Life is not all about football, or sports of any kind for that matter. And at a certain point we all look back at the times and the events that made a spiritual impression on our lives. Let me share.
But a Saturday phone call from a friend in Ashland, Kentucky prompts me to share an emotion that seems to increase with each passing year. And that emotion, of course, is our own mortality.
As many of you probably have guessed, I grew up with a musical background – taught myself to play the piano by age ten. And although I did take a few lessons from the local music store in Huntington, West Virginia, largely, what I know is what I’ve learned on my own.
A year later I pooled every cent (and dollar) that I had saved since birth and bought my cousin’s old Conn cornet. And over years of professional training from Piqua’s Bob Hance I learned to play that horn well enough to eventually enroll at Ohio State University, pursue dual degrees in music, and play in the Best Damned Marching Band In The Land (TBDBITL).
Yes, I’ve had many, many wonderful musical influences in my life…and still do upon occasion. The story that I did with B.J. Thomas at the Fraze Pavillion in 2015 is still one of the best experiences of my life.
But if you really pressed me to share the best of those influences, it would undoubtedly be listening to Sunday morning hymns in the Baptist churches I attended as a youth growing up in the Appalachian fringes of Southern Ohio. Now I think this has something to do with spirituality, of course. But more, I think it’s more about the sense I was born with for recognizing and appreciating harmonies – of how notes fit together to make beautiful music.
Those hymns, to this day, are often my first choice of music to relax with, to reminisce with, and as a way to just wind down. And I know that many of you recognize them, as well – Precious Memories, In The Garden, Take My Hand Precious Lord, Softly and Tenderly, and Coming Home. Like I said, if you’re on here today looking for something to read about opening night for high school football, today’s not the day. Come back tomorrow, or later in the week. This is for those who enjoy gospel music.
There was a piano player at my home church in Ashland for many years named Cara Lee Busch, who while not professionally trained, I believe had the best interpretation for playing hymns of anyone I’ve ever heard in church. Cara Lee had marvelous touch on the keyboard, and a wonderful sense of how to make the baseline stand out; and I think now…I was probably the only person in the congregation who even noticed. And during the offertory on Sunday mornings she often played medleys of church favorites, modulating and changing keys from one tune to the next.
Years later, during my time in baseball, I got to spend parts of two summers in Nashville, Tennessee, in the Double A Southern League, where you could find any kind of music you wanted to hear, honkey tonk to gospel, at all hours of the night and day.
After a Nashville Sounds game at Greer Stadium one particular evening my umpiring partners and I were roaming around downtown when one if the doormen at a piano bar near Ryman Auditorium tipped us off to a special performance inside.
“Hey,” he said. “If you like country piano Floyd Cramer’s inside with some of his studio guys. They’re playing requests.”
My partners had never heard of Floyd Cramer, but the opportunity to go inside was too good to pass up. And sure enough, in front of a packed house sat Cramer, a drummer, a guitar player, and a guy playing bass. I don’t know how long they had been there, but I had the sense that they were about to quit for the evening when Cramer spoke into a microphone beside his bench and asked, “Is there anything else you like to hear before we wrap things up?”
Nudging my way through the crowd I walked up to him and said, “Would you play one of the gospel medleys, from your Sounds of Sunday album?”
It took Cramer by complete surprise. But without missing a beat he said quietly, “Well, it is Saturday night. I think we can do that.” And for the next five minutes the great Floyd Cramer hushed that noisy bar with his unmistakable style and interpretation of the very songs I had heard Cara Lee Busch play for so many years.
There wasn’t a sound to be heard as he finished. You could literally have heard a pin drop.
“Thank you for asking,” Cramer looked at me and said. “I enjoyed doing that.”
And of all the experiences I had in minor league baseball I think I probably enjoyed those five minutes as much as any baseball game I ever worked, or watched. You grew accustomed to loneliness in a job like umpiring back then, and Cramer’s playing was like having a bit of home come to visit.
I’ll share those same songs for you today in our Sunday Press Pros feature – Sounds of Sunday by Floyd Cramer – and a shout out to Cara Lee Busch, Bill and Debbie Parker, and others from my past who made this column not only fun to do, but necessary.
Like Floyd Cramer in 1978, I’ve enjoyed this!