In this story from January 1959, the beloved singer and actor shares how his dad's joyous faith impacted his own life.
When I was a kid our family had a rough time financially. As they say down in Bristol, Tennessee, where I grew up, we just “never seemed to get a horn that blowed.”
Dad was in the postal service. He started out with a rural horse and buggy route, then graduated to town and walked his route for 17 years, most of which were pretty lean.
Yet we kids never thought of ourselves as poor, because my dad had a faith so geared to appreciation and joy that we thought we were pretty near on top of the world. If he couldn’t give us things, he gave us what was a sight better, practical lessons in how to live.
First off he’d tell us: “Learn to look around you, see and appreciate the bounty of God.” He was talking about the world God made without any help from us. Ever since, I’ve always figured that an atheist was a guy who’d never been deer huntin’, or blackberryin’ or pea pickin’.
Because there’s a terrific lot of beauty around and a lot else to appreciate that’s for free ... things we couldn’t make and that we had nothing to do with putting there. Seeing this beauty and the free gifts of the earth and sky put joy in our hearts–and then we had to share that too.
One of Dad’s favorite illustrations was to remind us of the fact that we had liberty and the guys down in the town jail didn’t. Also, that we had a lot of free music in us, pretty good music, too, because we practiced both at home and in the church choir.
Then on frequent occasions we would all go down to the jail, Dad, us boys, Mother, too, and we’d stand in the hall and sing–folk songs, ballads, hymns, (a lot of hymns)–because Dad thought they were the best for cheering people up.
At other times we would load up our old car with baskets of things from our own garden and our neighbors’ gardens, plus fruit and stuff my mother had canned, plus game we’d bagged out hunting. Then we’d drive to the edge of town where the less fortunate people lived.
After we unloaded our baskets, we’d sing for them.
One man, who had been in the jail on one of our hymn singing nights, came ‘round to see Dad when he got out. He allowed as how he was a vagrant, a bum, a petty thief, and a drinking man when he could afford it. But he’d been attracted by the robust good cheer of our hymns.
“That I liked,” he admitted, “but this regular religion stuff cramps your style. It keeps you from having any fun!”
“Don’t you believe it,” roared my dad. He was six-feet-two, slender, and his enthusiasm for living had a way of vibrating in his voice. When it did, he seemed eight feet tall.
“Why, man, God has given us all these things to enjoy! We’re supposed to enjoy ‘em. You go over-doin’ things, though, and you’re bound to get sick, or a hangover. But you use a little of the common sense God gave you, along with His other gifts, and you won’t wear a long face. Religion is a real happy thing!”
It sure was a load off that guy’s mind. And he proved it was true, too, because he settled down in our town to work, and he joined the church. He had a lot of fun, too.
Dad never tried to make us “good” through fear. “You’ll have to be good through love, or ‘twont go more’n skin deep,” he said.
Our church life was really happy too. We prayed and sang and listened to Bible readings and sermons with great fervor. And then we had socials, dances, ‘possum hunts, hay rides, and we did all this with great fervor, too.
I came by hymn singing just naturally, the same way I came by my faith. I grew up with it. My folks made it a part of everything we did every day, and that made it personal and practical as well as natural.
I married my wife, Betty, during World War II when I was a bombardier in the Air Force. When the war was over we were back in Bristol, and me with no job in sight. We decided to try California, still with no job.
It wasn’t easy for a while, but neither of us lost faith in God. Nor did I lose faith in myself. I seemed to have a voice, a talent, but I had to appreciate where the talent came from, to be grateful for it, to share it–and that’s the way it worked out.
Betty and I have two sons now: Jeff, eight, and Brion, five. Life moves so fast these days that it takes some doing to get the boys out where they see God’s bounty natural-like, instead of processed and packaged at the super-market.
But it’s got to be that way every so often if they’re to get that direct, personal feeling about it. So we have a place at Clear Lake where there’s lots of fish, and a ranch nearby where we raise cattle and watch things grow.
Not so long ago Brion gave good evidence that he’s getting that personal feeling. He was received, in a baptismal ceremony, into the First Methodist Church of North Hollywood, our present church home. The whole event impressed him, including the certificate he received giving date, church name, minister and other particulars.
Reporting it later he said: “I didn’t cry. I stood up there real good. The minister put water on my head and, oh ...” suddenly his face lit up and he produced his certificate. “Look, I got a letter from Jesus.”
So far I haven’t been able to lure my dad to Hollywood; his roots in Tennessee go too deep. He’s retired now after 39 years in the postal service, and has even more time to hunt and fish.
He isn’t much interested in the money I’m making, or how many of the guest stars on my television show I call by their first name. But he wants to know, have I been to the lake? How is the farm?
What he’s really asking is, has “gettin’ me a horn that blowed” made me forget what I learned from him back there in Tennessee?
And I can honestly answer, no. For what he taught me has made it all possible.
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