I’m Not Hearing A Single
I Brought My Father With Me
by Robert Morgan FisherMy father is George G. Fisher (CDR. USN Ret.). He now resides up in Washington State with my mother, Loretta. A producer I once worked with said, “Every man’s story is ultimately the story of him and his father.” My father was a warrior—I’ve written a lot about him in both song and fiction. Our affectionate nickname for my father is WarDog.
When I was a kid, my family was stationed for a time at Pt. Mugu Naval Air Station. We lived in Camarillo. My father and mother thought it would be a good idea for me to take group guitar lessons. A local professional guitarist named Don Ventura said, “You get some kids and a garage and I’ll provide weekly lessons.” I learned half a dozen chords, disrupted the lessons with my immature antics and hated practicing. That first guitar, an almost unplayable Kay, was partly to blame. Don, who was said to have “played at The Hollywood Bowl,” taught us all the Valley songs—Down in the Valley, Red River Valley. I acquired a paperback book of corny folk standards, “campus classics” that had been popularized during the Folk Music Scare (as Martin Mull called it) of the early 1960s. I’d play some of them for WarDog and often the ones I didn’t know he was able to remember from childhood. Songs like I Was Born About Ten Thousand Years Ago. And I mean, he know ALL the words to that song. Incredible.
When we were transferred to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station up in Washington, we lived in a trailer park, waiting for a house on base to become available. I was in 6th
grade. The Best of Ed Sullivan
came on TV one Sunday night—Ed’s show had been unceremoniously canceled earlier that year. There was Paul McCartney
with such emotion that I turned to my parents afterward and said: “When I get my guitar out of storage, I’m really
going to learn to play it.” They laughed derisively—but within the year I was taking private lessons with a nice old man who tried to teach me to read music. I quit out of boredom—but continued to hang out at the local music store.
It was there that my musical education truly began. I bought songbooks by the dozen, gradually improved. I picked strawberries in the summer in order to afford my first decent guitar, a Decca electric. Those years are chronicled in my song, Six Steel Strings
.My father always made sure I had access to a guitar. I went through a number of cheap instruments—couple of 12-strings, even a banjo—before we were transferred to Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. One day, I happened upon The Drinking Gourd Folk Music Store, owned by Dave Hild
and John Hauck
. It was there I learned that the flashy, trashy Ibanez maple 6-string I coveted was really just a plywood cheapie that would never mellow with age. Getting that guitar at Christmas a couple of years before remains a very special memory, but I learned that massive abalone, mother of pearl inlay and gaudy purfling will not improve the sound or playability of an instrument. It was a startling revelation.WarDog was a little put-out at first—who could blame him? He’d invested quite a bit of money in my music career, including close to a thousand dollars to a con-man “producer” who promised to create a demo that he would shop around Nashville (that is a story in itself). And yet, when I took my father to The Drinking Gourd and he heard Dave and John’s pitch, he got it. I said I wanted to buy a $700 S.L. Mossman 6-string. I was delivering pizzas at the time and attending classes at Wright State University. My father said: “You come up with half and I’ll match it.” I did and he remained true to his word. By the time we moved to Virginia (Dad had been promoted to The Pentagon) me and my Mossman were beginning to show some promise.Leo Kottke
was my God. When I met John Fahey
(another story for another time), I burst into my parents’ bedroom at 2am babbling excitedly (I was underage and the club owner had served me about 23 cokes because I was literally the only audience member). Rather than be pissed off, my father nodded and smiled with sleepy understanding and put me to bed.I worked in a tire factory in Manassas, Virginia for a year, saving money to go back to college, this time at The University of Texas in Austin. I’d been born in Austin and its music scene now rivaled Nashville’s. When the Mossman was stolen, my father used the insurance money to commission a handmade Stephen Weiss guitar which I still have and is on permanent loan to my producer Chad Watson
. It has my initials on the fingerboard, RMF—which makes Chad refer to it as the “R
*cker.” Incidentally, the Mossman was recovered by the Austin police from a pawnshop the following year, damaged, and Dad returned the insurance money. How’s that for integrity?
Through the years, I’ve played music for my father at every opportunity. The best explanation of how important this was, and exactly how it worked, can be found in the monologue I deliver at the top of my YouTube cover version of Tom T. Hall
’s The Year That Clayton Delaney Died
; to hear my father utter that single word of praise, “Fantastique,” was all that mattered.Early on, WarDog indoctrinated me on the importance of writing songs that mattered. When he and my mother first heard Johnny Cash’s I Walk the Line
, I was not yet born. And yet, Rodney Crowell’s
tribute song Walk the Line Revisited
nails it: It sounded like the whole thing came right down from outer space.
My parents both said the first time it came on the radio they froze in their tracks and their eyes practically popped out of their heads.
I witnessed something similar in 1964 when Roger Miller’s King of the Road
hit the airwaves. Yes, you’d have thought aliens had landed. They cranked up the radio and shouted “WHO THE HELL
WAS THAT?!” They bought the 45 and we wore it out on an old Magnavox turntable. My father later explained that this was “the first song he’d ever heard about real life
. About how it feels to have an empty stomach and your back against the wall.” Children of the Great Depression are not interested in pretty declarations of love. Dad wanted a story
in a song, a story that mattered
. We devoured the new crop of songwriters coming up: Kris Kristofferson, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, John Prine
… We’d analyze each song while shooting pool in the basement. His profound insights influence me to this day. A song could matter
. A song could change the world.There were moments of friction. I once played Michelle
by The Beatles
for him and his reaction was “Meh.” I said, “Well, I know it doesn’t have a train or a hobo in it—but for chrissakes—lighten up!” Another time, I played Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone
and he said: “I don’t like that song—it’s vindictive
.” I replied, “Well, yeah—that’s the point
.” He was dismissive about my early songwriting efforts—but in the end it made me a much better songwriter. I have a somewhat famous friend who I’ve known since high school. Our fathers happened to be in the same squadron and I remember him telling me how his father (who is no longer with us and was always nice to me) constantly interrupted him when he practiced. But that friend eventually became a minor rock star—so maybe a little resistance makes you push harder.
The mighty Michael Smith
wrote what I considered the best father song ever: I Brought My Father with Me.
The first time I heard it, I wept for an hour. And I don’t mean to get sentimental or treacly, but…I am so
grateful for my father’s love and wisdom. The way he always provided me with the means to grow as an artist and a writer. And if you ever hear me perform a song, especially a song I wrote, know that at all times there’s an interior compass pointing north.
What would WarDog say—“Meh” or “Fantastique”?