Basic Instincts: Affairs of the Heart

By Michael Willard

“I leaped headlong into the Sea, and thereby have become more acquainted with the soundings, the quicksands, and the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the shore… and took tea and comfortable advice.”
— John Keats.

I have been in love with women other than my wife. The songbirds Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton come to mind.

I know. You laugh. So does my wife of 15 years.

This kind of love is platonic though seriously sincere and lasts a lifetime. Thoughts came rushing back to me the other night when I saw a Ronstadt documentary on CNN.

She now has Parkinson’s disease. Life can be a dull, jagged knife carving undeserved twists.

I confess I was also in love with the actress Lee Remick, a lady 10-years my senior. I never came within 100 feet of her stage performance of “Annie Get Your Gun” in, I believe, 1965.

She died at age 55 of kidney cancer.

This attraction was mythical, though certainly not mutual, and altogether harmless. My affair with this older woman, Ms. Remick, was more a recurring daydream, and forever held a feather of hope.

I have always been a dreamer, though with one foot in reality. At times, it has kept me off-kilter, but happily so. It has led to a life of adventures in many countries and on various continents.

This included two revolutions in Eastern Europe, a civil war in Central America and various righteous civil movements. It led the “Moscow Times” to conclude I was a Forrest Gump, though maybe not as bright.

As for Dolly, a lady with vanilla ice cream beauty, she is within the realm of people I can name and place drop. I feel a kindred spirit. I enjoy her lilting voice, triumphant over the white noise of politics and humdrum.

My Dolly story is mostly true. Though time and age cover it in blue fog, I remember it fondly in the glorious abstract, like a fantasy Chagall painting I cherished on visits to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

Ms. Parton was 23 when I interviewed her on the set of the Porter Wagoner Show at a Nashville television station. We grew old together, sort of, and from a great distance. I was 24 at the time.

Porter, with his rhinestone outfits and cornpone voice, is no longer with us.

Many of the people I interviewed, from John Thomas Scopes of the Scopes Monkey Trial to Johnny Cash, to Roy Acuff, to Tex Ritter have exited to Ritter’s gravelly narrative “Hillbilly Heaven”.

Being a writer often allows the saying, “Been there, done that, got the T-shirt,” though by now the shirts are faded and the memories recycled. In re-invention, I adhere closely to the original storyline.

Ms. Parton was, damn near, the nicest personality I ever met. It was in the infancy of her career, and she spoke with me for the better part of an hour while Porter hovered around. She shooed him away.

However, I doubt she remembers this fellow with a reporter’s notebook, long hair, cowboy boots, a leather jacket and bedecked with turquoise Indian jewelry. My black bowler hat period was just down the road.

But, who knows. Those were the days. It’s okay either way. The embers still crackle.

At the time, I was writing a national country music column, mostly interviewing nasal-voiced clod-kickers who I found more interesting than filing the hog report and doing re-writes at a news bureau. It was an extra duty, but I relished it.

I would finish an early morning shift and then head out on an interview. Ironically, I turned down a one-on-one with iconic British singer David Bowie. He won’t amount to anything, I declared.

Years later, Bowie appeared on the cover of “Time” magazine. Apparently, I was wrong. Life goes on and at warp speed.

Ronstadt was a mere brush by acquaintance, though I shamelessly romance the story to Pluto and back. It has to do with downing beers in a trailer in Manhattan, Kanas with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and the Byrds while waiting for Joan Baez to show up. She didn’t.

It also has to do with the late banjo picker Earl Scruggs, his three sons. and his gracious wife, Louise. If you happen to spot me in a bar at 2 a.m. after a couple of doubles, ask me about it sometime.

I probably won’t tell you. But hell, I have other yarns.

They generally have happy endings. I’ve never crossed a life bridge without first putting a fresh coat of paint on it.

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(Photo: In Little Jimmie Dickens home playing his Gibson guitar after an interview with him. )

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