How does one start to write his life story without starting out by saying - I was born on such and such at such and so forth? I guess that's the way I'll have to approach the problem too.
So, I was born on a hot summer night, August 28, 1925, in Benton, Illinois, the county seat of the farm and coal mining community of Franklin County. I was the first of nine boys and four girls. Dad was 28 and Mom not yet 18; both of them were born and raised in Franklin County.
Dad served in France in World War I and at the end of the war, he re-enlisted, this time in the U.S. Army School of Music. He studied violin and trumpet for a two-year period. Dad had been quite popular as an old time fiddler before he went away to war and his love of all types of music prompted him to study. Also, what better therapy from war nerves than to be busy with something you really love? I've brought up the music early to show my inheritance of the same.
Upon marrying, Dad and Mom moved to Benton. Most of the menfolk of that part of the country were small farmers and coal miners. Working in the fields and in the mines provided them with the barest of living, and to this day the same difficult conditions prevail. I can remember the many days that Dad would stand outside the house at 6 o'clock in the evening and listen for the mine whistle to blow work or to "blow over," as it was called, when the mines weren't working. 3 whistles for work and 1 whistle for no work. It also served as the perfect sign to set the clock by.
My Grandpa was hoisting engineer for Old Ben Coal Company's mine at Rend City and one of his duties was to keep close check on his Illinois Railroad watch and blow that whistle. I can remember him coming home from the mine at night with his carbide lamp still burning in his miner's hat. Also, I recall my Dad coming home clean because the mines he worked in had a new washhouse installed for the men. Up till then, he'd be so black from coal he'd shine, and what a mess to clean up in a washtub - no showers and baths for us then!
Amidst the poverty and hard work, I remember best the music get-togethers that we had. I loved guitar music better than any kind and I would sit at Everett Price and Marvin Smith's feet and strum on a broom while they accompanied Dad on their guitars. I kept at it till I finally fell asleep on the floor. I learned my first song at four years of age, the ever popular "Mary Lou," and started learning my first guitar chords at the age of five. Dad kept putting fiddles in my hands but I had guitaritis. I wasn't a musical genius, not by any means, but I did have the natural rhythm and ear of a musician. By the time I was eight, I was playing most of the songs with Dad - such songs as "Down Yonder," "A Rag," "Under the Double Eagle," "Sweet Jennie Lee," "Wabash Cannonball," Wang Wang Blues," and many others, including all of the old hoedown fiddle tunes.
I've played square dances many hundreds of times as a kid. Most of the time a set would last a half an hour or so and toward the end of the night I'd drop off to sleep playing the guitar. When the set ended, Dad would tap me with the fiddle bow and wake me. Subconsciously, I'd keep rhythm and chords while asleep. I know of others who have experienced this and many old timers at my home still remember me doing this.
About the same time I started singing the very popular yodeling songs - all of the late Jimmy Rodgers tunes and many of the other western songs of the day.
Meanwhile, at about the age of six, we had moved to the farm place Dad was raised on. The school I attended was a one-room country school; there were many schools like it in those days. It grieves me to think that the color and memories of the old days are just about gone completely from our way of life now. I walked two and one-quarter miles one way to school, come rain, snow or sun, and didn't really think anything about it. There's an old school of thought that covers that type of situation and that is "what you don't know doesn't bother you." If you've been used to riding, it would bother you a lot, but we weren't so who minded?
Of course, it goes without saying that through my grade and high school years, I was called upon to sing and entertain for various school plays, pie suppers and neighborhood dances. My father and his fiddle were my companions. And wouldn't I be a little na´ve if I refused to say I had numerous girl friends at the time? Of course at that age, a fellow didn't let on too much, afraid someone might yell "sissy."
I could write on and on and not really say much more than that I performed the same chores around the house as thousands of other farm boys - milking, woodcutting, farm work of all types; my pleasures being simple, a movie matinee for a nickel; cutting a select slingshot fork from a tree; ruining every pair of shoes by using the tongues for slingshot pads; rolling casings (tires) and riding downhill in them; jumping from tree to tree in willow and hickory groves, and riding the trees to the ground Tarzan style; swinging out over the creek on a vine and dropping in the swimming hole; having corncob fights around the old barn; fishing; hunting rabbits in deep snow; stealing watermelons and roasting apples or ears of corn - and an occasional chicken; going to the fair with the express intention of slipping over the fence; and finally graduating from the seventh and eighth grades. The song I sang at my eighth grade graduation was the popular Jimmy Davis song, "It Makes No Difference Now."
Picture a long legged gallus-overall, nervous country boy walking into the principal's office to register for high school and if you'll put the location at Goode-Barren Township High, Sesser, Illinois, in the fall of 1939, it just could very easily be me. A farm community of less than two thousand people and it making me nervous! Not the people but the idea of going to the "Big" school. Mr. L. C. Robey (now deceased) soon put me at ease and accepted my registration.
My freshman year went rather uneventful, pleasant enough after I got settled into the routine of things. I remember my favorite two subjects being Algebra and Manual Training. History and English was a complete bore to me. Needless to say, I was soon busy singing and playing for all school functions. The following three years of school were about the same with a few exceptions - a change in girl friends every once in a while! I played football and was on the track team as high jumper and hurdler. My senior year was at a different school. I graduated from Valier High at Valier, Illinois. This is where I first started dating a little dark haired Polish girl by the name of Ruth Burzynski. Yep, you guessed it. We've been married 20 years with three wonderful children. Donna is now 19 and a sophomore at Middle Tennessee State College, Murfreesboro, Tennessee and a cheerleader. Dianne is a junior at Antioch High, Nashville, Tennessee and a cheerleader and Billy, age 11, just a cheer!
One similarity of Ruth's family and mine was both our fathers were coal miners. We graduated from school, Ruth went to Chicago for the Government, later on to Washington, D.C. I went in the Army and from there followed Ruth to Washington. On October 29, of 1944 we were married at our home church, a country Baptist, by the name of Rend City. Rend was once a mining community that no longer exists. Just cornfields and a few houses left in the area. I was spending my apprenticeship as a Toolmaker Machinist at the Washington Naval Gun Factory and continued until the war effort finally ended and forced huge layoffs. We moved back to Illinois and I tried my luck at securing something at home. The best I could do was taking a job with a brand new concrete block company just getting started. I mean everything was the old muscle way - unloading railroad cars loaded with cement bags, feeding the mixer by hand, curing racks by hand - in other words, the hard way. One of the grandest guys I've ever known still operates the business, now grown into a wonderful operation. His name is Everett Thompson of Sesser, Illinois.
Finally, I gave notice, after receiving a letter from a friend in Virginia, Bob Beck, informing me that a country music disc jockey by the name of Connie B. Gay was looking for live talent. I decided to make my try and headed out. I got the job and joined the musician's union at that time. This was 1947. I had the pleasure of backing and working with Clyde Moody, the man of "Shenandoah Valley Waltz" fame, Grandpa Jones, Pete Cassell (the blind minstrel - now deceased), and oodles of Opry talent booked in the area.
Some folks have wondered whether I was a singer first or guitar player. I was a singer at WARL, Arlington, Virginia and because of having to fire a lead guitar man, I became a lead guitar player too. I worked with Connie B. Gay off and on until I went out West for health reasons. Upon returning East, I again went to work with Mr. Gay on the Jimmy Dean Show. I stayed with Jimmy for over three years until he went to New York. I kinda wondered what was going to happen to me in the music business until my "Gotta Travel On" record came out and created a spot for me on the Grand Ole Opry. I've now been at WSM and the Grand Ole Opry for five and one half years.
In closing, let me say there has been many heartaches connected to the music business in coming up the ladder, but that I have enjoyed the most part of the trip, especially the many wonderful friends that have helped me. My wife has been wonderful and a tremendous help along the way. They're the people that suffer the most, being left alone so much of the time. Mr. Connie B. Gay is the one man that has been responsible for most of the exposure I've had to the people and places that count and I'm truly grateful and indebted to him and all who have, in whatever manner, contributed to what success I am or will be.
Country Song Roundup Magazine, Volume 17, No's 87 & 88, 1965
The Grammer Family Celebrates Billy's 80th Birthday
Saturday night, August 27, 2005, was the highlight of the weekend for me as we finally got around to honoring former Sesser resident and Grand Ole Opry star Billy Grammer. We had over 150 friends and family of Billy's join us for dinner at Valente's Terrace and then several more attended a concert afterwards.
George Hamilton IV was the surprise guest performer, and he put on a show and delighted the audience with his great talent. A video was also shown of other Grand Ole Opry greats such as Bill Anderson, Roy Clark, Charlie Pride, Porter Wagoner, Little Jimmy Dickens, Jimmy Dean, and many others recording a special birthday wish to Billy who turned 80 on Saturday.
The whole idea to honor Billy Grammer came about a few years ago in a discussion I was having with Sesser musician and businessman Frank Beskidniak. We were making plans to put this together when Frank died suddenly. I happened to catch Jack Valente in a weak moment at a Chamber of Commerce meeting, and the rest is history.
Jack, Nancy, their son Geno and his wife, and Jack's brother-in-law and a few others worked for months with Ruth Grammer and Billy's kids to put this together behind the scenes as much as possible. They did an outstanding job, and it made me proud to be a part of Sesser. I mean, when you hear really famous people like the above mentioned, or hear about Billy recording two albums with Bob Dylan, you have to understand the accomplishments that have been made by a man who grew up around here and did good.
The whole program was going well, the recognition was good, entertainment was great, and then Billy was asked to play. In his humble way he agreed to play just a few songs and the master took over and did his thing. But, as far as I am concerned, his son Billy stole the show with his huge harmonica talent. The father and son put on a clinic for those of us in attendance and brought the crowd to their feet several times.
I don't know a lot about old-time musicians. I was not around before radio but I have heard my parents talk about the Grammer family living on North Street in Sesser in a two story house and how they used to get the neighbors together and play music and sing as a form of relaxation and entertainment. I do remember Alva and Sylvia Taylor living across the street from the Grammer house and their musical talents often displayed in the old Methodist Church as I was growing up. This is where Billy got his start and folks he has done great things with his life and his talent and we were proud to honor him and his lifetime companion, wife Ruth.
We awarded Billy with a plaque to take home, and we also had one made to hang in the Sesser Opera House. It will be on display from now on, and down through the ages to come, residents and visitors alike will come to know our friend and neighbor Billy Grammer. A very fitting tribute!
Billy's Favorite Grammer (and other guitars)
This is Billy's favorite Grammer guitar and the one he used to record the acoustic tracks on Back Home and Bits & Pieces. Billy hand selected this one from GGI back in the 60's and he's been playing it ever since. It has a spruce top and mahogany back & sides. It also has the most wonderful tone. It's the one he played on the "Billy Grammer Plays" LP (See Discography and Gallery).
Custom Double Neck made by Billy & Dave Sturgill
This custom made double neck was built by Billy and his good friend Dave Sturgill back when Billy was appearing on the CBS Jimmy Dean Show. It has a standard 6 string guitar neck and a mandolin neck angled away from the guitar neck for easy access. Billy and Dave really went to town on this one. It has intricate neck inlays as well as the fancy scrolled head stocks.
Gibson ES 345 with Grammer neck
This Gibson ES 345 was Billy's main electric guitar for years until it was taken after a gig one night in Flynt, Michigan when Billy was barnstorming the US with Governor George Wallace. American Airlines broke the neck and Billy contacted Gibson with the hopes of having it repaired. The time it would have taken to make the repairs would have been too long so Billy got Gene Martin, who made necks for the Grammer guitar make one for this Gibson. The guitar was affectionately nicknamed "The Gribson." Billy would love to have this one back again. It's Cadillac green and has a Bigsby tailpiece and a Grammer neck with block inlays. It was last seen in Miami, Florida.