By James Manley © 1985
Issue: November, 1985
In my tenth summer, Uncle Ira gave me an old radio. It was cathedral and bulky with a flat base and had a cracked knob on each side of the little dial indicator. He admitted it didn't look like much, but said he felt certain there were plenty of pictures still inside.
He wasn't spoofing, either. Many times during that summer I saw Gene Autry and Pat Buttram at Melody Ranch, Roy Rogers and Foy Willing at the Double R Bar, and Judy Canova and Eddie Dean at Rancho Canova. Then one day I heard Rose Maddox singing about a "Philadelphia Lawyer," and I started looking closely at what I was hearing. Before long, my head was full of marvelous pictures. I saw bluebirds on Elton Britt's window sill, Roy Acuff's "Streamline Cannonball" speeding through the night, and the bubbles in Tommy Duncan's beer.
After that, my collection of three-minute adventures flourished, and just as easily as any book could ever do it, that old magic box pulled me right into the middle of everything it showed me. The wind rustled my hair as the "Orange Blossom Special" whizzed me along the Atlantic Seaboard. Smiley Burnett made me hungry for "Hominy Grits," and Rosalie Allen actually taught me to yodel.
Cartoons came on every day. Homer and Jethro were always clowning around, and Minnie Pearl had me grinning and saying howdy as much as she said it. Rex Allen was trying to find the guy who shot the hole in his sombrero, and I would walk to school singing about a hair on a wart on a frog on a knot on a log in a hole in the bottom of the sea.
Some of the picture songs were quite vivid. "Little Blossom" put a lump in my throat, "Wreck on the Highway" made me tell my mom to drive carefully, and "Please Pass the Biscuits" had me acting silly at the dinner table. Once, when dad came into my room while Wilma Lee Cooper was singing "The Legend of the Dogwood Tree," I realized that the magic wasn't in my head alone. Dad stood there quietly until the song was over, then left the room without a word. But I knew we had seen the same thing.
Other songs had a profound effect on me. I'd become mesmerized when Luke the Drifter showed me "Pictures from Life's Other Side," or the teeth he didn't have 'cause he'd been down that road before. And the first time T. Texas Tyler talked about his dad giving away his dog, I broke out with chill bumps. When the song ended, I went outside and hugged my dog for ten minutes, swearing faithfully that no one would ever give him away.
I also met the great Hank Snow through that radio. He came on singing a song called "Jimmie the Kid," and I was just dumbfounded when I heard those icy guitar runs. I knew Hank was singing about Jimmie Rodgers, explaining how he was born way down south in Mississippi, and yodeled and sang and braked on the railroad, and built a big house in "San Antone." And in the years that followed, Hank and his guitar took me everywhere, from little Kentucky towns to Hawaiian shores to "Galway Bay."
As my boyhood days sped quickly into the past, that radio remained a source of wonder, continually painting pictures that couldn't be seen anywhere else. Every time Ernest Tubb sang "Rainbow at Midnight," I had no trouble seeing or believing it. Poor old "Kawliga" wasn't hard to find standing in front of that cigar store. Even "Blue Shadows on the Trail" were easily visible to a sharp-eyed kid like myself.
There wasn't anything wrong with my eyes when Wanda Jackson sang a song, either. She was so lovely, and could trill like the mockingbirds in our back yard. I must have written fifty-'leven poems about her. And Bonnie Guitar... and Patsy Cline...and "The Gal Who Invented Kissing"...and Anita Carter...and "The Little Girl in My Hometown."
I never have figured out what went wrong, but I sometimes suspect progress blew the tubes in that spellbinding illustrator. In any event, quality faded, the pictures dimmed, and eventually they were gone. For the most part, Melody Ranch closed its doors, Cowboy Copas sold the farm, and The Singing Ranger moved on.
I have a fancy radio now. It's shiny and expensive, with stereo sound, multiple bands, silver push buttons, and flashing digital lights. It gets about seventy stations, tells me what time it is, and turns itself on and off. It's a damn fine radio.
But it doesn't sing pictures.