My musical sensibilities were fostered not only by my mother’s wonderful voice and piano playing but by my paternal grandfather’s tenor as he sang along with an old ratio in the horse barn on our ancestral ranch along the Tetons in Idaho.
It is there at age six, while helping him muck out the barn that I first heard a song that has served as a backdrop to my life over six decades now, although recorded and sung by many different artists along the way.
Or maybe it is that old radio that set the tone. The old horse barn is gone now, preserved only in family photos (behind my dad in the image shown further down in this memoir.)
I wonder what became of family artifacts such as that old radio or my great-grandfather’s “HB” branding irons that hung there by the door, remnants of which are preserved in the state of Idaho’s archives.
The one with just the initials went on the left thigh of our horses. The other including an underscore went on the right rib of our cattle, perhaps foretelling my career one day branding communities.
When I first heard Making Believe sung by Kitty Wells, my then six year old ears had also recently been kindled to doo-wop.
I had caught a few bars of Earth Angel one day as my grandfather was tuning the radio back to country from listening to opera arias, then sponsored by Texaco, as we did each week.
Yup, that’s where I first heard one of my favorites, O Soave Fanciulla with my grandfather, who had barely finished second grade, singing along at the top of his lungs as we shoveled horse manure, a reflection that came to me a few weeks ago as my mind wandered during Phantom Of The Opera recitatives.
The old barn radio is also where I first remember hearing the voice of Vin Scully calling the 1955 World Series won that year by the then Brooklyn Dodgers over my favorite New York Yankees.
It is why even today I listen, if only while changing channels to Dodger games, which he still calls, and why the World Series has always been more enjoyable for me as a backdrop on the radio.
By 1955, it had already been 16 years since my grandfather had been able to work the ranch he had homesteaded and then assembled by incorporating purchases of those of my great-uncles and great-grandparents.
My dad started running this ancestral spread while finishing high school. The years he had been away at war, the ranch fell fallow with my grandparents only keeping some prized horses.
When my dad returned from WWII, my grandparents turned the ranch house as well over to my parents and moved a dozen miles south down the Henry’s Fork into St. Anthony, population 2,600.
But after I was born in 1948, my grandfather resumed being a daily fixture around the ranch, volunteering words of wisdom to my parents and paling around with me each day or me with him.
He passed away in the fall of 1964 a few months after he and my grandmother gave me their old WWII-era Jeep for my 16th birthday.
The Beatles first charted U.S. album Meet The Beatles had come out that year, a month after, I Want To Hold Your Hand,” hit the charts as a single. His passing was less than two months after the conclusion of the group’s first tour in America.
By the time of his funeral, we were already eagerly singing Anna, This Boy and Till There Was You, both in glee club at school and when used by my mom as a form of bribery to get two friends and me to sing in the church youth choir she conducted.
She was quick to remind us that Till There Was You had been written for a musical back when I had first caught that glimpse of rock and roll out in our barn.
My mom wasn’t musically defensive though. A few years earlier when with these same friends we eagerly directed her attention to the Marcel’s doo-wop new hit Blue Moon, we even joined in with “dip di dip di dip” and all.
Only after they had left did she drop in passing that Blue Moon dated back to a musical three decades earlier when she had been younger than I was when first catching a few bars of doo-wop on the barn radio.
It seemed like music had changed forever and from the 1960s until the early-1970s I turned away from country music, but that all changed when I first heard Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris introduce a genre called country rock.
In 1977, when I was a newly minted community marketing exec, Emmylou brought me back to my roots when she revived Making Believe, followed a year later by a version by Merle Haggard as I took on my second community marketing agency in Anchorage.
When I headed to Durham in 1989, a duet version of Making Believe by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty was on the charts. Another duet version followed by Patty Loveless and Vince Gill, whose voice my grandfather’s most resembles in timbre.
In part, it may be why I selected Gill’s Go Rest High On That Mountain for my father’s funeral in 2001, just as one day (sooner than I think), I may be recommending for my mother’s, a duet version of Sarah McLachlan’s Angel in duet with Emmylou Harris.
It reminds me of my mother’s voice and piano style now in her mid-80s before her fingers became are too twisted to play.
Making Believe continues to be a soundtrack for my life now in a new stage, most recently sung in duet by Willie Nelson and Brandi Carlisle, who is young enough to be his great-granddaughter.
Nelson’s first song writing credits and demos stretch clear back to 1955 when I was listening to that old radio in our horse barn. Of course so does his career as a sales manager for encyclopedias, perhaps an early influence?
Making Believe isn’t my signature song: that would be Desperado, which a co-worker in Anchorage set to calligraphy and framed for me.
But it sure has been an old and familiar friend all these years.