By Jim Hornsby & Brian Buchanan
Roy Harper sums up his life by saying, “I’ve lived a lot in my time,” and it would be difficult to disagree with that assessment. At 87 years of age, he has had – and continues to have – a remarkable variety of experiences and adventures. He is retired from a railroading career, and was once vice-president of a national labor union. He has been a popular performer all his life with over 350 recordings to his credit, and in addition, he has been a generous friend and mentor for many Nashville musicians who needed a helping hand getting started. He is an accomplished visual artist with oil paintings in many prestigious locations, including the Tennessee State Museum. He is called upon regularly to perform at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and in 1986, he was one of a select few who were chosen to represent the Tennessee folk arts at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folk Life in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Harper lives near Manchester, Tennessee, in the same house where he was born and raised. We visited him there on February 4, 2011 and he told us about his life:
“I have always loved music. My mother played the organ and sang, and I’m told that my granddaddy was a good fiddler. My earliest memory of music is listening to records played on a wind-up Victrola that my daddy bought. He had a collection of records, country and otherwise. He got a second-hand Philco radio about 1930. Hardly anybody had one, and I remember some Saturday nights the house would be filled wall-to-wall with family and friends listening to the Grand Old Opry. Now days there’s music everywhere you go, but back then there wasn’t much music around, so when there was music, it was a social occasion.
“My first instrument was a harmonica that I got for Christmas when I was about 4 years old. I had been at the county fair and saw a blind fellow sitting on an apple crate playing guitar and harmonica, and I really enjoyed hearing him play. I must have talked a lot about that to my parents because Santa Claus brought me a harmonica that Christmas. I didn’t take lessons, I just started playing, and somebody told me later I was playing it upside down, but I didn’t really care.
“My parents encouraged me to play. My earliest memory of singing and playing in public was at my one-room schoolhouse. There was a music and recitation contest for kids of various ages. I didn’t win, but I discovered that I enjoy playing for an audience. When I was about eight, I started imitating singers like Elton Britt and Cowboy Slim Reinhart who yodeled, and I got pretty good at it. I learned guitar from two brothers, J.P. and Vernon Morgan. They had an old phonograph, and we would sing and play records. I heard Jimmie Rogers for the first time there. He was singing “Train Whistle Blues,” and it really got next to me. My fire to play had been smoldering, but hearing Jimmie Rogers put flame to it.
“I played for school socials at first and then at family gatherings and community get-togethers – revivals, auction sales and the like. Along about that time I began to be paid for playing. It was hard for a kid to make any money. I had been working in the fields mostly, plowing corn and cutting brush. Getting paid for singing and playing seemed like a fine thing.
“I grew up listening to train whistles in the distance and thinking about all the places a fellow could go, so as soon as I could after I got out of high school, I went to Chattanooga and applied for work on the railroad. They sent me to Chicago for a physical and put me right to work as a brakeman. It was a dangerous job. Brakemen had to jump off and on moving trains to throw track switches, and we would walk along the tops of freight cars bouncing and swaying around. A lot of men were injured or killed working for the railroad, but it was exciting and I loved it.
“The railroads would lay us off from time to time and we would have to find something to do until we went back to work. I spent a good bit of time out west, and I carried my guitar and harmonica with me so I could play the bars and rodeos to earn some money. Even when I was working, the railroads didn’t always pay right on time and it got to be pretty rough out there sometimes. I remember once selling my boots to a fellow for 4 dollars so I could get something to eat. Another time, after a long night out, I woke up in jail at Yuma, Arizona. They said, ‘We thought you were dead.’ I said, ‘I thought I was, too.’
“Railroad men were clannish and didn’t cotton much to cowboys, but I got to know lots of them from playing music. They would whoop and holler when I played and tell me lots of wild tales about famous horses and life on the prairie. It was great fun. I remember playing at a rodeo in Winslow, Arizona when Gene Autry came by. He got up on the wagon bed with me, and when I finished, he borrowed my old D-28 and played some of his songs. As he was leaving, his fans were a little too energetic and messed up his hat, but the chamber of commerce later voted to get him a new one. He was very popular back then.
“When I was about 27, I got laid off at the railroad and I came back to Manchester. That’s when I met Blake Bynum, and we started playing together. He was a fine Hawaiian slide guitar player – the ‘biscuit board’ as some people called it – and pretty soon we were recording and playing on the radio. I cut my first record in 1946 at Jim Beck’s studio in Dallas, Texas, and my first live radio performance was in July of 1948 at WJIG in Tullahoma. I remember it was hot in the studio, and as soon as I started playing, a fly lit on my nose and I couldn’t get rid of it. I kept the people in the studio entertained with the faces I made trying to get that fly off my nose.
“Other musicians wanted Blake to play for them, but he wouldn’t play for anybody who didn’t meet his standards. He didn’t drink or abide anybody who did. One time Hank Williams and some members of his band drove all the way out to Blake’s house to ask him to join them. Blake heard they were coming and hid in the weeds out in back of his house while they knocked and blew the car horn. Later, he said he wouldn’t talk to them because he had heard that Hank was a heavy drinker. Blake had very strict convictions; I would see him on the street sometimes and he would stop and give me a temperance lecture.
“Goober Buchanan was a friend of mine, and we traveled to shows together. He was a comedian and the funniest man I have ever known. People started laughing when he walked out on stage and didn’t stop until he left. People just went crazy when he entertained. We would drive up to Nashville now and then and play at the Renfro Valley Barn Dance. Red Foley helped build that auditorium.
“Sometimes we would go over to the Ryman. Goober knew all those people at the Opry, so he could get us in back stage. That was in its hay day when stars like Dave Macon, Minnie Pearl, Roy Acuff, and Ernest Tubb were there. Backstage was like a big family reunion every Saturday night with everybody swapping wild tales, pulling tricks and telling dirty jokes. Roy kept a pint sitting on the table, and there was more cutting up back there than you can imagine. Uncle Dave would entertain with his banjo for a while and then he would go to preaching. He could preach a pretty good sermon; he said it doubled his chances of doing something somebody liked. I tried to double my chances by learning songs that told good stories. I figured that if people didn’t like my singing or playing, they might still like the story. I knew about 500 songs.
“Blake and I tried out for the Opry one time. They said we were a little rough around the edges, but invited us to come back when we had two or three songs well practiced. I would have gone back, but just about then the railroad offered me a job and I decided to go back to work there. Some people were doing real well at the Opry, and radio was good promotion, but other people convinced me that I should stay in a more stable business and work toward a pension, so I went back to railroading.
“But by 1959, I was laid off from the railroad again and back in Nashville playing music. I remember the date because I bought a brand new 1959 Chevrolet that year. I was recording at the Varsity Recording Company and selling encyclopedias to earn some extra money. The job was convenient for me because when I made my rounds selling books, I could also stop off at radio stations and juke box companies and give them my new 45 records. One morning when I was about to begin my rounds, my supervisor asked if I could help out a salesman who was up from Texas. He was having car trouble and needed someone he could ride with around the area. I said sure, and he introduced me to Willie Nelson, encyclopedia salesman and song writer. Willie was a fine guitar picker, but he was having trouble getting anybody to buy his songs. He was pretty discouraged and about to go back to Texas when he happened to meet Faron Young in Tootsie’s and got him to sit still long enough to hear ‘Hello Walls.’ The next time I saw Willie, he was dressed fine.
“I began oil painting when I was about 10 years old, and I have been at it off and on since that time. I painted some when I was working out west because I could trade the paintings at the bars for something to smoke and drink. I began to specialize in railroad pictures because there wasn’t much competition there.
“I took a few art lessons early on. They were boring, but it was a good way to meet pretty girls. There were lots of years when I was too busy with other things to paint, but it was always on my mind, and as I have gotten older, I have had more time to work at it. I estimate that I have painted between 375 and 400 pictures so far.
“How would I like to be remembered? They asked Grandpa Jones that question and he said, ‘Boy, he was a wild one’ – and I guess I have lived some wild times too. But I would say that I am very grateful to all the people who have enjoyed my music and very grateful that so many fine people took the time to help me along the way.”