Frank James (left) thought Randy Travis had a monotone voice.
Dear Randy Travis,
One of the great country music stories of southern Wisconsin involves an old acquaintance of yours from your early days in Nashville.
And, as you'll see, there's a secret wish at the center of this story that you could make come true. The story is about a local Madison-area musician named Frank James.
You knew him as Frankie Bell.
He knew you some 25 years ago, when you cooked and cleaned at the Nashville Palace.
There's a lot to tell you, and probably a lot you never knew about Frankie Bell. So let me start this the way a lot of country stories start - traveling on a rural highway to a musical roadhouse. James plays at this one every Thursday night.
The Country Corners tavern sits along a stretch of County Road AB that runs north of Highway 12 in an unincorporated place called Hope.
The farm fields of Hope are dark and desolate by 6 on a late-autumn evening. But by 8 on Thursdays, if you park your car along any one of the nearby dirt roads and roll down your window, you'll hear the sound of guitar, bass and drums filling the frigid northern air.
The music echoes from the tavern, which occupies a building that opened 85 years ago as the Hope Store. By the curbside, a plastic neon Pepsi Cola sign pierces the darkness and tells passers-by who's playing inside - Frank James & the Gang.
Here in southern Wisconsin, Frank is our real country music deal. He's survived all the crap life has thrown at him, and he still manages to smile at friends and strangers alike.
He landed in Wisconsin in 1965 by chance and made his way driving trucks and buses and, being left handed, playing his guitar upside-down. Then he bought the former Hope Store in 1986, remaking it into an authentic honky-tonk he named Country Corners.
Even when Frank James was still Frankie Bell, his nickname was Lefty. His upside-down guitar picking defined his musical style. Ten years ago, when he was 54, James still played all the chords backwards, and he was good at it.
In the decade since Lefty took on a new last name and decided to turn his guitar right side up, he's been more productive than ever. He's released three CDs inspired by legends like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Marty Robbins. He's written dozens of songs. He's built a following on YouTube.
When I sat down with James inside Country Corners two weeks ago, he shared a secret wish - that you, Mr. Travis, will find one of his songs in the not-so-dusty fields of cyberspace, that you'll remember your distant friend, and you'll decide to record it.
A country life
The inside of Country Corners has the feel of an old barn. The wood paneling on the walls is rough and unfinished. Pillars look like western posts. Black-and-white cowboy images compete with beer signs for attention.
Frank James sits hunched on a bar stool and tells me in a Southern drawl that he was born Frank Abela in New York City in 1944, the son of a Hispanic father who was an illegal alien. He was raised in Paterson, N.J. His mother was half Native American.
"People say, 'How did you get country music out there in New Jersey and New York?'" he begins.
"My relatives migrated from North Carolina and West Virginia to work in the defense plants. There were pockets of hillbillies in New York back then. They liked to live among themselves because of the traditions and the bootlegging."
James' early life was littered with the kind of hard-knock stories that define country music, but these stories were painfully true. Being a gentleman, James tells them with hesitation, not wanting to speak ill of those who raised him.
By the time he was born, his mother had four children from a previous marriage. She was alone and poor. James' biological father took her in.
"He got my mother pregnant. He stuck around for about a year. Then he told her immigration was after him, and he took off when I was about a year old. We never saw him again."
Throughout his childhood, James says his mother relied on the kindness of gentlemen to survive. His family moved a lot. He finally started kindergarten when he was 7.
"There were times when we lived in apartments that had no heat, no hot water and no electricity," says James. "You had to get a wood stove to stay warm and boil water. We'd have light by kerosene or candles."
James describes the conditions in his song "Cold Water Flats."
If his boyhood was chaotic, James also recalls it as intensely musical.
"I remember being 2 or 3 years old and straddling my mother's lap when she was sitting on a bar stool," says James. "I'd be holding my head against her chest, and I could hear the jukebox through her breast."
Just a few years later, James was already performing in bars as a child singer.
"When I was about 6 or 7 my mother would dress me up in a cowboy suit with my little guitar and take me to the local bars where they had the hillbilly music," recalls James.
"And I would stand on the bar. They'd play a song on the jukebox and I'd sing along with it. Or if there was a band on the stage they'd put me up there to sing along. Little kid singin' 'Your Cheatin' Heart' was kind of comical, I guess."
Land of cowboys and Indians
In 1963, Frankie Bell was a teenager who liked to hang out with his friends at a hamburger joint in Paterson.
He met a girl there. Her name was Barbara. She had just graduated from art school in New York City.
"I said, where you from? You don't talk like most folks around here," James remembers.
"She said, 'I'm from Madison, Wisconsin.' I said, where the hell is that? I always thought Wisconsin was cowboys and Indians and stuff."
"So anyway, we had a relationship, and she got pregnant," says James. "We had a child in '64. Then we had a big fight. We broke up. So she took the baby and moved back to Madison. I went on with my life until we made up over the phone one day. So I jumped in my '56 Oldsmobile and I drove out here in May of 1965."
One of James' best songs recalls the day he arrived. The AM radio in his Olds was tuned to WMAD. Jim Dawson, a local DJ who called himself the Dixie Drifter, was spinning country tunes. His wife, Shirley Dawson, reported the weather.
"The Ballad of Shirley D." recalls her warm voice, a reassuring sound in a strange place for James. He drove out to the WMAD studio on Lacy Road and introduced himself to Jim and Shirley.
In the years that followed, Frankie Bell became a popular Madison musician. He played at Middleton's Speedway Star and at a lounge called the Onion House on East Washington, now the site of Visions topless bar.
Here, Mr. Travis, is the part of the story that might help you remember Frankie Bell.
In the early 1980s, James and his wife, Tricia, began living in an RV and traveling with country musicians across state lines. They drove down to Nashville, parked the RV and stayed for a while.
It was a heady time for James. He got a job as a writer for a game show called Fandango that began airing on the Nashville Network in 1983. Through his job, he earned backstage access to the Grand Ole Opry and the set of Hee Haw.
"We lived in an RV park next to the Nashville Palace," says James, mentioning the nightclub just down the road from the Grand Ole Opry House. "There was a guy named Randy Ray that had a little band in there. In the daytime he cooked and washed dishes, and at night he fronted the house band.
"I used to hang out with Randy during his breaks," adds James. "I used to jam with him."
Just as Frankie Bell eventually became Frank James, Randy Ray also changed his name - to Randy Travis.
But not before Frank James left Nashville.
"When we were going to move back up to Wisconsin, he was still at the Palace, and I said, 'Randy, we're going back up; I got a nightclub up there I'm going to buy,'" recalls James. "He said, 'Lefty, get me a tape of your songs, I just got a record deal.' I blew him off because I thought he had a monotone voice."
"We moved up here and bought this place, and I'm hearing Randy Travis on the radio. His songs were skyrocketing, and here I had a chance to give him a tape of my songs. This is the bad part - I never did."
Instead, fate took James to Hope. He and Tricia opened Country Corners. They divorced amicably three years later. She remains the owner of Country Corners today, and James still fronts the house band. He still wishes he'd given that tape to Randy Travis.
Old dog, new tricks
Some kids remember having a baseball mitt growing up. For Frank James, it was always guitars.
"My mom dated musicians sometimes, and they would teach me stuff," says James. "Everybody tried to get me to turn my guitar over, but I wouldn't do it. So I basically played right-handed guitar upside down for over 40 years."
Ten years ago, in a music store, James tried out a properly strung left-handed Fender Telecaster. The experience was a revelation.
"Something spiritual came over me," says James. "It was spooky, and I said, 'I can do this!' I took it home, and I was determined to play it that way.
"You can teach an old dog new tricks, you can."
The story of Frank James has a happy enough ending. It's a pretty amazing tale of a guy who has stared down the meanness of life and made music out of it.
But, Mr. Travis, the story of Frank James could have a storybook ending. One of his songs waits for your voice to make that happen.
In my own vision of how this dream ends, your tour bus is turning left from Highway 12 onto County Road AB. You drive past the Hope cemetery and see the Pepsi sign glowing in the darkness. It's Thursday night, and your driver pulls into the parking lot, adjacent to a farm field. You come inside and take the stage. Lefty is next to you. He's ready to jam with you, right-side-up at last.
It wouldn't be a Frankie Bell-Randy Ray reunion at all. Instead, Frank James would extend his calloused hand and introduce himself to Randy Travis.
A song for Madison, 1965
43 year ago, Frank James, then 21, moved to Madison from New Jersey. Here's the song he wrote about the day he first arrived:
The Ballad of Shirley D.
Now somewhere back in '65
To Mad Wisconsin I'd arrive
In my '56 Olds Rocket 88
Searching on my AM radio
I found the Dixie Drifter show
His sound was different
Downhome, It was great
He said: This is the Dixie Drifter, howdy folks
Spinning country tunes and corny jokes
But it's time now for the weather and the news
Here's Shirley D., our weather girl
Miss Sunshine in a rainy world
When skies are gray, she'll turn the clouds to blue
With that perky voice and cheerful sound
Why she turned my gloomy day around
I knew I had to meet her right away
So I stopped for gas and asked them please
Would you help me find WMAD?
I had to meet those folks who made my day
In the boondocks out on Lacy Road
I saw the tower; my spirits rose
I pulled into this old gravel parking lot
Into that little building I did go
Saw the drifter through a glass window
Miss Shirley D. was standing by his side
Yeah, this has been the ballad of Miss Shirley D.