1943 - 2003
Our charter presidentThere was a man with the grin of a naughty boy and the demeanor of a happy monk; with his friend Peter Smith, he would found the Memphis Area Bluegrass Association.
When Gary Williams heard a song by Claire Lynch at the Grand Ole Opry years ago, his life changed, and ultimately, so did those of hundreds of people in the Mid-South. For when Gary would run into Pete outside a guitar store on a winter day years later, the two would talk themselves into setting up a bluegrass organization. That small beginning led to what is perhaps the fastest-growing association forming around individual musical performances in the United States today.
But, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Although he had come across a Seldom Scene recording earlier ("I had no idea it was bluegrass"), Gary came home from that Opry trip, ordered one of Claire's recordings (in those days, it took months to come in), and began to discuss bluegrass with his acoustic music buddies. "Wayne (Walker) and I played Delta Blues, old rock and roll, folk music, James Taylor, Crosby, Stills & Nash," Gary said, and added after trying bluegrass, "I had no idea I couldn't play." Gary and Wayne's children also boosted their fathers' feet onto the mesmerizing road that leads to those who created the sound and nursed it to full growth: Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and Jimmy Martin, among others. Before Virginia-born Gary knew it, he was picking his guitar and singing about mountains and cabins, lonesome pines and how certain girls can love.
At the December 1999 meeting to organize what would become the Memphis Area Bluegrass Association, Gary and Peter, a guitarist with deep connections to the more-than-thirty-year-old Lucy Opry, talked to perhaps sixty people about their idea. Those present signed up, and thought passed into action. With vice president Peter at his side, Gary as charter president called meetings of volunteers, and before long, musicians were gathering in the barn at Agricenter International to greet old friends, meet new ones, and jam. Those nights were freezing in the unheated facility, but coats, music, and the smile-widened faces of kindred hearts provided the needed warmth.
With spring, the pickers moved outside and gained listeners as people from Shelby and neighboring counties came to the Farmers Market to sell or buy fresh vegetables, fruit, and flowers. A number of those farmers and shoppers joined on the spot, and the ranks began to swell. With the coming of another winter, however, a new president of the Agricenter had been named, and he did not offer the barn again. Peter, who has stepped in regularly to assist the association, talked to his pastor at Kingsway Christian Church at Poplar and Massey, and MABA moved there.
Gary worked hard to build membership and to develop policies that would guarantee the success of the organization into the future. He spent his workdays as a salesman, but he rarely used that skill with his fellow members; instead, he led. In those important formative days, Gary would be on site to set up tents, to haul food, to pick up and deliver anything that needed to come or go, and to play for community-benefiting events at the drop of one of the association's new ball caps.
He did, however, have a certain charm that may have been his way of selling. Gary never met a bluegrasser, or anyone for that matter, that he didn't like. Those who had known him awhile and those who were just getting to know him knew there would be a better time with him in the room, under a copse of trees, or in the Old Hippie Tent at Mountain View, Arkansas. He had a ready laugh, a handshake for everyone, a positive way of looking at things that perked up even those who were disinclined to be perked. Gary could trade humorous insults with the best and have the victim laughing as hard as everyone else.
Gary was lead singer and guitarist for Gone South, one of the region's top bluegrass bands. They could play the standard repertoire, but would also throw some serious Willie or humorous Dylan on an audience. Mr. Williams would keep the band, the crowd, and himself in stitches. Each band has its own quality, and this one had fun. That attitude would continue in organization business meetings and in picking circles.
As MABA grew and other members began to take office, Gary and his wife, Linda, were able to travel more. As vice president of Athens Distributing, Inc., he had opportunities to see the world, and at times Linda would go with him. Even abroad, he was just pure him: At a dinner in Scotland, he was happily astonished to see in the performing band's songbook, That Was Before I Met You, the first bluegrass song he had ever learned and sung in public. When he asked about the song, a band member laughed and said, "Laddy, that's a very old Scottish ballad!" He sang it with them that night. Gary and Linda loved the Ozarks and their foothills: they had a boat on Greers Ferry Lake at Heber Springs, and later, a home nearby. Heber would be their base while attending the many folk and bluegrass events at Mountain View.
On June 10th, 2003, after working with Linda in their East Memphis yard, Gary, fifty-nine, had a heart attack. We lost him. As word began to spread, incredulity became rampant; after all, he was among the liveliest of us. With all the others, Linda and their children, Garilyn and Chris, were in shock. Their home and lawn were filled with their friends. Upon his passing, many people who had recently joined MABA and only known Gary for a brief time, wrote e-mails telling how he had already taken them under his wing to help them become better musicians. At his standing-room only funeral, which drew friends from far distances, a number of MABA-affiliated singers and bands brought the haunting, beautiful, ethereal side of bluegrass out in his memory.
In 2004, the members of MABA honored their relative, friend, bandmate, mentor, by renaming the annual winter gathering The Gary Williams Memorial Potluck Dinner. The place was packed as awards for outstanding service during the previous year were given to three members. Each received a metal figure of a guitar player with an engraved plate attached. The awards are The Garys.
From the sixty who came to the organizational meeting, the Memphis Area Bluegrass Association has grown to more than 250 families. The hard-driving sound of MABA music can be heard almost every day of the week somewhere in the area, new friendships continue to form, laughter rings in the halls of Lord of Life Lutheran Church, the organization's current home, and members remember and talk about their charter president and friend often.
Perhaps the days and evenings we had with Gary, times that in our memories remain more light than shadow, echo to some degree his favorite quote, which came from the wild Jimmy Martin:
"What's so special about it; it was perfect!"
And, you know, it kind of was.