Written by Becky Allen, November 1, 2019
“Sometimes the crooked road is the straightest way to take you…”
(“The Crooked Road” by Ellen Britton & Will Hopkins)
Where It All Started…
Long before Virginia’s music heritage became the thriving production it is today, Interstate 81 was the straightest way to get from Staunton, Virginia to Nashville, where the crooked road of music dreams could lead you into fame and fortune or send you home, bruised and battered.
I recently took a trip down that stretch of I-81, and found myself lost in the crooked road of my memories, most especially the times Nashville was my destination. I thought about the time I was called into service by Lynwood to help move “the boys” from Staunton, VA to Music City–they were joining the ranks of dreamers going there to make music and make their mark. (And, btw, they did.)
KEEPERS OF THE FLAME
This is my story, but it isn’t about me. It’s the real story of real people whose lives intertwined with mine, giving me an up close and personal view of music and dreams evolving through three generations. Why is this important? Because this family has had a profound impact in my life, and because of the contribution to and influence this family has had in the evolution of country music. Because these people have integrity and stayed true to their values. Because I love these people. Because music.
The Groahs and the Allens. Our families have been connected for as long as I can remember. My mom and Lynwood Groah grew up in the same small community where they went to school and their families went to church together. Lynwood’s sister, Jane, and her husband, Bob, sang in the Baptist church there with my parents. Sometimes the four of them sang The Special and on those Sundays, I was glad to be in church. When their harmonies rang from the wooden rafters I felt Jesus right there on the pew beside me. When we visited with Jane and Bob, sometimes Jane would play piano and they would reprise their quartet, singing some current country favorite like Hank Locklin’s “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On” or Roy Acuff’s “Once More” or Ray Price’s lament “Crazy Arms”. On the way home in our 1949 Ford with no radio, Mom, Dad, my older sister, and I would sing those same songs. That’s how I learned to sing alto from my mother. It was supreme.
That’s the “me” part of this story; here’s the rest, starting with Lynwood and Lu, as I always knew them.
In the late 1940s and early 50s when Lucille Siron was growing up, she spent time at her uncle’s store in that tiny foot-of-South Mountain-town of Vesuvius. There was the store, the Post Office, the Baptist Church, and the railroad tracks. Of course Lynwood and Lucille knew each other–everyone knew young Lynwood Groah in that little hamlet. He frequented her uncle’s store, but they didn’t really know each other. Well…until that one day when Lucille was there waiting for her uncle to close up the store. She was sitting in a chair by the woodstove when Lynwood came in; he tripped, and literally fell at her feet. Through their lives, he would remind her, saying, “I really fell for you.”
It wasn’t long before Lynwood was squiring Lu around in his 1939 Ford, the radio always on, always playing country music. Before dating him, she hadn’t had much exposure to that sound. They married on Christmas, 1952. As a Christmas gift, Lucille gave Lynwood a pedal steel guitar from Sears. Her dad had given her a Gibson guitar so now they had the makings of a little family band. Then Danny came along. He recalls, “We’re talking around two, three, four years old—my earliest memories are of family get-togethers; Mom and Dad, an aunt and uncle and cousin, and my grandfather used to get together and play music. I just loved that.”
Lu had always enjoyed different kinds of music but when country music became the soundtrack to their lives, she was moved to turn her hand to songwriting. Lynwood’s love for the genre and his finely-tuned ear as the result of his immersion in it qualified him to declare Lu’s songs to be “as good as that or better.” Lynwood had made connections through his job with some local musicians. One in particular, Jimmy Fadley, a local pedal steel player who had made a name for himself in Nashville, listened to their music and encouraged Lynwood and Lu to think bigger, take the songwriting to the next level.
Lynwood’s belief in their songs spurred them to take the gamble, “Lu, I think we need to do something with these songs–we at least need to go and try.” Lu is clear on this point, “If it hadn’t been for Lenny–that’s how everybody there knew him–I wouldn’t have been able to do a lot that I did. Sometimes he gave me ideas for songs but he mostly took care of everything. I would’ve never taken that big step on my own. We made an appointment to talk to some people at a company down there in Nashville, so we went to talk to them. The very first place we went in, they wanted to keep one of the songs.”
That confirmation sent them home hopeful, shoring up their commitment to traveling the long road as often as necessary to realize their dreams. While Music City was that other world they inhabited upon occasion, each of the Groahs was doing something in the everyday, small town world of Staunton, to bridge the gap between the two. Lynwood built a recording studio in the basement of their new home. He taught himself to use the equipment and with him as the engineer, they could produce professional sounding demos of Lu singing her songs. They were all in.
Brian Dempsy gives us a glimpse of the town, dubbed Music City in 1950, in his blog post for thetennesseeencyclopedia.net: In 1946, Castle Recording Studios began recording major-label artists in addition to their regular commercial spots. Soon thereafter, labels such as Capitol, RCA Victor, and Decca moved to Nashville to capitalize on the growing music industry. Owen and Harold Bradley opened a studio in a Quonset Hut on Sixteenth Avenue South, becoming the first business on Music Row in 1954. Publishing firms such as Hill and Range and Cedarwood Music also moved to Music Row during this period.
In the early 60s, the Groahs started making the trip down to pitch their songs on that 16th Avenue, which was becoming populated ever more frequently with music businesses.
The duo laid the foundation for their legacy on Lu’s songs and Lenny’s management skills coupled with his unique personality. Lenny was, without a doubt, a character. Lu tells stories of how they would land in Music City and head for the hotel, where she would write while Lenny worked the town. He made it through doors that often didn’t open readily and talked his way into publishing house offices, making friends everywhere he went. This country guy from a small town in Virginia moved easily among some Nashville heavy hitters.
Lu says they bought a small reel-to-reel tape recorder they carried with them so she could demo songs she wrote while they were there. It wasn’t unusual for a publisher to ask if Lenny had a particular type of material. Like the time he was in a publisher’s office, who asked if they had a truck driving song. Lenny went back to the hotel, told Lu what they needed, so she wrote and recorded a song on the spot to fit the bill. That experience led to a track on a Dave Dudley album.
The Groahs hit town as country music was entering its 3rd generation; the previous generation having been defined by the growth in popularity of the Barn-Dance-cum-Grand-Ole-Opry weekly radio broadcasts. Some astute businessmen had begun to realize there’s gold in them thar hilllbillies. The money moved in and the “Nashville Sound” took off.
Though the music was becoming a booming business, the town remained accessible to the likes of the little family from a small town in Virginia with big dreams. They could still blow into Music City, Lenny could make the rounds, working his charm on the record company execs, producers, publishers, and artists known to frequent certain haunts. Lu could write–and, later, keep an eye on the small boy who rounded out the little family.
Lu tells the story of dropping off a very young Danny at his grandmother’s house before one of the Nashville trips because, well, he was just too young to go. “We took Danny to Vesuvius to stay, left his clothes and everything inside and they came out with us and sat on the swing. We started out of the driveway and he screamed and hollered and Lenny said, ‘we’re not gonna leave him…’ So, we turned and went back and got him. He stood in the backseat most the way; we kept telling him to sit down but he was just too excited.”
Danny’s first taste of Nashville suited him, “I thought of it like a vacation where I could swim and have fun. I remember just loving Nashville; I loved to go in the studios, which I did occasionally, when they were demo-ing some of their songs.”
Tune in to part two early next week to hear where the Groahs went from here.
Songs Written and Published by Lu (partial list)
3: Jeremiah Jones / Tex Ritter / Green Green Valley album
5: Everything Holy To Me / Eighth Day / Everything Holy album (Title track of album went to 16 on gospel charts) about 10 years ago some of Mom’s Last Songs
6: Heaven’s Gate / Eighth Day / (15 on gospel charts)
7 She’s Not Cold / Pete Martin & The Versatile Keys
8: Tennessee Send Her Home / Pete Martin & The Versatile Keys
9: Sittin In A Tree / Harry Snyder
10: And Then Some/ Harry Snyder
11: Peace Of Mind / Pete Martin And The Versatile Keys
12: You Can’t Take It/ Pete Martin And The Versatile Keys
13: I’ve Done all I Can Do / The Ross Trio
14 And Then Some / Harry Snyder Presents The Uptowners Instrumental album
(Note: Pete Martin formed the band The Versatile Keys, but left later to do his own thing–the rest of the band stayed together and played as The Versatile Keys. They recorded some of Lu’s songs in the Groah’s studio, which Lynwood produced. Harry Snyder was another local country musician who formed a band called “Harry Snyder and the Buttermilks”. Harry was one of those guys from the area that made the trip to Nashville during the same time period, hoping something of his would hit.)