Recalling A Simpler South – 05-06-1985
Wednesday, March 6, 1985
Saturating Atlanta’s Suburbs
Recalling A Simpler South
Barry Etris’ Music Copes With a Loss in A Changing World
By F. Madison Smith
Neighbor Staff Writer
A yearning for “the grassy meadow days” of rural Southern simplicity has inspired the work of Alpharetta songwriter Barry Etris since he made his greatest success with the song “Reuben James” in 1969.
Clad in blue jeans, a denim jacket patched with the United States and Canadian flags, and well worn boots, Etris spike of his past, the rural South he deeply loved, his father, his career and his work. His hands gesticulated constantly, his legs tensely crossed and uncrossed, as he nervously rocked in an antique rocking chair in his MidBroadwell Road home.
“Reuben James,” and Etris’ work as a whole, “is symbolic of another time and place” — the “simple ways” of the rural South that he knew as a boy growing up in Roswell and Austell in the a940s and 1950s, he said. He graduated from Roswell High School in 1958.
The character Reuben James was based on Etris’ father Jones Etris — a house painter and farmer who died “in a field, plowing” at the age of 56. Etris said he wrote the song, in the months following his father’s death in 1968, as a “lament” for his father and for that agrarian Southern life which has given way to “shopping centers, cars, and automatic bank tellers.”
“Tragic things turn me on,” Etris said, by providing material for songs.
“Reuben James” was Etris’ “big break” and has continued “to be kind to me,” he said. To date, over 23 million recorded copies have been sold, he said. The song has been recorded by many artists, but Etris recorded the original song.
Etris, also a talented visual artist, is presently making pencil sketches to illustrate a book about “Reuben James.” The drawings will be juxtaposed with excerpts from the song. He hopes to have the book completed by the end of the year.
“Nelly’s Golden Hair,” written for the Kingston Trio in 1970, and “Call of the Bird,” recorded by Jerry Reed in 1973, are two other originals Etris favors most.
The walls of Etris’ den display three Platinum Record Awards for records which have sold over one million copies — “Ten Years Of Gold,” recorded by United Artists, and “Kenny Rogers Greatest Hits” and “Twenty Greatest Hits,” both recorded by Liberty Records.
Selling millions of record copies, however, entailed hard work and, at times, despair, Etris said.
“Some nights it was absolute hell — no sleep. It scared the hell out of me that I would have to make my living out of anything but songwriting,” he said.
But it is worthwhile to make your living out of something you dearly love doing.”
Yet Etris has, to some extent, “lost interest in song writing; I’ve lost the charge I used to get from it,” he said.
His next “ultimate ambition” is to write fiction, and he has embarked upon a course of self-study to read Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Shelley and Tennyson.
“You can’t say enough in a tune. In (novels) you can say so much more,” Etris said.
“I tell young songwriters coming along today they need to read deeply and develop their thought,” he said.
Etris still practices his music three hours a day as he has done since he first went on stage at age 16, in 1960. He played in bars “where no 16 year old should be — rough places like the Silver Slipper and the Alibi Inn in south Atlanta.”
“I did a lot of Elvis in those days because it was what all the girls wanted,” he said.
One New Year’s Eve, after a hip-slinging rendition of Presley’s “That’s All Right, Mamma” at the Alibi Inn, Etris was accosted on stage by “a big horrible woman who looked like a lady wrestler.”
The “lady” with a “mouth full of snuff” grabbed Etris and kissed him on the lips, leaving a filmy deposit of snuff on his mouth.
“I spit for a week after that,” he said.