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George Hamilton IV

Country Music Ambassador, Singer and Narrator 
of the Musical Tribute to Patsy Cline

 

For many years at the Notts, Americana Festival held at Newark County Showground at the beginning of July, George Hamilton IV conducts the Sunday morning Country Gospel Show, where you can find country fans rubbing shoulders with rock 'n' roll Teddy Boys and Hell's Angels. I've seen many big hard looking guys brush the odd tear from the eye during Georges highly emotive 1 hour program.

After performing his gospel show at Americana a couple of years ago, I had the greatest of pleasure in speaking with gentle talking George Hamilton IV about his career.

It's pleasure to meet you George. You have had a varied and fantastic career over the years, you were awarded the Billboard magazine Trendsetter Award in 1975. Where has your career taken you since your 70s heyday.

"Well in recent times I've been more involved in Country Gospel Music really than commercial country. I'm still with the Grand Ol Opry in Nashville and I do fairs and rodeos and country shows there. I've done a tour with Jet Williams...Hank Williams daughter in the Mid-West. But I do do a fair amount of work on my own in churches, where I just go and tell stories and sing. A lot of people say how can you stand there for a hour and a half with just your guitar, but it comes natural because I've been doing it a lot and I feel right at home with it. Actually, to be honest with you...I've gotten so used to working solo that sometimes with a band I feel so encumbered because I'm thinking about what they want to do, trying to keep up with the drummer!

There is something kind of special about working solo, you can change the set at the drop of a hat if somebody calls a out request...you don't have to worry about if the band knows it and whether they'll get upset, I enjoy it."

So is that sort of church performance, different to what the evangelists are doing?

"Yeh...Somebody came up to me earlier while we were in the marque meeting and greeting, shaking and howdying and somebody said, I didn't really know what to expect this morning and I wasn't sure if I'd like it or not as I thought it might be some sort of religious service. They said to me that it was a kind of light-hearted Sunday morning service. I said what do you mean, and they said, well you told stories and sang songs and you didn't really get to preaching, it was a kind of a gentle light-hearted service concert. I took that as a real complement, because that is what I try to do. I'm not a preacher and I'm not an evangelist...I feel it's more like a confessor (laughs). Ive got my own set of problems in my life and I try to share that with people in a gentle way and hopefully they may pickup something from what I sing or talk about and might help them in their own life.

We were talking about Hank Williams. He had a drinking problem...everyone knows that, but he wrote 'I Saw The Light', 'How Can You Refuse Him Now' and 'House Of Gold'. So he wasn't perfect...he was by no means a saint, but I think we are all like that...we are all imperfect. What I try to share in my little program is that we shouldn't we shouldn't be too critical of our fellow men and women, because we all have our burdens. The best we can do is to strive to be a better person!"

At one time I thought that you were a Canadian...mainly because of albums such as Canadian Pacific, but you're actually American.

" Yes...Well I'll have to give credit, or blame to Gordon Lightfoot for that. I met him in the early 60s...and he was a major influence on my musical life. I'd moved to Nashville in 1960 and joined the Opry. I was kind of floundering around, trying to find a direction or a style of my own...I was doing 'Truck Driving Man', 'Three Steps To The Phone', 'Abilene' and songs like that. I didn't have a specific direction or identity for my self. Then I met Gordon and he introduced me to Ian Tyson, ('Four Strong Winds') and Joni Mitchell. These Canadian singers/songwriters really got to me, because I think their music is a sort of a blend of folk and country. Somebody once called it folk-country and Nanci Griffith calls it folk-a-billy. And you know that is what I really like. Songs that tell stories and have a bit of poetry imagery to them. You know...I've never been really comfortable being a straight honky tonk singer, and to be honest with you I'm not, I'd die the death of a dog in a Texas honky tonk (laughs)...I'm not a dance singer, I guess I'm a lyric person. So I must admit to lean towards the folk side of things and Canadian music is that way...'Canadian Pacific' for instance. Gordon Lightfoot turned me on to a whole new kind of music and gave me a direction. So I've recorded five albums of Canadian music, which I guess if kind of unusual for a North Carolina hillbilly. Our latest secular (for want of a better term)...commercial country album is Canadian. It's called Canadian Country Gold."

I believe that George V has written a song for it.

"Yeh. We dedicated it to Boxcar Willie, Guy Mitchell and Joe Sadio who was compare here at Americana for many years. It's a song called 'We Will Meet Again'. George V and I recorded it and actually we recorded it with Skeeter Davis in Nashville. Skeeter has been very ill suffering with cancer...she's been taking chemotherapy for a couple of years. I still enjoy doing country music and country tours, but you don't get invited to do as many these days, because the trends on the radio in America, is as you know, to play the top twenty and they stick to that. So, I don't do as much country concert work as I used to, or would like to, but I must admit that I get as much satisfaction and enjoy really more so...out of the church work I do with the solo acoustic thing. So I kind of found myself a whole new musical area out there which keeps me interested"

Have you always a religiously minded person, or is that you've seen the light?

"Well...I used to think that I didn't have any testimony or anything to share with people in churches, because I wasn't a former dope addict or drunk or anything."

Quite boring were you?!

"Yeh, (laughs) you hear about these people who get up and say they used to be a murderer, or they were in prison and then they have seen the light, the Lord changed them and overnight they were perfect. I wasn't like that. I grew up in a Christian home and had good mother and father who loved me. My problem was lack of commitment. It wasn't that I was a terrible person....I guess I was reasonably OK. But I wasn't really living what I believed. I tended to kind of coast along. Sunday morning Christian. Harlan Howard I think, wrote a song 'Sunday Morning Christian'.

The big change in my life came when I went to Eastern Europe. Like these kids today from Cheroville, it really brings tears to your eyes...thinking what they have been through, lost parents and grandparents. I went to Eastern Europe who were willing to give up the opportunity to go to college and university because of their faith. Back in the days of the Iron Curtain when the Russians...the communists were in control, If you were a member of a church, you didn't go to college. It amazed me, to meet people who would be willing to even go to jail for what they believed. It really rebuked me and made me realise that I was a fair weather Christian....sunday morning Christian, because these people lived it.

So that was kind of a big change in my life, which was back in the 70s. Then the next thing that kind of got me more are more interested and involved in country gospel music was when Dr Billy Graham's team invited me to take part in the missioning service about 1984. Being around Dr Graham...he's so sincere, he's so real...he's not by any means a charlatan, he's so genuine. And everyone around him. George Beverly Shay the gospel singer, Cliff Barrows his musical director, they had a profound effect on me, because these are men who live what they believe. We have a saying in North Carolina..we say Walk Your Talk! And Dr Graham's team Walked Their Talk.

That's how I got to be doing more gospel music, we've got a new project out called High Country that features the song 'We'll Meet Again' and some Canadian country songs. But basically that's where I'm at. I still do country music every chance I get and also George V and I are doing some things together. We were at the Kerville, Texas folk festival a few weeks ago and I enjoyed that. Kind of working by ourselves with just our guitars...folkabillies!"

So what brought you into the Patsy Cline tribute show with Sandy Kelly?

"Well I knew Patsy...I worked with her back in the 50s and early 60s and when I was invited to be the narrator, it was something I could o with honesty. Because I wouldn't be talking about a stranger, I would be talking about somebody that I actually knew. I enjoyed it...mainly because Sandy Kelly is so good at doing Patsy's songs. She made it so believable. If the star of the show had been anything less than Sandy Kelly it would have been hard to sit out there and talk about Patsy Cline with conviction.

The other day this guy came up to me and he had been listening to Sandy singing Patsy's songs and he said; Patsy Cline will never die as long as there is a Sandy Kelly. And that's the way I feel...she keeps the music alive."

So did you work with Patsy Cline on the circuit.

"Yes...In the late 50s, before she was nationally known and before she became a superstar, we played a lot of little honky tonks and beer joints together up in Washington, with Jimmy Dean and his Texas Wildcats. Those were wonderful days, because I saw Patsy at her best really you know! She had an amazing talent and could hold her own in a world of men. She was the first country female country singer to my knowledge, to sort of cross over to the pop charts and also to carve a place for herself in a man's world. Before her, the girl singers were usually part of the men's shows, you know the support acts for them. Patsy Cline would have none of that. She was going to be the star, be up front and centre...and she was!

We often talk about her. We say that she didn't open the doors for women...she kicked them down! Sandy has that same edge. And I've been on the receiving end of her fury, so I can testify to that. One time I was driving her during the Patsy Cline tour and I stopped to read the signs at the roundabout. And I wouldn't even try to quote the language that came out of that cute little Irish girl's mouth. (laughs) She read me the riot act...how dare you stop at a roundabout and one of the words that I was referred to was an egiot."

I remember Sandy coming on your Gospel show a several years ago at Americana and doing a couple of numbers with you.

"Yes. We were doing Patsy then and were on our way to Nottingham and she did a walk on unannounced. Then she was here two years ago with her own band."

So has the Patsy Cline Show run its course now. Is it at the end now.

"Well I presumed so, we did 11 performances and I think we have been everywhere in the country. We started in 93 and finished the last run of Patsy Cline the Musical last July (98) so we ran 5 years. Not constantly...we took a break, but I enjoyed it."

So what plans do you have for the future.

"Well, I'd like to do another tour with Hege...George V. We toured together in Britian with Randy Vanwarmer back in the early 90s. I'd like to do another tour with him. Another thing we've been talking about is an acoustic tour with Pete Sayer and John D. Loudermilk the songwriter, because John wrote many of our songs. I thought that it might make a nice little evening, sitting on stools and telling stories about the old days and how he got the ideas for the songs. Pete Sayers about six instruments and George V is a sngwriter too. I think maybe a sort of acoustic tour in small theatres would be interesting.

To finish up, I would just like to say....This sounds a little patronising because we are sitting in Chris Jackson's trailer at his Americana festival, but I'm just amazed at the way this festival has grown and gone from streangth to streangth. I wasn't here last year, but all of a sudden they have got dressing trailers and marques to meet & greet the fans and it's more comfortable than I remembered it two years ago. It seems to be reflecting a wide style of music, from rockabilly, to out and out country and rock 'n' roll.

In America as I'm sure you'll have heard, they have a chart called the Americana and has some of the people who don't normally get into the Top 20 and the hot new young country stations...Steve Earl, Nanci Griffith and blugrass music, Ricky Skaggs and people like the Bellamy Brother and Narvell Felts and it is apropriate that this festival is called Americana, because it covers the kind of music featured on the Americana charts. An thank goodness for the Americana charts and the stations that play alternative country and thank goodness for festivals such as this!"

Thanks George...it has been a pleasure talking to you.

"I sure enjoyed visiting with you and sure appreciate your interest."