|I worked at the Hearth until spring of 1973. I learned more about music from Tot and those guys than any band I’d played with before or after that. I never got bored, because we were always learning new material and the type of music we played, necessitating rehearsed arrangements, presented a constant challenge.
After eleven months working with the All Stars I got an offer I couldn’t refuse, playing with an all girl band, Barbara Allen and the Tennessee Hot Pants. It required touring on the road six to eight weeks at a time, but I was able to double my salary. Since I’d already graduated from college, I decided why not. I was ready for a whole new set of adventures.
Before going into my story about the Tennessee Hot Pants, I’d like to go back in time and tell you a little bit about working for Charlie Louvin. [Note: these stories and all those I’ve written so far, are excerpts taken from my book, which is a work in progress, Music Notes…Odyssey of a Lady Musician.]
Charlie is the kind of guy with a personality that people either love or hate. I’ve always liked Charlie and got along with him well during the short time I worked for him. He has a sarcastic kind of wit about him that is not understood by everybody. At times he could come across almost to the point as being insulting. Me, I always thought of him as funny.
I began working for him in February of 1968. He didn’t have a regular road band at the time, so playing behind him Friday and Saturday nights on the Grand Ole Opry fit in perfectly with my college schedule. When he did have a road gig, he took only a guitar player along with him.
I got acquainted with Charlie backstage at the Opry and at times, ran into him at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge across the alley from the Ryman Auditorium where the Opry was held at that time.
Ronnie Blackwell, Charlie’s former bass player and close friend of mine had gone to work for the famed bluegrass group, The Osborne Brothers. As an extra note, Ronnie played on the first recording of “Rocky Top”. He had been teaching me to play electric bass. (Seen in the picture is Ronnie and me and I’m playing his old hot rod Harmony bass.) I’m sad to say that Ronnie passed away in 1978 as a result of a heart attack at age thirty eight. However, his face can be seen on one of Charlie Louvin’s latest CD covers, playing that same Harmony bass.
When I mentioned to Charlie that I was learning to play electric bass he told me that as soon as I learned all his songs that he’d hire me to play with him on the Opry, weekends. It wasn’t long before I’d learned his stuff and approached him, telling him I was ready to play. We went into one of the dressing rooms at the Ryman which doubled as practice rooms and I auditioned. He said I had the job and to call him as soon as I was a member in good standing of the Musicians Union, Local 257.
That first night he introduced me as his new bass player who was going to college at Middle Tennessee State University. He started singing the Louvin Brothers’ hit song, “When I Stop Dreaming” motioning me toward the microphone to sing the harmony parts along with his lead. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I didn’t know I was going to be singing. When I opened my mouth, nothing came out. We were in the second chorus before I was able to utter a sound. Later I found out that Charlie was known to pull “fast ones” on his musicians.
His song, “Will You Visit Me On Sundays” was on the charts at that time and I expected him to go straight into that one rather than “When I Stop Dreaming”. I discovered that Charlie might say what song we would be doing before we hit the stage and then change his mind at the last minute. I never knew if he was just playing a practical joke or wanted to keep the rest of us in line.
One night he announced to us he would be doing his song, “See The Big Man Cry” but instead, launched into the old Gene Autry song, “That Silver Haired Daddy Of Mine”. I wondered what in the world he was playing, ’cause I’d never heard of that song. I did my best to fall in with it but didn’t have the slightest idea where it was going.
Another joke of his was un-tuning our instruments during a song. He’d walk up to one of us during a ride and twist one or more of the tuning keys on our guitar/bass, laughing the whole time. Then it was up to us to get back in tune while playing the song. Now, that was hard. One time I spied him heading for my bass keys. Just before he got a hand on one, I stated, “If you touch my bass I’m gonna push the DOWN button on your elevator shoes!”
Charlie just laughed and walked off in the other direction. Maybe I should’ve mentioned that Charlie is a little guy, maybe five foot four, and that’d be stretching it, so my comment regarding his elevator shoes seemed appropriate.
We did two shows a night, and early one and a late show. Between shows, we’d either go over to Tootsie’s and drink a beer or two, or go to a movie, depending on how much time we had. A block up the street were several movie theaters, and sometimes Charlie, his wife Betty, the guitar player, the drummer and I marched up the block and saw a movie. Other times, we strolled across Broadway to Linebaugh’s, a little restaurant, which is no longer there, and grabbed a hamburger. All of this was before I had my band. Once I got my group together, I could only play the first show before I had to rush off to my other gig. Charlie used an Opry staff bass player for the second show.
There’s another funny story I want to tell you about when I worked for Charlie: One night I arrived at the Opry and went straight to the dressing room where Charlie and the band were tuning up. I found a place on a countertop to set my bass case, opened it up, took out my bass and began tuning. Charlie had stepped out for a minute and Bill Monroe came in. I didn’t know it at the time, but Bill Monroe was and is known as the Father of Bluegrass Music. I didn’t think of him as important or anything–he was just some old man who played a mandolin. He pointed at my case and said, “Who does this belong to?”
“It’s mine,” I answered.
“Well, move it. That’s my spot.” he stated in an arrogant tone.
“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled.
“Get it out of the way. That’s where I put my case.”
I moved mine to a corner on the floor. He put his case in place of mine, took out his mandolin and left the room. When Charlie came back in I told him all about what had just happened. Charlie said, “Well, you should have told that old cranky codger that if he had a certain spot for his case that he should’ve had his name written on it.”
“I’ll do that next time,” I declared. But I never put my case there again. Some of the other guys said that it was a known fact Bill Monroe put his case in the same spot each time and nobody questioned it. I thought that was ridiculous but cooperated just the same.
Today among his fans, Charlie is associated with bluegrass music on account of the days when he performed with his brother, Ira. Ira played a mandolin, Charlie played an acoustic guitar and they sang close harmony. During the time I worked with Charlie, he did not want to be associated with bluegrass music. Bluegrass music was not as popular as it is today by no means. In fact, it was considered the music of hicks and hill folk, whereas country music was thought of as more uptown. People were always telling him how much they enjoyed his bluegrass music. Each time he’d abruptly correct them saying, “I don’t and never have played bluegrass, I’ve never had a banjo in my band. The music I play is country.” His criterion for being bluegrass was having a banjo in the group. I always found that to be funny, because the Louvin Brothers as an act was about as bluegrass as one could get. With the new found popularity of bluegrass music today, I believe Charlie isn’t quite as eager to make those contradictions as he was at one time.
I’d like to say that my time as Charlie Louvin’s bass player was most enjoyable. The camaraderie I had with Charlie, the other musicians and Opry members is invaluable. The Louvin Brothers have since been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and I’m proud to say that I once worked for Charlie.
Middle sitting down: Barbara Allen (keyboard), top l-r: Jean Callaway (bass), Donna Atkinson (guitar), Kathy Burkly (drums)
The Tennessee Hot Pants
One evening while I was at the Hearth, a gentleman came in, introducing himself as Jean Shepard’s booking agent. Jean was a friend of mine and I had heard her speak of this person. He said another agent had told him that an all girl band was looking for a drummer and went on to say that he’d heard that I also played drums. Well, I’m here to tell you I was just barely a drummer, but I took down the name and number of that agent and called her the next day just to check it out. That band, I won’t call their name, just happened to be there when I showed up at the agent’s office.
The agent,( I’ll call her Sally) introduced me to them and right away I’m thinking, whoa, I don’t think so. You see, they were a lesbian band and I wanted no part of that. I eased out of that situation and told them the truth–that it was a mistake that I really wasn’t a drummer. I didn’t lie because, although I’d played a little bit of drums, even had my own set, drums weren’t my main thing. I thanked them for their time and left. However, I did notice a picture of another all girl band hanging on the wall of Sally’s office that didn’t have the same “look” as the group I’d just met. Printed on the photo was the name, “Barbara Allen and The Tennessee Hot Pants” The next day I called Sally back and told her that bass was actually my primary instrument and asked her about the band I saw in the picture. Her answer was, “What a coincidence, they just so happened to be looking for a bass player. In fact, Barbara, the leader told me that as soon as she found a replacement, she was going to fire the one they have because she stays drunk all the time.”
I laughed to myself, it seemed I was always replacing drunk bass players.
Sally said that they played country music with a rock edge. I told her that was just what I liked.
She said that she’d have Barbara call me. A week or so later, I got a call from Barbara; we set up an audition and I had the job. I told her that I needed to give Tot and the guys two weeks notice and she said that was no problem since they were off for the next three weeks.
Our first gig was in Boston, about a thirty hour drive from Nashville. The day before we left town, Barbara came by and picked up my bass and my new Kustom amp to pack with the rest of the equipment. She was driving a 1963 Cadillac pulling a U-Haul. The muffler was belching loud noises and the tires hadn’t seen any tread in quite awhile. I asked her, “Is there room in that car for all of us?”
“Oh sure,” she replied. “We’ll be picking up the drummer in Boston. That’s where she’s from.”
I was wondering if that car could even make the trip and once we picked up the other girl would there be enough room?
I must tell you, I am a stickler for punctuality. The next day Barbara was to pick me up at 10:00 AM to embark on our trip and I was ready and waiting. I waited and waited. Noon rolled around and still, no Barbara. I called her number and got no answer. I called Sally and she told me that Barbara sometimes ran late for appointments and not to worry, she’d eventually show up. Before long, it was two o’clock and I still hadn’t heard from her. By that time I was getting worried about my bass and amp she had in that U-Haul. My imagination began to take flight and I thought she may have stolen my stuff. By 2:30 I decided to run to the store and get a six pack of beer, leaving a note on the door that I’d be right back. By 4:30 I’d consumed three out of the six beers, and was reaching into the fridge for a fourth when she finally showed up. I was disgusted and a little tipsy so I didn’t care what I said to her. “Just what in the hell took you so long? I’ve been waiting since ten o’clock!”
“Oh, I had to pack and run a few errands.” was her nonchalant answer.
Can you believe that was the only explanation she could give me. I almost told her to go on without me, but thought better of it.
She had Donna, the guitar player with her and Donna didn’t open her mouth. I grabbed my bags and the three beers I had left and we lit out. They didn’t talk much at first. I think they were a bit worried about my drinking all that beer. I didn’t drink but one more because they’d begun to get hot. I put the two unopened cans I had left in my purse. Finally, after we were a couple of hundred miles out of town, and I had pretty well sobered up,
Barbara and Donna broke out laughing.
“Hey, what are y’all laughing about?” I asked as I leaned over the back seat looking toward the front.
“We were hoping that we didn’t have us another drunken bass player.” said Barbara between gasps of laughter.
“Well I can assure you, I don’t stay drunk. I just got tired of waiting all day for you to show up.” I replied.
Donna said, “There’s one thing you’ll have to understand about Barbara: she’s late for everything except our gigs and then she’s barely on time.”
“Well, okay. Now I know.” I answered.
I found that to be true more than a time or two. There were many occasions when we had to dress for the gig while traveling down the road, then unload all our equipment after we arrived, plus set up. We got to where we could set up within ten minutes. We had one of those Shure Vocalmaster PA sets that had two six foot columns. There were times I trotted into the club we were playing carrying a column in each hand like a couple of suitcases. Those things were heavy, but a schedule of one nighters will soon get a person in shape.
It was a surprise, but we did make it to Boston without any car trouble or flat tires. We had a week’s sit-down job at The Hillbilly Ranch downtown. Consequently, we got to stay in a motel for a week. Barbara said the club owner was furnishing our room. When we arrived I met Kathy Burkly, our drummer and she was the best drummer I’d ever seen up to that point. She was barely eighteen and had just that week graduated from high school. After finishing up in Boston we headed for a weekender in Rhode Island. Barbara, Kathy and I took turns driving; Donna didn’t drive but helped the rest of us stay awake on the long hauls. I had, and still do have trouble with my vision in that I have no depth perception, plus I don’t see well at night. I didn’t say anything to the rest of them about it since I wanted to do my part. We were on our way south coming out of New England. It was my turn to drive. That tour was the first time I’d ever driven a car while pulling a trailer. (And it was the last…I haven’t done it since.) Anyway, I was approaching the outskirts of New York City. Here I was fighting all that fast traffic pulling that U-Haul. I didn’t know it at that moment, but I was scaring the crap out of the other three girls. Barbara told me that as soon as there was an exit, to pull off and let her drive.
I breathed a sigh of relief. My hands were sweaty, and my heart was pounding. Yes! I was thrilled to no end that my turn at the wheel was over. I must’ve scared them pretty bad because that was my last time I drove as long as I traveled with them. Barbara said, “Okay, Jean we about shit our pants while you were driving. From now on Kathy and I will handle the driving and you and Donna will take turns riding “shotgun”. That was all right with me, however, it was sometimes harder to stay awake when not concentrating on the road, after a long night of playing, tearing down, and loading up all that equipment.
That tour lasted about three weeks. While we were off, Barbara sold her Cadillac and bought a twenty-eight foot motor home. That thing rode like a buckboard, but at least we could get up and walk around some. It had a shower and bathroom, but the drums stayed stacked in the shower and we weren’t allowed to do “number two” in the toilet. After acquiring the motor home, Barbara decided we no longer had to get a motel, that we could just live in that vehicle. She said it’d save her a lot of money. Well, I’m here to tell you, that was when I got real disenchanted with that job. I hated living like “circus people”. There was no place to take a shower or wash our hair. We either parked at the club or at a shopping center parking lot. I got to going into the ladies room during the day at the clubs where we were booked and shampooing my hair. Standing up at those nasty sinks, I washed my body all and shaved my legs. One time I even washed my hair at a Walmart in Rhode Island. (the first Walmart I’d ever seen) The odd thing was, not having a place to bathe didn’t seem to bother the other three girls. They just ran a pan of water out of the holding tank of the motor home, sponged off and sprayed cologne and deodorant on themselves. They thought I was weird for complaining. In fact, they dubbed me as “Jean, Miss Hygiene”. Sometimes we got lucky and the club furnished rooms. That’s when I’d take a long shower every day while we were there and relish each minute of it. And you know what, to this very day, each evening when I step into the shower I think about how lucky I am to have a place to wash up.
I can tell you that we had a lot of strange experiences while on the road. This one was no different. It was late September and the weather in New England was starting to get chilly. The colorful foliage was like postcards I’d seen. Farmers had vegetable stands on the side of the road and we stopped and bought some fresh tomatoes and some Macintosh apples. We had a one nighter at a place in Vermont called Frye’s Barn. It was in the afternoon and the sun was already starting to move lower in the sky. Winding through the steep White Mountains Barbara kept searching for the address. We couldn’t understand where in the world it could be. There was no town nearby and all that was visible were farms and country houses. Accustomed to seeing some kind of sign denoting the venue, we kept looking and saw nothing. After circling around and backtracking we spotted an address matching the one Barbara had written on our contract. “This just can’t be it,” I said. “I don’t see anything but an old barn. There’s no club here.”
“Well, I’m pulling in here anyway.” Barbara said. “Maybe somebody around here can give us some directions if this isn’t the place.”
The motor home wobbled it’s way up a winding driveway to the top of a steep hill where it’d leveled off. There was a what looked like a two story dairy barn. Cows were walking around every which direction, un-tethered and not fenced in. Barbara got out and went inside to ask questions. She wasn’t gone but a couple of minutes, when she was back opening the door to our traveling house, “This is it!”
“You must be kidding! Where is the club?” we were all asking.
Barbara pointed to the second floor of the dairy barn, “Up those steps in that barn.”
“Naw, it can’t be…” I was saying in disbelief.
“Yeah it is. All right, let’s get to unloading.” Barbara directed.
I was still in pure shock. Who would come see us out in the middle of nowhere and cows milling around everywhere?
We proceeded to unload our equipment and I remember like it was yesterday rolling my new Kustom amp with its shiny chrome wheels through cow manure and it getting clogged in the wheels. Then we had to carry all that stuff up a set of narrow rickety wooden stairs to the second floor.
Once we were inside, I noticed the place had wooden plank floors and the stage was elevated at the far end of the building. There were a few picnic tables scattered about and wooden benches lined the wall. At the other end was a bar made out of the same wood planks as everything else was and a snack bar to the opposite side of the main door. Alcohol wasn’t served there, because we were told it was a family place. I kept wondering if anyone would show up in such a remote area.
That evening I was in for a big surprise. I don’t know where they came from, but the place was packed. It looked as if we’d gone back in time. The women all had long hair and were dressed in floor length pioneer dresses and wearing leather combat-style boots. Most of the men were wearing bib overalls and slouchy hats. The children were dressed the same way. What a weird place, I thought to myself.
Starting our first set we did our own up-beat rendition of “Proud Mary” and the dance floor filled up. As the night progressed I got to noticing some of the men going outside, then coming back in. We figured out they were going out to their cars for a snort since the place didn’t serve alcohol.
Around the third set, a man dressed in a beige trench coat approached the front of the stage. We were playing an up-tempo number and Donna motioned for me to look at the guy standing out front. There he was with all his manhood hanging out and bouncing to the beat…and this was supposed to be a family place. Barbara turned around from her keyboard and told us to keep playing that she was going after the manager. Before the song ended, the manager had quietly escorted the flasher out of the building.
Later that night after we’d finished and were back on the road we all had a big laugh about the flasher saying things like, “We should’ve left him alone. Wonder what he would’ve done to the beat of a slow one?”
Those laughs we had made some of the not-so-pleasant events of the road more worthwhile.
The Military Bases
We played a number of Air Force and Naval bases up through New England, and every place we went we got an unbelievable reception for us to be virtually “nobodies”.
We were at Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth NH and they furnished us with a PA so we didn’t have to unload ours. This was one of those huge Voice of the Theatre PAs with treble horns at the top of each cabinet. Before show time we did a sound check, and I began singing into the mic. The sound was incredible! I couldn’t believe it was actually me I was hearing. Back in those days few bands had monitors so it was indeed a surprise for one to hear one’s self. There was no one in the club when we did our sound check, but that night when we walked onto the stage the place was packed to overflowing. They were screaming, whistling, and applauding so loud that we could hardly hear ourselves, even with those big speakers. I could only imagine what the Beatles experienced. I can say… that was fun.
We played at Groton Submarine Base in Groton, Connecticut. That was where I acquired the name, “Imajean”
We had just gotten back on stage after a break, when one of those Navy boys approached me and asked me my name. The jukebox was still blaring so the guy couldn’t hear me very well. I answered saying, “I’m Jean.”
He said, “Imajean. Well good to meet you Imajean. You shore are purty!”
The rest of the night he was calling me Imajean.
“Hey Imajean, do you know certain such a song.”
That was all it took for me to be kidded by the rest of the band…they all called me Imajean from then on when they were kidding about something.
The next day we were invited to have lunch on a real submarine. We had to make our way through a small hole at the top of the vessel and climb down a steep ladder. For drinks, we were served green Kool-Aid, which they called bug juice. They explained that carbonated beverages were not allowed–something about the carbonation under water. We toured the ship and there were places we were not allowed to see because they were considered “classified”. We never left the dock, but I never dreamed I’d be on a submarine.