Granny's Little Girlbyronde©
Sweat trickled down the bare skin of Christy’s back as she made her final bow of the evening. The band played the title song from her latest single and kept the crowd of fair-goers on their feet and applauding so loudly the din threatened to drown out even the pounding thump of Terry’s electric bass. It felt good to be liked, even though she’d never meet most of the people in the audience. Security would keep the people away from her tour bus until the band had loaded up and they left the fairgrounds. Security always kept the people away, and to Christy, it seemed as if the uniformed guards were also keeping her away from her fans. Before, when she sang gospel and bluegrass, she could go where she wanted, talk to anybody, and never give it a second thought. Now that three of her singles were on the country charts, Harry, her manager, had arranged for her protection at every performance.
She knew Harry was right. One of his singers had been attacked by a fan and injured a few months ago, and he’d played it safe since. It was strange, she thought, that people could like you so much they would hurt you just to get a souvenir. The singer in question hadn’t been all that well known, but the guy had still tried to rip off her top.
The stage curtain came down, and Christy went from one band member to another, giving them each her usual thank you hug. It was a tradition she’d started as soon as she had a full-time band.
Back in her tour bus, Christy stripped off the boots, tight leather pants, and white lace corset top, and eased her tired body into sweatpants and a T-shirt. Dave would soon be steering the bus down Interstate 40 on the way to Nashville and a one-week recording session. Christy padded on bare feet from her tiny bedroom to the refrigerator for a soda and a sandwich. She never ate before a show.
In an hour, the band had loaded up and they rolled out of town. Christy lay in her bed and listened to the droning song of the wheels on the asphalt and the muffled chatter from the front of the bus. The guys would have a few beers before turning in, but they were careful to keep the noise down so they wouldn’t wake her. Christy was their special girl; that’s what they told her, anyway. It was hard to really trust what they said. She was their paycheck. If she didn’t perform well, they’d be playing backups for demo tapes again. She laughed to herself. She was just a farm girl from the mountains of Tennessee, and they treated her like a real celebrity.
She liked all the guys in the band, but Terry Majors, the bass player, was her secret favorite. Terry had been a mystery since he’d joined the band. He was one of the best bass players in the business, and Harry had said she was fortunate to have him. Terry was good. He was really too good for her, and Christy couldn’t figure out why he’d joined her fledgling group.
He was also a loner. At first, Christy tried to get close to Terry. There was something about the tall, slender, dark-haired man that pulled at her. When he looked at her, she read something in those brown eyes that sent a shiver down her back. That same mystique pulled at other women, too, but Terry had never been seen with a woman. All her efforts resulted in nothing. When they performed, she’d often catch him watching her and smiling, but as soon as the curtain came down, Terry retreated into his shell.
Only once, in a dingy little diner outside of Shelby, Mississippi, had they spent any time together off stage. The greasy spoon was the only place open at that time of night. The other guys piled into a booth ahead of Terry and Christy, so they sat at a table by themselves. She’d felt his presence and felt her body respond. They’d talked and he seemed to relax a little, but as soon as they got on the bus, Terry went back into his own world. After a while she stopped trying.
Christy Nell was born Christine Elizabeth Snelling on a little farm just outside of May’s Peak, Tennessee, a tiny little community nestled in a valley of the Great Smokies. Christy was the third of three girls born to Everett and Constance. As were most people in May’s Peak, Christy’s family was poor, but proud, and had a great love of family and friends. Family and friends were important in times of trouble. When her father hurt his back, the neighboring farmers all pitched in to harvest his crop. When Mr. Adams’ little boy got lost in the woods, Christy’s father led the search party that found him. When Christy’s mother died, her widowed grandmother stepped in to fill the void. Granny was the only mother Christy really remembered.
Christy got her first new dress on her fifteenth birthday, but new clothes didn’t come just for birthdays. In this case, the reason was the annual summer revival at the Church of Christ in May’s Peak. The revival was a weeklong affair that ended with a big Sunday service. People from the surrounding communities would attend and stay the week with members of the May’s Peak congregation. At least a hundred visitors were expected, and the little church would never accommodate that many for the activities. Her father’s farm was chosen as the site for the huge tent Pastor Jackson rented in Knoxville. It would be pitched in the pasture beside the barn. The small creek that ran through the pasture would serve as the font for the many baptisms that would take place during the week.
Lay ministers from as far away as Chattanooga and Atlanta would make the trip to speak during the daytime meetings. Every night, a gospel sing would take place inside the tent. Each congregation would send their best singers, and there might even be a professional group or two who’d kept the ties to their rural roots. Rumor had it the Crestwood Quartet would even be there. Everybody knew about the Crestwood Quartet. The group had formed in nearby Bar’s Ford, and had gone on to record many best-selling albums of gospel music.
Christy and her sisters, June and Evelyn, were going to represent May’s Peak at the sing on Monday night. That distinction was worthy of a new dress for each. Christy’s grandmother would never have it said that her granddaughters sang well but looked a little tattered. She sold eggs and took in some sewing from the town folk to earn money for the flowered cotton material, and Christy’s father cut and polished the mussel shell buttons. After a month of sewing and fitting, Granny was satisfied her girls looked just right. Christy was overjoyed. All her other clothes had been worn by both her older sisters before being passed down to her.
The first day of the revival was exhilarating. People arrived throughout the morning, and by noon, the pasture was filled with cars and the tent filled with people milling around and getting reacquainted between sermons. There were just two other girls in May’s Peak of Christy’s age. The revival brought twelve more. They spent every free moment together talking in whispers about being women and everything that meant, and watching the equally large number of boys who came with their parents. All these girls knew many marriages resulted from these revivals, and they watched their older sisters to see just how courting was really done.
The preaching during the day was to cleanse the souls of the devout and convert the less faithful. The gospel sing was for a different reason. Although the songs were hymns and bluegrass songs with a religious theme, the sing was really pure entertainment. Most of the revival attendees were subsistence farmers. They had plenty to eat and a place to live, but little cash money for extras like records or books. The sing was free and everybody stayed.
That night, after a supper of fried chicken prepared by some of the May’s Peak women, the sing began. Christy and her sisters were scheduled at the beginning of the program, and followed a boy’s trio from Wabash. Pastor Jackson introduced them as the Snelling Sisters. Christy sucked in a deep breath and followed June onto the rough-sawn lumber stage. They would sing “Rock of Ages”.
Christy looked out at the mass of people under the spreading canvas and her heart nearly jumped from her chest. She hadn’t counted on so many, and they all seemed to be frowning. Finally, she spotted a kindly looking man in the first row who smiled when she caught his eye. Christy locked her eyes on the man as soon as the piano accompaniment began.
Their performance was good except for when Evelyn faltered a little on the second verse, but Christy was pleased. The crowd had applauded for a long time, much longer than for the trio from Wabash. The friendly man in the front row had watched her through the whole song, and gave her a smiling nod of approval when they had finished.
Partway through the performances was a half-hour break for refreshments. The women who hadn’t helped with supper had spent the afternoon making cakes, cookies, and candy. At the back of the tent was a long table of the same rough planks as the stage. It was loaded with crocks of steaming coffee, hot chocolate, iced tea, and cold milk as well as plates heaped high with sweets. Christy selected a glass of tea and two cookies. On the way back to her seat, she came face to face with the man who had watched her sing.
“Miss Snelling, I just wanted to tell you how much I liked your singing. Your sisters are pretty good, too, but you’re the pick of the litter.”
Christy blushed. “Thank you, Sir.”
“No. Thank you. By the way, Honey, what’s your name?”
“Christine, Christine Elizabeth, Sir.”
“Well, Christine Elizabeth, after everybody gets done singin’ what they planned, some of us’ll get together and just sing whatever we want. It’ll be kinda late, but it’ll be lots of fun. Would you like to join in?”
“I’ll have to ask Granny if it’s alright.”
The man smiled and winked at her. “Well, you just go an’ ask her then. I want you to sing with us.”
Christy ran to find her grandmother. Imagine! Being asked to sing with the adults. That had never happened at any revival she’d ever attended. Usually, any child under sixteen was whisked off at ten to the homes in which they stayed, girls in one room of the house, and boys in another. One adult stayed in each house to chaperone. Having the children safely in bed freed the adults to enjoy the impromptu portion of the sing, and saved a lot of worry by the mothers of girls not yet old enough to be with boys by themselves.
“Granny, Granny. A man asked me to sing with them after everybody gets done. Can I?”
“I don’t know Honey. Who is he?”
“I don’t know his name, but he’s real friendly. He watched me all the time we were singing.”
“Well, can you show him to me?”
Christy looked out over the milling mass of people.
“There he is, Granny. That man in the grey suit over there talking to Pastor Jackson.”
Christy’s grandmother clasped her hand to her chest.
“Lordy, child. Don’t you know who that is?”
“That’s James Wilson. He sings in the Crestwood Quartet. Are you real sure he asked you to sing with them?”
“Yes, Granny. He said I was pretty good and he wanted me to sing with them after everybody got done. Can I? Please?”
At eleven, James Wilson led Christy back on stage and stood with his arm around her shoulder. He’d had to talk to Christy’s grandmother for ten minutes to convince her, but he had. Christy was elated and afraid at the same time.
“Folks, this little girl is Christine Elizabeth Snelling. You heard her and her sisters sing before. I think she sings real good, and I asked if she’d come on up here and sing with us. Y’all don’t mind, do you.”
A round of applause followed.
“OK, Honey. Here we go. D’you know Noah Found Grace?”
“I…, no, I don’t.”
“That’s alright. Can you read music?”
“Good. Here’s our songbook. You just let us sing the first verse so you hear the melody, and then you join in on the second. OK?”
“I – I’ll try.”
The piano player began a lightening fast introduction, and it took Christy a few seconds to find her place on the page. She listened to the melody and realized she’d heard it before. Granny sometimes hummed the song while working, although she hummed it a lot slower. She looked up at Mr. Wilson and grinned.
She had a little trouble starting out, but once she got the beat, Christy got through the song without much trouble. The next three she’d sung in church, and relaxed a little. She was waiting for the next selection when Mr. Wilson announced they were going to take a break and let the Gordon Brothers sing for a while. He took her by the hand and led her off the stage.
“Honey, you did real good. You sing like a grown woman, you know that?”
Christy blushed and looked at her shoes.
“No. I never thought about it much. I just sing.”
“Well, you do. You have good pitch and your voice comes clear and smooth, just like it should. You seem a little tense, though.”
“I guess I’m nervous. There’s so many people out there and –“
“Nah, that’s not a lot of people. Sometimes we sing for a thousand; sometimes two.”
“Gosh, I’d be scared to death.”
“Oh, it’s not that bad. You oughta try it some time. Probably like it. Say, you got any song you really like a lot?”
“Well…, I like Amazing Grace. Granny sings it all the time. She says it was Momma’s favorite, too. They sang it at her funeral.”
Christy and the quartet did three more songs, and she was starting to understand why people liked them so much. In church, old Mr. Winslow led every song to a regular beat. The quartet anticipated beats sometimes, and sometimes let a beat go by before jumping back into the rhythm of the music. Sometimes Mr. Wilson, the baritone, would do one thing, and Mr. Hastings, the tenor would do the other while their piano player did both at the same time. The result was a unique blend of piano and voice that stirred something deep in her heart.
“Well, folks, we’re gonna wind it up fer tonight. Pastor Jackson tells me that Carl Peters, the evangelist from over at Bald Rock, is gonna preach us a sermon tomorrow. I know from experience he don’t tolerate no sleepers in his congregation, so we better get us some rest.”
There were whispers and titters from the audience. They knew all about Carl Peters.
“We’re gonna do one last song to send you off to bed. This is Christine’s favorite, and I think you’ll like it a lot.”
Mr. Wilson turned to Christy. “You just sing your heart out Honey. Sing like your mamma’s listening to you, ‘cause I’m sure she is.”
At the end of the familiar piano introduction, Christy began to sing. The first verse of the old hymn sent chills running down her back, and tears blurred her vision as she thought about Mamma. Mr. Ames’ rich bass resonated in her chest and the soft, blended harmony of the other three voices brought her melody to life. Just before the end of the first verse, Mr. Wilson leaned over and whispered in her ear.
“Remember, Honey, your Mamma’s listenin’, so sing out.”
Christy took a deep breath and began the second verse only to realize she was singing alone. The quartet was softly humming in accompaniment and the piano player was playing even softer. Her voice faltered for a second and she felt Mr. Wilson gently squeeze her shoulder.
At his touch, the emotions that had been building in Christy flooded her mind. Momma was listening. Christy felt her there, somehow. Her voice swelled to a richness that surprised her, and tears streamed down her cheeks as she sang the words. Christy closed her eyes and let her voice become everything. She didn’t falter when the quartet joined in and started to repeat the first verse. There was no way to stop herself from singing. She just opened her mouth and the crystal-clear tones flowed out.
When the song ended, Christy waited for the applause to open her eyes, but there was nothing but a few sniffs and carefully muffled coughs. She looked at the crowd. Some of the men were nervously fishing in pant’s pockets for handkerchiefs. The women already had theirs and were dabbing at their eyes. Mr. Wilson’s voice startled her.
“Folks, I just heard something special here, tonight. I know you heard it too. We owe this little girl a thank you.”
There was a clap, followed by another, then another. In a few seconds, all the people were standing and clapping.
She sang every night with the Crestwood Quartet, and every night Granny told her how nice she sounded. After the Sunday service, she saw Mr. Wilson talking to her father.
A month later, Christy stepped off the school bus and saw a shiny black car parked in front of the house. When she went inside, a man in a suit was sitting at the kitchen table talking with her father and Granny.
“Of course, you’d want her to finish school, but she won’t have to live in Nashville. She’ll just have to go there to make recordings. I heard her sing that Saturday night. If things go like I think they will, she’s going to sell a lot of records. I’ll get her some public appearances, too, at fairs and such, but that’ll probably be in the summer, and I’ll keep ‘em as close to home as I can.” The man looked up as Christy walked to Granny’s side. “Ah, there you are, Christine. Hi, I’m Harry Sellers.”
And that was how it started. By the time Christy finished high school, she had made several appearances with the Crestwood Quartet, and a few by herself. Her own gospel album had been released. It was titled “Granny’s Little Girl”, and the last song on the record was Amazing Grace. Her first bluegrass album was on tape and being edited. She’d made enough money to buy her own car and to help out her father and Granny as much as they’d permit. The switch from bluegrass to country, one she made a year later, had been easy, and the sales of her first single had soared. Now, she was twenty, and the title song from her last album had just joined two of her others in the top forty.
The bus came to a stop and the squeal of the brakes woke Christy. She pulled the curtain away from the little window and saw the skyline of Nashville. This afternoon, she would begin recording songs for her latest album. Now, it was time to get settled into the motel room and get something to eat. She yawned, stretched, scratched her head and got up to dress.
The busboy had just left the room when her phone rang.
“Christy, this is Harry. Honey, you have to go home right away. I’ve moved some stuff around so you can have a couple weeks there.”
“What about my record? Don’t we have to start –“
“Christy…, Oh, dammit, how do I tell you this? Christy, Honey…, your father called me this morning. Honey, Granny is gone. It was last night…. She…, she just slipped away in her sleep. Honey, I’m sorry. I didn’t even know she was ill or I’d have brought you back sooner. Your father said she didn’t want to keep you from singing, and she made him promise not to say anything.”
The funeral had been nice, if there can be such a thing as a nice way to say goodbye to someone forever. Her father asked if she’d sing Amazing Grace at the end of the service.
“Granny loved the way you sang it. She played your record every day you were away. I know it’s a lot to ask, but you’re the only one who can sing it the way she liked.”
After the graveside service came the dinner prepared by every woman in the valley. At eight, Christy walked outside. She needed to be away from everybody and alone with her thoughts. The barn beckoned through the fading evening light, and she could almost see the big revival tent and the people. Christy retraced the steps taken years ago into the big revival tent and up onto the stage. It seemed so long ago, and yet, she remembered every detail as if it had happened only yesterday. When she closed her eyes, she saw not the pasture cropped close by the cattle, but the crowd of revival attendees standing and clapping. Down there, on the right, was Granny, a lacy hanky in her hand and a smile beaming through the tears.