On the mantle above my fireplace there sits an old picture of my grandfather, Joe Dee Adams, Sr. The picture was taken some time during the Great Depression when he was a professional musician. It was actually his promo picture for the radio show he hosted on WSGN in Birmingham, Alabama. In it, he is holding an old Gibson acoustic guitar.
No one in our family has any idea what happened to that old guitar. It was lost along with his purple heart from World War I some time before he passed away in the fall of 1978. His death was just a year or so after I bought my first guitar. After my grandfather passed away, I remember my father saying how unfortunate it was that he never had a chance to hear me play. He could have taught me a thing or two in his later years.
Just a few years later, Dan Fogelberg wrote a song called “Leader of the Band.” It was a wonderful tribute to his father. Dan always felt that his father was a vastly superior musician and he felt guilty over the fact that he (Dan) became richer and more famous than the older Fogelberg.
Less than ten years after Dan wrote that song I found myself playing music for a living. I remember playing one night in a bar called the C&G in Greenville, Mississippi. Without really thinking about it beforehand I started telling the audience the story of my grandfather’s short career as a musician.
My grandfather used to play with the likes of a young Red Foley. He was that good. And then he quit playing because he needed steady work to support a family. Later, Red Foley would become a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. He even got two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – one for recording music and one for television. But my grandfather would die in an old run-down house in Tarrant City.
The line that separates fame from obscurity is a thin one that is often drawn by the hand of fate. I suspect that most people already know that about life. And I think that is why some people were visibly shedding tears that night when I finished telling my grandfather’s story and then starting playing “Leader of the Band” in my grandfather’s honor.
So many great musicians, both well-known and unknown, have played those great Gibson guitars over the years. From Chet Atkins to B.B. King to Roy Orbison to Jimmy Page to Slash – the list seems almost endless. How many greats have we never heard because they never caught a break in the industry? God only knows. And I mean that literally.