Every 4th of July that I’m back in Iowa, my mom and I take a trip over to Okoboji to peruse the flea markets. This year was no different with my mom and I making the annual trip over to the lakes to walk past table after table of rusted signs, antique china, and baseball cards (a Texas flea market is much different in content, usually featuring used clothing, black market DVDs, and economy-sized boxes of Chiclets).
As a toddler I went with because I had to, as did my brothers, but as we got older, my siblings quit going while I continued tagging along with my mom. While my mom has always gone in search of what ever rusty gold she can find, I’ve went over the years for different reasons. In middle school I searched for David Robinson cards to add to my collection (today, my 150 Robinson card collection is probably worth a buck fifty). After college I still willingly went along, now searching for old pint glasses (Schlitz, PBR, Hamm’s, etc), but this collection petered out when I realized that pint glasses aren’t much fun without beer inside them. The past few years I’ve gone with my mom just for tradition’s sake, but this year I had a new collection in the works: vinyl.
You would think being a music enthusiast I would have jumped on the vinyl train long ago, but I always found myself blindly satisfied with CDs. This of course all changed with the dawning of the i-Pod. I found myself buying CDs that I’d rip to my computer and never touch again. As much as it pained me, I realized I needed to move to MP3s. They’re more eco-friendly and don’t fill up shelves at the house. Despite this realization, I couldn’t make the switch. The idea of paying money for something you can’t tangibly hold in your hands didn’t set well with me. Plus, I couldn’t part with the experience of reading the liner notes, analyzing the lyrics, and exploring the artwork.
When I discovered many labels now include download codes with their vinyl, I found a solution: not only was I still getting the MP3s, but I got the added bonus of having a bigger package to adore. Plus, when listening to the music at home, I always opt to hear it on the record player because it just sounds so much more better.
This shift to vinyl soon became an obsession, and now I’ve slipped into the role of record collector. Despite the lack of free MP3 downloads with used LPs by Charlie Parker, Run DMC, and Willie Nelson, I couldn’t help myself but to hear the classics in the form that they were meant to be heard. Being a new hobby, this was my first year searching out old records at the flea market, and I left with 20 albums including Black Sabbath’s “Sabotage,” Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life,” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Smash Hits,” the album that changed my life as a 14-year-old kid.
While scouring the tables of boxes, my mom looked around to pass the time. At one point she walked over to me with an album in hand. “I remember this Kitty Wells album from when I was a kid. I used to love the song ‘Honky Tonk Angels.’ My brother used to play it all the time.” The mention of her brother Gary caught me off guard. Gary drowned 13 days after his 21st birthday back in 1962. My mom witnessed it. As you can imagine, this was pretty hard on her. As always with music, that record brought memories back to the surface.
I encouraged my mom to buy the album, and she did. As we walked on through the tables of antiques, mom continued discussing my uncle’s love of music. It seemed the sight of that old record had dusted off memories she’d not visited for a while. She talked about the huge collection of records he bought over the years with the money he earned as a barber. She remembered all the concerts he used to head into town to see: Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Patsy Cline.
Something about it all seemed eerily similar, and I knew why. The pile of records, the concerts, the love of music – it all added up. Driving home, one question haunted me: how could my Uncle Gary, a man I never knew, be so much like me? Yes, his love of music rubbed off on my mom who raised my brothers and I on a steady diet of Joni Mitchell and Buffalo Springfield, but to the level that Uncle Gary did? The level that I do?
I began to question my thoughts. How could I possibly even get my uncle’s music-obsession gene? Where did he even get it? My grandpa, who took over the farm at age 14, never seemed to be a music fanatic, and my grandma listened exclusively to the Statler Brothers (“Mama Sang Bass” will forever bring me back to riding in my grandma’s car). Maybe the music-obsession gene skips generations and somewhere 100 years back one of my ancestors was as obsessed with John Phillip Sousa as I am with Sonic Youth.
Back at home, I continued thinking about Gary with my questions moving away from “Why?” to “What if?”. What would he be like today? How would my life be different if I had known him? Would he have regaled me with stories of meeting Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline? What would he have thought of Bob Dylan? Neil Young? Iggy Pop? All unanswered questions.
A week later, these thoughts would still circle my brain like a needle on a record. It didn’t help that my mom left the Kitty Wells record sitting on the kitchen counter, and each time I saw Kitty’s face looking back at me, I couldn’t help but think of Gary. I finally decided to listen to the album that had raised so many memories for my mom and so many questions for me.
I put the needle on the vinyl like I’ve done so many times before, and listened to the crackling of the record. I wonder if he enjoyed that sound as much as me – the anticipation that comes with it. And then Kitty Wells appeared. Her voice wasn’t beautiful by any means. Nasally, a tad flat, yet it didn’t bother me. In fact, I liked it; there was substance to it. It had soul. And soon, that emotive voice filled the rooms and halls of my parents’ house while filling the void of uncertainty in my mind. No, I never knew Uncle Gary; but in that moment, I knew that he still somehow lived within that music and within me – my honky-tonk guardian angel.