Recently my two daughters, two nieces and I visited the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, where we saw Webb Pierce’s 1962 Pontiac Bonneville convertible adorned with steer horns, six-shooter door handles, a saddle console and more than l50 silver dollars.
Tacky was a big part of country music history — thanks mostly to the late designer Nudie Cohn who never met a rhinestone he didn’t like.
The impressive museum also houses hundreds of guitars strummed by the rich and famous, along with handwritten manuscripts of songs such as Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night.”
Taylor Swift gave $4 million to create an education center offering hands-on learning experiences. And there are exhibits showing every age and stage of the music genre.
A most pleasant surprise to me, however, was seeing a tribute to the Rev. Will Campbell. The small display notes that the author, civil rights activist and self-described “bootleg preacher” from Mississippi — who died in 2013 at age 88 — was the spiritual advisor to many country music singers.
His aw-shucks personality and insightful writings drew the attention of Waylon Jennings, Tom T. Hall, Johnny Cash, Kristofferson and many others who would find their way out to his Mount Juliet farm.
He said of one star: “I’ve married everybody in his band at least once.”
My own visit with Will there in 2004 was most memorable.
We’d done interviews in other settings, but sitting in the small writing cabin — with Will relaxed in his old barber chair — was like no other conversation. In the resulting feature story I noted that Campbell “does not seem to have lost any sleep over what others think or say about him,” and has “never offered himself as a model for ecclesiastical excellence.”
Indeed, Will spent a lifetime stirring up things — from his firing as a chaplain at Ole Miss for playing Ping-Pong with a black man in 1955 to criticism from fellow civil rights activists for his extension of compassionate ministry to Klansmen.
Will even set aside his “deep-water Baptist” convictions, he told me, when Waylon and wife Jessi Coulter, whose mother was a Pentecostal preacher, asked him to baptized their baby boy, Shooter. Adding to the mix, Waylon’s friend boxer Muhammad Ali, a Muslim, showed up at Will’s house for the service.
In an act of self-definition, with a bit of defiance, Will once pasted his ordination certificate atop his Yale Divinity School diploma. He told me “it was a matter of priorities.”
His daddy, uncle, cousin and a country preacher comprised the ordination council at the rural Amite County, Miss., Baptist church, which also produced country comedian Jerry Clower.
“They misspelled even the name of the church (on the certificate),” he said. “But that’s my orders.”
“I noticed I was the one that opened and closed the microwave the most, so I said, ‘I’ll be the cook.’ His band used to call me Hop Sing. But I didn’t do much cooking. I would decide whether we would stop at Hardee’s or McDonald’s.”
Will never considered himself much of a musician, though he said, “You have to know two chords on a guitar to get a driver’s license” in the Nashville area. But his prolific songwriting friends Tom T. and Dixie Hall insisted that Will record a CD in their studio.
So at age 80 Will strummed and sang some tunes such as Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” Robert Lee McDill’s “Amanda” that Waylon made famous, and Tom. T. Hall’s own “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine.”
Will included an original song, “Mississippi Magic,” that deals with the “Mississippi madness” of the civil rights era. The song ends with his own imagined ending: “They’ll stand around my coffin all night. They’ll say Ole Will was a good ole boy. He just had some crazy ideas.”
Will handed me his CD as a parting gift when leaving his middle-Tennessee farm. But I also left Will’s place with good and lingering memories of someone whose authenticity and grace were noted and sought by the rich and famous, the poor and unknown, the successful and the marginalized, the singers and seekers.
There’s much I’ll remember from my time with Will — who probably best described himself in this way: “Some of my friends like to say, ‘Here comes ol’ If-you-love-one-you-got-to-love-them-all Campbell.’ But that’s about what it boils down to.”
So I’m glad those who look beyond the rhinestone suits, platinum records, gold convertibles and brass plaques at the Country Music Hall of Fame might find the simple tribute to ole Will whose unconventional ministry was a well-played note of its own.
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