The sun was beginning to set as the big red, white and blue tour bus pulled into the Salem Civic Center on October 26, 2002 for the final performance of the Statler Brothers’ illustrious career in country music.
A few weeks earlier, Harold, Phil and Don had told their tenor, Jimmy Fortune, they were retiring.
“Harold told me he realized it was time to retire when Phil kept thinking ‘getting lucky’ meant being able to find his car in the Walmart parking lot, “Jimmy chuckled.
Unlike many entertainers who “retire,” then keep coming back, and coming back, for more money and adoration, the Statlers left the stage, with no looking back.
After 22 years 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 he 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 discussion, he stepped out on his own. We’re glad he did.
Two weeks ago, our family traveled to beautiful, rustic Renfro Valley to hear Jimmy Fortune in concert. It was a wonderful evening. The Christmas music was remarkable and heartrending.
Sitting in front of us was a man about 40 years old and his son, a boy 10 or 11, dressed in a suit and tie, and trendy brown shoes.
Beside the boy was an empty seat. I noticed the boy 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 in deep 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.
The man who had been sitting in front of us, by coincidence, was standing in front of me in the concession line.
“Your son is well-behaved, and looks nice in his suit,” I said.
“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 told me his wife had passed away just two weeks. He said his son wasn’t a big country music fan, but he wanted to come to the concert tonight 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.
“I gave him my wife’s ticket,” the man said.
Jimmy started the second half of the concert with these words: “When I was singing these songs, I got very emotional because I remembered my mom singing 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 began to sing the familiar strain of the Christmas carol.
“I’ll be home for Christmas,” Jimmy sang.
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 guitar as he sang.
“I’ll be home for Christmas.”
“You can plan on me.”
“Please have snow and mistletoe,”
“And presents by the tree.”
“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 shake. His dad put his arm around him again 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.
His book, “Around the Fire: Stories from Here and There” — comprised of his nonfiction stories in the News Journal through the years — is available through the Clinton County History Center in Wilmington, or you can reach Pat directly at 937-205-7844 or via email at email@example.com to purchase a copy.