During my first two years of music lessons we didn’t have a piano at home. It was, however, only a short walk to my grandmother’s house. Mama Joiner had an ancient Price & Teeple upright in her living room. It didn’t have a perfect tone, but it sounded pretty good to me. Four days a week I borrowed her alarm clock to ensure I didn’t exceed the minimum practice expectations.
I plinked out basic tunes with the finesse of an uninspired second and then third grade musician. Mama Joiner would say, “That sounds really good, Buggy Boy,” calling me a pet name which had no particular significance.
When it was time for fourth grade, Daddy sent my older brother, Jimmy, and me to school in Unadilla. The last high school seniors had graduated from Pinehurst in 1958. The eight remaining grades were expected to be phased out in another year or so.
Changing schools meant changing piano teachers, a perfect time it seemed to stop taking lessons. But Mama wanted me to first meet the teacher, Mrs. Mary Frances Beddingfield. Mama knew that once I boarded a ship, I was unlikely to jump off.
Mrs. Beddingfield was a jolly lady with a constant smile. She had no paddle in sight and assured me we would have a good time. I reluctantly signed up for the twice weekly program.
Mama and Daddy soon bought a reconditioned piano from Bibb Music Company in Macon. It cost $250, which was a sizable amount in 1960. I realized that purchase had sealed my destiny. Having a piano at home with no one to play it was an option I knew would not readily be offered.
Not long after getting that piano, my mother’s aunt, Kate Bembry Parnell, came for an unannounced visit. She walked to the edge of the field where Mama and I were picking cotton. I had even less enthusiasm for picking cotton than practicing piano. We didn’t have thermos jugs back then. We’d put ice water in a Mason jar and place it in the shade at the end of a row. My water was usually gone before the ice melted. I prioritized quenching my thirst over filling my cotton sack.
Aunt Kate said something that day that will cause me to forever hold her memory dear. She said, “I was hoping to hear Neil play the piano.” I only knew a couple of songs, the names of which I have long forgotten, but we all headed to the living room for a concert.
We didn’t have air conditioning at the time, but we had a big, square, green fan that had the force of a mighty wind. It didn’t matter that the air it stirred was hot. It was a welcome respite from the heat, sweat, and gnats of that cotton field.
I played those two songs until Aunt Kate raised the white flag of surrender. That impromptu performance gave me a new perspective on music and inspired me to practice a little more. My motivation for sticking with piano lessons had shifted from fear to comfort. I found the rhythmic sounds of that whirring fan blade much preferable to the whines of attacking gnats.
In 1960 Floyd Cramer captivated the nation with his unique slip-style piano recording of “Last Date.” Floyd was way ahead of Beethoven in my book. Young ladies swooned, screamed, and sometimes fainted when he played. I was ten years old and began having fleeting thoughts of putting the alarm clock away, especially during the season for harvesting cotton.
In the ninth grade, I joined the Unadilla Future Farmers of America String Band. Charles Jones and Jerry Pickard were top notch piano players, but they were needed on guitars. They patiently tutored me through “Last Date,” “Down Yonder,” and other country standards. I began to understand that practice helps pave a road that can be worth traveling.
Aunt Emily, my father’s sister, inherited Mama Joiner’s piano. She gave it to me in the 1970s, and Daddy paid to have it professionally restored. We were delighted to find that beneath its dull black exterior was beautiful oak wood.
The discovery of that piano’s hidden splendor was unexpected, just like the improvement in my motivation had been years earlier. Those guys in the band unknowingly helped me embrace a new attitude. Playing piano in the string band of a small-town school is when I finally stopped watching the clock. That old piano doesn’t have a perfect tone, but it sounds pretty good to me.