daddy, this one’s too—”
Hands on hips, standing motionless, he surveyed the waters. After a moment, he waved me away with the same gesture he used to send me back to the stockpile for another case of pipe gaskets. “Tell you what—you go on ahead. You’ll be all right. You know what you’re doing.”
A lump of squall rose in my throat. My feet seemed to grow roots where I stood. But with a strange calm and patience that I rarely saw when he was alive, Daddy motioned again in the direction of the far shore. “Now get on over yonder. Go on! Anything happens, I’ll be right here.”
Before I knew it, I leapt. Suddenly, I found myself safely on the other side, yards away from where I began, high above the water. Daddy, by that point a tiny figure far out of shouting range, became a speck, and then vanished completely.
With that dream in mind, I begin.
I am not sure how frequent (or good) this post series will be. I am not sure which songs to write about first. Still, the stories from a life ended too soon plead with me to try and make sense of convoluted scenes and thwarted dreams. I write knowing that even as I am compelled to share my father’s life through the songs he sang, I risk running off the ghost. I risk chasing away this ghost that shadows my dreams and my waking hours, that haunts and harrows me, that keeps me ever-vigilant, that makes me laugh.
In sharing my father’s favorite tunes, I may banish his ghost forever. I may inadvertently put it to rest. If and when it disappears, it will take with it the last recollections I have of him—not mawkish, maudlin old things remembered, but ragged scraps of an increasingly distant past. A past I wish were so very different.
I write my father’s story in song in spite of—and because of—all this. I have to. Maybe, through a moth-eaten patchwork of obscure lyrics and dissipating memories, I can tell my father’s story as unflinchingly as possible. Not to write it down would be an unpardonable sin: the sin of ignoring what I am called to do.
As Daddy often said, “I’m fixing to do something, even if it’s wrong.”
© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)