photo by Michael C. West Sr.
A dozen years after the debut of Lightnin’ Lowdown on lightnincharlie.com, this is the official relaunch of these delicious diatribes, back by much popular demand, and back by the continuing and amazing grace of God, with brand new stories each month. The original Lightnin’ Lowdowns, written from 2005 to 2011, became my celebrated autobiography called Off The Record – The Trials and Tribulations of a Travelin’ Troubadour, which is now in its 2nd edition, in print and e-book, and is in over 18,000 bookstores worldwide. So never at a loss for a tall tale, I am excited to be embarking on this new beginning with you, telling a good story, and giving God the glory! So without any further ado, let’s get started!
And The Award For My Greatest Award Goes To . . .
In the wake of last month’s Oscar and Grammy Awards, and all of the public flatulence and fanfare that follows, I thought I’d tell you about the greatest award I’ve ever gotten in my musical career. It’s not a Grammy, or a Dove, or a Handy . . . it’s a US Army Service Medal, given to me by a young Black Hawk helicopter pilot named Sgt. Richard G. Tanner.
Throughout my illustrious thirty years in the music business, I have cleverly managed to avoid even a nomination for a Grammy, but have received various prestigious awards for talent, songwriting, live performance, and even popularity, all of which I’m very proud of and humbled by (as if it were possible to be proud and humble at the same time!). But what follows is the story of the Greatest Award that I’ve ever received as a musician, and the one of which I am most proud. And humbled. Proudly humbled. Or humbly proud. Oh mumbly pegs . . . you know what I mean! Now on with the show, Joe!
One night while on leave, the aforementioned Richard Tanner (whom I hadn’t met before) came to one of my shows with some friends, and dressed in civilian street clothes, introduced himself to me simply as “Richard”. He then politely asked my permission to record my set on a little handheld recorder he had. I don’t remember if he said why he wanted to record me – if he had heard me before and was a fan, or if he had heard me speak about our active military and vets onstage before (which I regularly do), or perhaps he had heard about that from someone else. Or maybe it had nothing to do with the military business . . . maybe this fellow just wanted to record the most talented musician in the world to never win a Grammy (wink-wink!). But the point is, at the time, I didn’t know why he wanted to record me, but assuming he just dug my music, and wanted to take home a little Lightnin’ in a bottle, via a live bootleg, I agreed. Because he was an affable, nice guy, and because he had shown me the courtesy and respect to ask my permission to tape in the first place, I told him I had no problem with him taping the show. And since Richard wasn’t in uniform, and didn’t identify himself to me as a soldier, I didn’t have any reason to alter my set or my show that night for his benefit. I didn’t make a puffed up speech about our military for the sake of his recording . . . it was just another night at the office for me and I went onstage to take care of business as usual. And since business as usual for me often includes a tribute to our vets and military somewhere in the show, it did that night as well.
My usual spoken tribute to Servicemen and Women isn’t anything formal or scripted. It would just consist of me speaking from the heart, briefly thanking them – and their families – for their service and sacrifice. I would usually do this when introducing a patriotic song like “America The Beautiful”, “This Land Is Your Land”, or “An American Trilogy”. This I do regularly because, you see, I feel I owe them for just the opportunity to be onstage, pursuing happiness in freedom, and not singing in German, Japanese, or Arabic. And when I honor our military men and women and their families, I do it out of complete awe and respect and indebtedness, not patting myself on the back, because I myself am not a veteran. I haven’t served. I am a beneficiary of their service and their families’ sacrifice. So this would’ve been the gist of what I said onstage that particular night when Sgt. Tanner (known to me only as “Richard”) recorded my show.
About a year later, this same Sergeant, having returned home safely from yet another tour in Afghanistan, showed up at one of my gigs. And that night, during my break, Sgt. Tanner introduced himself to me again (this time in uniform), and asked me if I remembered him taping me that night about a year prior. I said that I did. He then told me that he had been playing that live recording of me while flying missions in Afghanistan and Iraq – blasting it from loudspeakers onboard his Black Hawk helicopter, and out onto the field below. What????!!! I was dumbfounded. He then handed me the most beautiful, handwritten letter (written on a restaurant guest check!), telling me that my words and music had given him and his comrades a “feeling of home”, and gave them the will to keep fighting when they wanted to quit. He presented me with the letter and the US Army Service Award medal, which he had earned, onstage that night, and I cried like a baby (I still get choked up talking about it).
I have reprinted Sgt. Tanner’s letter here:
This is an award given to those that go beyond orders, duty, and honor. It’s not much, but my buddies and I wanted you to have it. They said, “You have lifted our spirits when they couldn’t get any lower. You have helped us keep fighting when we wanted to quit. And you have brought to many what we couldn’t find here . . . a feeling of home!!
Charlie, I just wanted you to know what a blessing you are to my friends, my comrades, and I.
Sgt. Tanner, Richard G.
Incredibly, since then, I’ve been given other service medals and military awards from sailors and soldiers, in spite of my protests of not having earned them, and once I was even given a pair of silver wings! Man, did I argue long and strong with that Marine over accepting those, but as is always the case, the USMC won another fight that night, and I very humbly, and reluctantly, accepted them, and they’re worn on one of my guitar straps today.
There is something about Grace. Divine gratuity. Something so mysterious and marvelous. I’ve heard Grace explained by the acronym “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense”. If you have ever been the recipient of something so huge – something you have not earned nor even deserve – something greater than gold – and the cost of that gift is so enormous, that it requires even the death of someone else, then you should know what I’m talking about. And if you are reading this, and you are blessed with the freedoms and liberties we enjoy as Americans, given and preserved by the blood of so many patriots, you need to know what I’m talking about. And if you know my Savior, the One who died for a wretch like me, then you surely know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, I beg you to accept this Greatest Gift Ever Given. Jesus says in the Book of John, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” And “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” There are many American veterans and their families that have this kind of sacrifice in common with the Lord. And me and my family are the recipients of their sacrifice. How is it possible to say thank you for a Gift such as life? How does one properly say thank you for an Award such as freedom?
Beth and I were recently asked to sing “America the Beautiful” as a tribute to Gold Star Families (Gold Star Families are folks that have lost a family member in combat) at the July 4th Celebration at Freedom Hall in Johnson City, in front of tens of thousands of people, which was another terrific honor. That night, I introduced “America The Beautiful”, with Gold Star Family members standing onstage with us, by reading Sgt. Richard Tanner’s letter, and proudly showing the medal – the Greatest Award I have ever received as a musician – to the huge crowd as a tribute to all active Servicemen and Women, to all our veterans, and especially to those families who have given all. The photos below, taken by Jessie Denton, are from that show.
To be recognized for what I do is certainly gratifying for me, and I am sure that it is wonderful for most Grammy recipients and nominees, to be recognized by their peers in the industry. But for me to be recognized, and appreciated for what I do (which is simply slingin’ songs), by the bravest and best is beyond description for me, and to consider the source, coming from those who give ALL (them) to someone who gives little or NOTHING (me), these awards are the most undeserved, unmerited, unbelievable things – along with God’s Grace – I’ve ever received in my 30-plus years as a professional musician. I wouldn’t trade one for a stack of Grammy Awards, and these shall remain my proudest and most humbling achievements in music. God bless all you Servicemen and Women and your families, and God bless you Sgt. Tanner, Richard G.
See y’all next month, and thanks for droppin’ in!
There’s lots more in store, and it’s all right here on the new Lightnin’ Lowdown!