Aug 10, 2014

Encountering Cecil Null...

Cecil Null
On August 26, 2001, Cecil Null died.  CMT News reported it this way: "Songwriter and performer Cecil Null died of cancer Sunday (Aug. 26) at the Bristol Regional Medical Center near his home in Bristol, Va. He was 74. Null's most famous composition was "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know," a No. 1 hit in 1953 for the Davis Sisters. Bill Phillips had a minor hit in 1970 with Null's "She's Hungry Again."

Null's longtime friend, journalist Bill Littleton, says Null was also the guiding force in uniting Chet Atkins and Merle Travis for their Grammy-winning 1974 album, The Atkins-Travis Traveling Show."  Their article went on to describe Cecil's biographical details.  They included the reason I got interested in Cecil and tracked him down, "A student of American folk music, Null became an expert at playing and designing autoharps and ultimately served as a consultant for a manufacturer of the instrument. His 1964 song, "Mother Maybelle," was inspired by Maybelle Carter, perhaps country music's foremost autoharpist."

For many years, I subscribed to a magazine catering to the small community of people who love and play the Autoharp, a stringed instrument of the chorded zither family.  The magazine was published by an Autoharp enthusiast on the west coast named Becky Blackley.  She was absolutely relentless in her search for people who had played various roles in the history of the Autoharp.  She would find them, interview them, and write extensive articles detailing their contributions to the musical tradition that we all embraced.  One such article, published in the Spring, 1985, issue featured a profile of Cecil Null.  After his music career in Nashville, he and his wife, Annette (also a musician), had gone into the hospitality industry.  Becky found them managing an Econolodge motel in Lynchburg, VA.  Later, when I wanted to meet Mr. Null, he and Annette were managing the Old Pottery Factory Econolodge in Williamsburg, VA.

My late wife, Margo, was attending a convention in Alexandria, VA, in 1985.  She called to see if I was interested in flying into Washington National airport and helping to drive back home to Tennessee.  She had driven to the convention hauling a lot of equipment and papers.  Now the car would be relatively empty for the return trip.  I took a few days off and flew to Washington.  That's when it occurred to me that it wouldn't be very far out of our way to go meet Cecil and Annette Null in Williamsburg.  In fact, we might even be able to spend a night in their motel!

I got on the phone and spoke with Annette, sharing the fact that I was an enthusiastic autoharp player who wanted to meet them and maybe even spend some time hearing about their careers.  She made a reservation for us and said they'd love to spend some time with us.  The day the convention ended, we drove to Williamsburg and found the motel

As we walked into the modest lobby, we couldn't help noticing a giant painting or print, perhaps 4 feet by 6 feet, elaborately framed, showing Cecil and Annette in full, sequin drenched, performing regalia.  He was holding a large Gibson guitar, Annette was by his side, looking adoringly at his cowboy-hatted presence.  And on the wall, next to the giant picture, hung a gold record of Cecil's most famous and successful hit, "I Forgot More..."

Annette was at the desk.  We introduced ourselves and checked in.  She informed us that Cecil was out running errands and that they would be eating dinner as soon as he returned.  We agreed that I'd come by the desk around 7:00 PM to meet him.  Margo was exhausted and decided she could do just fine without meeting my soon-to-be-friend.  We went out for a bite to eat and she went to bed.

Cecil Null was a very big man with a booming baritone voice.  He greeted me most warmly and invited me into their apartment which was just behind the registration desk.  I could see immediately that he had retreived some boxes of artifacts to share with me.  In the 1950s and '60s, Cecil Null had experimented with the design of the Autoharp.  He had built several modified acoustic instruments and he experimented with a solid-body electric design, even winding the hair-like wires on his experimental pickup.  He had gotten out a number of his early experimental Autoharps, both successes and failures, to show me.

Cecil retrieved a bottle of Jack Daniels from their kitchen, offered me a drink (which I declined), and began to talk.  He talked pretty much for the next three hours.  He was mesmerizing.  He and Annette knew everybody who was anybody in Nashville.  He told me he had probably written over 2,000 songs -- that melodies and lyrics simply flowed out of his mind.  With regard to his biggest hit, he said that he had composed it shortly after his Navy service in World War II.  He circulated it and many other songs to dozens of potential studios and artists in the industry to no avail.  In 1953, the Davis Sisters (a duet made up of Skeeter Davis and her high school friend, Betty Jack Davis) recorded the song.  Within a few days of its release, Betty Jack was killed in a car crash.  The song went to number 1 on the country charts and remained there for 26 weeks!  "I Forgot More than You'll Ever Know About Him" has been recorded by Tex Ritter, Sonny James, Archie Campbell, The Statler Brothers, Jim Ed Brown, Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, Slim Whitman, Anita Bryant, Johnny Wright, Kitty Wells, Vernon Oxford, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Patti Page, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Guitar--and countless bluegrass bands.

A much-younger Cecil Null, pictured
on one of his album covers
Cecil began to retrieve partially-completed Autoharp bodies from the boxes he had gathered.  His hand-carved solid-body instruments are like no one else's.  I have included an image here of one of Cecil's LP record jackets.  The Autoharp he's holding is typical of the ones he showed me that night.  Outrageously flamboyant, and extremely heavy, by the way.  They were carved from solid maple.  He had several partially-completed Autoharp bodies to show me, including one, hollowed out from a solid block of maple, that was going to become an acoustic instrument.  He said he had given some as gifts and showed me a picture of his brother-in-law, Fred Carson, a Hollywood stuntman, holding one of Cecil's creations.  There could be no doubt that Cecil had been at this creative endeavor for many years.

Several years ago, I ran across this Cecil Null coin on eBay.  On the front is an image of Cecil with the words, "CECIL NULL" and "THE WILDWOOD ANGEL."  On the obverse is an image of the Autoharp he made for Fred Carson along with the text, "KING OF THE AUTOHARP."  I'd love to know the origin of this strange artifact.

He spoke about his years working as a consultant to Mr. Glenn Peterson, who at the time owned Oscar Schmidt International, the company that manufactured Autoharps.  Cecil's design ideas had spawned the Appalachian model which became very successful.  He also authored a book on playing the Autoharp in a style similar to his own.  Mr. Null was a prolific writer and composer.

We went on to talk about how he and Annette had traveled for years playing at festivals and coffee houses and clubs and what a rough life that was.  His undying love for her was obvious.  They had just released a new album entitled Royal Country, and I bought a copy that night.  After a few more of Cecil's yarns, I retired around 10:00 PM.  I never saw him again, but I wouldn't have missed that evening for the world.

3 comments: said...

My name is Dixie Carson, I'm Cecil Null's niece and daughter of Stuntman Fred Carson,
that you mentioned in your article. Uncle Cecil was amazing. He was one of the funniest people I've ever met. He would write me letters in one long paragraph with
no spaces between the words. I would fall over laughing, it drove my Mom crazy!! Red Foley once said in some liner notes he wrote for one Uncle Cecil's album's, that Cecil was a "genius". I have to agree. We were visiting in Nashville once and Kitty Wells
called saying she had a recording date for the next day and needed 4 songs. Uncle Cecil said I'll be back soon. He went upstairs and in less than an hour he came down
and called Kitty and took the 4 songs over to her. One ended up the cover song for her
album "Guilty Street". I miss him more than words can say. God Bless--Dixie

Bob said...

Thanks for sharing, Dixie. He was truly one of a kind.

Carolyn Forshee said...

Hi Bob and to Dixie, im Carolyn Forshee my late husband and I lived close to Cecile and Ann in Madison TN. Very close friends for many years my husband even taking the photograph on the album above as he shot for many labels including Sun until our moving to TX. I have looked for Ann many years now, my son helping me here on your blog today I would appreciate if possible any contact information you or Dixie may have for her.
Thank you for the wonderful article Cecil was very special.
Carolyn Forshee