By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
In the corner of my record collection is a heavy black album. The spine is falling apart and the cover shows signs of mold. The thick pages hold aged 78s by Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Jimmy Webb, Kitty Wells and other old-time country favorites.
These heavy platters are all that’s left of my wife’s great grandmother’s personal music collection. The pistol-packin’ mama ran a bar and caroused around Marshall, Mo. for a spell in the 1960s. Although the singles in the album were released long after my wife’s grandma moved out, they were also the basis of her lifelong love of country music.
Flora Bullard was born Aug. 14, 1930, in Marshall. She was barely a teenager when her father took the family tto San Francisco so he could work in the shipyards during the war. A few months after the family returned to Marshall, the 14-year-old Flora caught the eye of Virgil Keller, who was eight years her senior. The pair was married when she was 15; nine months later they had their first child.
Jobs were scarce, so Virgil re-enlisted in the early ‘50s and was sent to Germany for three years. When he was called to Ft. Leavenworth, the family permanently relocated. After an honorable discharge Virgil reported to the Kansas State Penitentiary (now Lansing Correctional Facility) where he worked as a corrections officer for 20 years. (Cool fact: Virgil was present the night Perry Smith and Dick Hickock of “In Cold Blood” notoriety were hanged.)
Of course all of this happened long before I came onto the scene. When I arrived, Virgil had been dead for several years, and Flora would not be keeping house in Leavenworth much longer. A few weeks before my first Christmas with the family, I downloaded a collection of country Christmas songs. This wasn’t Brooks and Dunn, Faith Hill or what passes for country music today. These honky-tonkin’ tunes were loaded with so much twang you could feel grit forming between your teeth after a couple songs. Everyone in the house hated it. Flora loved it, which was good enough for me.
After an automobile accident accelerated her Alzheimer’s and necessitated her placement in the Tonganoxie Nursing Home, my wife and I would take her on day trips to Lawrence. Traveling U.S. 24/40 on the road to and from the home, she’d tell us stories about hanging outside of theaters in San Francisco, hoping to catch a glimpse (or more) of Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb and other country stars of the day.
The two hallmarks of Flora’s favorite country songs were steel guitars and yodeling. She couldn’t play guitar, but she could yodel with the best of them. When my wife was a young girl, Flora taught her how, a talent that sadly did not take. Though my wife couldn’t sing with her, Flora was happy to yodel on her own (or with her youngest daughter). Her favorite song was Patsy Montana’s 1935 hit “I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.”
Whenever she sang, I was transported to a dusty, one-horse town on the plains during the Depression. I imagined the family singing together to escape the bone-numbing hard work that needed to be done to make ends meet. I imagined someone out of a Frank Capra movie running into the room with a telegram inviting everyone to see the Carter Family that night in a big tent in the middle of an even bigger field.
I’ll have to dream even more now. Flora Keller died Tuesday morning, surrounded by her two daughters and three grand-daughters as they drank beer and toasted the good times. A smoker for 40 years, Flora kicked the habit cold turkey several decades ago, but not before her lungs were irreparably damaged. Now that she is free of her body, she is once again reunited with her Cowboy, forever his sweetheart.