A Cowboy’s Sweetheart

(Flora Keller’s favorite song was Patsy Montana’s 1935 hit “I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart.”)

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.)

My wife's late grandmother bore a striking resemblence to Kitty Wells (above) in her later years.

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.


Remembering how Grandma rocked


By Joel Francis

We never had cable television in our house when I was growing up. Some people are surprised when I reveal this tidbit, but I don’t think one would have to scratch to deeply to tie this to my long-running obsession with pop culture.

As a child this was no big deal, but as I got older being disconnected from the great mainstream fountain of MTV put my sister and I severely out of the loop.

To plug into the cultural zeitgeist we had to go to the Mecca of the cutting-edge, St. Joseph, Mo. There, at our grandparents’ house, we got to gorge on cable programming and feast on the forbidden MTV. Thanksgiving and Christmas were the best. With two extended breaks within a month of each other, my sister and I could catch up on all the Yo! MTV Raps, Club MTV, Headbanger’s Ball and Street Party we could get away with.

Our system was both simple and foolproof. The main TV in my grandparents’ house was in the basement by the fireplace. My sister would position herself at the bottom of the steps (with the door “accidentally” closed at the top), and I would hover my finger over the “previous channel” button on the remote, ready for her signal.

In that basement we saw the videos for Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “November Rain,” U2’s “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” and Michael Jackson’s “Jam” for the first time. We witnessed the evolution of Kurt Cobain, performing with cheerleaders, hanging on a cross and eventually playing unplugged in a natty sweater. We also saw the hot dance moves I knew my hopelessly uncoordinated body would never let me conquer. Armed with this information, we would return to school and be in the know until Valentine’s Day. In that brief window, all of our touchstones would begin to stale until we were once again relegated to the sidelines and second-hand video knowledge.

Of course watching that much MTV could only lead to premarital sex and other inappropriate behavior, but if our parents cared they didn’t let on much. They were probably just happy my sister and I weren’t fighting for once. There may have been several occasions dad watched with us just to see what all the fuss was about. Allegedly. (He was as impressed with the 360-degree camerawork on “Even Better Than the Real Thing” as us. In a pre-“Matrix” world it was pretty remarkable. I also remember him liking the dolphins in Guns ‘N’ Roses’ “Estranged,” not that it made any more sense then than it does now.)

My grandparents downsized to a condo in the late ‘90s. By then I was in college and my sister could drive to Westport and experience a more authentic musical environment. They eventually moved closer to our parents and better healthcare in Independence.

Grandma died a week ago today, five days after suffering a stroke that rendered her right side paralyzed and took away her ability to speak. She could still smile, though, and the half of her face that could lit up any time one of her loved ones walked into her hospital room. She went quicker than expected – Grandpa didn’t even have the chance to say goodbye – but peacefully in her sleep.

Truth is, of all my grandparents, my grandma and I probably had the least obvious connection. She was all the things I wasn’t: patient, selfless and completely uninterested in sports, music and movies. Her life revolved around church and serving her friends and family. Anything else that collided with that universe was just gravy.

The TV in her basement, like a lot of the furniture in that room was sold or given away long ago. But in a lot of ways, it was never turned off. I go back there in my mind when I pull up a long-forgotten Black Star video up on Youtube, or watch any of my music DVDs. And now I think of Grandma, waiting for us upstairs with a freshly prepared hot meal and a smile on her face. Come join us. There’s always room for one more at her table.

Springsteen in the waiting room: Drop the needle and pray

“This too shall pass, I’m gonna pray
Right now all I got’s this lonesome day”

By Joel Francis

I didn’t make it to Bruce Springsteen’s concert at the Sprint Center Sunday night. Around the time he was going onstage – about 8:50 – most of my extended family was leaving the hospital. It had been a long day. Grandma started aspirating about noon, and for the third time that week we all descended upon her intensive care room. At 10:30, about the time Bruce was ripping into “Spirit in the Night,” the nurse told us Grandma’s heart was working harder because her oxygen levels were falling. It didn’t look good. The nurse said it was unlikely Grandma would survive the night.

Hard times baby, well they come to tell us all
Sure as the tickin’ of the clock on the wall
Sure as the turnin’ of the night into day
Your smile girl, brings the morni
n’ light to my eyes
Lifts away the blues when I rise
I hope that you’re coming to stay”

Even before he took the stage, Springsteen was my release. My wife and I saw him last March in Omaha, so we didn’t buy tickets when this show was announced. Even so, the possibility of grabbing tickets from a scalper just before showtime was always open. I even bought a pair of earplugs to the hospital with me, just in case. I pulled them out of my pocket every so often and wondered “Where would the band eat dinner?” Knowing this was the final concert of the tour I imagined how long they’d play. “Hey,” I’d say to no one in particular, “what song are they going to open with?” or, later, “What song do you think they are playing right now?”

“A dream of life comes to me
Like a catfish dancin’ on the end of the line”

Helen Kelley was born in Minneapolis in 1920. The sixth of seven children, she met my grandpa at church. After Grandpa returned from World War II they moved to Manhattan, Kan. where he attended Kansas State on the G.I. Bill. After earning his doctor of veterinary medicine the couple and their young daughter, my mother, relocated to Independence, Mo., where he opened a pet hospital on 23rd Street.

My favorite memories of Grandma take place in the children’s clothing store she opened next door to Grandpa’s pet hospital. Ostensibly hired to help with inventory, she grew to appreciate the Beatles, B.B. King and Ray Charles CDs I brought along. We would talk for hours, solving all the world’s problems before taking the obligatory break for “Oprah.”

“I got a picture of you in my locket
I keep it close to my heart
A light shining in my breast
Leading me through the dark
Seven days, seven candles
In my window light your way
Your favorite record’s on the turntable
I drop the needle and pray”

On the trips back and forth from the hospital in the week leading up to Grandma’s death Springsteen was my passenger. The titles alone were testimonies: “Reason to Believe,” “Counting on a Miracle,” “Land of Hope and Dreams,” “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” “The Promised Land,” “Lift Me Up,” “Lonesome Day.”

We finally left the hospital Sunday night after Grandma’s condition had plateaued and we had collected promises of a phone call if anything changed. As we sailed up U.S. 71 I rolled down the windows and gave the speakers a workout. “Rosalita,” “Backstreets” and “Thunder Road” from the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon concert. When we arrived at the house around midnight, the E Street Band was finally leaving the Sprint Center stage after a three-hour marathon set.

“May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love”

Grandma died shortly after 8 p.m. Monday. Her family huddled around the hospital bed and sang the old hymns she loved so much. I doubt she heard them, but if she did, one of the last sounds Grandma would have heard was “Jacob’s Ladder.” This 19th century hymn has its origins in the slave churches, but was popularized by Paul Robeson in the 1920s and Pete Seeger in the 1950s. Springsteen recorded it on his “Seeger Sessions” album. Another of Grandma’s favorite hymns came from those same sessions.

I got into Springsteen too late to share him with Grandma, but I think she would have enjoyed him. If not, she would see how happy his songs made me and gamely smile along. As I made my final trip home from the hospital, I knew Grandma was enjoying the Boss’ performance of “How Can I Keep From Singing.”

“My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation…
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of Heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?”