How A Long-Lost Guitar Was A Lesson In Grace And Forgiveness

Feb 1, 2019
Originally published on February 1, 2019 10:26 am

Rodger McDaniel was 21 years old when his father died.

His dad, Johnny McDaniel, worked over the years as a miner and milk truck driver, married and divorced Rodger's mother three times – and he loved music.

Rodger remembers his beautiful singing and his shiny, black guitar.

"Even though my father didn't have much of a formal education, he taught himself to play the guitar by ear," Rodger, 70, tells StoryCorps in Laramie, Wyo.

Some of Rodger's earliest memories are of his dad's Friday night music sessions at their small home in Cheyenne, Wyo. "He and his buddies would gather in the living room," he says, "and they would sit around until the early hours of the morning playing their guitars and singing gospel music."

For a long time, Rodger's memory of his dad was dominated by Johnny's alcoholism.

One evening, Rodger recalls, his dad had come home drunk. Rodger's stepmother had told Johnny that if he came home drunk he'd have to sleep in the garage, so that's where he headed.

"I caught up with him on the back porch of the house and said to him, 'Dad, why do you do this?' " Rodger says. "He looked at me and he said, 'It's inevitable.' "

Those words stayed with him.

In 1969, Johnny McDaniel died in a one-car accident that Rodger says was undoubtedly alcohol-related.

Johnny McDaniel, Rodger's father, pictured when he was about 18 years old in Sweetwater, Texas.
Courtesy of Rodger McDaniel

After his death, Rodger and his three younger brothers searched for their dad's guitar. "That had had a lot of meaning for my brothers and me," he says. "But we could not find the guitar."

Twenty-five years after his dad died, Rodger received an unexpected call from a woman asking if he was Johnny McDaniel's son. "She said, 'How would you like to have his guitar back?' " Rodger says.

She explained that on a grocery shopping trip in south Cheyenne in 1969, she heard music playing in a back room of the store.

"She could hear some beautiful guitar music being played and somebody singing 'The Old Rugged Cross,' " Rodger says.

When the music stopped, she rang the bell at the meat counter, and the butcher came out of the back room. "A few seconds later, another man came out, whom," she said, according to Rodger, "I now know to have been your father."

That man said to her " 'We just ran out of whiskey and money, and I'd be willing to trade you this old guitar for a bottle of whiskey.' And she said 'I ran down to the corner liquor store and bought a fifth of whiskey and made the trade,' " Rodger says.

The woman kept the guitar for years. "My two sons grew up learning how to play this guitar," Rodger recalls her telling him. "And now they're grown and gone, and I thought you ought to have it back."

Her experience altered how Rodger remembered his father.

"Really up until that time, my dad's alcoholism and the problems that it brought to the family had defined him in my memory," he says. "But that story of 'The Old Rugged Cross' and his old guitar caused me to think an awful lot about the meaning of grace and forgiveness and how much more than his alcoholism he had been."

Rodger's daughter, her husband and their young children now keep the guitar at their home in Denver — Rodger's son-in-law is the guitar player. "I wanted it to be with a musician. It seemed to me that was the best way to make sure that my father's memory stayed alive," Rodger says in the StoryCorps podcast.

Produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When StoryCorps rolled into Laramie, Wyo., Rodger McDaniel came into the booth to remember his father. Johnny McDaniel worked as a miner for a while. He drove a milk truck. He married and divorced the same woman three times. And he loved music. Here's his son Rodger.

RODGER MCDANIEL: Even though my father didn't have much of a formal education, he taught himself to play the guitar by ear. And what I remember from my earliest years were those Friday nights when he and his buddies would gather in the living room of our small home in Cheyenne, Wyo., and they would sit around until the early hours of the morning playing their guitars and singing gospel music.

My dad, over the years, developed quite a problem with alcohol. I recall one evening, he had come home drunk. And my stepmother - she had told him that if you come home drunk again, you sleep in the garage. And so he headed for the garage. And I caught up with him on the back porch of the house and said to him, Dad, why do you do this? He looked at me, and he said, it's inevitable.

Dad died in 1969 in one car accident that was undoubtedly related to alcohol. After his death, we all searched for his guitar. That had a lot of meaning for my brothers and me. But we could not find the guitar. Twenty-five years later, I got a call from a woman who said, are you Johnny McDaniel's son? And I said, yes. And she said, how would you like to have his guitar back? So I went over to see her, and she brought out the guitar.

And she said, I went shopping at an old grocery store in South Cheyenne back in 1969. And from the back of the room, she could hear some beautiful guitar music being played and somebody singing "The Old Rugged Cross." And she said, I sat and listened to it till they were done. And then I rang the bell, and the butcher came out. And a few seconds later, another man came out whom, she said, I now know to have been your father. And he said, we just ran out of whiskey and money, and I'd be willing to trade you this old guitar for a bottle of whiskey.

And she said, I ran down to the corner liquor store and bought a fifth of whiskey and made the trade. I've had this guitar ever since, and my two sons grew up learning how to play this guitar. And now they're grown and gone, and I thought you ought to have it back.

Really, up until that time, my dad's alcoholism and the problems that it brought to the family had defined him in my memory. But that story of, you know, "The Old Rugged Cross" and his old guitar caused me to think an awful lot about the meaning of grace and forgiveness and how much more than his alcoholism he had been.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENDING SATELLITES' "WE'RE FROM NEAR AND FAR")

MARTIN: Rodger McDaniel at StoryCorps in Laramie, Wyo., remembering his father, Johnny McDaniel. Rodger has spent much of his career in the field of alcohol and drug addiction. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.