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This month I’m going to reprise an article I wrote for the December 1991 issue of Banjo Newsletter. Gamble Rogers, who died October 10, 1991, was a huge influence on my life. Among other things, he introduced me to my husband Red. Perhaps I’ve got Gamble on my mind because I’ve been reading the new biography, Gamble Rogers: A Troubadour’s Life, by Bruce Horovitz. I’ll let my old words do the rest of my talking for me.
The Day The Music Died
I had a lot to tell you this month about Owensboro and the IBMA World of Bluegrass but instead I must borrow a line from Don McLean’s song American Pie and pay tribute to our friend Gamble Rogers—folksinger, songwriter, guitar player, and storyteller extraordinaire—who drowned October 10, while trying to rescue a man he didn’t even know at Flagler Beach, Florida. That was the day the music died for us.
Gamble, whose home was in St. Augustine, Florida, was one of those people you thought would live forever. For almost 30 years he made his living as a musician, carrying his stories, songs, and guitar across the country to various clubs, festivals, dives, honky-tonks, and conventions and playing for audiences who were often in varying stages of sobriety. For the most part, he did a one-man show, picking his guitar in the Merle Travis-style with many of his own embellishments (“Gamble Licks”) and telling outrageous and long-winded tales, many of which were originally set in Habersham County, Georgia, and featured the loading dock of Arrendale’s Purina Store. He would punctuate these stories with “Gamble Faces,” a wide variety of facial configurations absolutely appropriate to illustrating whatever narrative was in progress.
He would also intersperse these soliloquies with philosophical truisms, usually attributed to Agamemnon and later to Still Bill, such as: “Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans” and “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission” and “Sex isn’t dirty—unless you do it right.”
Wherever he played, his audiences would never quietly disappear after the last set, but would inevitably linger to take their turn at sharing a few words with a man they were certain had just played his entire show exclusively for them. He was always unfailingly polite to all. Too polite, I sometimes thought.
Case in point: One time after a show, Gamble was showing Red and me something on the guitar when this guy pulled out his harmonica and started playing along. Gamble said not a word to but simply carried on with his playing, neither acknowledging nor dismissing the intruder. I stood it as long as I could then blurted out to the offender, whom I knew, “Buddy! Put that harmonica up!” The harmonica vanished. But Gamble never said a word about my intrusion, either. A first-class guy.
When I first met Gamble, 20 years ago, little did I realize that my life from that point on would take a completely different direction. Up until then I had been traveling down a fairly conventional pathway to adulthood. I was a pre-med student at the University of Georgia and my life had been planned in some detail for the next 8 to 10 years. Then, one evening, when I should have been studying, someone took me to a little club in Athens called The Last Resort to hear Gamble. Like many people, I was first captivated by his storytelling, but for a unique reason: I was from Habersham County and I knew the Arrandales. As far as I was concerned, that made me special. Of course, Gamble had a way of making everyone around him think they were special. However, I would tell myself, they weren’t from Habersham County.
After that, I went to see Gamble every chance I got and my budding medical career went spiraling down the drain. I no longer filled my notebooks with chemical equations but with words to songs Gamble sang and wrote. I started taking my 12-string guitar around to the little folk clubs and playing for money. My repertoire consisted of whatever songs Gamble did that weren’t too hard for me to play: Old Blue, San Francisco Bay Blues, Freight Train, California Cottonfields, July You’re A Woman, and Clayton Delaney. My patter consisted of things I’d heard Gamble say: “This show starts out slow and then kinda peters out…”, “Pick it, white trash”, and “As the show girls in Las Vegas say, ‘It’s a lonely wash that doesn’t have a pair of men’s shorts in it.’”
Well, everybody starts somewhere and probably by imitating someone and at least I was imitating the best.
“Well, what does your daddy think about this?” Gamble once asked me with that wry look in his eyes and that knowing “heh, heh, heh” laugh on his face. He knew what my daddy thought.
Then one night at The Last Resort, Gamble told the audience, “You all should go over to Lavonia (Georgia) to the Bluegrass Festival there.”
Bluegrass festival? What was that? But Gamble said go—and he was going—so my friend Paula and I went. Now, is it destiny that ordains a certain sequence of events or does it just seem so after the fact?
The fact is, six months after this festival I bought a banjo. The other fact is that for 24 hours only, a tall, red-headed mandolin player had flown in from his Air Force base in Texas to attend this very festival. He was in the process of lifting a Mason jar to his lips when Gamble introduced us. Later, I found out that he didn’t remember meeting me, but I remembered him. My first words to him, a year and a half later, were, “Aren’t you a friend of Gamble Rogers?”
Ten months later, Red Henry and I were married. I knew we were kindred spirits when I realized that he was willing to wait as long as I was to talk to Gamble after a show.
For 17 years after that, Gamble was in and out of our lives with varying degrees of frequency depending on his picking schedule as well as ours. Red and I both counted it a rare privilege to have Gamble to ourselves for a little while to talk or pick or both.
One of those times was when he asked us to record some music with him as part of a Public Television series on architecture called “Fantasies of Florida.” What philosophical insights did we gain from this day-long association with a man whom we both held in such high esteem?
“Well,” said Gamble after we got on the road. (He always spoke deliberately and precisely, taking an eternity, it seemed, to find just the right word.) “I overslept this morning and didn’t get any breakfast. So, I’m sorry to say that I’m going to have to stop at McDonald’s and get an Egg McMuffin and you’re going to have to watch me eat it.”
As the years went by and I grew in my music, Gamble became more of a friend and less of an idol. There were no “clay feet” that were suddenly exposed, just a growing realization that Gamble appreciated and respected what Red and I were doing in our little corner of the bluegrass world. So, now, we have lost not only our source of musical inspiration but also our friend.
I hope it’s not out of place to quote here from a Tom T. Hall song that Gamble used to sing:
I remember the year that Clayton Delaney died
Nobody ever knew it but I went out in the woods and I cried
Well, I know there’s a lot of big preachers
Who know a whole lot more than I do
But it could be that the good Lord likes a little picking too.
And I know this is already way too long but I’m adding this poem I wrote for Gamble shortly after he left us.
He was a poet and a singer and a sage,
By night he worked his magic from the stage;
He played for friends and family, for philosophers and fools,
Gifted hands and a guitar were his tools.
Southern, slow and gracious, was his style,
Randy, wise and knowing was his smile;
A silver spoon his birthright, he had redneck in his soul,
It was Faulkner versus football from the pole.
He plied his trade in bistros and in bars,
He played the blues on a battle-scarred guitar;
And while the world was laughing at the stories he’d impart,
I took his songs and hid them in my heart.
And then one day the singer, he was gone,
There’d be no more stories, Lord, there’d be no songs;
And the folks who worked around him, they all broke down and cried,
We never knew we loved him till he died.
No, we never knew we loved him till he died.
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