The laugh. I really miss that laugh.
Robert Whitstein didn't have a guffaw-type of laugh; rather, it started as a smile, then a chuckle, and built up from there. He loved to laugh, too. Sometimes a memory running through his mind would trigger the smile, and you knew what was next. He wouldn't always pass along just what was on his personal highlight reel, although when he did the results were more laughter.
Bob had a long list of jokes, some of which were so notorious that all he had to do to break people up was deliver the punch line. My favorite:
A little boy went to a holiness church with his grandfather. The grandfather, having arthritis and a cold, went to the altar to have the elders pray over him for healing. The elders gathered around, laid hands on him, and began singing "The Old Ship of Zion." The little boy jumped up, screamed, and ran out of the church and all the way home. When he arrived his mother asked what was wrong. He replied, "Grandpa went up to the front of the church, and they're beating him up and singing, 'The Old Shit's a-Dyin'!'"
To this day, I cannot see the title of "The Old Ship of Zion" without breaking up laughing. Thanks a lot, Robert, you ruined a great song for me.
The Whitstein Brothers went all over the world with their wonderful Louvinesque harmonies, earning a Grammy nomination in 1990 for Old Time Duets. The old adage of "you can take the boy out of the country but you can't take the country out of boy" was never more true than for Robert and Charles Whitstein. The pains of being a professional musician were too much for Robert, who would have been as content sitting on his front porch playing all day if he had never received the Grammy nod. He retired from the business and returned to his farm in Louisiana, not unlike the one depicted in the Jimmie Davis song "Where the Old Red River Flows" (which the Whitsteins recorded for their first album on Rounder Records, Rose of My Heart). Although I saw him very little after that, we talked frequently. He even thought to call me while I was in the hospital recovering from surgery. I had to warn him, though, to not make me laugh because my freshly-cut abdomen didn't need the exercise just yet.
Robert Whitstein, outside the Opry House,
following a performance of the Whitstein
Brothers on the Grand Ole Opry
In the seven years since a heart attack claimed Robert Whitstein's life at 57 on November 14, 2001, I have found that I miss that jocularity the most. The one good thing about art is that it lasts and enriches long after the artist leaves us, which enables people whose grandparents were not alive when Jimmie Rodgers died to discover his music. (Barry Mazor has a great book on that subject coming out next year.) I have the Whitstein Brothers' music: all the commercially-released material, a video of their reunion showcase at IBMA in 1993, and lots and lots of live tapes. But that laugh of Robert's is silent now, and I miss it. That laugh was the essence of the man: a warm, funny, happy guy who was a friend first, and a musician second.
The hole in our lives is still as large as that laugh.