Posted June 23, 2010 01:39 pm - Updated June 23, 2010 02:33 pm

Farther Along With Larry Jon Wilson

 

"When death has come and taken our loved ones
Leaving our homes so lonely and drear
Then do we wonder how others prosper
Living so wicked year after year.

"Farther along we'll know more about it
Farther along we'll understand why
Cheer up my brother live in the sunshine
We'll understand it all by and by."

If there is any recording of Larry Jon Wilson's played at a memorial service for him, I hope it's that traditional gospel classic Farther Along that he recorded for his second Monument Records album Let Me Sing My Song To You.

First of all, he recorded the song as a tribute to his late father, John Tyler Wilson.

And like so much of Wilson's creative work, it evolved from the inspirations of so many other locally-produced talent.

Bruce Dees of Augusta co-produced that 1976-released album with Rob Galbraith of Nashville.

Wilson recorded the Farther Along track as well as the equally brilliant Sheldon Churchyard track at the International Recording studio on East Buena Vista Avenue in North Augusta near Atomic Road.

Augustan Lowell Dorn was the engineer for the session, and another Augustan turned famous songwriter Archie Jordan was the music arranger.

And for backup vocals, Wilson used Augusta's own great gospel artists Henry Howard of The Spirits of Harmony group and Charlie Barnwell, James Anderson and Rufus Washington of the Swanee Quintet.

Wilson loved that song, and he performed it throughout the United States and overseas during his four decades as a traveling troubadour.

His death in Roanoke, Va., on Monday, June 21, the first day of summer, of an apparent stroke at the age of 69 hit me hard like it did so many other of his fans, family and friends.

The real irony is that he is said to have collapsed in a Roanoke hospital while visiting his brand new grandchild.  One new life enters the world.  One great life leaves.  It's so ironic that Wilson's first Monument Records album in 1975 was called New Beginnings.

I loved Larry Jon Wilson deeply ever since I started knowing him in the early 1970s.  He was a big man with a big heart and a smile that made you feel great even on some of your lowest days.  His laugh was infectious, his songwriting and singing were extraordinary and his story-telling was legendary.

He was described often as reclusive and ultra-private, but he really wasn't to those who knew him intimately.  He just didn't like being showered with too much praise or too much attention.  He preferred living an average life and just singing his songs and making people happy with his music.  He preferred intimate settings like a small nightclub or the living room of Bill and Linda Macky's North Augusta home or the auditorium of the Morris Museum of Art or the rotunda of the Augusta Museum of History where people actually listened to him.

This is the same man who was widely acclaimed as the songwriter's songwriter and the singer's singer; who never achieved superstar fame and yet who was revered and respected by some of the world's greatest superstars including Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Larry Gatlin, Kris Kristofferson, etc., etc.

Grand Ole Opry legend Dottie West told me that she played Wilson's album on her touring bus "all the time," and Wilson was tickled when he caught Tammy Wynette "stealing" one of his publicity posters from a CBS/Monument Records VIP party.

One time at a bluegrass festival in North Carolina, the great guitar picker and country blues singer Doc Watson told me this that he had recorded Wilson's song Broomstraw Philosopher.

"Larry Jon is a real good, funky singer. He's right on," Watson said.  "I've never met him, but I like his music in general, both the words and the melody lines."

He added, "If everything goes right and the good Lord is willing, I also plan to record his song Things Ain't What They Used To Be. I want to get it down right, though."

Wilson played all of the major nightclubs in the United States that the really good songwriters play including the Cellar Door near Washington, D.C.; the Exit Inn and the Bluebird Café in Nashville; the Great Southeast Music Hall in Atlanta, Eddie's Attic in Decatur and --- one of his very favorite places --- the Bitter End in New York City.

When Bitter End owner Paul Colby published his autobiography a couple of years, Wilson kindly had Colby send me an autographed copy so that I could write something about it and he gave me amateur photographs taken of him with Colby.

For many years, Wilson and his ultra close friend Mickey Newbury (another singer's singer and songwriter's songwriter) annually would open the Frank Brown International Songwriter's Festival held in several nightclubs around Perdido Key, Fla.

I think that's probably where he was the happiest; in his own element of being around his peers.  He loved other great songwriters.

The first time I ever heard a Bonnie Raitt recording was when he played me one of her vinyl albums at his North Augusta house, telling me that I needed to hear her.

In 1976, Wilson told me about a recent party that he and his then wife, Lois, had been invited to at the Nashville-area home of Johnny and June Cash. The event was to celebrate the conclusion of the filming of Cash's new television show, with the party mainly to thank the film crew.

There were about 230 guests seated around tables placed on the Cash home tennis courts. Wilson told me how impressed he was with a new comedian who was there named Steve Martin.

As was customary at Cash parties, the singers passed a guitar from one to another and each sang one song.  Cash was the first to sing that night, followed by Mac Davis and then Wilson who sang his composition Kindred Spirit, from his album, Let Me Sing My Song for You.

Others who performed that night included Ray Stevens, Kitty Wells, Johnny Wright, Linda Hargrove, Tracy Nelson, Tommy Cash and Jan Howard.

While Wilson normally downplayed his personal appearances with celebrities, he was really proud of being included in that special bunch that night.

He also was extremely proud of his first Monument album, New Beginnings.  I know because he had me drive him from his North Augusta home to a frame shop on Reynolds Street where he picked up the framed original painting that had graced that album's cover.

Wilson loved country and gospel and blues and classic rock and folk and lots of great music which all influenced him.

His family came from around Swainsboro, Ga., where he was born on October 7, 1940, to Louise and John Tyler Wilson.  The family moved to Augusta when he was 4.

There was no question that he was destined to be a performer; early influenced by his father's fondness for Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and the original Carter Family 78s.

"He loved for me to sing him Hank Williams things like Cold, Cold Heart, and I learned to yodel from Jimmie Rodgers' blues records," Wilson told me one time.  "I can still recall Rodgers singing (at that point Wilson himself started singing), 'I sell the morning papers, sir. My name is Jimmy Brown.'

"When I was in the fourth grade at Monte Sano Elementary School in Augusta," Wilson continued, "we were studying about Switzerland in geography class. Somehow, the teacher found out I could yodel, and she talked me into performing for the class. I was always a ham. The funny thing is for three years later while I was at Monte Sano, that teacher would have me come back to her class every year when they studied Switzerland so I could demonstrate yodeling for the class.

"Even the year after that, when I went to Langford Junior High, she sent a car to my school to pick me up and bring me to her class so I could show off my yodeling."

When Wilson was 11, he was given the starring role of Plymouth Colony, Mass., governor William Bradford in the Monte Sano Grammar School original play The Pilgrim's First Thanksgiving.

As a teenager in Augusta, he entered the Sancken's Youth Revue amateur contests held on weekends at the Miller Theater and won a first prize trip to Savannah Beach staying at the DeSoto Hotel.

It seems like such a long jump from those days to finally getting nationally recognized for his Monument Records sessions when he was then in his 30s.

Some of his widespread fame, however, didn't come until the age of cable television with Wilson --- the supposedly private person --- hosting a series of Georgia Backroads travel shows for the Georgia Public Broadcasting TV network (still being aired) and for becoming the "voice" of the Turner South cable network announcing upcoming programs like Liars and Legends.

He taped the Turner South promotions at the North Augusta studios of WKXC-FM by way of a live, digital hookup with Turner South technicians in Atlanta.

"Don't mention that," he pleaded to me in 2002 when I told him that I was writing a column about his Turner South involvement.  "I don't want people calling me and wanting me to do commercials for some local companies."

My response was, "But, Larry Jon, anyone who has ever heard one of your recordings or has seen you in person recognizes your voice."

He just laughed and conceded, "I know.  I couldn't make a dirty phone call without being recognized."

Wilson also generously lent his easily recognized voice for the TV commercials of First Bank operated by his long-time friend Pat Blanchard Sr.

Like a lot of entertainers, he often told people that he didn't read his reviews or care what was said about him in print.  And yet I know he was such a liar trying to protect his personal feelings because he often would bring me published articles about his musical ventures.

I don't know why he said that.  I don't think I ever read a review that wasn't complimentary to him.  I think again it simply was that he wanted to be considered an average guy and not some idolized individual.

When he was "rediscovered" in England and talked into recording again in the past couple of years, he was so pleased that his music was being found by a whole of new generation of new music fans.

He didn't use the computer and didn't really know how much he permeated international web sites.

So I had him come into my office on Broad Street to show him what was happening.  He sat right next to me, chair to chair, while I called up several web sites on my computer and played him videos of his appearances in England and other web sites praising his music.

He broke into so many grins and laughs that day and was so pleased that people cared.  And, after that, every now and then, he would call me from some place on the road and say, "Tell this guy how to find that video on the computer" or "How do I get to my record company's web site?" and he would hand the phone over to whomever he wanted to see it.

Whenever Wilson called me over the years, I can't ever recall him saying, "Hey, Don, this is Larry Jon Wilson."  He would just start talking and expect me to recognize his voice, and I usually did.

And when we met in person, we would always hug each other hello and goodbye.  And that's the sad thing. I can't hug him hello or goodbye anymore.

What a loss.

 

 

 

 

 

 

"When death has come and taken our loved ones
Leaving our homes so lonely and drear
Then do we wonder how others prosper
Living so wicked year after year.

 

"Farther along we'll know more about it
Farther along we'll understand why
Cheer up my brother live in the sunshine
We'll understand it all by and by."