Bluegrass Song Characters – Where Are They Now?

Chris JonesPeople always seem interested in where music celebrities, or lesser-known one-hit wonder types, have disappeared to. I seem to recall VH-1, or one of those channels, devoting a whole show to the subject. I think people get a particular kick out of seeing a star who once graced the cover of People magazine in the late ’70s, running a pizza place in Poughkeepsie, or getting out of rehab in Sedona (or both).

I think these kinds of stories are less interesting to us in the bluegrass world, partly because very few bluegrass artists ever lived the extravagant lifestyles we associate with pop and country stars in the first place. This just doesn’t make a very compelling tale: “Hank McIntosh, one-time banjo player for Bill Monroe in late 1962, and later leader of his own band, Hank McIntosh and Apple Ridge, is now running a small gas station in Ashland, KY, where he lives with his wife in a modest 3 bedroom house. Quite a contrast to the days when Hank was traveling the highways in a Ford conversion van, staying in lavish $65 hotel rooms and making almost $15,000 a year (gross).”

Another problem is that most of us already know “where they are now,” since most of the people we might be wondering about are still out there playing music in some form or another, and probably will be for another 30 years. Yes, occasionally someone quits and joins a cult, or becomes a pro golfer, but generally, even if they land some high-powered day job, it just means they pick a little less and drive a nicer car to gigs. There isn’t much of a mystery there.

What does interest me, though, is finding out what has become of some of the characters in our best-loved bluegrass songs, beginning with the guy whose daughter begged him not to “go to the mines today.” There are quite a few unresolved stories out there, and some people whose lives may have changed dramatically since the third verse of whatever song they were in.

That’s why once again I turned to my research team (it was pretty much just me, but it sounds so much better to refer to a “team”) to delve into these untold tales and answer the nagging question, “where are they now?” I uncovered enough stories to necessitate a two-part article.

 Oh Daddy, don’t go to the mines today
For dreams have so often come true
My Daddy, dear Daddy, please don’t go away
I never could live without you

My first discovery was kind of a letdown, bordering on annoying: the miner from the song mentioned above, Dream of a Miner’s Child, went to the mines after all, where nothing at all happened. The little girl said the same thing to him for the next three mornings, until she finally admitted that she had just made the dream up because she just didn’t want him to leave her and go to work.

Daddy is now long-since retired from the mines and he and the family moved to South Carolina. His daughter is now 52 and owns a bait and tackle shop outside of Charleston.

Other stories had more interesting outcomes (some more than others):

I wandered again to my home in the mountains
Where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free
I looked for my friends, but I never could find them
I found they were all rank strangers to me

The man from Rank Stranger (which would make a great movie title, by the way) is a guy who went back to his home town and found that he didn’t recognize anybody. He came to the conclusion that all his childhood friends had died and gone to heaven.

As it turned out though, he had mistakenly gone to the wrong town, which explains why nobody there looked familiar. Someone from the town kindly directed him to his actual home town, and when he got there, he found all his friends, but discovered he didn’t like them much anymore.

He then returned to the first town, where he had bonded with a few of those rank strangers while looking around for his so-called “friends.” He resides there to this day, where he and his wife (one of the strangers he bonded with) operate a small hotel.

If you’re traveling in the north country fair
Where the wind blows cold on the borderline
Remember me to the one who lives there
For she once was a true love of mine

This is a song that’s addressed to a friend, asking him to check up on an old flame of his, since he seems to be heading to the north country (fair) where she lives. It has always left me wondering if the narrator of the song and this girl managed to stay in touch, or if his friend even saw her at all.

Fast-forward two decades, and it seems that the man eventually moved on and married a girl from the south country, whose hair didn’t hang quite as long, but who had many other fine qualities.

Meanwhile, the elusive girl from the north country got pretty sick of the wind blowing cold on the borderline all the time, and she moved south. Today she owns a chain of hot dog and tropical smoothie stands in south Florida.

Information on the man’s friend is sketchy, but apparently he never came back from traveling in the north country, and has never been heard from again. He may have been the victim of a bear attack.

The very next day about half past four
The sheriff’s men knocked at my door
They said young man come now and go
Down to the banks of the Ohio

I really didn’t want to have to return to The Banks of the Ohio (that’s what she said!), but when most versions of the song end with that unhelpful cliffhanger of a verse above, how can we not try to find out how the story ended? Did he ever go to trial? Did he do time?

What actually happened won’t satisfy those who wanted to see justice done in this song: the murderer went willingly to the banks of the Ohio with the sheriff’s men, smirking the whole time, because he knew they’d find no body or murder weapon. All that was there were a few half-eaten sandwiches leftover from a picnic, and some signs of a struggle, which the accused claimed were due to the picnic basket being stuck shut.

There was a trial, but the murderer had some great legal connections and brought in a team of attorneys that included Johnny Cochran, Charlie Sizemore, and David Crow. The case was dismissed, and he never did an hour of time. Today he lives in the same southern Ohio town where he was raised. He’s retired, and spends his time making various wooden percussion instruments, none of which he can play. No one has ever agreed to marry him.