The Hills Are Alive

An obscure old folk album reveals a place where stories--both spoken and sung--are priceless heirlooms

Sammy holds Nathan against her chest, which is covered by a tee shirt that says "Bangkok." When I first called, she had been a little brusque over the phone, but in person, Sammy is tall and gracious and sassy. I like her a lot. But I can imagine a tongue-lashing from this woman would be horrific.

Leonard continues:
"One night I was sitting there on the couch there and I got to thinkin' about this. 'Why don't you just call up Social Security and tell 'em you're going to retire?' I really hadn't made up my mind when I made the call, said I just wanted to know what retirement would look like and what I could get, and they said, 'I can write you up right now.' Why not? In about three or four days, why, here come a retirement check. That was in '96. I'd actually like to get back into music, now I got the time."

As he says all this, Leonard is cradling his 12-string, the one Sammy got him 20 years ago. He puts it to use, moving with raspy throat and pure heart into the world of three-chord country tunes. Something called "Faded Love." Then "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," after that a tune by Jimmie Rogers, the legendary "Singing Brakeman."

He gets to a line that goes, "He let me off in Texas, a place I dearly love . . ." and stumbles over the rest of the words. Sammy, who has been nodding her head in time, whispers a prompt. Leonard picks up the verse on the downstroke, Nathan begins to wail a bit, Lana reaches over and pats his stomach, then begins to sing along so softly I have to look over to make sure she's doing it.

Outside it's dark and cold on the Mogollon Rim, but here in this pink and brown house, the front room is warm, three generations of Clay Springers are softly cobbling a piece of music together, and a certain flatlander with a little Japanese tape machine punched on "record" is sitting on the couch finding out what the soul of a certain thrift-shop album was all about.

So it is 1997. You are a young person in a small rural Arizona town who has just put in a full day at the lumber mill. You come home to the World Wide Web on your computer screen, a rack of CDs and a multidisc scramble option player in the living room, and Van Damme beamed in on cable instead of Van Holyoak dropping in from down the road.

Do you really want to sit around with your weary chums and pluck out "Turkey in the Straw" on a banjo that you actually have to spend time tuning?

Probably not.
As more than one Clay Springs resident told me, all that long-gone homespun creativity was maybe just a product of there being nothing else to do. Loners and cowpunchers are no longer moving from town to town, swapping stories around campfires, spreading songs around potbellied stoves. Clay Springs has indoor plumbing, Clay Springs has electricity, Clay Springs has everything everybody everywhere else has.

But Clay Springs also has a lot of wide open spaces and blood that still runs thick, and plenty of great-grandchildren of those asleep down Cemetery Road. Children who might grow up and find a way to listen to the past, and get on a horse some night and go sing to the stars.

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