LIVE FAST LOVE HARD THE FARON YOUNG STORY
By Diane Diekman
University of Illinois Press Copyright © 2007 Diane Diekman
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-252-03248-6
Chapter One Faron Young, a Study in Contrasts
One summer day in 1948 Faron Young drove his Ford panel truck along a street in the wealthy section of Shreveport, Louisiana. Its bad muffler and load of cow manure assaulted the senses of anyone within hearing or smelling distance. Sixteen-year-old Faron turned into the driveway of a mansion, got out of the truck, and asked a man tending a bed of flowers, "Would you like to buy a nice load of barnyard fertilizer?" "Get that wreck off my property right now," the man answered. "Well, here's my calling card. In case you ever need any, give me a call." Faron threw a chunk of manure, which hit the green-carpet lawn and broke into a million pieces.
The man shook his rake at the teenager, who jumped into his truck and took off, smoke pouring from the vehicle. At the end of the driveway Faron stopped and shouted, "All right, you old sonofabitch, one of these days I'm gonna be rich, and you'll regret the day you didn't buy this fertilizer from me!"
Four years later Faron had a recording contract, songs on the radio, and a Cadillac. "I looked like a little cricket in there, driving this big long limousine," he said. He drovefrom Nashville back to Shreveport to show off. Stopping at the mansion, he walked to the door and put his finger on the bell. If the same man answered, Faron planned to say he'd been there in an old truck several years earlier, "tried to sell you some fertilizer, and I told you I'd be rich one of these days." For some reason, however, he couldn't push the button. He drove halfway back down the long, winding driveway, stopped, considered it again, and left. Years later he said, "I wish I'd a done it now. 'Course, he'd a never believed me. He mighta hit me in the head with that rake. Say, 'I caught you this time.'"
Faron Young's singing career spanned four decades and culminated in his election to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000. Beginning with "Goin' Steady" in 1952, he had eighty-nine songs on the Billboard country music charts, with five number-one hits.
Categorized as a baritone alto with the smooth voice of a pop singer, Faron put heart and soul into his songs. "He could make you cry or he could make you laugh," says Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Glenn Sutton. "He had expression you could feel."
Gifted with perfect pitch, Faron was known as a peerless singer and entertainer, someone who recognized a good song and consistently helped struggling singers and songwriters. But his treatment of people ranged from generosity and kindheartedness to being mean and abusive. He could hand out $100 bills, or he could be obnoxious and cruel.
He took pride in his reputation for being outspoken and said if he ever wrote a book he might call it Tell It Like It Is. He could have been describing himself, however, when he complained about people who "don't let the truth stand in the way of a good story." His stories, which often poked fun at himself or his family and friends, contained more entertainment value than truth.
One might wonder why such a great singer didn't have a string of chart-topping hits. Three reasons come to mind: integrity, niche marketing, and alcohol. Mercury Records producer Jerry Kennedy remembers a day in his office when Faron received a telephone call from Billboard magazine. In those days, buying advertising in trade magazines automatically placed the advertised songs on the charts. The more money artists and record labels spent, the higher a song would climb. But Faron refused to play the game. He adamantly told the caller he wouldn't buy an ad. "I'll tell you what I will do," he said. "I'll buy an ad thanking you for a number one record, but I'm not gonna buy an ad to make it number one." Several weeks later he followed through on his promise, purchasing an ad to say thank you for making "It's Four in the Morning" a number-one record.
Faron seldom strayed from his niche of steel guitars and a two-step shuffle beat. His band stayed with him on the payroll and on the road, playing nightclubs and package shows for four decades. With his quick wit and confident personality, Faron could have succeeded as a talk-show host or movie actor. He loved being the center of attention and source of entertainment, and such roles would undoubtedly have given him a larger fan base and greater name recognition. He could also have recorded with other singers to appeal to a larger audience, but doing so would risk alienating old fans to obtain new ones.
After the success of "It's Four in the Morning," he recorded a song he hoped would bring greater exposure. It didn't work. "My fans don't dig me with an orchestra," he said. "Now they dig Ray Price with an orchestra, Eddy Arnold with an orchestra, but they just don't buy Faron Young with an orchestra." He added, "I think the orchestra ruint the song." Faron stayed as loyal to his fans as they did to him, and he continued to give them the music they wanted.
His drinking, however, gave people more than they wanted. As fellow Grand Ole Opry member Johnny Russell says, "When he was drinking, he could give you the shirt off his back or cuss you out. You just never knew." Russell once agreed to ride on Faron's bus to a show near Pittsburgh even though "you get worried because you know it was an overnight trip, and somewhere on that trip, he's gonna get drunk. And he wasn't very pleasant to put up with sometimes when he was drinking."
Jan Howard, a veteran Grand Ole Opry performer, says she loved Faron except when he drank. "Faron," she told him at a show in Akron, Ohio, "I wish you wouldn't tell those particular jokes, or use cuss words. You're the greatest entertainer in the world. You have the greatest voice. Why don't you try it one time without that?" When he went onstage for the evening performance he announced, "I'm going to do this whole show just for Jan Howard." It was the best show she had seen him do, and when she complimented him afterward he responded, "Hell, I can't do that all the time. It would ruin my reputation."
Faron's excessive drinking could be attributed to heredity, environment, personality, or his body's reaction to alcohol. The lack of a loving father seemed to have a profound negative impact; although Faron tried to prove himself worthy, he could never be good enough for his father or himself. Faron's mother loved her children openly, but his father treated them with coldness and disapproval. Drinking might have been an attempt to drown the deep pains of childhood.
The music environment first exposed Faron to alcoholic excess as a teenager. His brother Ray thinks living in Nashville caused Faron to start drinking. "I went to Nashville one time to see him," Ray says, "and he took me around to every big recording studio. And every door we'd go in, somebody'd offer us a drink. They were always celebrating. It's not hard to be an alcoholic in Nashville, I don't think."
Faron's personality fit the definition of an average person who becomes an alcoholic: "overconfident, undercontrolled, devil-may-care, unbridled by convention." His five-foot-seven-inch height was another factor in molding his behavior. Friends and band members describe him as having "a real thing about his size," and he picked fights with big men as a way of proving himself.
Friends didn't think he needed to prove himself, however. Bill Mack, a member of the Country Music DJ Hall of Fame, remembers being in Nashville for a disc jockey convention and walking with Faron and several others from the hotel to the auditorium. Mack wore a dark suit, and the others were dressed in tuxedos. "Bill," someone said, "aren't you going to wear a tux?" "Am I supposed to have a tux for this?" Mack asked. "Ah, that don't make no difference," Faron said. "You don't need to wear a damn tux to this thing." When they reached the auditorium Mack wondered why Faron had disappeared until Faron walked in wearing a business suit. "He knew I was so embarrassed because I didn't wear a tux," Mack says. "He went back and changed. That's the Faron Young I knew."
The story of this many-sided character begins in Shreveport, Louisiana, during the Great Depression.
Chapter Two A Shreveport Beginning
Five-year-old Dorothy Young stood in the yard of her Shreveport, Louisiana, home and waved excitedly at the cars driving by. "We got a new baby brother!" she hollered.
Faron Young had entered the world. Born February 25, 1932, in a two-bedroom rental house at 1217 Hoadley, he was the sixth and last child of Harlan and Doris Young. Shortly after his birth the family moved around the corner to 2023 Seymour to save $5 on rent. Today, all that remains of Faron's first homes is an overgrown lot next to an expressway overpass. A tall pole near the intersection of Hoadley and Seymour holds a gigantic advertising billboard that towers over the expressway. A sign tacked to the pole at eye level reads "2023 Seymour."
Faron's roots can be traced to the early 1800s, when his ancestors migrated from the East Coast to Indiana and Iowa. His paternal grandparents, Oscar Allen and Jennie Mae (Staats) Young, lived on various farms in Iowa and Nebraska before moving to Louisiana. By 1920 they were renting a farm in Bossier Parish, across the Red River from Shreveport. Their eldest son, Harlan Ray, attended business school, and four younger children were in public school.
Three years later, twenty-two-year-old Harlan married seventeen-year-old Doris Lucille Burch, daughter of Andrew Burch, a widower from Yazoo County, Mississippi, and owner of a general mercantile store in Shreveport. Harlan worked as a milk deliveryman while Doris made a home for him and their growing family.
Shreveport, like the rest of the nation, suffered from the Great Depression. Its economy recovered more rapidly than in most areas, however, due its position as the center of a growing trade area. Shreveport's diversified industries included lumber and oil, and there were no runs on local banks. Barksdale Army Air Field, which opened in 1933, brought additional revenue to the community.
Oscar and Mae Young moved to a farm an hour's drive from Shreveport, and their grandchildren enjoyed visiting. Faron never knew his maternal grandparents, who died before his birth. He described his father as six-foot-three and 225 pounds, his mother as five-foot-four and ninety-five pounds, and his five brothers and sisters as tall, with blue eyes and blond hair like their father. "My daddy always had a look in his eye," Faron joked, "when he'd look around at all the kids sitting at the table. I don't know if he ever believed I was his, 'til the day he died, because I didn't look nothin' like him." Faron looked like his black-haired mother and the Burch side of the family. "My brothers used to tell me I wasn't really one of 'em," Faron said. "They'd say you don't belong here. You belong to the Italian fellow down at the grocery store."
Ray (Harlan Ray Jr., called Little Brother by the family) says, "We always picked on one another. We were mischievous kids, but [Faron did] his share of it, too." Ray adds, "He sure never felt bad about the things he called people. Faron was no angel." Faron "learned how to cuss when he could understand language," Ray remembers. "My daddy cussed every other breath. My old man never did use a sentence without a cuss word."
Their father worked hard to make a living but showed no tenderness to his children. "I never ever saw my daddy show any affection to anybody," Dorothy observes. She believes that he didn't know how to give his sons a pat on the back and say, "Y'all did a good job today." "You never could please him," Ray agrees, "whatever you done." If Harlan ruled with an iron hand, Doris softened feelings with a warm hug. "If Mama met you," Dorothy says, "[and] ran into you again, she'd hug you. Mama was a very affectionate person."
Faron was seven when his father decided to go into the dairy business. After a promotion from milk deliveryman to superintendent at Mesca Dairy Creamery, Harlan bought a dairy herd and moved his family to a farm on Mansfield Road. Getting up at 4 a.m. to milk cows before catching the school bus did not provide fond memories. "We all hated the dairy," Ray says. "It's no life at all." Names such as Hitler and Mussolini showed how the Young children felt about their milk cows.
As the Youngs became dairy farmers the nation prepared for war. Because of proximity to Barksdale Field, Shreveport experienced numerous military exercises. From August to October in 1941, the city hosted the largest military maneuvers ever held in the United States. George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower participated. The final exercise ended five days ahead of schedule, after Patton helped bring the Third Army to a decisive victory. Nine-year-old Faron probably played war games with his friends as soldiers flooded the town and newspapers provided reports of the maneuvers.
A year later, after three years on the Mansfield Road dairy farm, the family moved to one at the corner of Jewella Road and Seventieth Street. The tiny house had no bathtub or indoor plumbing. Faron helped his brothers, Leroy, Ray, and Oscar, with the early-morning chores. He fed cows and cleaned out the barn, and after about a year, he started milking, too.
Oscar, ten months older than Faron, was "Daddy's favorite child," according to Dorothy. "Daddy admitted that to me in later life. I don't know exactly how he put it-'I kinda leaned toward Oscar,' something like that. Oscar could get by with a lot more stuff than the rest of us." Oscar would sometimes hide out all night, even sleep in a ditch. "He'd do anything rather than come home and milk those cows," Dorothy says. "Daddy tried to punish him. And he offered to buy him a bike, which didn't work, so he gave up and just hoped for the best."
When Ray could no longer stand dairy life and being without money, he left home to work in the oil fields. Leroy enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Dorothy, because of poor heath, worked at home until her marriage in 1943. Her younger sister, Audrey Louise, joined Oscar and Faron in the milk barn.
Harlan and Doris then moved with their three youngest children to a third dairy, located on the Old Glencoe Plantation on Jefferson Road at the edge of Shreveport. A long dirt driveway circled through beautiful grounds and in front of the porch of the historic two-story house. An outdoor toilet sat at the end of a path behind the house. The Youngs pumped water from the cistern and heated it on the kitchen stove to fill the bathtub in a small downstairs room. Natural gas provided lights in the house and power for the milking machines.
When World War II ended, Shreveport erupted in celebration. Radio station KWKH held a special ceremony, and Barksdale personnel put together a parade. A large crowd headed downtown, horns honking, voices cheering, and flags waving. A Shreveport history reported, "Church bells competed with exploding firecrackers. Trolleys were rerouted around the huge traffic jam." The holiday declared for Wednesday, August 15, 1945, probably shut down Werner Park Elementary School, where Faron attended the eighth grade.
Tragedy struck the Young family a month later. On September 25, Oscar went with friends-and without his parents' knowledge-to a football game across the state line in Gladewater, Texas. He rode in the rumble seat of a friend's car. As they returned home late that Friday evening on Greenwood Road, the group in the car toyed with a school bus filled with football players. "They would pull up ahead-now this is the story I got-and then slow down and let the bus pass them," Dorothy explains. "Someone said he was leaning out, trying to get a cigarette from one of the boys on the bus. The way I understand it, the car sideswiped the bus, and that threw him out. It threw him up in the air and he landed on his head." The death certificate said fourteen-year-old Oscar died of "traumatism by crushing." Harlan's brother identified Oscar's body at the morgue and went with Dorothy and her husband to tell Oscar's parents. Harlan and Doris had thought he was in bed-until they checked the bedroom and found thirteen-year-old Faron alone.
Faron finished the eighth grade and entered Fair Park High School, where he scraped through his freshman year with a D in every course. In 1947 he ran away from home to live with Ray in Columbia, Mississippi. Ray says Faron "just wanted to get away from that dairy," and he worked in a drug store until Ray and the druggist talked him into going home. He missed four months of the tenth grade before deciding he'd better go back to school. As a result, it took Faron two years to complete his sophomore requirements.
Excerpted from LIVE FAST LOVE HARD by Diane Diekman Copyright © 2007 by Diane Diekman. Excerpted by permission.
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