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For Jeff Bates, his life is a country song

By Jeffrey B. Remz, June 2003

Page 2...

"I love to write love songs. The first song that Kenny Beard and I wrote together was "I Wanna Make You Cry." We shook hands, and he ' says what kind of songs do you like to write. I said, 'I write about love and making love.'"

About half way through the album, the music takes a decided turn for the autobiographical.

The cornerstone of that is "Rainbow Man," which describes Bates' upbringing and the "lack of knowledge of my ethnic background," says Bates.

"I was born in Alabama/but I never knew my mama/She gave me away/at three months old," sings Bates on the song written with Harley Allen.

"My real mama was Apache/my real daddy, hell don't ask me/Mama says she don't remember him/And I'm sure somewhere in my history/I've got some slave blood in me/And some folks think I'm Mexican/I never really fit in any place/'Cause there's always a part of me to hate."

Bates later takes a social stance in the song for people to get along in the melting pot of America.

"I know you may doubt it/But if you stop and think about it/There's one common thing/that we've all got/People from all countries/Come here because/they're hungry/For what's cookin' in/America's melting pot/We're all different, but the same/Red's the only color in our vein."

Bates eventually tracked down his birth mother in Alabama nine years ago, met her once and seems to have no desire for further contact.Bates' adoptive father was a sharecropper, while his mother was the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher. They ended up having more children after Bates joined the clan.

They lived in the tiny, rural town of Bunker Hill with the closest town of any size almost 20 miles away. Bunker Hill consisted of about 30 or 40 families. "There was one little country store five or six miles from house," says Bates.

Bunker Hill consisted of an old wooden school building, which was eventually torn down and replaced by a church.

"She knew a lot of those old gospel songs," Bates says of his mother.r "We spent a lot of hours together waiting on the porch for daddy to come in from work. We were singing those songs together."And also listening to country artists like Webb Pierce and David Houston.

"Our radio didn't work too good," says Bates. "We lived in the woods. We lived a long way from a radio station. No TV to speak of. We spent a lot of time listening or playing records. She was a huge music fan, which helped me a lot."

"I loved music," says Bates. "It was in my blood."

But he had to deal with school, for a while anyway, eventually bused 30 miles to a school in Improve, before attending school in Columbia, Miss.

Bates says he did very well in school, but he had his problems. Being overweight, he was picked on.

"My daddy was working the logging business, and his health was beginning to fail. He had a lot of trouble with his lungs. Right around every Christmas as far as I could remember, he got sick. He got pneumonia. It got worse and worse on him."

"I got in trouble one day," Bates recalls. "I got into a fight on a bus, and I got suspended. When I got home, I thought my daddy was going to give me a country butt whipping."

That is not exactly how it turned out. Bates says his father told him, "I need you to work,' and there was no point in going back, but I did real good in school. I got great grades."

Bates later did get a high school equivalency degree, but had some traveling left to do. He took off for the National Guard when he was 17. That required about four months of training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, the first time the country boy had ever had been out of his county, let alone the state.

The bluesy song "My Mississippi" cites his fondness for the state along with some of his loves. Like trading in a 1957 Chevy for his first guitar.

"And daddy said I was crazy/'Cause that was a helluva car/When I played/"Love Me Tender"/On that Fender/And the music came pourin'/Out of hands and heart/He knew it was worth it/And so did I/'Cause sometimes/some things/Don't have a price to pay."

Bates, who started driving when he was 9, paid $680 for that '57 Chevy, money earned from working for his dad bulldozing timber. "That thing would run, boy," Bates remembers.

"If I had to do it all over again where I am today or a '57 Chevy Bel Aire, it doesn't seem like an unfair trade to me at all. I would rather walk and play music than drive and not get to. My dad, he thought it was a very unfair trade."

Bates says he was a "huge Elvis fan. Long before I ever saw him (on television in his Aloha From Hawaii show), there was this cool rawness about him and something else that no one was doing. There was something inside me that his music really touched. More a feeling thing than anything. I just really soaked up the tone of his voice and tried to emulate him in every way I knew how as a child. We had this old stump in the backyard and that was my stage. If I was trying to be Elvis, that was my stage for Elvis. If I was pretending to be on the Opry, that was my stump for that."

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