Who Says You Can’t Go Home Again?
Ronnie Godfrey Concert at School For Blind
It’s about 250 miles from where I am in coastal North Carolina to the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind in Spartanburg … kind of a long way to go for a piano recital. But I’m thinking about making the trip.
I mean, how often do I get to hear freakin’ Ronnie Godfrey?
In case you’re one of those folks who never ventures far from the Top 40, let me tell you about Ronnie Godfrey – singer, songwriter, composer, producer and piano man – who’s well worth breaking out the Garmin.
During the early eighties, he was the keyboard player for Marshall Tucker Band, playing on three of the group’s Warner Brothers albums. He was a driving force behind the S.C. Upstate powerhouse, Garfeel Ruff. He’s written over 2,000 songs with recordings by Marshall Tucker Band, Billy Joe Royal, Sonny Turner, Damon Gray, Rob Crosby, Johnny Lee and others.
He’s played piano for Crystal Gayle, Charlie Daniels and David Allen Coe – among others. His list of credits is a mile long.
“Hat Full of Rain,” which Ronnie co-wrote with wife Kim Morrison, was recorded by Ty Herndon for his highly acclaimed 1995 debut album, What Matters Most on Epic Records. In 2004, Ronnie co-wrote, co-produced, played keys and sang background on Johnny Lee’s “Santa Claus Is Lookin’ For Love.”
Ronnie also produced Cole Porter’s indie-country release, Poetic Justice, which climbed to the indie top ten charts and featured two singles that reached number one spots on the indie charts.
In 2007, Ronnie brought soulful background vocals to Leon Russell’s Angel In Disguise release.
Born completely blind in Greenville, S.C., Ronnie was introduced to music at the S.C. School for the Deaf and Blind. On Oct. 30, he will return to present a special concert celebrating the school’s 155th anniversary.
Last week, I talked to him about his music, his family, his experiences at the blind school and about going back to where it all began. As you’ll see, it was classic Ronnie Godfrey. He tells it like he sees it.
“When I started playing in 1964, I was eight. I didn’t like it. At the school, they forced us to play … If you’re talented they make you play. For first five years, I tried to quit. All my friends were out of it and I was a little bit of a problem child anyway. I went to Dr. Walker, but he wouldn’t let me quit. Now I’m grateful. It’s a really good lesson. Don’t expect to like everything.
“When I was 15 my parents bought me a piano so I could play over the summer and I fell in love with it. Now at this 50-year mark, I want to go back to where it started and feel it …. sort of absorb and connect to where it started … be in that room again.”
Ronnie Godfrey is very matter-of-fact about his childhood. He states the facts, but doesn’t dwell on the difficulties.
“I was so troubled, ran away from school three times. My dad was in prison: he robbed a bank, and everyone knew it. I had bedwetting problems.
“The school had that 19th century parochial school, sort of Dickensonian quality to it. The housefather and his wife at the dormitory made me wash my sheets if I wet.
“The teachers at the school were wonderful, but the dormitory was abusive.”
“One time this housefather, he was going to show me he could control me. He said I was an instigator. He put me in a room with the deaf kids.
“But, I think those things mold you if you let them.”
He doesn’t seem to have hard feelings about his father either, who shares his first name, Virgil.
About Music City, Ronnie says, “Nashville has become a cesspool. Once Travis Tritt, Garth Brooks and the others made it big, there was suddenly a lot of money. Then the lawyers showed up. Now the radio is packed with bad songs. “Somewhere Between Old and New York” by Dave Loggins? It’s about a shoe shine guy at Yankee Stadium. You couldn’t write that song now. Now it’s crappy ass songs.
“There are two ways to make money: sales money and play money. Some bribe the radio stations. You can make money without even selling records.
‘It’s not depressing to me. I’m not a typical human being. I never did fit in with the good old boy set. I didn’t hold my mouth right. I’m not even normal for blind people.”
Songwriting is clearly a great love for Ronnie Godfrey. “It’s got to have a combination of being honest and conversational, yet also a sense of imagery. Convince the listener that it’s real … like the opening to “Hotel California” … On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air . They made you know … in a very few words.”
In 1998, Ronnie began to jam with Casey Lutton (guitar and vocals), Steve Johnson (drums and vocals) and Michael Thorn (bass). In 2000, they formed Virgil, a genre-resistant jam band. The group recorded Standin’ In a Circle, which, you can hear on the group’s MySpace page at the previous link.
“My philosophy of life is in Virgil. I believe people should be free with each other – spiritual and free and open. The church has done more to screw up manhood. People don’t believe they have the right to feel that good. If people would learn to be free and love, people wouldn’t have to fight wars.
“I see Virgil as my alter ego. Why the name for the band? We didn’t want just my name on it, but it was my concept, so it was a way to name the band.”
If there’s a single song that reveals who Ronnie Godfrey is, it’s “The Man In the Glass,” and he’s happy to talk about it.
“I did a bad thing. I knew it wasn’t right. I was drunk. I had this old pendant metronome … well, I stumbled into the piano, activating the metronome. It was telling me sit down and work this thing out. For two days … I wouldn’t eat until it was done. I couldn’t sleep.
“I had one guy , an alcoholic, it made him quit drinking. That song is my benchmark, my anthem, my way of facing up to myself. It’s like it was meant to be. That metronome told me. That song was in my soul.”
Ronnie’s currently working on a project with Kim, his wife of ten years, also a singer/songwriter/musician. “It’s the best stuff I‘vet ever done. I’m playing all the parts. She’s singing it all. We’ve co-written it all. It’s a CD for her, Therapy.”
When will it be done, I wanted to know?
“Probably two years. I’m a guy who needs time. Virgil took five years.”
I’ve heard three rough tracks from Therapy. It will be worth the wait. In the meantime, visit the website for more info.
The South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind is located at 355 Cedar Springs Road in Spartanburg, S.C. The concert begins at 7 p.m. Admission is $7 and proceeds will benefit the School for the Blind Alumni Association. For details call 864-285-2921 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This Flying Under the Radar post has also been published in Coast magazine and Alternatives NewsMagazine, Myrtle Beach, S.C.
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