Music can be the great generational divide in some families, but it wasn't that way in mine. True, Mama and Aunt Joyce never fully appreciated the subtle nuances of "Free Bird." (But let's be fair—that guitar solo does go on a tad long.) On the flip side, my cousins and I went through a phase when we were way too cool for "Wildwood Flower." We're older and wiser now.
Even in our rocking youth, we loved gathering around an old upright piano to sing quartet songs with our aunts and uncles. (On a good day, I can still manage the tenor part to "Heaven Will Surely Be Worth It All.") And the older set at least tried to be interested in what we were listening to. I guess everybody just enjoyed bringing something to the table and letting the others have a taste.
Daddy taught me how to do the camel walk to Patsy Cline's "Walking After Midnight," and he introduced us kids to the wonders of Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Big Band. My mother has always loved gospel. And Elvis. Better yet, Elvis singing gospel. My older cousin Richard was the resident authority on rock, blues, and soul.
During his Beatles period, he once came strolling into our grandmother's farmhouse wearing love beads and a Nehru jacket. Our mothers visibly shuddered, and I knew exactly what they were thinking: What on earth will we tell the preacher if he tries to wear that hippie garb to church?
Of all the musicians we discovered, the one I remember best was a young country singer Richard had read about in Rolling Stone—I guarantee he was their sole subscriber in Harpersville, Alabama—after a cute clerk at a Birmingham record store sold him the album. His sister and I huddled around as he put it on the turntable. Out of those speakers came the voice of Emmylou Harris: Baby brought me in out off the highway .... The song was "Bluebird Wine," and it was rockin' and twangin' and swingin' all at the same time. And we knew what we had to do next—play it for Uncle Bud.
In our family, Uncle Bud is the undisputed authority on country music, and he doesn't waste his time on anything but the best—we're talking Patsy, Hank, Dolly, Cash, and the Carters (A.P., Sara, and Maybelle, as well as June and the girls). None of this fly-by-night country-pop business. Uncle Bud believes a great song should tell a great story, and he maintains that not much worth singing has been written since the Great Depression. He knows every word to "Long Black Veil."
Playing Emmylou for him was sort of like rubbing pearls against your teeth to make sure they're real. We were reasonably certain we had a jewel, but we wanted the opinion of a seasoned appraiser. As we played him one song after another, he went from a sly grin to a foot tap to his highest endorsement: "Now, that's a classic."
I'm not sure why we wanted our elders to appreciate our music—and vice versa. Maybe they liked the idea of passing down songs to us, and we liked the idea of showing them that they had taught us how to find the good stuff on our own.
Not long ago, I was giving my 15-year-old cousin a ride home from choir practice, and he asked if he could choose the radio station. The next thing I knew, we were driving down the highway to some of my favorite songs from high school and college. "You like my music?" I asked in surprise. (Terrific! Now I'm the cool older cousin.) "Oh, yeah," he said. "I'm into classic rock." (Correction. Now I'm a geezer.)