Wish I had known him

Norman “Chick” Collier left Beech Creek, Kentucky in 1937 before the ink in his high school diploma was dry to join the US Navy.

He’d learned how to pick a guitar and sing a tune by ear and persuaded the Navy he was a musician. He proved it when Navy brass ruled that all its musicians had to be able to sight read music or sign up for deck swabbing. With the help of a buddy Chick taught himself sufficient fundamentals of music in a three-week span to pass the Navy test. He never stopped learning.

During a stint at Great Lakes he met a long legged Chicago beauty on a blind date, persuaded her to marry him and begat two boys and a girl, Linda.

Chick retired from the Navy when Linda was twelve. After twenty years writing, arranging and playing music in military bands, military clubs and just for fun, he was planning to change careers when he drowned.

Twenty years later I married Linda.

The only reason she even agreed to go out with me was that I told her I played the guitar and she immediately connected the fond sweet memories of her father’s playing to my boast. Fortunately, she found other things to like about me by the time I got around to demonstrating my ability as the disappointed look on her face told me I was several leagues below her father’s ability.

Linda had her Dad was on a pedestal high enough to give nosebleeds but because she was so young when he died her memories and stories were few.

So I took a ride out to Beech Creek; found it not even a town, just a road twixt the hill and holler with a dozen houses and a diner. I stopped at the diner, asked if anyone knew somebody who had lived in Beech Creek in 1937 and was still here.

A man stood up, introduced himself and told me his parents had been around in the 30′s and took me to meet them. I explained to them that I was looking for anyone who’d known Chick Collier.

Well, my goodness. Turned out his mother had been Chick’s childhood sweetheart who’d sung in a trio with two sisters to Chick and Merle’s guitar accompaniment. They’d corresponded for a while after he joined the Navy but it kinda drifted off as those things will. But she had some stories. (Chick‚Äôs brother had helped build the house she and her husband were living in for the grand wage of $1.00 per day.)

Then I met the local historian, a retired gent who loved to talk and sometimes write. He’d grown up with Chick, been his friend, gone fishing, hunting and tomfoolerin’ with him.

I found how Chick had learned to play the guitar.

Mose Rager was a Pentecostal Holiness barber who with an old (old in the 1930′s) black man whose name is lost to memory taught a number of local boys a unique finger picking style of guitar playing.

Another of Chick’s boyhood friends learned with him. Merle Travis . . . author of “Sixteen Tons of #9 Coal”. (I saw the mine that inspired the song)

Mose alternated between trips to the early Grand Ol’ Opry and twinges of Pentecostal conscience that drove him away from worldly Nashville, back home to Beech Creek barbering, but his home was always a stopping off point for the country music players who passed nearby.

Chick was a regular at the jam sessions at Mose’s house where he played music with Ike Everly (the father of the Everly Brothers) Chet Atkins, Roy Acuff, and a bunch of other, later famous, country music folks.

Mose had passed away a couple of years before I visited, but his daughter remembered Chick and confirmed what I’d heard about him.

He learned from the greatest and in the memory of his hometown friends was as good as the best of them and more popular than most. All recalled that despite a heritage of strict Baptist no-nonsense toil and serious mein he preferred music, fishing, a good joke and friendly conversation to any other pursuit.

Funny, that’s kinda how Linda remembers him too; a big grin, all fun and the best guitar player she ever heard.

I’m kinda looking forward to meeting him someday


  1. Ulah Maines says:

    Nice story

  2. I. Ansley says:

    Enjoyed this tid-bit of history

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