From nearly every back wood crossroads in North Carolina can be found stories of some favorite son or daughter who left their country home to make it big. I’m talking politics, music, sports and yes, even Hollywood. Such people may be close kin, but regardless, any dropping of names is done so with pride. It’s the hope that those listening will come to realize that it’s possible for great things to be born of simple beginnings.
While visiting and researching family far from home, and if asked where I’m from, I proudly reply “from Charlotte, just a few blocks from Billy Graham’s mom.” I’m no kin to Morrow Graham but in some way her story is a part of me by way of mere proximity within the community we shared. Similarly and from many years ago in rural Union County, a happenchance stop at a little country store led me to Annie Lee Traywick who so happens to be a very close relative of country music legend Randy Travis. Randy was also born a Traywick. Annie Lee has now passed but she was a friend and in the truest sense, my mentor. More than anyone, Ms. Annie Lee gladly shared all she knew of our common homeplace in old Anson County.
In searching for my Thomas family who migrated to Cherokee County Alabama, I learned of a line that moved from that county to Marion County TN. It’s in Tennessee where I learned of Sonny Thomas who played guitar and was known as the “Fret King” by those who performed at the Grand Ole Opry. Sonny Thomas was close to Chet Atkins and is an American treasure. His name appears among those honored in the National Thumb Picking Hall of Fame.
And in telling the story of such family connections, I cannot leave out distant cousin Henry Jackson Thomas Jr. who as a child had the ability to cry on command. He was a shoo-in for the role he played as Elliott in the movie ET. Not only an actor, Henry has musical talents and expresses himself in a band called Farspeaker.
Recently, I’ve had the chance to spend time with distant cousin Daniel Thomas who lives near Chicago. During his early childhood Daniel’s family often visited his grandparents and cousins in and around the small town of Gulf NC. Named for the deep water bend in the aptly named Deep River, the town’s only traffic light was removed years ago when it was deemed unnecessary following improvements to nearby US 421. The town is small and quaint. Dan and I had a great time retracing his family’s migration through the piedmont hills of Carolina. Visiting the Chatham County seat of Pittsboro, he reconnected with the slower days of his childhood memories while having his hair cut at the local barber shop. There’s no better place to learn about a community than through conversations found at the barber shop. We also stopped at the local History Museum where cousin Charles Thomas spoke of Chatham County and of his line of the family who lives there today. We also drove the Lower Moncure Road and Buckhorn Road where old church cemeteries were filled with our family’s past. And later, the visit was made personal as we paid respectful visits to Dan’s Aunts and cousins.
Daniel was invited to attend service at Gulf Presbyterian Church where his father is interred. It was a special day for Dan as he was joined by his cousins Keith and Darryl Hunter. And driving that Sunday morning down from Goldtson to Gulf, Dan recalled the day his dad had driven the rural road back in 1954. They were heading to Goldston to see his uncle Pat play in a local high school football game. However, a storm named Hazel was rapidly approaching and as you may guess, the game was cancelled. Dan never got to see his uncle play football and it wasn’t till much later that he learned the story of the team’s more notable player by the name of Charlie Daniels.
It happens that our visit to Dan’s hometown coincided with Veteran’s Day at a time when the small congregation of Gulf Presbyterian Church held its second Sunday luncheon following what was a very special service. The Pledge of Allegiance was read and accompanied by a guitar duet, songs for the day included Just a Walk with Thee, Onward Christian Soldiers, and Where We’ll Never Grow Old. And then there was the meal. Seated at folding tables in the fellowship hall, it warmed the heart to see this remnant Thomas family share in conversation, good food, and the photographic snapshots of their collective past. And in the group photo below, local celebrity Russell Palmer also joined in.
As was shared with me, the photo at the top of the page captures the1954 Goldston High School football team. Second from the left in the photo is Dan’s Uncle Pat. And to the far right is a big kid wearing a much darker jersey. That’s because they didn’t have a matching jersey big enough to fit the kid named Charlie Daniels. As you may have already guessed, we all know Charlie for his music and the mean fiddle he plays. But where did it all begin?
I’m in no way qualified to tell the story as it’s best to direct you to a wonderful must-read article that appears in Our State Magazine. I can say though, that as a curious young man, Charlie Daniels sat down with his friend Russell Palmer (photo above) who first introcued him to guitar by way of a few chords. It’s from that humble beginning the country music legend credits his starting point. Back in 2006 Charlie Daniels was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In acknowledgement of his roots, Charlie invited Russell Palmer to join him onstage for a celebratory performance. The circle is complete. Please read the article linked above!
I could end this as is, but let me drop one more name. My second cousin Tony Thomas plays guitar with a local Union County band called the Pine Ridge Boys. Tony is also close friends with Ricky Traywick, the brother of singer Randy Travis. Recently, Cousin Tony Thomas joined with Ricky Traywick in writing a song honoring the life of Randy Travis. The song was played at a nationally televised tribute to Randy Travis who’s clawing his way back following a life changing stroke.
I’m always reminded that we all have value, playing our part in making this country what it truly is. But, it’s only human nature for us to drop names, to be prideful of those among us who have made it big. It’s okay. It’s okay to share the stories of others as if they are your own. Such stories serve as examples steering the dreams of future generations. However, it’s all just a matter of how we draw upon our circles of life and influence. For me, it’s a gift that our life stories intersect with those of people like Randy, Charlie, Henry, and Sonny. It provides a sense of hope among all of us who are utterly unknown. It’s a surprise celebration for those of us living life quietly and simply in our own way.