It's 11 a.m. Wednesday. The bespectacled 78-year-old in a cream-colored cap rests his walking cane alongside the keyboard and eases into the bench. He smiles at those seated near him, then launches into familiar Nashville-styled melodies that float through Clark Creek Farms' Cafe on the square.
Making noontime music is a 90-minute routine Bill McDougal repeats three days a week. And he enjoys every minute, although age and health quickly siphon his limited energy these days.
I chose to write about McDougal because Arkansas communities with more than a few thousand residents have their own versions of interesting weathered folks who appear unremarkable on the surface while holding an untold wealth of experiences within.
You'd never know, for instance, that McDougal has been an self-trained pianist since the ninth grade when, he says, he dropped out of school to head for Nashville with his mentor, the late musician and songwriter Ronnie Self of Springfield, who had connections at RCA Studios in Music City.
He says Self, who he met while playing piano in Springfield, earned his chops by writing Brenda Lee's mega-hit "I'm Sorry," as well as other songs for the likes of Burl Ives and Jerry Lee Lewis.
In Nashville, Self introduced him to several music legends of the early '60s, including Chet Atkins, Johnny Cash, Boots Randolph and Floyd Cramer. "I got to know Atkins well and he would let me into the recording studio to listen and watch."
McDougal watched Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Charlie Pride record music, among others.
During the earliest years, McDougal said he would ride the bus back and forth from Harrison to Nashville. "After I bought a car, I started making the trip on my own."
In the process he says he became closer with Atkins and Cramer, even memorizing Cramer's phone number at the time that he can still recite, along with the address for RCA in Nashville. "I have what's called a photographic memory," he tells me with a grin. "I remember a lot of details from those years. I can even still remember lots of things from when I was 5 years old."
If there's one thing other than a keyboard McDougal mastered by ear, it's the art of storytelling. And he's never shy about sharing his tales with anyone who asks, sometimes even when they don't. Remembrances of his whirlwind life of playing nightspots from Beale Street to Wyoming, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, D.C., Rockaway Beach and elsewhere remain fresh. Bill really can claim he's "been [darn near] everywhere, man."
The worst recollection, he says, was Oct. 23, 1973, when his ex-wife (now deceased), after drinking a lot of alcohol, shot him twice in their Owensboro, Ky., home. One bullet, he says, passed through his body, accidentally killing her daughter from a previous marriage on her 13th birthday. "Margaret went to prison. It was a sad, sad thing, and I was beyond lucky to survive that."
Today, McDougal gets by on Social Security as he plays the melodies of Cramer, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and others he once knew and admired for the lunch crowds at the cafe. "I enjoy playing as much as I always have," he says. "But I do become really weary now after playing nearly two hours." The restaurant, in turn, offers McDougal a solid meal, so everyone wins.
With both parents gone for years and no siblings, McDougal lives alone behind the Country Mart grocery store in northeast Harrison. He greets each morning about 4 and walks down to the store to catch the free city trolley to the historic square.
"I know everyone down there," he says. "They have become my family." He says he also knows the police and often feeds them tips from his observations. "I see a lot everyday and can be a darned good volunteer private eye. Not much gets past me. I'm always watching and taking mental notes." His favorite reading material is the local police log in the Harrison Daily Times.
The cane helps McDougal walk, despite severe arthritis in his joints that causes a noticeable limp. He's also had 12 surgeries for everything from colon problems to hernias. "And here I am, still part of this world."
As with most songwriters and musicians, McDougal has a philosophical outlook when reflecting on all he's seen, done and learned. "I wake up happy every day. Believe me, if you're healthy, you're wealthy." He also smiles when recalling the four wallets he's found and returned to owners over the years. "In the long run it all comes back to you. I only want what I own."
Any other observations? "Just care about others," he says. "Help them whenever you can, especially children when they are being neglected or abused."
Bill McDougal for me is a classic example of so many of the older folks we pass (and often ignore) on the streets each day, oblivious to the depth or experiences of the lives they've lived. Everyone indeed has a story.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]
Editorial on 08/13/2019
Print Headline: MIKE MASTERSON: All have a story