When I was little I watched a lot of Superman and Batman and had a costume for both. I always wanted to be strong, tough and unstoppable. However, I weigh 135 pounds and grew up in the suburbs of small towns, so I am not physically strong or remarkably tough, and I am completely stoppable. That’s fine with me.
When I got older, I realized there was a man that seemed like he was all of those things while also being scary and fun at the same time. My grandpa, Buck Lay, is one of the greatest men I’ve ever known.
Music has a way of pulling at our emotions and reminding us of the people we care about. Songs can evoke a certain memory about something as soon as the first note is played.
This happens when I hear Johnny Cash because my dad and I once took a long trip to West Monroe, Louisiana in his car, and the only CD he had in his car was Johnny Cash’s Greatest Hits. We listened to Johnny Cash for maybe 10 hours that weekend, but we had to turn it off at times because it was the same 14 songs. I almost put the whole album on here, but settled on “I Walk The Line” and “Ring of Fire” because those were the ones I remembered the most when I was 10.
Those kind of old country songs seem to go along with the way my grandpa lived and grew up. He grew up in West Monroe and lived life farming, hunting and doing normal outdoor things a 6-year-old would do. This has produced some crazy stories about the things he had to do as a kid living that kind of life, like running with an axe for five miles to get it back to his dad, even though he had accidentally cut himself with it and was bleeding. That name—Buck—was perfect for him because of how tough he had always been, and that just feels like an old country man’s name.
Those kind of stories are what transformed my grandpa into a superhero to me. He would never back down and would always push ahead, so I picked Johnny Cash’s version of “I Won’t Back Down,” to lead off. When Cash sings this song, it has that weathered and worn sound of a man who has resolutely decided to not give in.
My grandpa also had a woodworking shop in his home and made really great things with it. He made a big rocking duck for my sister and the body for all of our pinewood derby cars. The song “Jesus Was a Carpenter” reminds me of being in the shop with him, but also the way my grandpa was such a strong Christian man. It was easy to see Jesus in my grandpa’s life—all the way down to the fact that he worked with wood.
The middle of the playlist consists of hymns and gospel songs my grandpa enjoyed and by artists I know he liked to listen to. He didn’t always listen to tons of music, but he really enjoyed other people’s musical talents and liked supporting artists who performed in his church.
Starting with “Ill With Want” by The Avett Brothers, each song left on the playlist has a certain reason for being there. “Ill With Want” reminds me of sitting in his house when he was really sick toward the end of his life. We watched SportsCenter and didn’t talk very much because he was on a ventilator, but he told me he was proud of me. Then he said I need to find what makes me happy and do that and to not worry about money.
“Blue Christmas” and “Seven Spanish Angels” are important because of stories from my dad and his sisters. “Blue Christmas” is from Elvis’ Christmas album, which they used to listen to on Christmas, and now we listen to it too.
“Seven Spanish Angels” and “Precious Memories” are songs that remind Aunt Celeste of him and the way he enjoyed Christmas carols and hymns.
“He and I sang hymns and Christmas carols when I had cancer,” she said. “I was in a lot of pain, and he was trying to help me forget. So we sang everything we could remember. He couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. But that’s one of my favorite memories of him.”
“Laundry Room” has the sad country feel, much like songs he would listen to, and the lyrics in it always move me to either tears or action. The line that makes me think of my grandpa is the line “I am a breathing time machine.” It reminds me of the stories he had to tell, the things he had seen, the places he had been and the joy he had. Those stories are a straight shot into the past and the way we can really experience what life was like back then. The end of the song is this triumphal instrumental that juxtaposes the rest of the song that makes me think of a big celebration, what heaven is like and him being there.
As I explore songs and artists my grandfather liked, I fell in love with Elvis. His voice is wonderfully deep and powerful. “Can’t Help Falling in Love” is different than some of the more upbeat songs Elvis is known for. It’s slow, methodical and beautiful. I can feel a grandfather singing this song to his children and grandchildren with the vibrato of an old church choir member.
Eventually everyone’s “time” comes, and it’s a reality that people fight kicking and screaming for a long time. New health crazes and fad diets are about trying to stave off the reality that we are mortal, and our bodies down break down over time. That doesn’t mean it is something to fear though. “When My Time Comes” by Dawes features that ideal. There are some strange lyrical concepts, but the chorus of the song is an all-out belting by several of the members. When performed live, frontman Taylor Goldsmith puts all he can into the song and yells parts of the verses almost like a war anthem. It feels like grown men fighting but also embracing the reality of mortality.
I can’t think of a better way for my grandpa to go out than guns blazing and fighting the whole way down, but not out of fear for death, just out of desire to live. That is just a continuation of this ideal I had set up for him as a real life John Rambo or Batman. He is not Rambo though, he is much closer to the grandfather singing “Can’t Help Falling in Love” with the way he cared about his family and others.