Barry Etris returns to old haunts in songs, pictures 5-9-1996

Thursday, May 9, 1996
North Fulton Spectrum / An Advertising Supplement
The Atlanta Journal / The Atlanta Constitution
By Chris Moser
For North Fulton Spectrum

“A lot of my work comes from what is gone.”

“When the past has gone through your thought processes, it becomes more poignant and colorful.”

Whether working with pencil and charcoal, words and music, or his guitar and velvety ballad voice, Barry Etris welcomes the ghosts of his past.

It’s a past rooted in Roswell and Alpharetta, in the years before the city came.

Ghosts like Guy Tolbert, a Roswell man who often took Etris fox hunting when he was a boy.

“Guy loved dogs more than anybody I’d ever seen,” recalls Etris. “He’d go to Latham-town and maybe sell a gun-shy dog and get another bad dog in return. He’d take my dad with him to back him up in his lies.”

Tolbert had a buzzard-winged blue tick hound named Big Ben, immortalized in Etris’ song Go Home. “Now, Ben’s a long time silent.

And the horn Guy used to know is just a fading echo in the hills of long ago. Sometimes when I’m weary, wishing I was gone, I hear his bullhorn blowing loud, calling me back home.”

Ghosts like Lum Crow, the first banjo player Etris ever saw, and his inspiration to start playing music.

Columnist Celestine Sibley’s readers know of Lum Crow. She has written often and affectionately about this old gent who was always such a welcome sight walking up the road to her front porch in Sweet Apple, in his overalls and fedora, with his “racket box” swung around his neck.

“Take down your old banjo, Lum Crow … pick me a simple tune,” Etris wrote in “The Ballad of Lum Crow. “Carry me away to the long ago, in a summery day in June.”

And ghosts like Reuben Cobb and Jones Etris, the two men who inspired him to write Kenny Roger’s hit song “Reuben James.”

“Reuben Cobb was a wonderful old man from Roswell. He lost his sons in World War II. I admired him a lot. I remember Reuben used to make coffee with water from a muddy old creek. He’d grin and say, ‘Don’t worry, boy, I’m gonna bile it.””

But the main inspiration for the song was his own father Jones Etris, a carpenter and farmer.

“He was a strong man, with a huge chest and arms. He was my hero. He died in 1968 at 56 years of age, in his field, plowing with a mule. It was the biggest shock of my life.”

In the months that followed, Etris channeled his grief and love for his dad in a song. When he shopped it in Nashville, a canny record company executive suggested he rewrite the song to make the main character a black man.

Kenny Rogers became the first of many to record Reuben James. In the wake of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, Americans were touched by this eulogy to a “no-account share-croppin’ colored man” whose humble like embodied kindness, resignation to a life of hard work, and devotion to God and the soil.

But it was with his own father in mind that Etris wrote:

“The faded shirt, the weathered brow, the callused hands upon the plow, I loved you then and I love you now, Reuben James.”

In the quarter-century since its release, more than 23 million copies of Reuben James have been sold. The song hasn’t made Etris rich, but he has never had to take a day job to interfere with the pursuit of his art.

He has since published more than 50 songs and a few have been recorded by such artists as Jerry Reed, Ray Stevens and the Kingston Trio. It doesn’t seem to bother him that none of his songs has been as commercially successful as Reuben James.

“I’m still writing and I have some finished songs floating around Nashville,” he says. “Chuck Glazier called me a couple of weeks ago; he produces for John Paul Glazier. Sure, I’d like to have another hit. I don’t think I’ve yet written my best song. But if Reuben is my only hit, I’ll be happy.”

Songwriting isn’t the only creative outlet for Barry Etris. He has visualized some of his characters, including the fictional Reuben James and the real Lum Crow, in a series of charcoal-and-pencil drawings.

His “Faces and Songs” series is comprised of individual suitable-for-framing prints, each accompanied by a narrative explaining the origin of the song and drawing. The Alpharetta artist is planning a calendar of his favorite American poets — Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe and William Cullen Bryant among them.

“Barry is a wonderful artist and we have a number of his pieces on display,” says Jackie Cox, director of the Teaching Museum North in Roswell.

“We’ve commissioned him recently to do portraits of the Georgia Pulitzer winning authors Margaret Mitchell, Caroline Miller and Conrad Aiken. They will go in our Georgia History Exhibit Room. We also have several other portraits he has done on loan. He’s very talented a delightful gentleman and we feel very lucky to have some of his work on exhibit.”

Etris relishes the artistic challenge presented by the Pulitzer winners’ portraits.

“I try to go more for the right fell than an exact likeness,” he explains. “What I did with Margaret Mitchell was to try to make her look pensive. Her life took some turns for the worse later on, it seemed like. Aiken was interesting. His father and mother committed suicide. He was a brilliant guy, went to Harvard, was a contemporary of TS Eliot. He was maybe Georgia’s greatest poet. He overcame personal problems, like a near-nervous breakdown.

I tried to put a kind of soulful look in his eyes, but with a grin.”

Which is an apt physical description of Etris himself. A husky, curly-haired man with a boyish face, mischievous grin and rich baritone, he brings a charismatic presence to the stage when he performs his songs accompanied only by his own six-string guitar.

Chronic vertigo took him out of live venues for several years, be he’s recovering and starting to sing in public again.

Singing for terminally ill patients at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home has eased him back into live performance. And recently he was warmly received when he played a benefit for Amnesty International at Fiddlers Green Coffeehouse in Buckhead. “It felt good up there,” he grinned as he came off the state. “It’s still a little scary, but I’m getting my chops back!”