RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Wonderful words of life

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

I met author Sharon Thomason in Dahlonega, Ga., on a December day in 1994. I was there to write a column about a Southern cemetery newsletter she was trying to start called “Grave Matters.”

I was struck by her novel idea – and her insistence that I mention in print that she’d return money to all subscribers if lack of interest killed the project. I also admired all the trivia she stored in her red head. For instance, plastic flowers are illegal in German cemeteries.

The graveyard newsletter got off the ground, but soon died. A friendship, however, was born.

Both of us love to haunt cemeteries, are the same age, have Alabama and Georgia roots and are journalists, each with a failed editorial attempt on our resumes. And we share a passion: traditional country music. If we had our druthers, both of us would rather write Hank poetry than newspaper prose, but then both of us are realists and have done what must be done to make a living.

“Sing Them Over Again To Me,” Sharon’s new book, is subtitled “Loving Memories of Classic Country Music.” In it she recounts a lifetime love affair with the hillbilly music that wasn’t cool during our teen years. She and her best friend from childhood, Paula Andrews, felt alone bucking the Beatles, and rock and roll trend. I denied my geeky preferences for a while; they never did.

“Even though it was fashionable in the 1960s to make fun of country music, we resolutely continued to watch ‘The Jimmy Dean Show’ on TV and to sing along with Eddy Arnold,” she writes.

The young friends were not passive about their passion or haphazard about pilgrimages. At age 14, they saw Eddy Arnold in concert. They later spent a college summer in Nashville, taking menial jobs just to be near the country stars and breathe the same air. As young women, they made a 10–day tour of Texas to experience that fertile field, and a repeat journey a decade later.

This is the story of encounters of chance – well, some not so accidental – finagling for interviews and backstage passes, persistent and wily attempts to get ever closer to the core of country. It’s part music history, part groupie shenanigans, but mostly a long love letter to the brand of music that tells the truth with three chords and plain language.

I won’t spoil her story by saying what she thought of Bill Anderson, Roger Miller, Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, Bonnie Owens, Mel Tillis, Charlie Rich, Charley Pride or Jimmie Davis – or the waitresses at the Nashville soda fountain where she worked. Sharon has a way of judging folks by old–fashioned standards of kindness and decency. Her assessments of some might surprise you.

I lost track of Sharon after leaving Atlanta but saw her again in 2010 at a Nashville festival where I was trying to sell a few books. She and her friend Paula were there together for the first time in 30 years, where, showing characteristic finesse, they had been backstage at the Opry the night before.

Laughing, Sharon said this time in Nashville they had sprung for separate hotel rooms, despite the fact that they had shared a double bed in an apartment with a third roommate during that seminal summer in Nashville.

“We both snore now,” Sharon said.

The best thing about the newspaper business is the strange and wonderful people you get to meet, and usually the most memorable ones are not household names.

They are people like Sharon Thomason, a woman who once wrote exclusively about graveyards, who is not too proud to ask for autographs and who knows the words to the Goo Goo Cluster jingle.

To find out more about RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.