By: Martha Helton
I entered the old building—Fiddlesticks Music, just yards from 377. Walls are adorned with musical instruments, music accessories and framed photos of country western musicians from over the years, including one of Stephenville’s long-time music men: Carroll Parham, pedal steel guitar extraordinaire. I walked over the original, half-century-plus old hardwood floor that sagged a bit, built by Carroll Parham and his brother, Jerry, when they were young. Plank by plank, under their father’s direction, they built the foundation of the once family grocery store.
But this humble building only gives a hint of Carroll’s own professional fame that catapulted him onto the stage with many famous country western singers and musicians. That rich, musical background is not staying locked in his memories… he’s pouring out that expertise to 40-50 students each week, along with friend Debbie Bridgewater.
Carroll, clad in boots and a checkered shirt, invited me to sit down in this cozy musical refuge. I opened the door to that colorful history. “Where are you from, and were you from a musical family?”
“I was raised below the mountains in Glen Rose and went to church down there—Cottonwood Church. Mother played the piano and dad led the singing,” recalled Carroll. “We didn’t know we were learning music there with them ol’ gospel songs. That old gospel stuff still sticks in my mind. Mother taught my brother and me piano lessons. Later we went to school in Glen Rose, and they gave us piano lessons there as well.
“Mother and dad had an old guitar laying around somewhere and I took lessons from a teacher at school. She would let us boys that had guitars wag those ol’guitars to school and we’d sit back in the music class and play. I took mine every day. We had to walk to school. I’d stop at an ol’ picnic table under an old pecan tree, and I’d sit there and play my guitar. I guess that was all I’d think about.
“Mother and dad always listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. They kept a radio on at the house all the time and I learned all this stuff without even thinking. Later on, I heard a pedal steel guitar. I had to figure out what that was. I wanted one, but who could afford one? A string cost a dime if you broke one.”
But overwhelming curiosity led Carroll to take some time off to go to Nashville—where these guitars were first manufactured. “I had written several letters to Shot Jackson (the maker of the guitars) asking questions about it. I also always wanted to see the Ryman Auditorium (where the Grand Ole Opry was at the time). I got to Nashville around 4 or 5 in the morning and just walked around—something I wanted to see all my life.
“Then I went to Sho-Bud Guitar Company to see Shot Jackson. Roy Accuff and the Charlie Louvin brothers and others were in there—in a double car garage with an ol’ dirt floor. I realized not all these music stores were rich. And these guys were just people.”
As Carroll got ready to leave, Shot and Roy Accuff invited him to the Grand Ole Opry.
“I tell you what, I even got to go backstage and meet all those people. About a year later I got enough money to buy my steel guitar. That was it—that was all I wanted to do. I played that steel guitar every day. From then on I also started learning other instruments.”
Carroll would practice and hone his skills regularly by taking his steel guitar to different people’s homes around the Stephenville area to play together. “I come in one night and dad said, ‘Where have you been? Who’ve you been playing with?’
“I said ‘Oh, we went to somebody’s house and some old guys were there. I never heard any music like that in my life. Derwood and Roy Lee Brown.’
“He said, ‘You know who you’ve been playing with?’
“‘Never heard of ‘em in my life,’ I said.
“‘Milton Brown and the Musical Brownies! Derwood and Roy Lee are Milton’s brothers,’ dad said. And there I was, playing with some of the greatest swing musicians in the world and had no idea who they were.”
After he got the steel guitar, he started getting jobs and playing out of town at small venues. Then in 1969, Carroll joined Joe Paul Nichols as a member of his band, The Five Pennies—a band known for their traditional country music. Joe Paul worked all over Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, three or four nights a week. After seven years, Carroll quit and started booking jobs for himself.
Over the years Carroll has had his own recording studio and worked for radio stations out of Hamilton and Stephenville.
For over 30 years Carroll produced shows for the Cross Timbers Country Opry, just outside Stephenville (he owns the Opry today, although it’s been closed since 2011). He also traveled out of town to put together “package shows”–shows made up of different entertainers.
One prominent memory from the Opry days occurred one day when four girls auditioned. Each girl was singing Patsy Cline songs.
“The next one come out and I looked at her list of songs and I blew my stack. I called them all back in and said, ‘Not a one of you are singing Patsy Cline songs! These people deserve to hear more than Patsy Cline.’ I put me a sign up, ‘No Patsy Cline songs.’ A couple of Mondays later, Patsy’s husband, Charlie Dick, called about the sign. I thought he’d be mad. Instead, he said, ‘If I were there I’d pat you on the back for standing up for what you believe in. Every little girl wants to be Patsy Cline, but there’s only one Patsy.’”
One perk of playing professionally is Carroll got to meet and be friends with the singers/musicians. One such friend was Hank Thompson, whose musical style was characterized as honky tonk Western swing. “We hunted together a lot and we were friends,” Carroll said.
Ten years ago, Carroll met fellow musician, Debbie Bridgewater, at a bluegrass festival. Since then, they have been playing together in bluegrass festivals and churches across the country. At Debbie’s urging, Fiddlesticks Music was opened in 2006. They teach eight string instruments; Debbie teaches piano and voice also. Their focus is bluegrass and old time music. “We are both dedicated to keeping the roots of old music alive and hope our young students continue to do the same,” Debbie remarked. Evidence of their expertise: the two were inducted into the Old Time Country & Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in Lemars, Iowa in 2008.
They teach children and adults. “Some adults come in before work. It’s gratifying to see someone come in and do something they’ve wanted to do all their lives,” said Carroll. “We also have some kids that are 8, 10, 12 years old and they can take a guitar or a banjo and burn the strings off those things. We take some of them out on some shows sometimes. We’re so proud of our students.”
“Carroll has been given a special gift with his talent in music,” said Debbie. “It’s an honor to know, work and perform with and have as my friend such an amazing and talented person,” Debbie added, admiration lighting her face.
Carroll quickly pointed out: “If it hadn’t been for her, this wouldn’t be here.”
Tell you what…this seasoned musician’s students can’t help but be inspired by their teacher’s passion as he dishes up his homespun, real-life musical tales coupled with his years of musical wisdom and expertise. And all this is delivered with tireless energy and a delightful southern drawl.
Photos by: Plan-it ink