June 20, 2010 12:54:00 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Gifts passed from father to child can come in all guises. Small life lessons might be found in games of pitch, in baiting a hook on a shady riverbank, even in those first nervous tutoring sessions behind the wheel of a car. For Gene and Dale Robertson, plenty of them came wrapped in lively Texas swing and country music.
For more than a quarter of a century, father and son have shared the stage, performing side by side in the band known as Gene Robertson and the Echoes -- Dad on bass and vocals, Dale on guitar and vocals.
"I''ll always remember ... I saw Dad''s Martin D-28 sitting in a corner not long after we''d moved to Mississippi from Michigan City, Ind., where I was born," Dale shares. "I was about 13. I asked him to show me some chords. He didn''t say ''I''m too busy'' or ''Maybe later.'' He started teaching me, and he''s been my music teacher ever since."
Gene, now 79, was born in Lowndes County and soon moved to Lamar County, where he lives today. As a young man, he had gone "up north to make it big" -- drawn not by music, but by a healthy job market. He''d only become truly interested in music while in the Navy, from 1948-1952. That was, thanks in part, to fellow serviceman Claude Gray, who later recorded well-known country songs including "Family Bible," "I''ll Just Have a Cup of Coffee" and "My Ears Should Burn."
"I never even owned a guitar until I moved to Indiana and my wife gave me one," chuckled Gene. He developed his early skills by "following along with records."
The first configuration of the Echoes went on stage in the early ''60s. With the exception of a two or three month break once when he thought he might "quit music," Gene and the Echoes, in one form or another, have been entertaining audiences since.
"I just love Texas swing, Texas music ... that old Ray Price sound," the seasoned music man declared, eyes alight. "I''m hung up in the ''60s and ''70s; I just live it and breathe it."
"There was always music in the house," recalls Dale, 44, "My earliest memories include watching Dad playing guitar. He''s always been the band leader, lead singer and bass player."
Rock meets country
With Dale''s early teens interest in guitar, it was perhaps inevitable that rock ''n'' roll and country would go head to head.
"I would go to him with rock ''n'' roll songs to ask him to help me learn them, and he didn''t like it at all; he''d try to teach me country songs," laughed Dale. "In 1984, I put together a little rock ''n'' roll band and showed up at the club Dad owned and played (The Playmore) on a Friday night announcing, ''We want to sit in.''
"Now, I don''t know if it''s true, but my mother says he came to her asking, ''What am I going to do? Dale wants his band to play here!'' I guess he thought we wouldn''t be very good," he grinned.
But, they did play. It would be the first time Dale performed vocals and on lead guitar in front of his father.
"I think he was shocked," Dale remembers. "Growing up, I had a very high voice register, and it took me a while to grow into my voice. So, he may have expected to hear the creature cries he''d heard coming from my bedroom all those years trying to learn to sing."
His father playfully shakes his head and concurs, "I''d hear him up there in his room and I''d think, ''That boy''s never gonna make a singer''. ... Was I wrong! Now when he gets up there, I don''t want to follow him."
Dale, in fact, frequently performs vocally and instrumentally in his home church, Fairview Baptist, in Columbus. He also mans guitar and microphone with area bands including the Cat Daddies and Band of Gold.
Gene, his son says, had the talent and voice to become "a superstar."
"He could have been in the class of a Merle Haggard or George Jones or George Strait. He has a unique, powerful voice, and he doesn''t sound like anybody else. The fact that he doesn''t realize how good a singer he is makes him even more appealing."
Gene is quick to attribute part of his musical longevity to the company he kept.
"I''ve been so lucky to have been with good musicians. Most of those guys stayed with me eight or 10 years. One, Ron Dailey, played with me 35 years or more ago. He''s a full-time RV''er now, and for the past two years in November he comes South and sits in with the band when we play."
Another of those longtime friends is fiddler Jim Brock, a veteran of the Grand Ole Opry.
"He''s a fine musician and an incredible fiddle player," credits Dale. "He took some time with me in those early days to help me with some scales and leads and harmony parts. I learned a lot from him about lead playing."
The Robertsons, Brock and the other valued Echoes, including Brock''s son, Jim, can be found performing every first and third Saturday night at the Propst Park Activity Center in Columbus and at the Northport (Ala.) Activity Center each Friday night.
"I''ve always tried to encourage and be supportive of young musicians," states Dale. "I learned that from my father; he''s always been that kind of musician -- nice to other players no matter what level of talent they had, always willing to talk to someone after a show and be nice to them."
Maybe the most important lessons are evidenced in the long-staying marriages both father and son enjoy. Gene and his wife, Grace, have been wed since 1953; they had five children. Dale and his wife, Lee, are parents of two boys and celebrated their 25th anniversary in May.
For the elder Robertson, the pleasure of having one of his sons share his music isn''t easy to put into words.
" ... I can''t even tell you," he says, smiling from ear to ear.
"Playing in a band with my father has been an incredible gift," Dale shares. "I realize now more than ever that a lot of fathers and sons never find any common ground. With the trouble we all get into in teenage years, so many times a great gap is laid between them; they seem to never recover the closeness. I appreciate more now than I did when I was younger how special this is."
Gene admits that physically it doesn''t get any easier as the years accumulate, but "I''m not gonna quit ''til nobody listens to me."
His singing son adds, "For all the musicians out there over the age of 40, who may be thinking, ''Oh, maybe I have one band left in me,'' hear this: Dad is 79, and he doesn''t show any signs of slowing down musically. Maybe 80 is the new 40?"
With a nod to the 1970s "Kung Fu" TV series, in which a young protegé is trained by a wise and patient mentor, Dale recalls how the boy would know his training was complete when he could snatch the pebble from the master''s hand.
"I''m 44 now, and I still can''t take the pebble out of his hand," he says of his father. "He is still the master, and I''m still the student."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.