This week The Rev. Phil Neighbors brought a celebrity to the Sunday school class he teaches for retirement-age adults. He didn't quite know what to expect. Would anyone even know this tall, slender man with the salt-and-pepper hair and Arkansas twang?
Yes. Yes, they would. The folks in that Valley Baptist Church classroom swarmed 90-year-old Charles "Fuzzy" Owen like he was Elvis, asking for autographs and snapping photos. People who weren't even members of the class poured in from the hallway.
This pleased Neighbors greatly, of course, because he had just helped Fuzzy — who was once actually mistaken for Elvis and mobbed — write a book about his long, movie script-worthy career as a musician, record producer, manager and bystander to history. Fuzzy was here at Valley Baptist, looking decidedly un-90-like, to sign copies of "Merle Haggard, Bonnie Owens and Me" for anyone who, by some chance, might be interested. Turned out that was just about everyone.
These folks remembered Fuzzy from his heyday in the late-1950s, back when he and his girlfriend, Bonnie Owens — in between marriages to Buck Owens and Merle Haggard — were local celebrities in their own right and that great American songwriter was still in prison, undiscovered. In those days Fuzzy played the honky-tonks, usually with his cousin Lewis Talley: the Clover Club, the Lucky Spot and the most infamous of all, the Blackboard.
Then it dawned on Neighbors: What would church folk know about honky-tonks? Wouldn't they, even as 20-somethings, be spending their Saturday nights watching Lawrence Welk and "Have Gun Will Travel" so they could wake up in time for Sunday school?
That's what the Oklahoma-bred pastor might prefer to think, but country music has been framed by a Saturday night/Sunday morning tension that dates back to the genre's beginnings. Jimmie Rodgers was Saturday night, with its saloons and carousing; the Carter Family was Sunday morning, a time for family, home and church. "Saturday Night & Sunday Morning" is such a persistently recurring theme in country music at least three record albums, starting with Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, have used it for a title.
But Fuzzy's fans, at least on this particular morning, were not admitting to any such wayward behavior. Their connection to the man was "Cousin" Herb Henson, whose 45-minute television program, weekdays immediately before the local news, brought laughter and twang into living rooms across the southern San Joaquin Valley from 1953 until Henson's death in November 1963.
Cindy Lee Bush, who was among the first to greet Fuzzy when he arrived for her "life" class Sunday morning, didn't expect him to remember her. He didn't, but she was delighted anyway: In 1962, working as a receptionist at KERO, Channel 10, she watched as stars paraded through the door of the El Tejon Hotel for the "Trading Post" show every day at about 4 p.m.: Fuzzy, Bonnie, Lewis, Billy Mize, Dallas Frazier, Roy Nichols, Al Brumley and Cliff Crofford, as well as the exuberant Henson and a surprisingly prominent succession of guest stars.
"My favorite was Billy Mize; such a nice person," she said. "I thought Fuzzy was a little shy, but he was nice too."
The folks in Neighbors' class knew Fuzzy as the guy with the pompadour playing the horizontal steel guitar on TV, not in smoky nightclubs.
"The Cousin Herb Show allowed Christians — and Baptists, who would not attend a bar — to listen to country music every day of the week for all those many years," Neighbors explained. "So the bar scene certainly was important to the advance of this music, but the Cousin Herb Show and the other television shows (broadcast locally in the 1950s and '60s) had a huge impact on a whole different segment of our community.
"These Christian Okie folk liked that music as well and they didn’t have to go to the bar to listen to it. I had underestimated the impact of television on the popularity of this music."
Sunday school classes can rarely be characterized as rowdy, but last Sunday's enthusiasm surprised some.
"That was kind of overwhelming, for people to have connections like that all these years," said Fuzzy's daughter Cynthia Blackhawk, who drove her father to the church. "Watching him on the Cousin Herb Show — for a lot of people that marks a time in their life, and seeing him again connected them to their youth.
"I'm glad he was able to do that," she said. "My mom and I were always talking about him writing a book. For people to be that interested says a lot."
None more so than Jack Love, still a tender 72, who remembers watching Fuzzy on the Cousin Herb Show with his parents. (Jack was more of a rock 'n roll kid.)
"I'm about halfway through that book of his, and it's a great book," said Love, who bought two copies via Amazon, then another for a friend at Fuzzy's appearance Sunday. "I would not just walk up and ask him to empty his brain — that's rude — but I am glad he wrote it all down."