The boy in black
Drinkin'. Fightin'. Killin'. He may not have done any of these things, but that doesn't stop this 10-year-old from singing as if he has lived a world of hurt.
By JOSE CARDENAS
Published February 3, 2006
ZEPHYRHILLS - The venue was no Carnegie Hall. Not even Grand Ole Opry. It was a community center filled with gray-haired retirees and snowbirds at the Shady Oaks mobile home park.
The headliner's name was not in bright lights. But his grandma did set out a 3-foot-tall portable billboard: JOHN HENRY AT 4 AND 6.
Clad in the dark suit and cowboy hat customary of his hero, the late Johnny Cash, 10-year-old John Henry strapped on his $2,300 Martin guitar and in high alto ripped into - what else? - Folsom Prison Blues.
"I hear the train a comin'
"It's rollin' 'round the bend
"And I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when . . ."
Jimmie Lea McClure, his 65-year-old grandmother, bobbed her head and tapped her toes in the kitchen. She has been managing John Henry's career since he stopped being little David Michael Kimes and took up the name of the steel-drivin' folk hero. He was 5 at the time.
"Don't he put on a good show?" she asked. "He's been everywhere but Nashville."
As a manager, Jimmie Lea is no Colonel Tom Parker.
And John Henry is no Elvis Presley.
Not yet, Jimmie Lea might say.
Don't tell the spark plug of a grandmother, who started singing gospel as a teenager in Gina, La., that John Henry can't make it to Nashville.
Jimmie Lea is a one-woman record company who peddles John Henry's $10 CDs, $6 tapes and $2 pictures at his shows. The greeting on her cell phone voice mail is John Henry singing Folsom Prison Blues.
Jimmie Lea and her daughter - Lisa Kimes, the boy's 29-year-old mother - took him to perform in the Hank Williams Revisited show in Branson, Mo., last summer. When he was 6, they took him to the Maggie Valley Opry House in North Carolina, where Jimmie Lea said he played with Raymond Fairchild.
"Which is one of the best banjo players in the world," she added.
But if you wanted to catch a glimpse of the pint-sized Johnny Cash, it would have to be at an RV park, a nursing home, a hospital, a church or on the region's circuit of bluegrass festivals. He has done about 70 appearances in the past year.
Lots of kids learn to play and sing at early age. But John Henry, a fourth-grader at Bing Elementary in Tampa, cut his teeth on songs about fightin', drinkin' and dyin'.
When I was just a baby, my mama told me,
Son, always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
Now every time I hear that whistle I hang my head and cry.
At the Shady Oaks gig, John Henry seemed to enjoy signing autographs and eating ice cream.
But, as you might expect from a 10-year-old, he is short on words when trying to explain why he likes performing.
"Like, it's cool," he said. "And you're making people happy."
Said Sally Ward, who described herself as older than 65 but younger than 70: "It's amazing that a 10-year-old wants to spend time with us old people."
With the reception John Henry gets at mobile home parks, who needs Nashville?
"I got his very first CD and almost every night I listen to it when I go to sleep," said Harriet Hasse, 64.
As someone who has followed John Henry's career - all four years of it - Rose Coone offered her critique.
"You came in time to see him emerge from the little boy who looked straight ahead to now, interacting more with the audience," said Coone, 70. "For a while he would stand there like a puppet."
The Shady Oaks show also served as a jam session, like others around the Tampa Bay area, where folks in the country and bluegrass music scene flock to play for money or for fun.
"It's a lot of locals," said Bill Pope, 69, who was playing the mandolin with John Henry. "Some of them have been professionals. They are widows and widowers. And of course, young people can come, too."
Jimmie Lea had culled Pope and six other musicians from that scene. John Henry split the $200 in donations from the gig with them.
None were within 50 years of John Henry's age. And the youth of the lead singer became a recurring bit of comedy.
"What song?" bassist Tom McClure, 70, asked at one point.
"Boot Scootin' Boogie," John Henry commanded, looking up at the tall McClure.
"What key?" McClure asked.
"D," squeaked John Henry.
"I hate gettin' told by a 10-year-old what to do," McClure grumbled to audience laughter.
Jimmie Lea has down pat the story about how John Henry got started in music.
It was just up the road from the Shady Oaks park, in fact, at Barb's restaurant, where she was playing the standup bass with a band. He was 5.
"He said, "Maaama, I'm hungry.'
"I said, "Well, baby, if you want to eat you're going to have to sing for your food.'
"He stood up in the chair and he did Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.
"Took a break right in the middle and came right back on time.
"First time he had ever sang with a band."
The restaurant's owner gave him a gig every Friday night. Another local singer gave him his stage name.
John Henry has even written a few songs, but not about anything sad, like, say, his parents' divorce.
"I just sat down one day, and I just got a piece of paper and got a pencil, and thought about something to write about," he said. "I thought about my dog, so I wrote something about my dog."
Benjie was a good old dog
He was cute as he could be
And every time I would look at him,
He would be looking back at me.
Jimmie Lea said the only thing holding John Henry back is that his parents won't allow him to be homeschooled so he can tour full time.
John Henry lives with his mother. His father, David Kimes, allows him to pursue music on the condition that he keeps his grades up.
"If it doesn't work out, he has to have something to fall back on," said Kimes, 30.
John Henry can understand his dad's point of view.
He wants to go to college "just, like, to get a backup job," he said. "So that if I lose my voice or something like (for) a week or something, I can go to my other job."
Jose Cardenas can be reached at 727 445-4224 or email@example.comIF YOU GO
John Henry will perform at 7 tonight at Winter's RV Park, 38022 Winter Drive, Zephyrhills. Free, but donations welcome. Call (813) 782-1615 for information.