Friday, March 21, 2008

Sweet Kentucky Dreaming Part 2

As much as Dick Kimmins and I had enjoyed each others’ company in our first taste of truly independent living, when we decided to strike out on our own, it took no time at all for me to realize that I really didn’t have much of a life, and that needed to change. Since my fallback was always music, I decided to try out for the premier choir on campus, the Kentucky Choristers. I got in, and so began a signal time in my life with the people in the university's music department, both students and hangers-on from the town.

It was with the Choristers that I had my first "professional" music experiences, when we teamed up with the city choir and the Cincinnati Symphony for concerts. Among many such occasions was a trip to New York and Carnegie Hall to perform, on which fateful train ride I met a funny, savvy and driven woman named Lou Spencer, my future singing partner and guide to Lexington's beat scene, such as it was. With Lou and her friends, matters sexual were of huge gossip interest--who was doing whom???--but such trivia were never a basis for judgment. They didn't care on what side of the fence you landed, as long as you weren't just sitting on it. That accepting atmosphere made me comfortable enough to approach, at last, my own “gay question,” and it didn't take long for me to decide on which side of the fence I needed to be. Lou introduced me to the man who helped me in that decision--a most important gift.

Another in Lou's cohort was a town girl named Beverly Bell. Beverly supported herself teaching piano, living in her mother's house on her own. It was a treat for me to escape my frugal student digs and visit Beverly's place, a real house with actual, upholstered furniture and rooms to explore. She even had a baby grand piano just like the one I had at home. Beverly was especially known for her big parties, and it was at one of those parties that I met another player who would be consequential to me forever: a guy named Ron.


Ron became my first serious, live-together relationship. We all have a spot in our memories where that one special person resides, and the lessons we learn from knowing them become part of our warp and woof, informing our lives in ways both known and unknown. Ron was 19 to my 21, a freshman piano major. He was from Eastern Kentucky, a part of that place Bobby Kennedy had recently introduced to the rest us as Appalachia. His parents owned the grocery store in the tiny town of Vicco; Ron's Steinway concert grand had its place in the parlor of that little house in the holler. Ron had learned to play the piano by osmosis, via his lifelong incubation in the Church of God, a "holy roller" denomination. He was steeped in church music, having performed in a kids' gospel quartet, traveling the revival circuit since he was a little boy. By the time he hit Lexington, he was a seasoned pro. When I first met him he showed me a piece he was working on, bone-rattlingly exciting music I had never heard before. It was the final movement from Prokofieff's 7th Sonata, one of the most difficult pieces in the whole piano repertory, I later found out. As a freshman in college, Ron was having professional lessons for the first time in his life and playing at that level. I was awestruck as you can be only at that age.

So Ron is in that special space in my memory, but that's just one reason for his importance. He and his family showed me a way of life that could have originated on another planet as far as my limited experience was concerned. They were simple people whose lives were severely circumscribed by the strictures of their church, but who showed me riches and ways of enjoying them I'd never imagined. In a direct way, visits with Ron's family in Vicco prepared me for the cultural dislocation I would experience a few years later in the Peace Corps. When I finally went to Ghana, I had already learned that people with prisms and experiences acutely different from my own had the same basic concerns, joys, and sorrows in life as I, and that if I wanted acceptance anywhere, I need only look for those common values. That's a lesson for a lifetime.

Ron's and my little ship hit the fair seas and squalls you'd expect with two such inexperienced skippers at the helm. At that early age, he thought he was ready to settle down and didn't understand that my mind was already leaving Kentucky, occupied as it was with the burgeoning Viet Nam war and my status with it, and with trying to get into the Peace Corps. Like it or not, a page turn was being forced upon me--I had a life to begin, and that was a scary prospect. I'm afraid we parted very badly, and for a long time I think we shared a feeling of "good riddance" towards each other. But the good will always out, if there is any, and eventually, after 40 years years, we reached out to each other. I found him first, but he told me he'd been searching for me for a long time. We shared what we had done in our lives and tried to heal the ancient wounds of our parting. We've talked for hours on the phone and exchanged long emails. We've shared up-to-date pictures, but as yet we haven't met. Ron is now an important man in the Nashville music scene, a composer, jazz artist, and vocal coach to some of the biggest names in the business. Whatever pain he had in the intervening years seems inevitable in hindsight, and it's enough to make you grateful that we can't see into the future. But he's riding high now, living a very busy life in music, teaching and creating every day. When I wax nostalgic about the music he showed me in college, he tells me that classical stuff wasn't really him, as good as he was at it. His roots are in the holy roller church, and the music he composes, like the voices he works with, are tinged with soul.

It gives me joy to know that this man, so important to me, has weathered his time well and is happy. Circles are simple yet fragile constructs. If they aren't closed, they're broken. I try to close the circles in my life so that the entire course will be satisfied at the end. Knowing that Ron has found contentment and that I played some part in it is a great reward, the sweetest of my Kentucky dreams.

11 comments:

Nan said...

Hi Ralph,
Have I told you lately that I love your blog? Great writing, heartfelt recollections, and your recipes look very yummy. This post was especially touching, and brought back to mind some times in my life.

Ralph said...

Hi, Nan. I alwawys hope to touch a chord in someone, and I love hearing that I have. Thanks so much.

Now eat up!

Eclecticity said...

Ditto to Nan's remarks! D

Cuidado said...

Is it ok to say ditto, ditto?

Kat said...

Ralph,
I feel like a proud parent!

Ralph said...

Thank you both, my dears Cuidado and Kat. Blogging for me seems to be like the Peace Corps--if it didn't exist, I'd have had to invent it. For a writer like me, who can only write for an audience, this is the perfect medium. Thanks again, Kat, for opening the door.

Nan said...

Oh - and I forgot to mention the great music! That almost goes without saying. Thanks for the Jean Ritchie!

Ralph said...

You're welcome, Nan. I was sorry I couldn't feature her when I wanted to a little while ago, but it worked out perfectly for this post.

Zoey & Me said...

Ralph,
Why does this post scream to me Ted Mack's Amateur Hour? Maybe because our local Wayfares from Groveton High School went to New York to compete and won. Did you ever know Bill Lyons? He was a wonderful singer, guitarist, wrote for the Alexandria Gazette. God, thanks for the memories.

Ralph said...

Z&M, you sent me to google to see if I could put some meat on the whispy bones of a memory I think I have of The Wayfares. Couldn't find anything. Did they end up making a record? Maybe that's why I think I heard of them.

Glad I was able to stir up some good memories for you. You never know what associations are going to be conjured up....

Zoey & Me said...

Yes. Thank you Ralph. It was a trio of Sammy Vaughn, Jimmy Weeden and Bill Lyons. They were our local Kingston Trio and we loved them. I visited where Bill's ashes were placed when I was up there in November, way down in Mt Vernon, a Methodist Church where the Minister chose outside the window box where he sang in the choir. It truly touched my heart.