I have an old classical guitar named Martha Ann that is almost as beat up as the one that Willie Nelson used to play on stage and from time to time, when I have the house to myself and know that nobody else is listening, I pull it out and try to pick like Willie, as best I can, ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’, ‘On the Road Again’, ‘Pancho and Lefty’, etc., etc. I will put a CD on the player, turn the volume down to the point that I can override it and pretend that I am in the band. Or I will sing softly to myself and weep a bit, ‘There’s a Picture That I Carry’.
And then sometimes I just lay it on my lap there in the bed and strum chord progressions before we turn out the lights and I ask very annoyed, book- engrossed Loretta if she can guess what I am playing.
And she will tell me that I’m not playing anything that she wants to hear, but if I will play ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ for no more than two minutes, she will take time out of whatever it is she may be reading to listen. It has to be one or the other. She can’t tolerate two tunes at one session even though I always insist on closing out with my theme — the first three lines of ‘Wildwood Flower’.
Then she will tell me that if I don’t put the guitar away and find a silent way to amuse myself, she is going to finish off my guitar with one hard blow, there on the bridge, from the corner of her hardbound book. And since I can’t bear the thought of a pile of broken spruce mingled with Martin guitar strings on my side of the bed, I hastily put the guitar back in the case. (If I honestly thought she did not intend to carry out the threat, I would play ‘Wildwood Flower’ all the way through and then repeat it farther down the neck to close out the show. But Loretta is not much given to encores nor theme songs and I do so love my old guitar.)
Loretta knows that I am probably thinking about our late and dearest friend, Martha Ann Wheeler, and that, if she doesn’t stop me, we will both fall into a fit of melancholy. Because, invariably, I will get to stuff that was standard for Martha Ann and me.
My voice (such as it used to be) is long gone, but truth be known, I was never able to carry a tune beyond a gargle, except to harmonize with Martha Ann who prematurely passed to the other side two years ago. At one point in time, Martha and I knew every song that Porter and Dolly had ever recorded. She sang like Dolly and I gargled like Porter. Folks would gather up around us and listen without interrupting when we sang and played together, Martha on her big Washburn dreadnought, me on my little Goya classical. She was at our house in Paint Lick at least two weekends a month for several years.
When Martha Ann Wheeler took ill some seven or so years ago, she was a registered nurse. I’m not really sure what her illness was nor do I believe the medical profession ever really understood the exact nature of her affliction. It was akin to multiple sclerosis but came with complications not generally associated with that disease. The best diagnostic facilities in the country never figured it out and Martha Ann sought help from most of them.
Martha Ann, on her time off from nursing, moonlighted on stage a couple nights a week at the best nightclubs in Cincinnati with professional guitarists and bands that loved her renditions of Patsy Cline. She consistently brought down the house. I could not imagine myself in that league, but she did it as a hobby before she became so desperately ill. And then, one night she fell dead climbing the stairs and our lives are oh so empty.
And so, from time to time, I pick up my little classical guitar and try to pick a tune or two and pretend that it’s Willie that I’m studying on. But it’s really Martha Ann and she’s right here in my lap.