Joel Mathis (unfinished) autobiography;
Lake City, FL in 1952 was a safe haven and a far cry from the craziness that was to come. A pallet underneath the counter at Pop’s Diner was a good place for a four year old boy to take a nap. Peaceful sleep came easy with Lefty on the jukebox. Lefty Frizzell was one of the first singers I can remember hearing. That old jukebox had variety. In addition to Lefty and Hank (Williams Sr), there was Patti Page, Frank Sinatra, Glen Miller and countless other big names from that era.
Perhaps this is why I have always firmly believed in diversity concerning my music. Maye (my mother) and Mollie (my Grandmother) ran the diner while Daddy drove a truck for Central Truck Lines. Daddy spent many long hours on the road. At the end of a run, he would rush to the diner and give much needed rescue to the weary little crew. My brother Darrell (Bud as we called him) and sisters Faye and Lynda were in school and could give little help. Our family was poor, but we were close. Somehow we survived some pretty hard times.
Now Emory (my daddy) worked for his older brother Leon some years earlier. Leon invented the Mathis Fire plow, a device used by the Forestry Service, owned a car dealership, a machine shop as well as many buildings in Lake City. But he barely paid my daddy enough to buy groceries. When daddy was forced to take a better paying job at Central Truck Lines, Leon didn’t seem to care. It seemed as if our little family was an embarrassment to him and his untouchable empire. Daddy never talked bad about him. That was the kind of man he was.
The small house daddy built just off highway 90 east of Lake City may have been crude, but there was plenty of love within those little rooms. Mollie and Uncle Ralph, Mom’s youngest brother lived about 150 ft across the year. Mama always had cookies, cakes or maybe a homemade pie for me to deliver to Mollie. Momma loved animals. We had critters of all sorts mulling around the yard, in trees, on fences, etc. There were dogs, cats, squirrels, a raccoon, a skunk, a monkey named “Chives” (a gift from Cousin Mabel from Jacksonville, FL) and an orphan goat named “Billy Boy” given to my brother Bud by Uncle Carroll.
Now this goat came with a fancy collar, a two-wheeled goat cart and operating instructions. Hitching him to the goat cart was pretty tricky business. Bud took great pride in Billy Boy. A piece of wrinkled up paper on a stick placed directly behind Billy’s right ear provided well for a starter and accelerator, taking him from 0 to 30 in five seconds. In other words the idea was to make him go. You could hear Bud all over the neighborhood crying “Hi-O-Silver away” just in time to see the goat cart go up on one wheel, turning over my brother Bud, flying through the air and the goat being hurled end over end into a deep ditch close to the railroad tracks. Ole Billy got forgetful and mean after that and was never quite the same. I think we finally ate him or something.
John R. Abasher was his name. What a piece of work, some what of a rambler with big dreams that never quite hit their mark. He would visit often to check on his prize chickens that he kept in a pen in our backyard. One morning gunfire rang out. Momma yelled “Emory, see what’s wrong in the yard”. Daddy opened the back door to see dead chickens scattered all over the pen. John R. was sitting on the back steps, head in hands with his shotgun on his lap. It seems that the chickens had developed a taste for blood or something, because they were pecking each others tail feathers out. Daddy placed his hand on the old man’s shoulder and gently asked, “John R. what in this world is going on”. He looked up with tears in his eyes, gritting his teeth and replied, “I shot’em, I shot them all.”
“Cannibals, son-of-a-bitch, cannibals, that’s all they were”. He had an uncomfortable temper and may have been a little disturbed, but he cared deeply for us. He was my granddaddy and I loved him.
The little diner continued to lose money and was finally closed. Daddy worked hard and always managed to put food on the table, but the family continued to struggle financially. When Central Truck Lines offered daddy a transfer to Valdosta, GA, he accepted.
Mollie and Uncle Ralph stood arm and arm giving a lonesome wave as we drove away. Tears ran down my face as I watched them slowly disappear through the rear window. Valdosta was just across the state line about 65 miles north on U. S. Highway 41, but for me it might as well have been a world away. So with a few belongings and our dreams packed into an old Chevrolet we headed for our new promised land.
Valdosta, GA seemed big and unfamiliar compared to Lake City. To daddy it was like coming home since he grew up in neighboring Cook County, GA. Mama adjusted a little slower, perhaps because of her Kentucky background. The house on River St, though small, was nice and comfortable, nestled in some Georgia pines and down a short lane. There was plenty of yard to explore and a pasture. It was there that I could first recall hearing about events of National and Inter-National importance of the mid-fifties. An old radio in the kitchen brought world news to us. I was too young to fully comprehend but I remember tid-bits of Eisenhower, the Rosenberg’s, racial unrest and the death of Hank Williams (Sr). Oh yea, and a local disc-jockey by the name of J. C. Johnson, a name we could become very accustomed to.
Across the street lay Barber’s Pool, a spring fed swimming hole that provided lots of fun and recreation on hot summer afternoons. After school and on many Saturdays, I would plead with Mama and Daddy to let us go to that old swimming hole. I can still remember how good it felt to jump into that cool, clear water. Lynda and Faye looked after me while Bud always seemed to be surrounded by a nice crop of teenage girls.
The jukebox at Barber’s Pool was full of all my favorite singers such as Ricky Nelson, Bobby Vee and Elvis. My sister Lynda, only four years older than me was a great companion although she has been known to play practical jokes on this unsuspecting little brother. This would intensify greatly when Uncle Paul and Aunt Pat would bring Cousin Paulette up from Florida for a visit. However I could usually count on Faye to come to my rescue. She was always my protector. Bud, the oldest of the kids was consumed with girls and old cars, but always managed to spend a certain amount of time with me. Early childhood for the most part was content and happy. There were memories of vacations, church and family reunions with great food lovingly prepared by Mama, Aunt Minnie, Aunt Myrtle, Aunt Ruby, Aunt Sally and a host of other relatives.
Cousin Wendell from Jacksonville was always there and would usually come to stay part of the summer with us. I was chubby and round while Wendell was slim and fully of energy. Keeping up with him was an almost impossible chore. We had a mean red rooster that I was terrified of. Wendell ran that old rooster so hard he collapsed with exhaustion. I also remember having a close call with a big angry milk cow that Wendell was determined to separate from her calf. Somehow in the process we managed to piss the bull off. I found out that I could run as fast as Wendell when I wanted to.
Sandra Gail Jones from Sparks, Georgia is my first cousin and like a sister to me. Although she was about four years my junior, we were close and positively inseparable. Her mother Myrtle, daddy’s youngest sister, Uncle Melvin and family owned the farm our daddy was raised on. I spent many summer days there helping in tobacco (mainly getting in the way) and trying to get a glimpse of Gail Parker, a dark haired, dark eyed girl who lived just across a field from Sandra. At twelve years old I wasn’t sure what those feelings were, I just knew I felt light headed when she came by to see my cousin. She never gave me the time of day but awaked my awareness and curiosity of the female gender. Now life wasn’t just model airplanes and touch football anymore.
Mollie never wanted us grandkids to refer to her as grandmother, grandma, granny or any of those stereo typical labels. She said she would always feel younger if we just called her Mollie. She was a very articulate little lady with a proud and tough Kentucky heritage. She adored her grandchildren and was there to defend us right or wrong. She and Uncle Ralph still lived in Lake City. A bachelor until he was past forty, Uncle Ralph was like a big brother to us kids. On visits he took us everywhere, fairs, movies, swimming, you name it. A great singer and guitar player, he taught me my first chords on the guitar. He was a veteran of WWII and actually performed with some groups overseas.
He called mama late one afternoon, a Thursday I think, Sis he said, “Can you break away for a while and come check on mother. She’s not feeling well and it’s going to be difficult for me to take off from work. Maybe just a couple of days.” So mama was off to Lake City. Being her only daughter, Millie felt secure with mama taking care of her. It was Saturday morning, mama in Lake City, daddy on the road, Darrell and Faye were gone somewhere. Anyway Lynda and I had the house to ourselves. It was the usual arguments about which Saturday morning TV show to watch, WVLD blasting on the radio and chocolate milk spilled on the kitchen counter. All that sort of thing. The phone rang. Lynda beat me to it as usual. I heard her say, “Uncle Ralph, what’s wrong? Oh no,” She said, and when she hung up the phone had tears in her eyes. I came racing out of the kitchen. She looked at me and said, “Mollie just died”. I felt the blood rushing from my face and ran to the front porch. It was the first time I had ever lost anyone really close to me. The funeral was brief and simple. She was laid to rest at Bethany Baptist Church where I had been saved and baptized some years earlier. Granddaddy was soon to follow. It was the early sixties and life was changing rapidly.
Valdosta Jr High School was a place where a young boy could easily find some kind of mischief and adventure waiting. If there were ever a shortage of trouble for me to get into, Mike Bennett was waiting to provide enough for both of us. His dad, Jim Bennett headed Bennett and Wisenbaker, a law firm in which Mike was to join some years later.
L. P. Thomas was principle of Valdosta Jr High, I think. Mike and I spent more time in his office than in class. We once gathered hundreds of grasshoppers in a paper sack and slipped them into class. Things were going well until some smart ass thought it would be cute to poke a hole in the sack. There was no containing them and soon grasshoppers were everywhere, on heads, desks, down girl’s blouses, etc. Next came the inevitable question of who was responsible. It was off to see Mr. Thomas. Another time Mike thought we could impress a couple of girls we were hanging out with by stacking cement blocks outside the girl’s bathroom and peep into some high windows. They were less than impressed. It was off to see Mr. Thomas. I think we were the only ones in school to actually receive discount hours on detention by means of volume.
One memorable event was the night we decided to employ a detective stakeout. Mike’s dad had this female client whose husband had, shall we say roaming eyes or feet. Whatever. Now over next door, neighbors had this shapely young daughter who sometimes forgot to pull the blinds down when changing clothes or exiting the shower. I must confess that many nights I stood out in the yard praying that I wouldn’t go blind or worse get caught watching. Anyway, we received information that this husband was making social calls next door when the Mom and Dad were away. One night we climbed an old oak tree in the corner of the yard, hid out, and waited. Sure enough, about midnight we saw his car ease down the street. He parked about a block away, cut off his lights and walked nervously toward her house. Just as he was entering the yard for a night of unbridled bliss, Mike fell out of the oak tree. It scared the poor fellow shitless, he hauled ass back to his 55’ ford, lights in the house came on and the police were called. This ended the stakeout as well as the friendship with our neighbors.
November 22, 1963 started out as just another school day. Little did we know that was about to change forever. After 12, some of us guys were walking back to class discovering the anatomy of a certain young female and telling lies about our own sexual escapades. None of us had ever up to this point, but this usual male, adolescent redneck seemed a necessary part of growing up. Walking down the hall we could hear the intercom. Someone asked why is Mr. Thomas trying to make an announcement during class change? It wasn’t Mr. Thomas. Someone had turned on the radio over every loud speaker. As we entered Mr. Sloan’s science class, we could hear something about Dallas, the presidential motorcade and Parkland Hospital. We were all waiting to hear more. The classrooms became extremely quiet. Soon we were hearing the gruesome details of what was taking place. Then came the announcement President Kennedy is dead. Instead of having class we all sat silent and stunned. We were asked to be quiet and reflect on what had just happened. Soon the final bell of the day rang. As we were filing out of class, an overgrown hood, that’s what we called a bully in those days, shouted “good riddance, I’m glad they killed the nigger lover.”
Something in me snapped. I threw by books against the wall. One solid punch with my left knocked him over a desk and to the floor. I believe two more followed as I straddled him. I was dragged off by some fellow classmates who didn’t want to see me get in trouble. Mr. Sloan didn’t turn me in. He just said, we would chalk it up to emotions. This was the deep south and racial slurs were, unfortunately ever present during this period. I never understood it. If I dislike anyone, it certainly would never be something as trivial as skin color. To be prejudged I feel is just a waste of energy and drive. Case closed. When I got home that afternoon the TV was giving detailed accounts of rapidly changing events. It’s been said many times that we all remember where we were and what we were doing on that day.
Uncle Ralph had taught me a few basic chords on the guitar. In addition Mama and Daddy worked with me on rhythm, toning and some traditional old songs. Daddy played a lot of Jimmie Rodgers songs. Mama was the church pianist and had mastered the guitar when she was younger. I was beginning to show some progress and had actually learned to accompany my vocals. After Mollie died, Uncle Ralph was constantly on the go. I guess he felt a need for roaming the country as a way to deal with grief. He was still a bachelor at this time. I remember him bringing several interesting looking females to our house for visits. He was later to settle down and marry Betty Sherrod and have three sons, but at this point, he was really playing the field. One day I heard my sister Lynda shout, “Uncle Ralph’s here”. I ran outside to see his 1953 Buick Roadmaster pull into the yard. He got out, walked up to me and said, “Boy, I think it’s in time to put you on stage. How would you like to sing a song down at the Suwannee River Jamboree? I swallowed real hard and finally manager to say, “Yes Sir, I’d like that a lot”. He said, “I’ve been going to see their shows there quite a bit and next week I want to take you down there.
The Suwannee River Jamboree was in Live Oak, FL about 58 miles south of us. It was a little auditorium outside of town that looked as though it might have been a small church at one time. Local radio conducted a live broadcast there in a kind of Opry style format. Local business bought ads. The Stanley Brothers were the hosts of the show during this time. They were Bluegrass Legends and I could hardly believe that I was actually going to meet them in person. The Afternoon finally came and I was nervous and all pumped up for this great opportunity. I practiced my playing and singing in the back seat of that old Buick the entire trip down. When we arrived, Uncle Ralph went to a gentleman on stage that was tuning a guitar and said, “Sir, I brought my nephew here to sing on tonight’s show. He’s real good. He just stared at my Uncle. Finally he said, “I don’t think the Stanley’s are going to let any amateurs up here tonight, so just come back some other time. Now my Uncle was always a little stubborn and high-strung. He grabbed this guy by the arm and said, “I drove him here from Valdosta, GA and by God we’re not leaving until somebody gives the boy a listen. He paused and said, “Just a minute.” We could hear some discussion back stage and in a couple of minutes he motioned us to the back. With my guitar in hand, we were led to a little room just behind the stage. I was shaking so hard, I felt as though I would faint. Ralph Stanley was pacing the floor while his brother, Carter was propped against the wall in an old worn out chair with a fifth of whiskey by his side. Don’t just stand there with that dumb ass look on your face boy, come on over and let me hear what you can do. “He said, with a slur in his voice and a glassy look in his eyes. I fumbled for the first chords and let out with it.
“Well I taught the weeping willow how to cry
and I showed the clouds how to cover up the clear blue sky.
But the tears that I cried for that woman
are gonna flood you big river
and I’m gonna sit right here until I die”.
“That’s enough,” he said. “We’ll let you sing that one song.” I had chosen Johnny Cash’s song “Big River”. It was one of my favorites. I was introduced second on the show I believe. My knees were shaking uncontrollably. Now if a performer tells you they never get nervous on stage, they are probably lying to you. It’s true some performers are more laid back than others, but most will admit to having stage jitters every now and then. The more experience on stage I received the easier it became but you never stop being a little nervous, you just get used to it. I walked up to the microphone, stared at the crowd, the crowd stared back. You could have heard a pin drop. Finally my fingers found an E chord and I started to sing. My voice was probably trembling but I was determined to get through it. About 20 seconds into the song, the audience applauded. “Hey this is alright”, I thought. When I finished, the applause put a big smile on my face. From that moment on, I knew what I wanted to do for a living. Entertaining was in my veins and no longer in my hands. I had to do it. It was like breathing. By now I had everything from Johnny Cash to Tony Bennett in my record collection, along with a bit of ballads and blues type recordings. Bobby Vee still remained one of my favorites and I could listen for hours to Dinah Washington and Billy Eckstein. More new experiences were about to happen around me, such as moving to a new High School, the Lowndes County High School, girls, the Beatles and rock n” roll. What a time to be alive. We were the teenagers, the hell raising and baby boomers of the sixties.
Pete Haskins, another classmate and fairly accomplished guitar player, lived about 2 miles from me in Twin Lakes, GA. Pete helped me advance just a bit on guitar. He knew a couple of members of a band known as “The Preps”, a college age and older group of guys that played at various functions in and around Valdosta. Most of them at this time specialized in instrumentals, like the Ventures and such. Pete received information that the group was looking for a vocalist and suggested that I go with him to one of the rehearsals. To be in a group would be great, I thought, but little did I know that I was about to get an education about a completely different side of life. They were rehearsing at one of the player’s homes. It was exciting being around a real band. As we walked in they gave me a what-the-hell is this, type look. They all had this slicked back hair, the college look of that era. A shocking contrast to my blue jeans, moccasins and long hair. I was also much younger than any of the other members. They all spoke but just barely and proceeded with the song they were working on. When they finished the lead guitar player took another sip of beer and said, Ok, let’s hear you sing, “As he sort of winked at the other players. I picked up my guitar, eased to the microphone and sung “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin”, an Elvis Presley song that had always been a favorite. Halfway through the song, one of the band member’s girl friends ran crying from the room. I found out later, it reminded her of one of her past lovers or something. After the song, Bruce the lead guitar player looked at Bubba, “he’s got a pretty good voice huh”? Bubba, the manager or that’s what they said he was, looked over his Budweiser beer can and said, “He’s alright but he needs work, and has a lot to learn.” Anyway I was asked to step outside for a minute. When they all walked outside, Bubba said, “we gonna give ya a chance boy.” He explained that we would be playing Friday night at the Jaycee’s Shack for a private party.We were to meet at Bubba’s at 7:30 and ride together.
When I arrived Friday night at Bubba’s the whole band was already drunk. I mean completely shit-faced. I had a 55’ Chevy and told them that I would drive myself to the gig. “We wouldn’t hear of it”, Bruce said. We like to all ride together. That way nobody is late or gets lost. They talked me into it. Mistake, bad mistake. This particular Jaycee’s Shack was way out in the sticks, somewhere off the Lakeland Highway in the pines. The crowd was rowdy and drunk. I sang about five or six songs the entire night. I received five dollars for my night’s work. This was great. It was my first professional gig. However the trip back was not so great. Bruce was so drunk and he was driving on this little narrow road with pine trees on both sides. Then he started swerving madly. I guess it was hard for him to drive and drink at the same time. When we made it back to Bubba’s I told them that I would drive myself next time. I never told Mama and Daddy what kind of playing engagements these were. I was certain they would make me stop if they knew. I had recently received my drivers license and wasn’t about to rock the boat.
All too soon, I was guzzling beer and getting into their little groove. It was fun and besides there were always interesting females around. Eventually we cleaned up our act a little and started playing some good High School gigs. We changed the name of the group to “The Fugitives”. Things were pretty good until I was left hanging with a gig one night at the High School Gymnasium. I arrived at 7:00 to set up the equipment. The gig was to start at 8:00pm. The rest of the band stumbled in drunk at 8:45. We didn’t play the gig and that night I quit the group. I considered this a setback but things were about to take another turn. “Ivey Plair and The Blazers” was one of the most popular bands in the area in those days. Through circumstances Ivey was leaving the group to start a new band. He had heard of me through Kendall Varnadoe, a fellow musician and friend who used to fill in with “The Fugitives” from time to time. The new band would play rhythm and blues and all the latest rock and roll. In other words, variety. Ivey had connections all over the region and had the ability to keep a band booked on most weekends and on the road throughout the summer. On Fridays we would usually manage to cut school early and get on the road, depending on how far we had to travel. In the summer it was off to Jacksonville, Brunswick, Tallahassee, Panama City and many other destinations. Panama City was of our favorite places to play. I can recall walking out on the beach along the Miracle Strip watching girls and hearing Tommy James and the Shondells or the Swinging Medallions blaring away in the distance from some joint along the shore. I can still close my eyes and smell the beach, feel the sun and see those sights. What a great time to be alive and young.
We were usually booked into a joint called the Village Inn, right on the beach. The rooms were not great, but we didn’t care as long as there were plenty of girls and excitements. We once played the song” Ninety Six Tears” for about thirty minutes straight and the crowd kept dancing and shouting louder and louder. It was great. There was a girl from Dothan, AL that was a regular at this joint. For the life of me, I can’t ever remember her name, but I still have this visual image of her dancing to the music. She was short and had dark hair. After the show we talked for hours and walked along the beach. I soon discovered she was on the rag and on the rebound. Nothing but conversation and holding hands happened between us. I never saw her again but would often think about her. By now Raymond Peace was playing keyboards, Ivey on drums, John Nichols on guitar and Kendall Varnadoe on bass. We were obtaining valuable experience on stage and vocals seemed to be getting stronger. Ivey was booking gigs left and right and we were having a ball. We were playing weekend jobs in the Valdosta, Tifton, Albany, Douglas, Macon, and Augusta areas. We also finished a tour of dates with the New Beats who had a monster hit record with the song “Bread and Butter”. The University of GA was always a favorite place to go. The frat parties could really get to cooking. Some of the most colorful and elaborate high school proms you could imagine.
Connie was wearing my High School ring and would occasionally accompany me to a few of these gigs, although not very often. Her dad hated me. I guess because I played in a band. He was a crusty old fart that was always willing to stereotype or criticize anything he didn’t understand.
(Sorry that Joel was not able to finish his story, he died on the operating table when complications developed during a heart operation in 1999.)