Ramblin' Rhodes: McKinnon was everyday man who wrote country hits

The funeral and life celebration service in the historic Beech Island, S.C., Baptist Church for 82-year-old Don McKinnon who died June 15 reminded me once again that you don’t have to become famous to make a difference in the lives of so many people.

 

Last Saturday morning, June 18, so many packed the 1832-built building’s main floor and balcony to where there was spillover seating in an adjacent building.

Most had been touched in some way through McKinnon’s occupations, his long-time membership since 1956 in the Beech Island church, his love of the outdoors and his talents as a musician, songwriter and recording artist.

They had been affected by McKinnon’s life as a mostly ordinary citizen and overall good person.

But at times in his life, the former carpenter and retired employee of Austin Industries/Columbia Nitrogen had become well known to thousands and maybe even millions of country music fans.

He had been successful as a songwriter in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and he had made several appearances on The Nashville Network’s cable television shows in the late ’80s.

Grand Ole Opry star Hank Snow, “The Singing Ranger” from Canada, had a top-of-the-charts hit with the McKinnon-composed song (Town Of) Laredo.

Someone posted about Snow’s version on youtube.com, “A really great piece written by Don McKinnon and done by The Singing Ranger like no one else could. Hank recorded this on July 11, 1962, at RCA in Nashville, with Jerry Kennedy and Velma Smith on guitars, Junior Huskey on bass, Will Ackerman on drums, Pig Robbins on piano, Marvin Hughes on vibes and Mother Maybelle & The Carter Sisters (including June) doing all the background singing.”

Both Johnny Cash and Tex Williams had hit singles with McKinnon’s song Bottom of the Mountain, which McKinnon wrote after a major coal mine explosion trapped miners.

Bluegrass music and Opry stars Jim & Jesse McReynolds had a gospel music hit with McKinnon’s He Walked on the Water.

Other notable recordings of McKinnon’s songs included Carl PhillipsSuch a Short Time to Forget So Much, Ernie Ashworth’s Two Room Walkup and Ronnie Dove’s 900 Ties.

The Augusta Chronicle in 1959 reported that the then 25-year-old North Augusta carpenter had composed more than 150 songs and had been signed to two song-publishing companies managed by Blanche Carter. She was an Augusta resident who wrote Devil Or Angel, a Top 10 hit by The Clovers in 1955 and Bobby Vee in 1960.

In 1966, The Chronicle reported in a feature story that McKinnon played the piano, guitar, bass, steel guitar and harpsichord; that Snow’s version of Laredo had sold more than 100,000 copies and that McKinnon hoped one day to write the score for a Broadway musical.

During last Saturday’s service McKinnon’s only son, Shawn, did something touching I had never heard before at such a service. He individually singled out each of his five sisters (Susan Sanders, Bonnie Mixon, Tonya Logan, Lisa Foreman and Amy Hickman) and personally outlined what each of them specifically had done for their father in his final years.

Their mother, Mary, also an accomplished musician and songwriter, died in May 2013.

Shawn, speaking for the family, talked about the different facets of his dad’s life including being born in Eastman, Ga., growing up on a farm and discovering his love for music at an early age.

His father was playing his Gibson guitar and singing on a load of watermelons at a farmer’s market in Atlanta when a famous country music singer heard him and encouraged him to try his luck in Nashville, Tenn.

Shawn couldn’t remember the singer’s name, but his sister, Bonnie, emailed me that it was superstar Red Sovine who had such sentimental hits of truck driver theme songs as Giddyup Go, Little Joe, Phantom 309 and Teddy Bear.

Sovine many years later would happen by one of McKinnon’s recording sessions while visiting someone else. He told McKinnon that he looked familiar and asked where they might have met.

McKinnon told him about their encounter at the farmer’s market. Sovine stayed to hear the session, and told McKinnon it looked like he was well on his way.

But in spite of appearing as a guest artist on the Opry and opening shows for Conway Twitty and B.J. Thomas and writing for the same song-publishing company as Ray Price and Willie Nelson, McKinnon ended up living a fairly average life in the Augusta area.

Yet in March 1987, McKinnon and his wife were returning disappointed from a botched trip. They had wanted to see the Grand Canyon in Arizona but thunderstorms and other severe weather forced them to turn around just 80 miles from their destination. At an interstate rest stop near Dallas, they encountered a military veteran in a wheelchair having a difficult time getting in his van. The man in his early 40s told McKinnon that he had been wounded in Vietnam.

He was bitter about the way his life had turned and the nightmares he continued to have. He said, “The worst thing about this thing is I wake up screaming, ‘Where’s the chopper? Where’s the chopper? I want to go home to Texas.’

That led to McKinnon writing a song called Crippled Cowboy that he recorded and that was turned into a music video promoted under McKinnon’s nickname, Tracker, acquired from his love of hunting.

The popularity of the music video led to McKinnon repeatedly appearing on The Nashville Network’s cable TV shows including Steve Hall’s Shotgun Red puppet show, which now can be seen on the RFD-TV cable network.

After that second phase of recording success, McKinnon gave up the music business to devote more time to his family; retired in 1993 from Columbia Nitrogen, now Austin Industries and started a part-time business making leather holsters.

He also became one of about 1,000 quick-draw pistol artists worldwide who compete professionally. He could draw and fire most times in 0.42 second, while the national champion’s time is about 0.35 second.

McKinnon finished 42nd at a national competition in Nevada that drew, pun intended, more than 300 entrants. He finished 16th at the Georgia state championships.

Early this week I received an email from McKinnon’s daughter, Bonnie who wrote, “Daddy certainly had a full life! I am sure you know other things about daddy’s career that we may not remember, and now all we have are our memories. He was a wonderful daddy!”

 

CATCH CODY IN ELVIS ’56: Cody Ray Slaughter will wrap up his year-long Elvis ’56 tour at at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 25, at Augusta’s Imperial Theatre almost 60 years to the day from when Presley made his second appearance at Augusta’s Bell Auditorium a few blocks away.

Tickets are $19 and $29 for balcony seats and $39 and $49 for floor seats. VIP seats, which include a before-show meet and greet are $79. Order online at imperialtheatre.com or at the box office. Call (706) 722-8341.

 

CABARET STAR CAROLE J. BUFFORD: Popular New York City cabaret singer Carole J. Bufford, who grew up in Lincolnton, Ga., returns to the Jabez S. Hardin Performing Arts Center, 7022 Evans Town Center Blvd., for a concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 25. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at carolejbufford.com/tickets.

Her show of Broadway, jazz, blues and pop numbers sold out the Hardin Center in June of last year.

 

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