This story begins, like many stories do, in the South, and ends in a small town in Kentucky.
The Statler Brothers’ bus stopped just outside the stage door of the Salem Civic center on a crisp October evening, the parking lot full of fans.
This night would be the last performance of the four men from Staunton, Virginia.
A few months earlier, Harold Reid, Phil Balsley, and Don Reid had told their tenor, Jimmy Fortune, after years of entertaining, they were retiring.
“Harold told me he thought it was time to retire when Phil kept thinking ‘getting lucky’ meant being able to find his car in the Walmart parking lot,” Jimmy smiled.
Unlike many entertainers who “retire,” and then keep coming back, and coming back, for more money and adoration, the Statler Brothers left the stage, and never looked back.
After 22 years of singing with the Statler Brothers, Jimmy wasn’t sure what to do. He understood the music business and knew it could be a precarious profession, but felt he still had songs to sing. Harold, Phil, and Don were within retirement ages, but Jimmy was younger and far from retirement.
After much prayer and deliberation, he stepped out on his own.
Twenty years later, Brenda, Greg, Jack and I drove to rustic Renfro Valley, Kentucky, to attend Jimmy Fortune’s Christmas concert. It was a remarkable evening. The Christmas music was exceptional.
Sitting in front of us was a man about 40 years old with a young boy, 10 or 11 years old. The boy was dressed in a dark blue suit, tie, and trendy brown shoes. I noticed he would, from time-to-time, place his arms on the seat in front of him, and bowing, lean his head on his arms for the longest time. When he turned around, he appeared to be deep in thought.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we will now take a short intermission,” the announcer said. I stood up, stretched my legs, and walked to the concession stand to buy a few refreshments. By coincidence, the man who had been sitting in front of us, was standing in front of me in the concession line.
“The young boy with you is well-behaved, and he looks very nice in his suit,” I said.
“He’s my son. He is a good boy, but this is a tough time for him. It’s a challenging time for us all,” he said. “My son dressed up for his mom because she can’t be with us tonight.”
Tears welled up in his eyes as he said his wife had passed away just two weeks earlier. He said his son wasn’t a big country music fan, but he wanted to come to the concert because he knew how much his mother loved Jimmy Fortune’s singing, and how she loved Christmas music. “He wanted to do this for her,” he said quietly.
“I gave him my wife’s ticket,” the man said.
Jimmy opened the second half of the concert with these words: “When I sing these songs, I get very emotional because I remember my mom singing them to me. She passed away back in 2000, and I still miss her every single day. But I really felt her spirit in all this, and her prayers from years ago.”
The crowd got quiet. There wasn’t a sound in the New Barn except Jimmy’s clear tenor voice as he sang the familiar strains of the Christmas carol.
I noticed the young boy put his arm around his dad.
The electric guitar in the background came to a hush. It was now only Jimmy and his solitary acoustic guitar as he sang.
“Christmas eve will find me,”
“Where the love light gleams,”
“I’ll be home for Christmas.”
“If only in my dreams.”
I saw the boy’s shoulders shaking. His dad softly put his arm around his son and patted him gingerly, as a father would do.
Suddenly, the overhead lights came on and the music was over.
“I didn’t get to say goodbye to mom,” I heard the boy say softly. “Dad, I wish there was something I could do to show her how much I love her.”
“You did tonight, son. More than you will ever know. You did tonight.”
Pat Haley is a Clinton County native and former county commissioner and sheriff.