When I wrote about the night that a woman arose at a little church we were visiting in Highlands, NC, and proclaimed that her favorite hymn was also the favorite hymn of Southern humorist Lewis Grizzard, the mail poured in.
One after another, many of you asked, “What was Lewis Grizzard’s favorite hymn? You didn’t say.” One of those who asked was even the great newspaper man who was my first boss and is certainly feeling pretty shameful about that, too. I’m sorry he had to ask. He taught me better. He taught me to answer a question before a reader could ask. And I didn’t. The reason is pretty sorry, too. I simply didn’t remember. Over a year had passed since that night and since it was a Methodist hymn that was completely unfamiliar to this Baptist, I couldn’t recall it.
Another reason that I didn’t worry with mentioning it is that I didn’t really believe it was his favorite hymn — even though Lewis was a Methodist and it could have been. But I read most of the words that he wrote in his lifetime and he had never mentioned that song. If Lewis said it, I remembered it. They were a form of Southern scripture to me. He did mention a few times in his column and once in a book that his favorite hymn was “Precious Memories.”
“I want that song sung at my funeral,” he wrote. And so it was. It was also sung by The Statesmen quartet at the funeral of another great Southern scribe, Hank Williams, in Montgomery in 1953.
Joe Kem Lacey of Moultrie, Georgia, was so tickled that I wrote about Grizzard that he called me up and said he was going to send me a bottle of his special barbecue sauce in honor of Grizzard who loved barbecue. He also talked about the pig valve that surgeons used to replace Lewis’s faulty aortic valve. It was the repeated heart problems — this is for the few of you who don’t know Grizzard’s history — that would claim his life at the young age of 47.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about Lewis,” I wrote back to the beloved editor of my youth. “I keep wondering what he would have to say about Confederate statues being removed, Bruce Jenner, Trump and country music that sounds like hip hop.”
“If he were still with us,” he replied, “I doubt his damaged heart would have held up to write about all of that.”
I know. Grizzard loved country music. It would have damaged his heart further to hear some of the music coming out of Nashville today. It sure doesn’t help my heart.
It’s been almost 25 years since that Sunday when our hearts took a nose dive when the news came that Grizzard’s voice had been silenced. The doctors had told us that the situation was grave following his final heart surgery but still we clung to hope. It was as though a close relative had died. We had followed his three divorces, grieved when his beloved Lab, Catfish, died (a gift from Vince and Barbara Dooley) and cheered when the Yankee showed up to voice the audio version of Grizzard’s latest New York Times bestseller with a fake Southern accent so Grizzard, indignant and outraged, tossed him out and read the book himself.
All these years and people still care mightily about Lewis Grizzard. They care to know what his favorite hymn was and they celebrate his memory with his favorite food. That’s the mark of a strong character and an even stronger legacy — people are still interested.
I seriously doubt that I’ll ever be fondly remembered like that but, just in case, my favorite hymn is “I’ll Fly Away”. And if, 25 years after my death, anyone wants to raise a glass in my honor, make it buttermilk, please.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of Mark My Words — A Memoir of Mama. Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.