I had been living in Johnston County for only a few days when I first became aware of Sky Corbin. I had come to town by myself to take the news reporter's job here at the Capital-Democrat and to set up house in anticipation of my wife and infant son joining me a month later. My books and my TV were back in Illinois with the family, and the only thing I had for in-home entertainment for that first 30 days or so was an old beat-up alarm clock I'd been using for years.
One day that first week I went home for lunch – probably a bologna sandwich and a bottle of Coke – and turned on the radio just for the pretense of company. I was scanning the dial looking for something worth listening to when I happened upon an old Bob Wills song that I recognized from one of my dad's old records that I'd grown up listening to. Thanks to my parents I was a fan of Bob Wills, the Sons of the Pioneers, Gene Autry and the like; it hadn't been cool to admit that to others my age in the time and place that I grew up in, but I was no longer in that time or place and so for the next half hour I listened to other “old-timey” country and western songs that radios stations just weren’t playing anymore.
Sky Corbin was the host of that broadcast, and my radio became permanently tuned in to KMAD in Madill. Soon after I met Sky’s lovely wife Pat – she was covering Tishomingo city council meetings for the radio station at the time – and it was roughly a year later, when he was in town to MC the annual Fourth of July Parade, that I met Sky himself. I introduced myself to him while he was setting up his sound system on Main Street and told him how much I enjoyed the fact that he was still playing those old songs; he in turn surprised me by telling me how much he enjoyed reading my column in the C-D every week.
A friendship was struck that day, and over the next few years I valued those times when happenstance brought us together. I always got a kick out of Sky’s many stories about his years in the music and radio business and the people he encountered along the way, many of them people whose music I'd loved for years: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller, and of course his old friend Buddy Holly.
Sky, in turn, initially seemed surprised that someone of my generation would have an appreciation for the kind of music he enjoyed the most. I remember how he smiled and said it was a sign that I'd had a good upbringing; years later, when I got the chance to introduce my parents to Sky when he was playing at the Gene Autry Festival over in Carter County, Sky made a point of complimenting Mom and Dad for providing me and my brothers with what he called a “proper appreciation for real music.” My parents got such a kick out of that. (Sky actually reminded me a little of my father in some ways; he seemed to appreciate it when I shared that observation with him once.)
It had been Sky’s idea for me to do a radio version of my newspaper column on KMAD. I had left the C-D for a time to work at the newspaper in Durant, and had stopped by the radio station one afternoon in mid-1996 while driving home to Ravia to talk with Sky about another project I was seeking advice on. I was looking for something else to do, due to my increasing unhappiness at the Durant paper, and while Sky liked the basic idea I presented he wasn’t sure if I’d be able to make it happen. (In retrospect he was probably right.) But he wanted to encourage me all the same, and before I knew it he had talked me out of pursuing my original notion and doing the radio commentary for him instead.
I had no prior experience in broadcasting and it definitely showed, and it was certainly a lot of work. For about the first six months I was still at the Durant paper, where I was already writing three columns a week in addition to my daily news writing and editing responsibilities; when you add having to write five five-to-seven minute radio commentaries per week to the workload. it barely left much time to catch my breath. The workload lightened ever so lightly after I returned to the Capital-Democrat in early 1997, but there were times I still felt like I was meeting myself coming and going.
But that was all right, because I enjoyed the additional gig and getting eevery xperience that might not have been possible otherwise. The program – which ran Monday through Friday just after the 8 a.m. for just over a year, from 1996 to 1997 – got a reasonably decent response from listeners. Sky didn’t always agree with some of the opinions he shared – once or twice he even said so right on the air – but he never told me what I could or couldn’t say or how to say it and I always appreciated that. And (much to my surprise) the “Small Talk” radio program even somehow managed to pick up both First and Second Place awards for Best Small Market Radio Commentary at the annual Society of Professional Journalists Awards banquet in 1997.
By the time those awards were presented I was no longer doing the radio program – not because it had been canceled or because I had ran out of time or energy, but because I had voluntarily chose to end the show when Sky told me he was going to retire. The show had been Sky’s idea in the first place, and such was my loyalty to him for the friendship and support he had showed me that I just didn’t want to do it for anybody else. I hadn’t realized it would happen that way at the time I made that decision, but as it turned out my last day on KMAD was also Sky’s last day.
Eight years later, in 2005, I was honored to be selected to be the presenter when Sky received the Citizen of the Year Award at that year’s Johnston County Chamber of Commerce Banquet. It was an important night for Sky, who was certainly as deserving of the honor as anyone who has received it in the not quite 22 years that I've lived here. But it was an important night for me as well, because it gave me the opportunity to finally express my sincerest thanks to this wonderful man who was a friend and a mentor and a fellow lover of REAL country music.
I didn’t see much of Sky after that night; the last time was at that aforementioned Gene Autry Festival, where we spent about half an hour just chatting and catching up after he finished singing. I talked to him on the phone a few times after that, and each conversation was a pleasant one. Each time we talked about getting together some time for a cup of coffee and a chat, but we never managed to make it happen.
Unfortunately, other responsibilities prevented me from attending Sky’s funeral on Monday. But I paused for a moment around the time the funeral was scheduled to begin to say a prayer for his family, and to express my appreciation to God for allowing me the opportunity to know and work with this man who certainly deserved all the wonderful adjectives that have been used to describe him.
After hearing the news last Friday that Sky had passed away, I went home from work and listened to a favorite song entitled “Cowboy Buckaroo,” written by Oklahoma’s own Mason Williams and recorded in the 1970s by Williams and the Sons of the Pioneers. (The Statler Brothers recorded a mighty fine version of it as well, and it probably the better known recording, but I've always prefered Williams' original.) The lyrics – which speak of being “raised on matinees on Saturday afternoons, lookin' up at Hoppy, Gene and Roy” – always makes me think of both Sky and my father, and never fails to bring a smile to my face.
But this time – and I’m not ashamed to admit it – it also brought a tear to my eye.
Today KMAD is nothing more than just one more generically mediocre, dime-a-dozen radio outlet specializing in so-called music of mostly the “headbanger” variety (i.e. noise). The sounds of Gene Autry and the Sons of the Pioneers and Tex Ritter and even Marty Robbins and the Statler Brothers seem to have fallen out of favor with the public at large, judging by the amount of airplay they get on the radio these days. That's just one more reason I'm glad I've managed to build up a pretty substantial music collection of my own over the years; any time I want to hear those artists, they're as close as the turntable we still keep in the living room.
And if you listen real close you might even be able to hear the spirit of Sky Corbin, chatting between the songs just like he used to, that warm and friendly voice inviting listeners to stick around and have a good time with him. The way he used to when I had first moved to town. The way radio was supposed to be.
Happy trails, Sky. Save a spot at the campfire for me.
In : Reminiscence
Tags: pop culture