The spirit-filled childhood of zany ‘My Girl Bill’ narrator Jim Stafford
“Wildwood Weed” raconteur Jim Stafford had an idyllic Southern upbringing brimming with guitars, running barefoot near Florida’s world-renowned Cypress Gardens theme park, and spending Sunday mornings on the front pew listening to a jolly Methodist minister who possessed a knack for unleashing spirited gospel music when his orator proficiency abandoned him.
Born and raised in the citrus-growing community of Eloise, Stafford envied Reverend Donnelly as he gazed upon trusty canine compadre Bowzer soundly sleeping near his elementary school desk. Or maybe he just liked the idea of enthralling an audience. But fate serendipitously stepped in as Stafford noticed his daddy’s old Gibson acoustic guitar collecting dust in a corner.
By the tender age of 16 Stafford proudly notes he was supporting himself financially as a guitar picker, holding down lead axe duties for the Rumours, an enthusiastic high school garage band comprised of future alt country icon Gram Parsons and soft rock purveyor Lobo [“Me and You and a Dog Named Boo”].
At 39 years old Stafford finally felt like a record collector’s dream when “Spiders and Snakes,” a light-hearted swamp rock ode to a hapless teenager repeatedly trying to earn a girl’s favor co-written with future Bellamy Brothers lead singer David Bellamy, ascended to Billboard Top Three pop status in late 1973. Five further A-sides on MGM Records claimed the Top 40.
Stafford spun expertly paced yarns in 15 appearances on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, won the betrothed hand of Bobbie “Ode to Billie Joe” Gentry for a New York minute, shared onscreen time with Clint Eastwood and Clyde the right turn signal-supporting orangutan in 1980’s comedy blockbuster Any Which Way You Can, composed three songs for Disney’s The Fox and the Hound animated soundtrack, served as the head writer for the Smothers Brothers’ ill-fated revival of their controversial late ’60s counterculture-championing CBS comedy variety series, and cannily reinvented himself as a multi-faceted Branson family entertainer. Not bad for a kid from the sticks who retains a place in his heart for a “no-name little guitar with a nice neck and a decent sound.” Stafford’s free-wheeling, honest appraisal of a childhood when times were simpler accelerates now.
The Jim Stafford Interview, Part One
Exactly where were you born — Eloise or Winter Haven, Florida?
I was born and raised in the little bitty town of Eloise, which is adjacent more or less to Winter Haven. As a matter of fact, Cypress Gardens was on Lake Eloise, and I was born only about a mile or two from Cypress Gardens. I used to go fishing when I was a kid, and I would watch the ski show from the lake.
The thing about Eloise is that it sprang up beside a big ole citrus plant — a place where they processed oranges, grapefruit — stuff like that. Everybody just about that I knew worked at that citrus plant. My daddy, Woody Stafford, had a little dry cleaner’s, and he would service the people there.
People always think of Florida as being palm trees, but Eloise was a very countrified little town. We were a bunch of barefoot kids out wandering around the swamps. We went to school without any shoes, too.
Actually when I was in elementary school there were times when I would take my dog Bowzer, and he would just sleep beside me by my desk. There was a singer-comic in Sha Na Na named Jon “Bowzer” Bauman. That’s the only time I ever heard that name used again [laughs].
Back in those days several of the grades I went to were in the same schoolroom. You’d have like second and third or fourth and fifth grades combined. It was a pretty laid back, simple way of life, but I wouldn’t take anything for it. I just had a lot of fun back then.
Were you an only child?
No. I had a sister named Beverly who was three years older than me. Beverly wasn’t musically inclined and didn’t sing or play any instruments. She was quite the character though. She could be very clever and a lot of fun. She was always making people laugh. She had a good time. I’m grateful for that. My mom, dad, and sister have all passed away.
Overall, was your childhood enjoyable?
Yeah, I think so. When I was a kid, I just did anything I could to try to put on shows. I had little puppets I would work with. For a long time, I played harmonica and actually got pretty good at it.
My dad was a guitar player, but I never fooled with it much when I was very young. A friend of mine across the street got a guitar and started playing. So I got my dad’s guitar, and he and I started learning to play guitar together. When you can find a friend to have somebody to knock around with is always a really nice way to learn to play an instrument. Of course, a couple of guitars playing together is very pretty music and a lot of fun. That’s how I learned.
I think I was about 12 years old when that happened. And I can tell you this much — because I’m very proud of it — by the time I was 16 I was making a living with my music. I made a living with my music from age 16 on. I paid for everything. I paid my own way.
As a matter of fact, my dad really wanted me to be in the dry cleaning business. He didn’t want it desperately or anything, but he’d have liked it ‘cuz there he was. I kind of felt bad about that. And so, I made enough money as a young fella, not only to make my way, but I paid the guy that replaced me.
How did your mother, Garland Stafford, feel when she knew that you wanted to be a guitar player?
My mom’s a great mom, and she just wanted me to be happy. She was for it. My dad was, too. I think I was living his dream. He always wanted to be in music, and he just was a little bit too shy or afraid that his family might starve if he tried it because he liked to make music and be around music and musicians.
My mom and dad both lived long enough to see me become successful. My mom passed away a few years before my dad, who died of a massive heart attack at age 86 in 2002. So they got to see the whole thing.
Between 1980 and 1986 you appeared an impressive 15 times on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. During your debut February 27, 1980 appearance you mentioned that you wanted to be a preacher when you were six years old.
I did want to be a preacher — for years. A Methodist church was across the street from our house in Eloise. This was before we had addresses on your home. Back then, everybody had a P.O. Box. My address was the second house on the left behind Shorty’s Shoe Shop [laughs]. It was simple like that. I went to that church seven years straight without missing a Sunday from age 6 to 13. Of course, I was just across the street. I was a front row boy — I sat on the front row every single Sunday.
I was still going to church when I began playing guitar in my teens. Matter of fact, there was another Methodist church that was a ways from my house. Reverend Donnelly was a national fiddle champion when he was just a young boy and was a magnificent musician who could play like the wind.
He wasn’t a great preacher. He would get a little bit lost and stuff. Sometimes he would be in the middle of the sermon and he’d go, “And so the Lord said to…uh…Abraham…no…he said to Moses…well…let’s just play some music” [laughs]. Then me and a couple buddies of mine and the preacher would all wind up playing some gospel music. It’d just work out great. I never did sing back in those days. I only played.
Reverend Donnelly was just the jolliest guy in the world. He would preach some then sometimes his wife would preach. She was a wonderful preacher and just one of these ladies who had a great calling and never preached a single sermon where she didn’t get emotional and get a little bit teary.
You know how it is when you’re just in it like that — you’re in it. She wasn’t just up there reciting words. She was inside this deal. I know what that’s like when somebody gets up in front of other people and they are sincerely absorbed by what they’re saying. In reaching out to touch us, she was touched by her own message. I just thought that was astonishing.
I don’t know if I was really cut out to be a preacher, but I think I was cut out to be some guy that had an audience — just like a preacher has. I don’t know how to say it nicely. Maybe I just wanted everybody to look at me. I know that I wanted to be a performer. When I discovered the guitar around when I was 12 years old, I wound up having an audience.
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