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Music can change your life in a flash. Sometimes with a high note, sometimes a downbeat.
Illustration by Alison Seifer
When I was a fairly inexperienced bluegrass musician, back in the 1970s, I had the great good sense to hire a young bass player from New York named Larry Nager.
I was dubious about him at first. He had long salt and pepper hair, which he wore in dreadlocks down his back, and his wardrobe consisted mostly of torn jeans, T-shirts, and Converse high-top tennis shoes. He had graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in anthropology, though, and he was as knowledgeable of American music as anyone I had met up till then or have met since. So I took him to the barbershop and got him his first haircut, helped him get his union card, and—in return—he gave me a cassette tape of a singer named Mildred Bailey, who used to perform on WLW radio in the 1930s and ’40s.
From the first notes I was in love with her sound. You wouldn’t call it modern jazz, but it was the first jazz I had been exposed to, really, and I could hear the gentle swing of the music, the emphasis of the beat on “2” (what musicians call a “businessman’s bounce”), and the controlled, sensitive lilt of her phrasing. I loved to hear her sing “Someday Sweetheart,” and I played it over and over on road trips till the band revolted. After that, Larry and I would get together on summer afternoons and listen to recordings that were new to me, made by artists like Fats Waller and the wonderful Ivie Anderson, the first woman to be a featured singer with Duke Ellington’s band.
I simply had to hear more of this music, so when I was in town, I started going to Arnold’s Bar and Grill to hear the Dixieland band that played on Tuesday nights in the courtyard. I loved the way the clarinet player (Dave Pfeiffer or Frank Powers in those days) could bring a tune to a fever pitch, and I couldn’t get enough of the sound of trumpeter Bobby Guyer, his horn pointed to the sky. He seemed to reach the very doors of heaven.
Prior to that, I had snubbed everything that wasn’t bluegrass. But now I was noticing the influences of this “new” old music everywhere. I discovered that even hard-driving pickers like Flatt and Scruggs had fallen under the sway of the blues more than once, and standards such as “Bye Bye Blues” had been recorded by jazz bands and bluegrass groups alike.
Eventually I got a job singing at Arnold’s when I wasn’t on tour. Being outside on a hot, clear summer’s night under the Tree of Heaven in Arnold’s courtyard, the candles flickering on the four-top tables, was a little slice of perfection. We’d wheel the upright piano out, set up the microphones in a primitive line across the front of the stage, and start drinking iced tea and playing. Tuesday nights, I sang with the Rhythm Rangers, and on Thursdays, with the Dream Band. The music we played was utterly romantic. Dream, when you’re feeling blue.... I’d sing the old Johnny Mercer number to signal the end of the night. Larry and I produced an album of this music, too. We called it Black Tie, and today copies of it are scarcer than hens teeth.
At the same time, Larry was working the phones as chief booking agent for our band, and we were soon playing bluegrass festivals and clubs all over. In the late 1970s, we were booked on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. There Larry and I encountered a modern day jazz legend when we saw the show’s house band, the Butch Thompson Trio. We simply stood there staring as Butch rolled the notes out of his clarinet. We’d never heard anything so good before.
When Larry got married and quit his duties with the bluegrass band, I found my way to another young musician—Tom Cahall. Thanks to Larry, I’d grown big ears for all kinds of music. Well, Tom played all kinds of music, so he was my kind of guy.
It was the mid-1980s and he was playing bass and tuba in a combo called the Mac Smith Trio, touring the United States and Europe. The members of the group had met as students at the College-Conservatory of Music, and they’d developed a solid repertoire of pop tunes and pared-down arrangements of classical numbers—music like “Lara’s Theme” from Doctor Zhivago and symphonic selections—without the symphony, of course. Tom played bass on the popular music and tuba with the more classical stuff. I hired him to join us in the Thursday night Dream Band, and eventually added him to my bluegrass band as well. There’s an old saying: the more you like music, the more music you like. Tom was the personification of that adage. Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust”? Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky”? It was all good to him, and he played it wonderfully.
When the trio was out on tour Tom would be gone for weeks, and I came to look forward to seeing him at the end of the bar at Arnold’s again on Tuesday nights. He had blonde hair and blue eyes, nothing extraordinary, but a gentle way about him and an exquisite sense of humor.
Jim Tarbell owned Arnold’s in those days, and he was Tom’s cousin on his father’s side. The Tarbells and the Cahalls had a more complicated family tree than the House of Habsburg. Both Jim and Tom told me incredible stories of the Cahalls of Brown County, territory that was littered with their cousins.
“You didn’t want to confuse the mail carrier back in Brown County,” Jim told me once. “So if there was more than one person with the same name you gave them nicknames.
“Now, at one time there were four ‘Perry Cahalls’ in Brown County,” he recalled: One in law enforcement (Sheriff Perry) and one who’d lost a limb (One-Armed Perry). “Then there was the Perry who kept pigs, and he was Hog Perry. Then there was Perry Jerry.” At this point in the tale, Jim always said, “I guess they didn’t need another nickname.”
Hog Perry would drive his pigs to the riverfront, where they were sold to a flatboat captain. One time, the story goes, Hog Perry walked home with a thick moneybag around his middle. Sure enough, he was laid upon by bandits along the road and robbed and murdered.
That was another thing I liked about Tom: He came from a place of wild stories and beautiful music, much like my own world. I always understood when he took a notion to drive to Georgetown on a fair summer day. He loved every inch of the way. Looking at cows grazing on a hillside, he often said, was nirvana.
In late July of 1989, Tom and I decided to get married. We’d do it in the fall. It wouldn’t have surprised anyone, surely: We had already woven our lives together as tightly as we had woven the music we played. To celebrate our plan, we took one of those drives that he loved, out east to a nature center near Hillsboro. It was raining, and we watched a deer kicking up its heels as it ran up the hill. It seemed like a good omen. I was as happy as I had felt in a long time.
On August 5, 1989, a Saturday evening, I was at home watching coverage of a dangerous lightning storm on the television news when I got a call from someone at Kings Island, where Tom was playing a job. This person said that Tom had been hurt and I should go to the hospital.
What now? I thought. I was getting ready for my own gig with Frank Vincent in Kenwood, and this would make me late. Being late for a job with Vincent was tantamount to temporary career suicide. He was an exacting pianist and leader, and so good he could afford to be demanding. So I was in a pickle.
I called the musician who lived downstairs and asked him if he could get through to the hospital—my phone had been knocked out, on top of everything else—and went back to my makeup. But there was a funny, prickly feeling along the back of my shoulders. I had asked the caller from Kings Island what happened to Tom, but they were evasive.
My neighbor downstairs called back. I had better cancel my job and get to the hospital, he said.
“What is it?” I asked. “Did he break his leg or something.”
“I don’t know how serious it is,” he said, “but it sounds like you should go.”
Another neighbor drove me; I was irritable, and getting crosser by the minute. If I’d stopped to think, I would have remembered how angry my father used to get when he was scared. But logic was not getting through to me. I ranted and raved all the way there, and at the entrance to the hospital, I turned and looked at the driver. “He isn’t dead, is he?” I asked. I could tell she was fearful.
She let me out at the emergency room entrance, and I tripped going in the sliding doors. When I looked up, I saw a nun wearing a large cross walking towards me. And then I knew. She opened her mouth to tell me how Tom had been struck by lightning and killed instantly, but I heard nothing. I was in a movie and the sound was off. It was a silent scream followed by manic energy. I picked up a couch in the room where they had taken me and threw it up against the wall.
When they took me to identify Tom’s body, the song “St. James Infirmary Blues” ran through my mind as if it were on a loop. In front of me, Tom was “stretched out on a long, white table, so young, so cold, so fair.”
After that I don’t remember much. The funeral in Georgetown, the family arrangements, and then the numb fugue state. What do you do when it’s over?
For weeks I moved without feeling, walked without thinking. Friends came with casseroles, and like a robot I invited them in to sit down. Other times I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, grab the leash, and walk the dog for block after block in the pre-dawn darkness. I can remember seeing the newspaper delivered and watching neighbors getting in their cars to go to work. They were heading off to a world I couldn’t even imagine anymore.
As for the musicians I worked with, we did what musicians do: we played.
We held a tribute ceremony for Tom in Arnold’s courtyard a couple of weeks after his death. All the people he’d worked with over the years showed up—jazz and bluegrass musicians, sitting on opposite sides of the courtyard like Methodists and Baptists. Someone got up and read a poem; others gave personal remembrances; some just simply played the music Tom had played almost all of his life. Some of the bluegrass musicians crossed the divide and joined the jazz players, and some of the jazz players crossed over to the bluegrass side. When the last horn was cased and the night was falling, the bluegrass musicians sat around a large table near the stage and began singing gospel songs: “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” we sang in four-part harmony, voices rising in the cool air. We sang “A Beautiful Life” and blended beautifully—as if we were keyed into each other perfectly. One of the jazz players said it raised the hair on the back of his neck.
We’d sung these old gospel tunes together before, of course. But our singing wasn’t always that good, and maybe it never was that good again. That night, the notes hung in the air like my heartache.
After Tom’s death, I needed to work at something consuming, and a job came up at WNKU. The program director wanted a bluegrass show that would air every Sunday. It would keep me quite busy, I thought, and it would pay the rent. So I said yes, but I qualified it by insisting my program not be a bluegrass show.
I thought of a name for it—Music From the Hills of Home—and I envisioned a family sitting in the parlor around a large radio. An old-fashioned image, I guess, but it meant to me that the music should do its best to reach all the members of that family, not just the ones who liked jazz, or the ones who liked bluegrass. These days, WNKU calls the format “roots music.” But when I began the show, there wasn’t even a name for the genre, just an idea. In my imagination, the radio show would touch as many people as possible by making the music accessible.
It’s been 25 years since the radio show started, and I have had mixed reviews. Sometimes listeners call to tell me that I’m not playing the right kind of music. They are adamant, denouncing songs that have, in their opinion, too much twang, or not enough swing, or whatever it is that defines their own musical world. That always makes me feel a little defeated. More than anything, I want to make connections for my listeners—to help them find the same pleasure in all kinds of music, just as Tom and I had.
Of course, some complaints are easier to take. Once, on an afternoon when I’d gotten a little carried away talking about a particular performer, a man called me to say, “I have driven from Erlanger to tri-county, and I haven’t heard a note.”
I apologized and put a record on immediately. I understood where he was coming from. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do when the music stops.
Originally published in the June 2014 issue.