The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Columns

May 23, 2014

Willie Nelson, James Earl Jones leave good memories

Point Blank

I’m often asked to name some of the most interesting people that I’ve interviewed during my career. Of course, there are too many to name in a single column, but I can list a couple of the top interviews that come to mind.

Willie Nelson naturally heads the list. He had a winning smile and a pleasant personality that is often rare with superstars of any profession.

Willie went out of his way to pose for pictures while he was performing at the West Virginia State Fair several years ago. He undoubtedly knew that I worked for a small-town newspaper and that I was not a nationally known photographer, but it didn’t seem to matter.

He held the pose with a smile until he saw my camera click behind a telephoto lens.

That may not sound like a big deal unless you’ve tried to photograph music celebrities during a concert. I’ve often had singers run to the other end of the stage and stay there during their entire performance.

But I can tell you honestly that each one of those camera dodging and ducking entertainers, those rude and unfriendly types, had careers that were already on the skids, if you know what I mean. People at the pinnacle of prominence don’t tend to behave that way.

Willie Nelson was on top of the heap and he had nothing to prove. He was a nice guy and his fans appreciated his natural grace. During intermission, I asked Willie what he thought of West Virginia audiences and he replied, “They are generous with their affection and they make me feel at home here. I could pick my guitar and sing for them all night long. I can’t wait to come back. I hope that it’s soon.”

I had to rush back to Beckley because I was on deadline. My photo of Willie appeared on Page 1 and I got a nice letter and a CD from the president of his fan club. The woman said she liked the photo and that I was welcome to come backstage anytime in the future.

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A similar experience happened to me in the 1980s, when renowned actor James Earl Jones came to Beckley to film the movie “Matewan.”

I was invited to lunch with the award-winning actor. I picked him up at his motel and we chose to dine at the Holiday Inn on Harper Road.

Jones was gracious and articulate. He laughed at some of my stories about traveling the back roads of southern West Virginia for my “On the Road” column, which highlighted some of the most interesting and clever Mountaineers that ever lived.

He seemed genuinely interested in the culture of the Mountain State. He said it would be nice to have a home in the beautiful hills overlooking New River Gorge.

I drove him out to Grandview and the veteran actor said the view of the gorge was one of the most splendid he had ever beheld. He compared it to the Grand Canyon.

On the way back to his motel Jones complimented me on my photographic style, saying, “I like the way you think.”

I took an opportunity to pass along a memo from an assistant librarian who worked at the Raleigh County Library in Beckley. I explained that the memo was an invitation to dinner at the woman’s home if he took a notion for a “good home-cooked meal” while he was in town.

“That’s very kind, indeed,” Jones said in his mellifluous voice. Then we took our leave.

A few months later I happened to be at the local library doing some research for a magazine article when I encountered the young woman who had sent the actor the dinner invitation.

“John,” she screamed from behind the stacks. “Would you believe that James Earl Jones called me and came to our house for dinner? I can’t tell you how grateful I am. I couldn’t believe it.”

I didn’t think the young woman would ever stop wringing my hand, and she wore a joyful smile. “Mr. Jones visited all evening with my family and thanked me for a delightful dinner that he said included some of his favorites.”

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Top o’ the morning!

— Blankenship is a freelance columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: jabbb@suddenlink.net

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