Songwriter Draws on Past to Give Flesh and Bones to Reuben James – 3-23-1989
BYLINE: STEPP, DIANE R. Diane R. Stepp Staff Writer North Fulton
DATE: March 23, 1989
PUBLICATION: The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution
EDITION: The Atlanta Journal Constitution
Update on songwriter Barry Etris, who gained national recognition when “Reuben James,” sung by Kenny Rogers, soared into the Top 40 about 20 years ago. Mr. Etris now draws original charcoal art works. Songwriter Barry Etris gained national recognition when “Reuben James,” sung by Kenny Rogers, soared into the Top 40 about 20 years ago.
Now he has immortalized the song’s character on canvas.
“This is how I have always visualized him,” Mr. Etris, who lives in Alpharetta, said last week of his original charcoal drawing of the old sharecropper.
The drawing depicts a white-haired, work-worn black man with a compassionate face who, according to the song, was the only person in the community who would raise the town prostitute’s infant daughter.
Mr. Etris writes, sings and draws from his Southern roots, his childhood and early adulthood playing with a band in small towns across the South and New England.
“Reuben James” is based on Mr. Etris’s father, the late Jones Etris, who often plowed the fields around Alpharetta with a mule.
At the age of 57, he was found dead in the field, the reins still in his hands. From this incident grew lyrics to “Reuben James”:
The faded shirt
The weathered brow
The calloused hands upon the plow
I loved you then
And I love you now.
Reuben was changed from a white man to a black man in a song publisher’s office, Mr. Etris said.
The drawing was originally intended as an illustration of a book he is writing on his Southern upbringing. Mr. Etris is offering 17-by-22-inch prints of “Reuben James” for $30 through a company he has formed, Etris Enterprises.
The song has sold more than 21 million copies worldwide and has been recorded and performed by such artists as Kenny Rogers, Conway Twitty, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Nowadays, Mr. Etris takes time from writing short stories and a novel to pull out his guitar and perform for community events such as Christmastime at Bulloch Hall.
From his home on Mid-Broadwell Road between Alpharetta and the Crabapple community, Mr. Etris has seen rural north Fulton farmland given over to developers’ bulldozers.
“There’s so many real estate agents up here they ought to be wearing name tags to keep from selling to one another,” he said.
Creeping development has given the 48-year-old a sense of urgency in preserving the area’s rural past by song, fiction and canvas.
For his stories, Mr. Etris often draws on childhood friends, such as elementary school buddy Calvin Bennett, a Northern newcomer to rural Austell who wore knickered pants – “the biggest sissy I’d ever seen.”
“He called buckets `pails’ and Coke `pop.’ It wasa rough-and-tumble bunch I g rew up with and I thought we were really going to have trouble if he couldn’t fight,” Mr. Etris said. “Turned out he was really a scrapper himself.”
When he was an eighth-grader, Mr. Etris moved with his family from Austell to Roswell and entered Roswell High School, where he played football.
After graduation, he passed up a scholarship to study art at the University of Georgia to tour with The Counts, a band he had formed. For five years the band toured the South and New England, playing at sock hops, in chapels, clubs and local National Guard armories.
He wrote songs and went to Nashville, Tenn., to try to get them published. Though many of his songs were published, only one out of every 50 or so are actually recorded, he said.
Some of his others include “Nelly’s Golden Hair” recorded by the Kingston Trio and “The Bird,” a No. 1 country hit he co-authored that was recorded by Jerry Reed.
Photo: Songwriter Barry Etris strums the guitar, his charcoal portrait of `Reuben James’ in the background. `This is how I have always visualized him,’ Mr. Etris, who lives in Alpharetta, says of the character he created 20 years ago/Jonathan Newton/ Staff
Mr. Etris also sings and draws from his Southern roots, his childhood and early adulthood playing with a band in small towns across the South and New England.