The Return of the Townsmen

The Townsmen have returned. Who are the Townsmen, you ask? Allow me to tell you by clicking here.

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(Poster designed by Sean Williams)

After nearly two years of emailing men who don’t really use email and making phone calls to some who only carry flip phones, my dream since the 1990’s finally came true in the form of a rehearsal this past Friday and a show on Saturday.

In addition to the satisfaction of finally seeing my dad perform music with his band, my eyes and ears had pleasure of witnessing the legendary Ray Walker joining the festivities. Back story: Mr. Walker was the bass singer for Elvis’ favorite singing group The Jordanaires and decided, at arguably the height of his career, to hire a band of college kids to back him as a solo act for a number of youth rallies and other events (i.e. tours opening for Conway Twitty and Hank Williams, Jr.). To put his legendary-ness into perspective, his voice is on a very long list of iconic recordings and on an alleged 6+ billion records sold. But a few recordings on which is pipes appear:

ELVIS PRESLEY – Return to Sender
ELVIS PRESLEY – Can’t Help Falling in Love
ELVIS PRESLEY – It’s Now or Never
ELVIS PRESLEY – Viva Las Vegas
ELVIS PRESLEY – Are You Lonesome Tonight?
PATSY CLINE – Crazy
LORETTA LYNN – Coal Miner’s Daughter
RICKY NELSON – Travelin’ Man**
TAMMY WYNETTE – Stand By Your Man
GEORGE JONES – He Stopped Loving Her Today

**I may or may not have harmonized with him on this song during the show on Saturday.

Ray Walker also recorded and/or performed with Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Red Foley, Ringo Starr, Pat Boone, Kenny Rogers and many others. All this to say, it was a remarkable night for me to witness and to cap it all off, it was inside the Historic RCA Studio A, the former workplace of the man who inspired my dad and uncle to buy matching Gretsch guitars and play music.

Ray Walker and the Townsmen in the late 1960’s:

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BELOW: First rehearsal in 43 years, in my uncle’s den… roughly 28 hours before performing in front of other humans. This was the first time all of these guys had been in the same room since May of 1971… and for some*, the first time since that day play a musical instrument:

*only the bass player, but still…

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BELOW: Ben Fold’s Grand Victor Sound Studio (originally RCA Studio A), built by and operated by Chet Atkins for a number of years. The historic studio is in currently danger of being demolished, which is a complete shame.

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Chet-Atkins-Grestch

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In addition to sharing stories of his time with Elvis, Mr. Walker brought documents with him to the studio, detailing some of his recording experiences inside the studio during the 60’s and 70’s:

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1960’s Nashville

My dad was in a band in the late 60’s called The Townsmen. Part Chet Atkins and part Smothers Brothers, the Townsmen were all Nashville-class. Their matching suits certainly didn’t hurt the cause.

This cover band, which also included my dad’s younger brother Gary, began during high school and ran its course by the end of college. And for whatever reason, most – if not all – photos from that time never made their way into photo albums. Instead, I had to discover them in shoeboxes at my grandparents’ house. But since then, I’ve come to learn about and appreciate some of my dad’s experiences. Their biggest claim to fame, besides touring on a bill with Conway Twitty and carpooling a ride home from Hank Williams Jr., was being hired as the backing band for Ray Walker of the The Jordanaires. Ray Walker is the one to the far right of the guy snapping his fingers:

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(above photo by an unknown person from the 1950’s)

The Townsmen mostly played youth rallies, social events and one-offs with Mr. Walker. But in June 1968, they performed at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Percy Priest Dam, backing the Jordanaires (as seen below… Dad Jerkins on far right, brother Gary two turtlenecks to the left). President Lyndon B. Johnson was on hand for this one.

Dad-with-Jordanaires-June-1968-Percy-Priest-Dam-Gordon-Stoker-Ray-Walker-copyright-Stephen-Jerkins More photos, courtesy of my grandad:

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Pretend-rehearsing with Ray Walker (1966). Dad Jerkins seated with guitar.

2-The-Townsmen-and-Ray-Walker1. Townsmen press photo (1969). Dad Jerkins in back with Buddy Holly glasses, Uncle Gary seated in front 2. Playbill (1967)

3-Ray-Walker-and-the-Townsmen-at-David-Lipscomb-College-copyright-Stephen-Jerkins Townsmen with Ray Walker at David Lipscomb College (1967)

4-Bobby-Goldsboro-and-The-Townsmen-copyright-Ray-Jerkins 1. Dad Jerkins, Trion, GA (1971) 2. Dad and future Mom Jerkins (1969) 3. Dad Jerkins and The Gretsch Country Gentleman (1969) 4. The Townsmen and Bobby Goldsboro, David Lipscomb College (1968).

So by the transitive property of my dad’s musical career, I’m Kevin-Bacon-style one degree away from playing music with Ray Walker and Pat Boone (see below), and only two degrees away from Elvis, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, Ringo Starr, Dolly Parton, Perry Como, Red Foley, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Ozzy Osbourne and plenty more. In return, all I can offer him is being one degree away from playing music with a guy who kind of looks like John Lennon.

1-Pat-Boon-Ray-Walker-Townsmen-Nashville Ray Walker and Pat Boone with The Townsmen. Dad Jerkins on far right (1967)

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Soundcheck at David Lipscomb College (1969) 

Every show along the way included this 1965 Gretsch Country Gentleman, which I covet:

1965-Gretsch-Chet-Atkins-Country-Gentleman-by-Stephen-JerkinsLastly, my dad and uncle recorded several reels of live shows and basement recordings, produced and engineered by my dad. Here are a few favorites (click on the song title to read more about the recording):

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EPILOGUE A few years ago I was at some sort of event at the Grand Ole Opry House. Ray Walker was there and I introduced myself as Stephen Jerkins. Upon the utterance of the name “Jerkins”, he grabbed my shoulders and semi-yelled “MY BOY!” and full-frontal hugged me. He held me close for at least 7 solid seconds. That’s a long time.

Buried Treasures

I sometimes find treasures in old picture frames, hidden behind decades of older photos. Here are two gems I recently found archaeological dig-style, buried behind faded photos of my grandparents from the mid-1980’s.

A: a late 60’s press photo to my dad, signed by the fabulous Jordanaires

B: the good wishes of Eddy Arnold to my grandmother, on one of my grandad’s business cards (phone number: AM 9-5852) .