The Last Trip Home
Doug Hutchens - email@example.com
In June of 1971, I was laying awake in a bunk on a hot June night at Bean Blossom. The bus belonged to Ralph Lewis. It was loaned to Bill while a new air conditioner was being installed on the "Blue Grass Special." This night was a good time for thinking; everyone was gone, it was quiet and still. I had spent the day working with Joe Stuart, Jack Hicks, and "The Chief." We had been working on a new fence along the road at the park. Kenny Baker would have been a part of this troupe, but he had cut his leg with a chain saw two weeks before and could play the shows, but the doctor didn't want him to overdo it. I was thinking of the "Brown County Jamboree Barn," which we were parked beside, all the entertainers who had performed there over the years and the many Blue Grass Boys who had performed on the stage. Then, for the first time, a thought crossed my mind: "What will we do some day, when nature takes its course?" Little did I know, that 25 years later I would follow "The Chief" on his final trip home.
A friend, Tony Testerman, called me at 5:42 on Monday afternoon and asked if I had heard. That was all that he had to say, for I knew what he meant. He had just heard it on the Kingsport TV station. I immediately called Tony Conway at Buddy Lee Attractions, Tony had taken care of Bill's booking and his business arrangements for many years. I found that he had passed about 1:20 and the arrangements were in the process of being made. That evening the CBS Evening News paid a timely and appropriate tribute and made many who hadn't heard the news aware of his passing.
On Tuesday evening, I left home about 8 p.m. and started to Nashville. WSM was playing Bill's music as a tribute. In fact, from the time the news was received until after the services in Nashville, all the music on WSM was by Bill and the Blue Grass Boys, a total of 22 hours with Eddie Stubbs pulling 15 of those hours. Tonight Eddie was doing a wonderful job, using just the right words to compliment the music. Frequent emotional pauses in his voice reminded me of the difficulty of his job this evening. This night, Eddie sounded much like the late Grant Turner, as I recalled the thousands of hours that I had driven late at night and those early mornings, listening to "Mr. Grant." He always sounded like he was right there in the car with you. Tonight Eddie was riding with me. As his shift ended, I was pulling into a motel in Knoxville. I waited in the car as the show closed with Bill's last performance from March 15 on the Friday Night Opry. In Bill's playful voice, he asked the crowd if he "could come back and play for them again sometime soon." Then the theme, "Watermelon Hanging On the Vine."
On Wednesday morning, as I continued to Nashville, listening to WSM's Richard Thomas who does the 'Flight 650' traffic report, he gave regular and reverent references of the progress of the funeral procession from Madison to the Ryman Auditorium. Traffic seemed especially heavy this morning. When I turned the corner to the Ryman, a flood of memories came at me. . . . The first time I went up those stone steps, through the iron gates, and backstage with Bill. Then a mental picture of Stringbean, Grandpa, and Roy swapping stories with Bill backstage. Being sent out to the bus to get Bill's stage shoes shined by the old gentleman who took care of them. Nights leaving the Ryman after working the Opry and meeting back at the bus on Dickerson Road at midnight to travel through the night for tomorrow's date. . . .
I parked and walked down to the Ryman and into a side door. There I was met by James and Tony Conway, and, in front of the stage where he so often stood tall and proud, today he rested. His glasses and hat were close by and a row of quarters that he so loved to give little kids were within easy reach. I then realized that I should go and join the others at the new entrance. As I turned to leave, Tony Conway stopped me and James said "Daddy would want you down here with us today."
From a few minutes after 8 a.m. until 11, the line was constant; many familiar faces from around the country and for each who made the journey, you knew that there were countless others who were there in spirit. Many of the Opry family came by: Grandpa and Ramona Jones, Porter Wagoner, Bill Carlisle, Bill Anderson, Jim Ed Brown, Little Jimmy Dickens, Jan Howard, Earl and Louise Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, and the list went on and on.
Just prior to the beginning of the services, Pete Kuykendall turned to Bryon Berline and myself and pointed to a draped instrument stand that was surrounded by the multitude of flowers. We had an idea of what would be placed there. It was both a disappointment and a relief when the pallbearers placed the mandolin that was presented to Bill commemorating his 50th anniversary with the Opry on the stand. Tony Conway then placed a red rose on the shroud that held the instrument. It was a major letdown that it was not the "old mandolin" that had been Bill's constant companion for over 50 years and a relief, in that it would have been very difficult for some of us, seeing the instrument so close and knowing that they were never to work together again. Many of us experienced this through a veil of fresh tears.
The services were wonderful. Bill would have been pleased.
As the bagpipes played and Bill left the Ryman for the last time, we followed. TV, radio, and newspaper reporters shot video, took photos and asked questions. As the procession departed, friends and fans spoke softly and visited.
Today, I felt a need to be the last person to leave, after talking to many, many friends and a lengthy conversation with Mary Yeomans and Eddie Stubbs, an hour and a half after the end of the service, it was time for me to go as well. The Ryman stood silent and alone once again.
On Thursday morning at 9:17, the final trip to Ohio County began. A small procession left the Madison Funeral Home. Across Gallatin Road on Old Hickory Boulevard, past the turn to Earl's, just a mile or so prior to Dickerson Road (where Bill had once lived, owned some property from time to time, and maintained an office), we turned north on Interstate 65. Two Tennessee Highway Patrolmen handled traffic control within the city and acted as an Honor Guard to Rosine.
As the procession passed Long Hollow Pike, "the farm" came to mind. It was the place, as he would describe it, "way out in the country at the end of a dead end road," where he could turn his dogs loose and listen to them run. Bill called it home. There were fence posts that Edd Mayfield had planted in the 50's, repairs to the barn and work on the cabin done by former Blue Grass Boys, where Bill took care of his animals and tended his crops, where he sat in the old porch swing and enjoyed the sunrises and sunsets. This was his home, second only to the highways.
At 9:50 on September 12, 1996, Bill Monroe returned to Kentucky. James, later in the day at the church, commented, "Daddy traveled the world and received many honors, but I think he was more proud of being called a Kentuckian than anything."
As the procession turned west on the William Natcher Parkway, even though it was a four-lane highway, many cars pulled to the side of the road showing respect. After turning off at the Hartford exit, my vision was again blurred with tears as the procession was now joined by two Kentucky State Patrolmen as an additional honor guard. This was a two-lane road and now each car we met stopped. At a school, several stood around the flagpole with the flag at half staff, others stood in thier front yards awaiting the passing.
When the sign Rosine came into view, the road was lined with people. The procession turned right into the community park and behind the church -- the "little community churchyard" that he had sung about all through the years. I couldn't help thinking of how much today I felt like I did 25 years ago, when I first rode the bus into my first festival as a Blue Grass Boy, only this was the saddest trip I had ever taken.
After we parked, I again was reminded of some of the early festivals like Ashland and Jackson, Kentucky, where the schedule was created after Bill got on the grounds. As the pallbearers made their way up the steps into the church, one lone dog in the distance barked in the saddened silence of this morning. Soon the rumble of thunder could be heard in the distance and, after a few minutes of a heavy mist, the heavens too gained thier composure, leaving an overcast sky to protect the large crowd that would hear the services on the speakers that had been set outside.
For the next 3 hours, friends and fans filed into the church, in front of the Master and out a back door. At one time the line reached to Highway 62, about a quarter mile away. Of those who attended, twelve hundred signed the guest register, there were two very full lines, many in the second line didn't take the time to sign.
Behind the church chairs.
James told David Deese, Wayne Lewis and myself, "I need you fellows to help us with some music, maybe 'Precious Memories' and 'Amazing Grace' and some numbers like that." The Ryman services had been pre-planned but this funeral was to be done just as Bill had played his shows for years and years, with no set list.
After some local speakers, Ms Alma Randolph sang, then Ralph Stanley and Ricky Skaggs sang, then the Blue Grass Boys sang for Bill. Wayne Lewis took the reigns and David Deese, Dan Jones and myself kept a steady flow of former Blue Grass Boy lead singers and friends to speak. I had spoken to Bobby Osborne earlier and he mentioned that he and Sonny and Jim & Jesse had shared a dressing room with Bill at the Opry for the past 15 years. The first time I asked if he would like to say anything, he said he did not think he could get through it. A second request, and gentle urging that he would be glad that he did, was graciously honored. His words summed it up for many of us who were there when he said he was "so glad that the had lived in the time of Bill Monroe."
Skeeter Davis spoke of when she was 17 and went to Nashville, and Buck White and Sister Margie Sullivan offered kind words. Soon Reverend Baggett began his part of the service. It was a funeral that any man who had ever lived in the country would have been proud of.
It was getting late in the day and, as the service was over, Wayne Lewis and Sandy Rothman placed a flat pick in Bill's right hand, and then the last part of the journey was underway. There were so many flowers, they were all around, including two double rows of wreaths forming a 100- foot walkway from the road to the gravesite. "My Old Kentucky Home" was sung. Ralph Stanley repaid the favor of 30 years ago, when Bill sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" at his brother Carter's funeral. Ricky started "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and everyone joined in as best they could.
As I raised my head and opened my eyes from the final prayer, I felt different. The sky looked bluer, the grass and the trees looked greener, and the wind had picked up. Fitting, I guess, as he was now at home, at rest in the place where so often had talked and sung about.
As the Blue Grass Boys gathered, and others spoke softly, a last shovel of sod was placed on a new grave at 4:17. The Man, who was born Wednesday September 13, 1911, and traveled from Rosine, Kentucky, around the world, leaving the gift of Blue Grass Music, today had come full circle and returned to the earth on Thursday, September 12, 1996.