Tom Dooley, Green Berets and two Wayfaring Strangers



Long before folks around East Texas thought of me as a lawyer,  I was just a kid with a guitar who sang songs.

Come back with me to the summer of 1969.

In those days, I had a singing partner named Bob Gilstrap.  He retained  his beautiful lyric tenor, while my voice changed to ultra bass. We were two lanky teenagers, each a little over six feet, who weighed in at about 165 pounds and played basketball.  After school, we would work our part time jobs, reconvene at quitting time and shoot hoops until it got too dark to see the basket.

Then we would do what kids who grew up in the country did.

We would pile in my beat up 1959 Ford and ride around.  

No one ever tried to steal that car. Daddy traded a couple of cows for it.  It had a gray primer paint job, bald tires, no air conditioning, no radio and about half the time, much to the chagrin of the motoring public, no brakes.

While Bob and I rode, we sang.  We didn’t sing because we liked music. We sang because we inhabited those songs, and they possessed us.  We hadn’t learned to cry. That would come later.

I was at home one evening when the phone rang. A man on the other end started in on me.

“Steve, we’re having a fancy speaker in town Friday night.  We need some music to warm up the crowd. Can you and Bob come sing for us? We need three or four songs, probably.”

I don’t know how he knew Bob and I sang together.  He may have heard us through the open car windows while we drove through the neighborhood.

“Sure.  What time?”

“The fancy speaker plans to start about 7:15.  Why don’t y’all come about seven.  It’s at the Country Club.”

About Thursday night, I thought I might better tell Bob about the gig. I went by his house and picked him up.

“We’re supposed to sing tomorrow night at the Country Club,” I said.

“Will they feed us?”

“Probably fried chicken.”

“Okay,” he said.

We got in my car, the Gray Streak.  As we rode around, we sang a few songs and worked on our play list.  The selection process was simple.  We had to know at least two verses.  It was okay if I knew one and Bob knew the other. We could rotate.  

We didn’t practice with the guitar.  My thinking was that if we could sing the songs, I could play them.

When the appointed time came Friday night, we parked at the Country Club, a place as foreign to Bob and me as the Vatican. I grabbed my Yamaha 150 guitar out of the back seat, and we strolled inside.  When the guy who called me saw us coming, he motioned for us to take the stage get with it.

The room was packed with the high-class local gentry, women in evening gowns, men in suits.

I think our first number was Hank Williams’ “I Can’t Hep It If I’m Still In Love with You.”  That’s hep with no l.

No show was complete without a gospel number, so for my solo I sang “Wayfaring Stranger.”

When it came time for Bob’s song, he chose “The Ballad of the Green Berets.”

Bob had already lost a brother in Vietnam.

For our finale, we broke into “Tom Dooley.”

When we finished, a hush fell on the crowd.  Then as one person, everyone stood and clapped, and stood and clapped, and stood and clapped.  They kept standing and clapping until Bob and I exited the building.

The thought never struck us until later that we probably should have played an encore.

When we got in my car, Bob said, “We never even got our fried chicken.”  


I have often thought of that night, that strange confluence of a crowd and two teenage musicians. I can only explain the response we received by assuming the simplicity and purity of the  moment overwhelmed everyone.  They heard two kids sing simple, unvarnished songs from their hearts.

That made all the difference back then, and still does.




, , , , , , , ,

Related Posts