My parents were told to expect me sometime in the early colors of October, but I didn't make my appearance until the bleak end of November. I don't know if the mistake was the doctor's, my mother's, or mine, but the delay--whether real or a mirage--had no obvious ill affects during my early years. As I grew older, however, and had places to go and people to meet, I tended always to be late.
I was born 25 November 1958 in Sumter, South Carolina, in the hospital on Shaw Air Force Base, to a Appalachian mountain couple displaced by my father's military service. Plumer J. Cody, my father, was in the Air Force, of course, and Dorothy Reeves Cody, my mother, worked at home to care for my three-year-old brother Jerry and me. I have no memory of Sumter, except perhaps for some vague images of a small lake with swans. (See our official Air Force portrait!)
When I was around two years old, Dad was transferred to the Air Force base in Fayetteville, NC. We lived there in a mobile home park called Trailer Town. I remember a little more of my life in Fayetteville--riding cardboard sheets like sleds across the blanket of brown needles in the pine woods; walking through those woods with Papa Reeves to another small lake, one that seems in my memory like our little secret; taking a dirt clod in the eye as an innocent little bystander during a "big boy" battle down by the community swing set; listening to a man in uniform who came one Sunday morning to our door and then not hearing from or seeing Dad until he called a few days later from some assignment in some far part of the world.
Some three years after our move to Fayetteville, Dad retired from the Air Force and took us "back home" to the mountains of Madison County, North Carolina. There I grew up in the little village of Walnut. In the beginning, we lived in the mobile home we'd brought from Fayetteville, but after Papa Reeves, my maternal grandfather, died in the summer of 1968, we moved into the house I would always think of as "Home." It had low ceilings and uneven floors, but I loved living there.
Walnut School, Grades 1-8 (1965-1973)
Madison High School (1973-1977)
Mars Hill College (1977-1979)
A Summer Abroad (1979)
Belmont College and the First Nashville Experience (1980)
Home Again: The University of North Carolina at Asheville and Work and Music (1980-1982)
Second Nashville Experience (1982-1989)
Home Again: Marriage and Music (1989-1991)
Fatherhood (1989, 1991)
The University of North Carolina at Asheville (1991-1993)
Western Carolina University (1993-1995)
The University of South Carolina, Columbia (1995-2000)
Murray State University and Murray, Kentucky (2000-2001)
Home Again: East Tennessee State University and the State of Franklin (2001-Present)
Walnut School, Grades 1-8 (1965-1973): My first eight years of schooling took place at Walnut School, where my father and mother had graduated high school. I lived less than a mile from the school, and for those eight years--excepting days of bad weather--I walked to and from school. My teachers there included Miss Guthrie (first grade; she actually taught my mother in first grade as well), Mrs. Tweed (second grade; Miss Guthrie's sister), Mrs. Huffman (third), Mrs. Burnette (fourth), Mrs. Ramsey (fifth and sixth), Mrs. Bullman/Mrs. Fox/Mr. Ammons (seventh), and Mrs. Boone/Mrs. Ponder/Mr. Banks (eighth). I played football my seventh-grade year and had a good couple of years in basketball (wearing jersey #22) during seventh and eighth grades.
By far my strongest and dearest memory of Walnut School comes from the fall of 1971 when I, a seventh-grader, first met and fell in love with Leesa Harrell. I'd seen her the summer before, at Little League dance that took place at the end of the baseball season. I was a wallflower, she the center of attention due to the fact that she was--and still is--a great dancer. Once we were in class together an intense passion that burned brightly through most of that year and the next. By the time we reached the end of the eighth grade, I was overwhelmed and bowed out. While this might have been the biggest mistake of my life in one way, I think that it ultimately gave me the ache and itch needed to develop my writing. Many of the songs I wrote in high school, college, and in Nashville were connected to her absence from my waking life--or her ghostly presence in my dreams.
Sad to say, vandals and thieves burned the main part of the building to the ground in the late 1990s, but I have a lot of memories that the bonfire the old tinderbox became that July can't take away. (back)
Madison High School (1973-1977): Actually the title of this section is somewhat misleading. During my freshman year (1973-1974), Madison County's consolidated high school was under construction. The students and teachers at the area's five secondary schools—Hot Springs, Laurel, Marshall, Mars Hill, and Spring Creek—remained where they were that year, but the athletic teams played together and the seniors graduated together. Some of this togetherness was good, some wasn't. I'm not sure, but I think that the '73 football team—my brother Jerry was a senior on that team—might still hold the best record the school has ever achieved in the sport. On the other hand, I think many of the graduating seniors really grumbled about having to take part in a graduation with a bunch of people they didn't really know.
So, my freshman year (1973-1974) was spent at Marshall High School, on "the island" in the middle of the French Broad River. It's an interesting setting. You take the bridge out of the center of Marshall, and about two-thirds of the way across you take a right-hand turn and roll down onto flat and sandy Blannahasset Island. (New construction changed this in 2006.) Being in the middle of the river created some distinct situations, such as our getting out of school not only for snow in the winter but also for flooding that might occur at any time.
My sophomore (1974-1975), junior (1975-1976) and senior years (1976-1977) were spent at the new Madison High School, which—for better or worse—brought together high school students from across a rugged mountain county. Few good roads traversed the county then, and none seemed to go directly anywhere. Marshall, where MHS is located, is more or less in the center of the county (my home of Walnut being the only more central community), but still students from Madison's edges had to travel for two hours or so on the bus. This meant that on weekdays in wintertime, they might never see home in the light of day, meaning that they caught the bus before sunrise and came home again after sunset. I was lucky, living in Walnut. The school was just a drive of five or six miles, and I was able to drive it myself most of the time after getting my license at the beginning of December my sophomore year.
I don't remember much about high school. I smoked some pot and drank a bit of cheap wine, but I don't think that's the reason for my memory loss. Maybe other experiences have simply overshadowed those four years. Maybe the fact that I'm not in touch with a single classmate—except my wife Leesa, who didn't participate much in high school life—accounts for my having lost touch with that time. Sure, I remember moments, flashes of memory that come to me from time to time, but I don't really remember what it felt like or what I learned there. Some people are so in touch with that era of their lives that I can't help feeling I'm missing out. Then again, some people have really never moved beyond that era of their lives; I'll take my memory loss over their situation any day.
What do I remember? I remember a few teachers: Mrs. Tolley, Mr. Wallin, Mr. Zimmerman, Mrs. Ponder, Mr. Stell, Mr. West, Mrs. Sprinkle. A few coaches: Ammons, Fisher, Wallin, McFee, Sanders. A couple of administrators: Wyatt (principle) and Phillips (assistant principle). I remember that Kenny Ray and I nearly got kicked out of school—or so it seemed to us—for showing Monty Python's And Now for Something Completely Different to the entire student body. Teachers walked out! Kenny and I had seen The Holy Grail and thought it hilarious. But that film wasn't available to us at the time so we figured anything by Monty Python would be good. I'm just glad that Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life weren't yet made. I remember that I passed Algebra I with flying colors my entire freshman year, that I began Geometry my sophomore year with an A and ended with an F (the overall year's average being enough to pass me), that I got lost around page 150 of Algebra II and can't now remember how I survived the remainder of the class—surely I didn't cheat! I was in the Beta Club, despite my failings in mathematics, and an officer at least part of the time—something in my junior year, maybe president in my senior year. I was class vice president my last year in school and voted the male award for "Best All Around" that year. I could probably name some other things I remember, but I think that's enough.
Certainly girls were in the picture. Yes, they were. I lost Leesa at the end of the eighth grade. We had moments through high school, but she was always, it seemed, dating somebody else and, of course, she was married by the middle of our junior year and then a single mother during our year as seniors. I did my best to fill that hole with other romances and flings. I dated a girl two years ahead of me for awhile when I was a sophomore. Her name was Pam Yelton. That didn't end well. I dated Suzanne Powell a little bit, but I never could get over the feeling that she was simply out of my league. (Perhaps she couldn't get over that feeling either!) What I can say with certainty and pride is that after the county high schools joined together to form Madison High in my sophomore year the most constant female presence in my life was Karen Smith, probably the best friend I had all through high school (and on through Mars Hill College as well).
Sports. When I was a freshman, I played football for the newly formed Madison High School Patriots. I didn't see any action all year until we played East Yancey and were so far ahead of them in the fourth quarter that even the freshmen entered the game. I thought I was a really good running back, but Coach Ammons put my fellow freshman Jerry Ramsey (from Hot Springs) in at that position instead of me. With a few seconds to go in the game, I went in at linebacker, a position that I don't remember having ever played before. I got so pissed off that I quit the team the very next day. I returned to football my senior year, playing end (tight or split) on offense and the backfield on defense. We were terrible and didn't win a single game all season. I caught a couple of touchdown passes, which was exciting, and got burned by receivers from the other teams a time or two, which was not exciting. The only time my father was able to take off work and see me play that year, I let a guy get behind me for a touchdown and was completely humiliated. Man, that's a bad memory!
Once the high schools came together, enough interest and funding was put together to form a wrestling team. I'd always thought I might like wrestling, but by that time I was too entrenched in basketball. I played forward on school basketball teams from the time I was in the seventh grade through my senior year. Although as a senior I was better at basketball than at football, the team still won almost no games. I played some good games and generally amazed folks with my leaping ability. I had many moments of personal glory all through my basketball career, but most of my coaches and some teammates . . . I'm not going to spit a bunch of sour grapes onto the Internet here, so I'll stop.
I don't think I ever tried out for the baseball team, but I participated in track my senior year—the high jump and long jump and a little running. I placed a couple of times in the jumps, but I was nothing spectacular by any means.
I did a lot in my senior year because some months before it started I'd given up the main gig that had occupied my time through grades nine, ten, and eleven—the White Water Band. We were mostly a cover band—Doobie Brothers, Kiss, Foghat, Lynyrd Skynyrd and others. Early on, our main gigs were local dances at the community center in Marshall, but eventually we booked clubs in Asheville and played other types of gigs from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Although we went through a few membership changes (a Tim Something on guitar at one point and a Bruce Something on keyboards at another), I will always remember the band as being Harlan Rice on bass, Jim Stapleton and Terry Davis on guitars and Kirk McWilliams on drums. I sang and played a bit of flute, a bit of percussion. (Three guys—Jobie, Ben and Steve—handled technical and automotive stuff and seemed part of the group as well. Harlan's sister Karen was often with us as well, helping out in a number of ways.)
Even the younger folks in and around the band were at least couple of years ahead of me. Terry, Kirk and Jobie were closest to me in age, but they graduated at the end of my sophomore year. So, junior year was a lonely one. I think it was that loneliness that led me to quit the band sometime in spring of summer of 1976. The White Water Band went on, of course, although I think it changed its name, and I had a great senior year at Madison High. Because I wasn't spending so much time with my band mates, I became better acquainted with my classmates and got more involved in school activities—sports, clubs and just hanging out. When graduation came, I performed—with flute and voice—"The Way We Were" and gave the main student address to the class. (back)
Mars Hill College (1977-1979):
A Summer Abroad (1979): Sometime during my second year at Mars Hill College ('78-'79), I decided that I was going to spend the summer of 1979 in Europe. My brother Jerry had graduated from North Carolina State University in the spring of 1978, and my parents had given him some amount of money—maybe $2500—to set himself up while he started his first job. (The money had come, I believe, from the sale of a piece of land in the vicinity of Walnut.) I don't remember now if I was promised the same boon for my graduation or if I just assumed it would come to me. Whichever it was, I hatched a plan to ask for my "inheritance" early to pay for a "Grand Tour" of Europe. (See the story of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15: 11-31.) Mom and Dad, probably more indulgent of my whims than they ought to have been, handed over the dough.
My first move was to sign up for a "study abroad" program MHC was offering. I would study in England for several weeks and then have a couple of extra weeks to do some traveling. Okay—but not exactly what I wanted. The idea of travel captured my twenty-year-old imagination more than study. So, when somebody came through campus putting up flyers for American European Student Union tours (AESU), I found what I was looking for. The flyer advertised seventeen countries and fifty-three days! And the price was right. A little over $1850 would buy my roundtrip airfare from New York to London in June and from Madrid back to New York in August; my lodging for the summer; breakfasts and suppers and several lunches; and admission fees to all events and attractions. I paid for my airfare from Charlotte, North Carolina, to New York, and back. What was left—$400 or so, if I remember rightly—became spending money.
My group was called AESU 616 because we left the States on 16 June. Between then and 8 August I traveled Europe in a Mercedes bus with forty-eight companions (thirty-seven females and eleven males), one Austrian tour guide (male), and one Italian bus driver (male). My "student" companions came from Georgia, California, Maryland, New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Virginia, Tennessee, Minnesota, Ohio, Indiana, Texas, Connecticut, Colorado, Kentucky, Canada (Toronto), and Argentina. Our itinerary went something like this: London; Paris; Heidelberg; Amsterdam; Dinklage, West Germany; Denmark; Berlin (before the Wall came down); Prague; Vienna; Budapest; Belgrade; several spots in Greece, including Athens; several spots in Italy, including Capri, Rome, Florence, and Venice; Salzburg; a couple of spots in Switzerland; Nice; Barcelona; and Madrid.
My experiences had been somewhat limited in my twenty years before AESU 616. I'd never flown before. I'd been out of the country only briefly (Canada). To my knowledge I hadn't crossed paths with anybody of religious or sexual persuasions other than Protestant and heterosexual; I knew few if any folks from other parts of the world. So, the bottom line is that the trip broadened my horizons like no other experience before or since.
If you're interested, read my journal from that summer of 1979. It's rough, but all the days and nights are there. (back)
Belmont College and the First Nashville Experience (1980):
In the Madison
High School section of my autobiography, I made mention of the White Water Band.
When I left the group in the summer between my junior and senior years, I
decided that the next year I would go to college and major in music, even though
I would have been playing flute only two years at that point. Sometime in spring
of 1977, the spring of my senior year, I traveled to Greenville, North Carolina,
to audition for the music program there. I didn't get in. So, sometime later
that spring I auditioned to get into the music program at Mars Hill College,
just a few miles from home, and I made it. I spent the next two-and-a-half years
as a flute major at MHC. I had a darn good time, and I learned a lot about
All the time I was writing songs.
After my trip to Europe in the summer of 1979, I entered fall semester of my junior year at Mars Hill. The previous spring, I'd played what was called my "jury," I believe, to determine what path my two remaining years of music study would take. I desperately wanted to be a performance major instead of moving into the high school band director path. Believe it or not, after only four years of playing, the last two with a wonderful MHC flute teacher named Dr. Joyce Bryant, I made performance major! In my greater dreams I would be a world famous solo flutist, recording and touring for the rest of my life. In my lesser dreams, I would be a first-chair flutist in the symphony orchestra of some large city.
All the time I was writing songs.
I guess something happened to me that summer in Europe. I'm not sure what it was. Maybe I began to see myself and my life differently as I encountered people and places so different and removed from my own experience. Maybe it was that night when I borrowed a guitar from the house band and "Stairway to Heaven" in an outdoor restaurant in the hills above Rome. Again, I'm not sure what it was.
What I am sure of was that when I returned to Mars Hill College in Fall 1979, I began to think differently. I faced up to the realization that I simply didn't have the dexterity in my fingers even to be last-chair flutist in the symphony orchestra of a medium-sized city. I could play slow stuff beautifully, but that was the best I had to offer. Not being able to face the idea of being a band director, I began to look around. The Europe trip seemed to have opened me up to the possibility of living somewhere besides Madison County, North Carolina, so I was ready when I saw a newspaper article about the Music Business Program at Belmont College in Nashville, Tennessee.
I looked closely at the article, maybe sent off to the school for some information and an application. These came, and I applied. Sometime in early December, I think, I broke the news to my family and friends, to Dr. Bryant and others that I was leaving Mars Hill and beginning studies as a Music Business major at Belmont come January 1980. I don't remember getting anything but support in this decision. Although I might have forgotten some arguments or heated discussions, all I remember from my parents was the total love and commitment they always showed me.
I remember spending a rainy New Year's Eve on the telephone with a bunch of my friends from the previous summer's Europe trip. (I was in North Carolina, and several of them had gathered in southern California.) Then only a day or two after New Year's Day 1980, I packed up my Ford Pinto station wagon and headed out for Nashville.
I don't remember now how I went about finding a place to live on
my first sojourn in Music City, but according to my "Captain's Log" I had a
place secured by the night of 5 January 1980. Although the street number escapes
me, the place is on 17th Avenue South, part of the famed "Music Row." I remember
it as being sort of a yellowish tan color. Two large apartments were downstairs.
On the right side of the house was a doorway, just inside of which a set of
stairs rose to the second floor. Up there were three one-room "apartments" that
shared a bath and a kitchen.
I had a single room, maybe 10x12 with a bed and a dresser. It might have had a desk as well, but I don't remember it. I'm sure it was a rather nasty place, but I lived there for some six months for a monthly rent of $109.
A rather dark little house sat next to mine, and in it lived a rough-and-tumble minor country music star named Joe Sun. Two or three houses up the street was a big house that was home to the offices (and maybe a recording studio) owned by Waylon Jennings. Belmont College, where I was going to school, was three or four blocks further on past Waylon's place.
In my "Captain's Log" for stardate 010.680 (6 January 1980) I began with the following: "Tonight is my second night as a citizen of Nashville, Tennessee. It's as good as can be expected of the situation I have put myself into. That being off campus in an upstairs one-room apartment. So far it has been boring and very lonely but I have chosen this for work purposes, school and songwriting. . . ."
From 1972 through 1997, Nashville had a theme park called "Opryland USA." The place featured the usual rides—roller coaster, Ferris wheel and such—and lots and lots of music, and in my early days in Nashville I thought I'd audition to be one of the Opryland performers. I don't remember now how I learned about the auditions, probably a flyer on a bulletin board at Belmont, but I signed up and was given a time on Saturday, 26 January 1980. This would be my first Nashville performance, and I was excited about it. My only previous trip to Nashville before moving there had been a visit to Opryland with the Walnut community youth group. I remember being impressed by the fact that we couldn't get motel rooms any closer to the place than Cookeville, Tennessee, and I remember thinking that the music—although not really my style—was impressive.
Here's a bit from my journal entry from the morning of my audition:
It's Saturday and the morning of my Opryland audition. I'm up now trying to get my voice loosened. I probably won't go over there till about noon. I know there are prayers at home about this and I have turned everything over to the will of God. I'm gonna do my best with all of the talents He gave me and the decision is up to Him.
I don't remember what I sang, but I know it was a song by Larry Gatlin. Here's a bit from my journal entry later that same day:
Well, I suffered my first letdown in the "big city" today . . . one of the biggest letdowns of my life. Obviously, I didn't make Opryland. I did my best, not that I don't think I was good enough. I just think they pretty well had all they wanted and didn't need any more of my style. It was kind of funny though . . . I was getting into it as usual and I hear this small voice "Michael" and I suddenly realized they were through listening. I said OK. [. . .] I don't mind saying I was crushed and hardly knew what to do. I just felt like God had turned his back and walked off on me. I forgot who I was and thought and did some things I shouldn't have. Then I finally realized there is something better down the road for me. Not having that job will give me more time this summer, I only pray the Lord will let me have a regular park job.
Strange that I can't remember what I sang, but I remember standing there after my curtain had fallen, so to speak, and watching the next audition. The performer was a little fellow the judges all seemed to know—maybe he'd been a performer the previous year. He did a little soft-shoe dance and sang an a cappella version of Louis Armstrong's "Lucky Old Sun." The judges loved it. (This is probably the point where I "thought and did some things I shouldn't have," but I can't remember what those were.) It was, I realize now, American Idol, and I wasn't a performer.
Looking back at those days of being 21 from my current perspective at 49, this experience was a harbinger of things to come throughout the next dozen or so years I would be involved with Nashville and trying to make it in the music business.
God did, it seems, see fit to give me a job in the park, which I fairly quickly walked out on with a "No thanks." I was hired to work on the Flume Zoom, the park's main (probably only) water ride. I wore my hair short and sported a moustache, and more than one smartass passing my station pointed and said, "Hey, it's Burt Reynolds!"
Not long after the park opened for the season—mid March, I think—came a cold and rainy Sunday. I seem to recall hearing that we had about 18 visitors in the entire park. Without any rain gear, I was soon wet and chilled to the bone, watching the empty logs pass my station. I thought that surely the park would close early. But no. We stayed the entire day, and I don't ever remember being so cold. When I got in my car for the drive back to 17th Avenue, I think I knew that I would not be returning to that job, God-given or not. As I sat in the dark and the rain at a traffic light, corner of Wedgewood and 17th, I was so distracted by the chill and depression that when the light turned green I almost hit a runner who crossed the intersection late. It was Willie Nelson. And, for awhile, I was excited about Nashville again.
I found a flexible position as mailroom and errand boy for Triune
Music Publishing and Triangle Records. Triune was a Christian publisher that
focused largely on choir arrangements for churches, and I seem to remember that
they had a special interest in cantatas or church musicals. At the time I was
there, the company's biggest claim to fame, however, was its connection to
singer Cynthia Clawson. I don't remember what that connection was, probably
through the record label, but I met her and thought that a step in the right
direction. I also don't remember anything else about the company, except that
perhaps I was interested in a receptionist there (with whom I never got further
than a few laughs).
As the end of the semester approached that spring, the only friend I remember, Taylor Binkley, announced that he was joining the Navy. I didn't like the idea of living where I was on 17th Avenue with the other fellow there and whoever else might show up to rent Taylor's room, so I started looking around for a new place. I found one across the river in east Nashville. I liked it a lot, and sometime in May I packed up my little one-room joint and moved. As I recall my new place was half of a house, much like the downstairs arrangement at the 17th Avenue location. Nor do I remember the name of the street.
I moved but never lived there. Taylor's departure, the end of school and the prospect of a summer alone in Music City left me disenchanted with the place. As I recall, I went home for a weekend of mid spring in the North Carolina mountains, and for all intents and purposes, I retreated from Nashville. I recruited my young cousin Mark to ride back there with me, load up my stuff and return home to Walnut, NC, all in a single day.
So ended my first sojourn in Nashville. That fall of 1980 I enrolled at the University of North Carolina, Asheville (UNCA), as a Literature and Language major, but I made it through only half the semester before I quit. Even though I'd left Nashville, my heart was in the music, not in school. I got a job at a sports store owned by a good friend from those days. I sang a lot in churches and began to play a little bit in local restaurants. Home still had its loneliness and the world its sadness—my cousin Joe was away at UT-Knoxville; that December, John Lennon was murdered—but I felt myself better off for being back there.
But it wouldn't be long—April 1981—before notions of returning to Nashville began to creep back into my mind. (back)
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