Down Life’s Highway “Mr. Gospel Music, “ Hank, Chet, Willie and Patsy Cline
From Possum Trot, Ga. to the Grand Ole Opry and beyond, Wally Fowler blazed musical trails. I’m proud to record those times in the pages of history.
The year was 1948, Dudley J. leBlanc, the inventor of Hadacol, had come up with a great promotional idea, a Hadacol caravan featuring the biggest entertainment talent in the country. The show traveled the United States and admittance was free. Just one box top from a box of Hadacol is all that was needed to catch the biggest show in the country. The truck caravan consisted of over 80 large trucks. Entertainment was furnished by 40 of the biggest stars from Hank Williams, Mickey Rooney to Red Foley, Wally Fowler and many musicians and movie stars in between. I got my chance to work with the caravan through Dudley, who was a senator and resident of my hometown of Abbeville. I had earlier traveled for one of his re-election campaigns. On the caravan I had met Fowler, “Mr. Gospel Music.”
Fast forward to early June, 1974 and the subject of this column. Wally Fowler called me from Beaumont. He had been given my name by Sheriff Buck Patillo and Wally wanted to meet with me the next day. He didn’t remember me but I did him. He wanted to put on a show in Orange and sought my help. Wally did his own advanceman promoting and everything else.
I agreed to help him. The show would benefit the Sheriff’s Posse. On July 3, 40 years ago, the International Gospel Music Festival of Nashville, running from sundown to sunup, was held at the rodeo arena. Ten great gospel acts, including J.D. Summer and the Stamps Quartet, direct from the Elvis Presley show and the Los Amigos entertained a large crowd all night. Barbara Runnels, OF
Orange, emceed the show. Kathy Gray was the 1974 Rodeo Queen, Gus Alborn was posse president and chief deputy Charlie Morvant helped with the event. Wally and I, over the month bonded and spent many hours together. For years afterward, when he came down the Interstate he stopped for a visit.
I met a lot of entertainers and talented people down this Life’s Highway but Wally’s life story and his rise to the top fascinated me. He wasn’t born into money, in fact, he was born into no money. I had a chance to interview him. He was 57 years old in ‘74 and the youngest of 16 children. He was born on a cold winter morning, Feb. 15, 1917, to Mary and Joseph Fowler in Bartow County, Possum Trot Community in Georgia. Born in the shadows of Turkey Knob Mountain, Wally said, “We was as far country as you could get. Poor, red land, new ground share crop farmin.” At age 14 he got a break when he and his mom and dad moved to the big city of Rome, Georgia. “No more walkin two miles to the one-teacher, mineral spring school, with the number 12 Oliver and the two ole stubborn, wore out mules. Plantin, choppin, layin by and pickin cotton and takin it to the gin at Adairsville, to get it all baled up to pay for the Guano (fertilizer) and a few other scarce items that were bought on credit last year when we went to the gin, then we do it all over again.”
Wally continued, “Yes, on to Rome and no more choppin cord wood, going to the field during the night and waitin for it to get light enough to work. No more pullin fodder, shuckin corn and livin in the old house with holes in the wall, big enough to throw a good sized hound dog through. No more studying school lessons by the glow of burnin pine knots in the old iron grate fireplace.” He also said, “There were some good memories made, like swingin out of the saplins on the hill overlookin the river at Moccian Bend and divin out into the middle and winnin the prize for bringin up the biggest handful of sand from the bottom. Huntin ‘n’ fishin and all day singin at Cedar Creek churches. A few other things like walkin to school with Wyolene and best of all, Saturday night “hymn sing” at the Fowler house. Momma played the old reed (pump organ) everybody sang and the song was followed by candy pullin and buttermilk. Two things we never ran out of was good ole buttermilk and family and neighborly love.” In Rome, Wally worked 12 hours a day, 72 hours a week at Puyear Florist for 10 cents and saved an extra 20 cents for a Harmony and Composition book to study music by mail.
From the meager beginning, Wally went on to become a Grand Ole’ Opry star. He got his start in 1935 at age 18 with the John Daniel Quartet. In 1945, he founded the original Oak Ridge Quartet that included Chet Atkins. The group became the Oak Ridge Boys. Wally brought Hank Williams to the Opry, introduced him, and Hank gave an impromptu concert with a borrowed guitar. Wally also brought Atkins to the guitarists first recording session in 1945 in Atlanta. He saw Chet with a guitar and he needed a picker so he asked him, “Can you play that thing?” Atkins answered, “A little bit.” Wally starred coast to coast on NBC with Red Foley, Rod Brasfiek and Minnie Pearl. He also formed the very first phonograph record distributing company. He wrote Eddy Arnold’ first recorded song, “Mommy please Stay Home With Me.” He composed Eddy’s first million seller, “That’s How Much I Love You, Baby.” Wally is the guy who discovered Patsy Cline and kicked her career off. She joined him in many concerts.
In 1974, Wally wrote, “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True,” recorded by Willie Nelson. He also wrote, “I bowed On My Knees and Cried Holy,” recorded by Michael English, which won the Dove Award in 1993. He composed over 1,000 musical compositions, formed four publishing companies, five record labels, while traveling over three million miles bringing the Gospel message in song to small churches, auditoriums, stadiums, Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden and the Possee Arena in Orange. Wally performed his songs, “This Ole House,” “How Great Thou Art,” “Daddy Sang Bass,” “Wings of a Dove,” “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” “Green, Green Grass of Home,” “Wasted Years,” which was recorded by 52 groups and also Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis. Wally sold millions of records and tapes. I had, before Ike, many of his autographed works. In 1967, the Library of Congress accepted him as the man who majored in both the Gospel and country field of music.
I love the human interest stories. Against the odds, Wally blazed trails and made life successful. I have been fortunate to have known many stars but Wally was one of the most interesting and fascinating.
On June 6, 1994, Wally, age 77, died in a freak drowning accident while fishing from the dock at Dale Hollow Lake, northeast of Nashville. His daughter Hope Kimmer thought he may have suffered a heart attack.
I’ve been blessed down this road I’ve traveled to have met Wally Fowler, a good, talented man, with a thousand great stories. His early experiences and accomplishments are an example that dreams are possible, no matter what your background is.