This American Life


It's autumn 1960. Cactus Jack and Larry Lee are on their way to Jump-River Rosy's, fixing to meet up for a rockabilly gig. On the way Larry stops at several taverns, trying to sell his records so bar patrons will hear them on the jukebox.

Fifty years in the future Larry is sitting in his kitchen, an hour outside of the Twin Cities. He's 87, living alone with his Gibson, his fiddle, and his dog. He remembers a fiery young man with a gift for songwriting and a dream of signing with RCA.

On his way to Rosy's, in '60, Larry thinks about a show with Ernest Tubb six years earlier, down in Nashville. Larry was on his way up back then, hoping to land a date with the Grand Ole Opry. Tubb said he loved Larry's sound.

Backstage at the Tubb gig, Larry's bass player mentioned that he was rooming with a quiet kid in Nashville named Elvis Presley. The bass player was trying to talk Presley out of playing "colored people's music" because "that stuff was going nowhere." In 1966 Larry would be just as polite listening to his wife tell him his music was going nowhere.

Elvis, as it turned out, would cobble together a respectable living. But Larry ran out of gigs and ended up drifting down to Panama City, Florida, where he opened a bar and hosted a nightly radio show called The Singing Cowboy Radio Hour Live from Club Western.

Last week Larry was telling stories in his home in the woods just across the Wisconsin border. He's proud of having made the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, but he says his songwriting was good enough to get him a career like Johnny Cash had.

"In Nashville they practice saying no," Larry says. "They work all day on different ways to say no, so that when the young guys come by with their guitars and their songs, the suits are ready to shoo 'em out the door."

During the Depression Larry picked cucumbers for a few pennies a pail near White Hall, Wisconsin, and saved his coins in a tobacco tin. When he had $2.98 he ordered a guitar from Sears.

"A few days later I saw it hanging off the mailbox in a cardboard box. My dad told me musicians are useless bums, so I had to practice when he was at prayer meetings."

It's the early 1950s. Larry is playing the circuit. He's got Slewfoot Herbie, Tennessee Jimmy, and a hot brunette backup singer named Ginny Mae. Their band is the Coral City Ramblers, and they ride together in a cream-colored Dodge convertible, playing the towns from eastern Michigan to the Dakotas. Larry's on the rise and having the time of his life.

At the Cackle Shack in Milwaukee a large crowd has shown up because Larry has been featured routinely on Wisconsin's first commercial television station, WTMJ. A barroom brawl erupts, led by a 300-pounder with a snootful. Larry tells the band to keep playing as he unstraps his Martin and leaps onto the shoulders of the enraged giant.

"I took him to the ground like a rodeo rider locking a steer," Larry says. "A couple of bartenders came over to take it from there, and I jumped back up onstage wiping blood off my hands with a tablecloth just as the cops busted through the door. They looked at me, but I was singing the strains of Lefty Frizzell as calmly as if I were at a church service."

Soon Larry has himself a Cadillac that he purchases in memory of Hank Williams, who dies in the very same model on a cold New Year's Day.

RCA is talking about signing Larry to a recording contract, but he gets word through the mail that they're putting that on hold for now so as to spend their time and money on a new kid named Presley.

It's as close as he gets to the big time.

Back in his Wisconsin kitchen Larry's plucking his Gibson. He says his pedal steel player, his various lead guitar players, and his fiddler are all dead now.

He recalls befriending Patsy Cline and having to console her as she cried and threatened to quit because she'd only made $1,200 for "Walking After Midnight."

"Even big stars can long for more," he says.

On the floor sleeps Larry's dog, Grizzie. His wife died a year ago. "She was 20 years younger than me," he says. "She was supposed to stick around to care for me in my old age.

"That didn't work out either."