A Giant Sin of Omission

The daughter of a legendary Arkansas pair of revivalists unravels a gripping story about an unspoken truth that haunted her family for decades.

It was nearly twenty years ago when I first learned about Anita Garner’s mother. Anita is the writer of our top story for the weekend, “The Only Lie.” Her mother’s name was Fern Jones.

Fern Jones was an unusually talented singer and piano player in the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s. She started out playing boogie-woogie in the honky-tonks of Arkansas when she was a teenager. At age sixteen, she married the Rev. Raymond Jones, who traveled the circuit of Pentecostal tent revivals across the South. Fern’s dream was to become a big star in Nashville, and finally in 1959, one of the big country labels, Dot Records, released her only album, Singing a Happy Song. It was all traditional gospel songs, but while Fern might have left the honky-tonks, the honky-tonks clearly had never left her. The songs were from Sunday morning, but she played and sang them like the rockabilly from Saturday night.

Fern wrote only one song on that album. It was called “I Was There When It Happened.” But two years before Fern got to release her own version of that song, Johnny Cash had recorded his own version of it on his very first album, 1957’s Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar!

I didn’t figure all this out until 2005, when Walk the Line, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny and Reese Witherspoon in an Oscar-winning role as June Carter, came out. “I Was There When It Happened” was featured in the movie. Later that year, Fern Jones’ Singing a Happy Song, along with her other recordings, was released under the name The Glory Road.

This Week-01

—“The Only Lie”: a true-life page-turner from The Glory Road author Anita Garner
—“The Coyote's Journey”: Deb Bowen on the battle between real-estate mania and wildlife on North Carolina’s barrier islands
—“We Keep Their Echoes With Us”: three Tennessee mountain poems from Danita Dodson

Thus, I was stunned and pleased when Salvation South received a submission from a woman in California named Anita Garner, who said she was Fern Jones’s daughter. When Anita was a child, she and her brother Leslie Ray Jones toured with their parents as the Singing Joneses as her father preached in churches and revival tents all over the South and, eventually, in California, where the Jones family put down new roots.

But the story of Anita’s life as part of a Pentecostal road show is not the story you’ll read today. For that, I highly recommend her book, The Glory Road: A Gospel Gypsy Life. Anita’s story for us is about something else entirely, and I promise you won’t be able to put it down until you’ve finished it. “The Only Lie” is about the only lie she ever knew her father to tell. But it was a big one. And it haunts the Jones family to this day.

We round out your weekend reading with a new contribution from reader favorite Deb Bowen. Her “The Coyote’s Journey” details the tug-of-war between real-estate development and animal habitat that is consuming the North Carolina barrier islands she has always called home.

And we welcome back Tennessee mountain poet Danita Dodson with three lovely pieces that feel like squares in the same quilt, collected under the title “We Keep Their Echoes With Us.”

Finally, if you don’t listen to the Salvation South Podcast, we’d appreciate it if you’d start. I do a three-minute commentary about Southern stuff every Friday. Those air on the Georgia Public Broadcasting radio network during “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition,” then they are added to our podcast feed. This week’s episode is a short tribute to the unsung and very funky musical hero, Robert Lee Coleman, whom James Calemine and photographer Adam Smith brought to such vivid life for us two weeks ago.

Hang on, y’all. Only nine days left until the first day of spring.

Author Profile

Chuck Reece is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Salvation South, the weekly web magazine you're reading right now. He was the founding editor of The Bitter Southerner. He grew up in the north Georgia mountains in a little town called Ellijay.

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