June 7: Don Gibson Day

So what is it with our fascination, as humans, of remembering the lives of famous people on the day they died?

Maybe I’m a bit over-sensitive on this issue given my birthday, August 16, is best remembered for the day two famous people died. Granted that the famous people, Elvis Presley and Babe Ruth, were really, really famous.

But wouldn’t The King’s birthday of Jan. 8 be a better time to remember all he did during of his 42 years among us? Or how about July 5, the date in 1954 that Sun Records impresario Sam Phillips finally heard out of a shy but decidedly weird truck driver the first strains of a new and exciting musical form  known as Rock and Roll?

And instead of remembering John Lennon on Dec. 8, the date in 1980 he was gunned down by a twisted punk across the street from Central Park, shouldn’t he be celebrated on his birthday of Oct. 9 – the day aunt Mimi dodged Nazi bombs falling on Liverpool to rush to the hospital to welcome her nephew into the world?

Or how about Feb. 9, the date that the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show ensured that Lennon and his fellow band mates would be remembered as long as humans make joyful noise on this planet?

To that end, I’ve made an executive decision to celebrate a particular hero of mine not on Nov. 17, the day he died in 2003, or even April 3, the day he was born in 1928. Instead I’m going to proclaim Don Gibson Day to be June 7, the date in 1957 that he all but answered a question I’ve grappled with my whole life.

Could there have been great country music without acute alcohol abuse?

We all know that the great Hank Williams rarely drew a sober breath over the final five years of his tormented life. And we’ve laughed along with the stories of how George “No-Show” Jones laid drunk for so long that his wife hid the keys to all the cars – prompting the Possum to ride his lawn mower eight miles to the nearest package store.

But if there has ever been a testimonial to the contributions of John Barleycorn to the art form of country music it would have to be what Don Gibson did on what I have now proclaimed as Don Gibson Day.

Don came up hard. Born in Shelby, N.C., he was two years old when his father, a railroad worker, passed. Don barely made it through the second grade before deciding that formal education was not for him.

He was gifted musically, and made some noise locally before he moved to Knoxville and began recording for Columbia. And he appeared to be on his way to stardom when both Faron Young and Patsy Cline hit big with his tune Sweet Dreams in 1955.

Acuff-Rose Publishing was impressed enough to sign Gibson to a songwriter’s contract and MGM added him to its roster of recording artist.

But whatever money Don got from that breakthrough was apparently long gone by the first Don Gibson Day of 1957, when he found himself living alone in a trailer just north of Knoxville.

Earlier, the knock on the door had been that of a Repo Man, who relieved Don of his vacuum cleaner and his television.

So Don, as the story goes, got good and drunk enough to spend the afternoon writing two songs that made inevitable his induction, 44 years later, into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

One was Oh Lonesome Me recorded by everyone from Bing Crosby to Neil Young. The other was I Can’t Stop Loving You, the smash hit off one of the most important albums of my lifetime, Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds of Country and Western Music.

If Don Gibson had never written another song in his lifetime, he would be remembered forever what what he accomplished that sad, whiskey-sodden afternoon in a trailer park in East Tennessee going on 61 years ago.

Some fast friends and I gathered yesterday for a guitar pull down Liberty Arts Coffee House, the one ramrodded monthly by two pals Richard Boyd and Billie Feather of The Bo-Stevens fame. I made bold enough to proclaim June 7 to be Don Gibson Day, and to celebrate the occasion on the date that falls most closely to the first Sunday of the month.

So this year, Don Gibson Day is set for June 3, when all those in attendance will be asked to at least consider favoring us with a song written by the great Don Gibson. Thankfully Old Don stayed right busy after that fateful day in the trailer in East Tennessee, busy enough to pepper the charts with such standards as Blue, Blue Day, Who Cares, Sea of Heartbreak, Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles, Just One Time, Legend in My Time, Lonesome Number One, Woman (Sensuous Woman).

Or instead of remembering Don Gibson, maybe we should celebrate the Repo Man who, after confiscating Gibson’s vacuum cleaner and television, had the foresight to leave Don with his guitar and his bottle.

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