The True Spirit of Christmas
Roger and Jacky True are waiting on their front porch, the twin peaks of their matching cowboy hats practically vibrating with excitement.
It’s Thursday, and we’d agreed to meet at 4 p.m., but I’m running a little early. The brothers True don’t appear particularly put out. They’re pumping my hand, thanking me for the interview and laying the compliments on so thick I can feel the heat rise in my cheeks.
Roger True lives in what might be the best known address in all of Guilford County, a little white house tucked in its own tiny valley, its roof suspended above Chapman Street. The house is bedecked for the season with a manger made of knotty pine, several pint size Santas, snowmen, twinkle lights, musical displays and miles of matted garland.
The brothers guide me down a dirt path beside the house, over a fretwork of exposed roots, to a picnic table and a folding chair. The yard is littered with children’s toys, courtesy of Li’l Rebel, the youngest member of the True clan and Roger’s 2-year-old son. His things, having already infiltrated most of the yard, have even crept onto a small covered stage. The brothers are going to have to clear it by springtime, Jacky says, to make way for their country music shows.
“One day I said ‘Diddy, I seen this old picture of the Bean Blossom and Bill Monroe with an old raggedy stage in the backyard,'” Roger says. “I said, ‘I wonder could we do that?’ he said, ‘Go ahead, but you can’t charge any money.'”
“Daddy never wanted to charge any money for anything,” Jacky adds.
“And no alcohol, he said,” Roger says.
“That’s right, no alcohol,” says Jacky.
“So we had the famous hotdog shack with free hotdogs, free sodas and free entertainment,” Roger says.
The shack is still standing, covered with weathered boards, the paint flaking off a sign bearing Jack Sr.’s name. The stage hasn’t seen its intended use in some time. The True Brothers, who embarked on their show business career under the name True and True, used to hold shows here twice a year.
“The shows in the backyard got us a good followin’ among the college kids,” Roger says.
The True Brothers are a musical act – but one unlike any you’ve ever seen, unless, of course, you’ve seen the True Brothers. They have guitars, but they’re more for decoration than playing, and the majority of their repertoire consists of country songs written by others, although they do occassionally write their own material.
“I’ve always been a big fan of those guys,” says Snüzz. “I’ve seen them play a bunch of times and it always brought a big smile to my face.”
Snüzz is the man Jacky and Roger credit with booking their first gig in 1990 at the Miracle House of Rock.
“It was this big warehouse in downtown Greensboro,” Snüzz says. “I don’t think the city really knew what was going on there, so pretty much everything went. There were explosions, whatever. It’s pretty much where the punk kids hung out.”
And the True Brothers, who framed the first dollar they earned at the Miracle House. Back in those days, Roger kept a shiny pompadour and both brothers favored colorful get-ups.
“I was in my Elvis phase,” Roger says.
Roger and Jacky grew up in these four rooms off Chapman Street with their mother, Jettie Highfill True, and their father, Jack Carl True Sr. Dad bought the house in 1966, and promptly turned it into a shrine to the holidays. Every Halloween and Christmas, he put up decorations and opened his house to the neighborhood.
“Dad was all about Christmas,” Jacky says. “And it’s going on without him, he’d be sorry to know. He wasn’t just playing Christmas, he loved Christmas.”
The mailbox on the front of the house still invites letters addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Jack True, Sr. Now Roger keeps house there with his girlfriend, her older son and Li’l Rebel. His father died in 2003, and the house is filled with memories of him: A portrait, painted by Roger, hangs over the mantle, and newspaper clippings ring the walls.
“It still gets me,” Roger says. “I was real close to my dad. I took care of him ’til the day he dropped over.”
Jack Sr. played Santa Claus every year at Christmas. He purchased his first Santa suit with his own money, and bought candy canes for the neighborhood children every year. He kept it up until the very end.
“I’ve still got his Santa suit,” Roger says. “He wanted to be buried in his Santa suit but I couldn’t do it. The suit he got came from Elvira. He was a big fan of Elvira, he was a member of her fan club and paid fifteen dollars a year.”
“Mistress of the dark,” Jacky adds.
“He got two free T-shirts and an autographed picture of her,” Roger says. “Then one day we come home from Cone Hospital and there’s a big old box up on the porch, and we opened it up, and inside was a Santa suit. With whiskers and hair you could curl with a curling iron.”
“He only got to wear that suit just twice,” he says. “The last time he put it on here he fell asleep in that chair. I woke him up a couple of hours later and told him he had to go to bed.”
The early 1990s was the heyday of the True Brothers musical career. After their breakthrough show at the Miracle House of Rock, clubs from as far away as Chapel Hill came calling. The True Brothers played the Blind Tiger, Somewhere Else Tavern, college radio stations and house parties.
They lugged their guitars, but no amps, and a tape machine for their backing tracks. They attracted a substantial cult following among college students.
“I can’t really say we ever had country fans,” Roger says, “because we never got to play country bars, we never got to play country radio stations and things like that.”
It was around this time that Roger, who tools leather and designs the brothers’ costumes, decided to apply his talents to the band vehicle.
“What got me to do it was Webb Pierce,” Roger says. “He had a car that was famous for guns and silver dollars. So what I did was start making my own car, and everybody thought I was crazy in the neighborhood.”
Payday, as the car was known, became a True Brothers calling card, and led to a meeting between the boys and one of their biggest heroes. It happened during the taping of the Sue Hiatt show, a public access program that featured local country musicians.
“Crash Craddock came in and said ‘You two boys the ones on that Cadillac?'” Roger says. “I say, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘Well, I just took my shotgun and shot it right between the eyes. I had to move it so I could get my van in there.'”
Their relationship with Craddock blossomed after that first meeting into a friendship that has deepened in the years since Jack Sr.’s death and the birth of Li’l Rebel. Payday, however, did not prove as durable. The car, with its grill-mounted longhorns and tendency to suck up all the brothers’ money, died several years back.
The True Brothers musical career has stalled a bit in recent years. In the mid-1990s, the rock clubs stopped calling, and Jacky and Roger decided to record an album. Then they built the backyard stage and began hosting free shows.
They returned to the Blind Tiger and managed to book themselves a regular gig. But after several months, the club abruptly awarded their slot to the Breakfast Club, an eighties tribute band.
The True Brothers weren’t able to alert their fans or the media, and their unexplained absence hurt their reputation, they say. They kept cutting albums, they have 10 to date, and making an annual pilgrimage to Fan Fest in Nashville. In 2002, they even wrangled a spot on “Ernest Tubbs’ Midnight Jamboree.”
“It’s the second oldest radio program in America,” Jacky says. “It’s second only to ‘The Grand Ole Opry,’ which started in 1922. ‘The Midnight Jamboree’ started in 1947.”
That night, the brothers played with the Opry Stage Band.
“We can work with a band,” Jacky says. “A lot of people think we can’t.”
People have said some hard things about the True Brothers over the years, accusing them of committing everything from country karaoke to felony camp. They’ve had their defenders too, and relationships they cultivated in Nashville with country music luminaries like Charlie Louvin and Teddy Wilburn, each of them halves of venerated brother duos.
A couple of years ago in Nashville, Jacky and Roger realized that most of the classic country acts who came up with them in the 1990s had moved on to bigger and better things.
“They kind of left us out on the wagon,” Roger says. “One day Jacky said ‘Hey Roger, you haven’t had a haircut in a while, and your hair’s getting’ kind of long. I think we oughta go outlaw.”
The brothers grew out their hair and Jacky nurtured thick sideburns and a shaggy beard.
“All those singers who went outlaw used to look clean-cut, ‘cept for Coe,” Jacky says. “Just like we did. We used to look like we was ready for church.”
Just like that, the brothers ditched an image they’d nurtured through a gospel album, several cover records and a CD titled Hymns and Other Songs We Wrote Ourselves for a new leather-clad, rock-influenced incarnation.
Their upcoming album is tentatively titled Heritage Not Hate, and it’s a celebration of the South – its women, its food and its music – Jacky says. Their revamped image has another facet: The Confederate flag, which they’ve also begun to prominently feature onstage and in their costumes, something they know is likely to rub some people the wrong way. The True Brothers have been rubbing some people that way for a long time now.
“I guess they have evolved a bit,” Snüzz says. “But I’ve always considered those guys outlaws. They always did things certain people wouldn’t get.”
The boys themselves are the first to admit they never thought a club would ever take a chance on two guys singing in front of backing tracks.
“We used to look at album covers that my dad and my mom loved,” Roger says. “And we’ve gotten to meet people like Little Jimmy Dickens, the Hager Twins, Bill Anderson and, omigosh, John Hams, we got to work with him. And gettin’ to meet Teddy Wilburn, and, you know, all kinds of people like Marty Stuart. So we came a long way for doing things, being different. And Waylon Jennings stated one time, ‘Be true to the music and the music will be true to you.’ He told his son Shooter Jennings that. And we’ve been living by that longer than Shooter Jennings.”
Jacky was born in 1964, three years before Roger and two years before Jack Sr. moved his family to the house on Chapman Street. The brothers may have recorded some gospel tracks, and erected a manger scene in the front yard every year since birth, but if they have a creation myth, it’s pressed between the grooves of their old country albums.
“I consider myself the Willie Nelson-type,” Roger says. “And he’s the Waylon Jennings. Because Willie’s not scared of doing anything.”
“But Waylon is,” Jacky says.
When they were little boys, Jacky and Roger weren’t as close as they are now, they say.
“He was scared of the outdoors,” Roger says. “He just wanted to stay inside and play records on the record player. He used to play DJ and he used to look for me coming home off the school bus. That’s one thing I remember, and how he used to imitate Hank Williams Sr. as a kid.”
Jacky owned an RCA/Victor 45 of “Detroit City” by Bobby Bare that he carried everywhere with him. Once, on a shopping trip to Sears with his parents, he brought the record with him and dropped it between the bars of one of the display grills. He wailed when he realized he’d lost it, but a salesman fished it out and returned it to him. Later he lost the same record down in the door panel of the family car and his father had to take the car door apart to save the record.
In his first talent show, Jacky sang “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
“And you wore some snakeskin cowboy boots,” Roger says.
“You remember that?” Jacky asks.
Jacky’s knowledge of country music is encyclopedic. He’s got boxes of records stacked two deep in the master bedroom, music he can’t accommodate at his home in Stokesdale.
“I held my own with Eddie Stubbs,” Jacky says, “and he’s supposed to be the most knowledgeable man in Nashville.”
Roger took to Elvis Presley as a boy, and when he was young, he was particularly fond of early rock ‘n’ roll. When he was 16, he stitched his first costume.
“I think I bought every shoestring in K-Mart,” Roger says. “I had shoestrings all down my britches, all down my shirt. I wanted everything to be moving when I was dancing.”
The younger True also made his musical debut at the Coliseum fairgrounds, in a talent show where he performed “Hound Dog” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” On the occasion the MC, a well-known wrestling announcer by the name of Dr. Tom Miller, fumbled Roger’s name, introducing him as Roger Blue.
Like many of the True Brothers’ stories, this one inspires a parable from the annals of country music. This one comes from Webb Pierce, an early fan of Elvis Presley who once found the young singer crying in an airport.
“At that time, Webb Pierce was eatin’ up the jukebox,” Roger says. “He told Elvis, ‘Son, the only time you should ever get mad is if they spell your name wrong.'”
Roger True’s teenaged obsession with Elvis famously earned him a weeklong suspension from Smith High School. He came to school dressed in a jumpsuit and cape, like his hero, and paid two bodyguards 50 cents a day for protection. One of his classmates – not a fan of Elvis – jumped him, and Roger whipped out the handcuffs he kept on him and shackled the offender to a stop sign. When the police came they asked, “Did you do that, Elvis?”
Roger has a fine hand with leather, and crafts everything from purses to guitar straps and covers. Among his latest creations is a pair of matching guitar straps tooled with portraits of all the generals of the Confederacy.
He spent three months making replicas of costumes worn by the Wilburn Brothers. Jacky added the “y” to his name so his jacket would match the one worn by Teddy Wilburn, which had five colors for each of the five letters of his name. The jackets are heavy with fringe, rhinestone and piping.
“We’ll decorate anything that doesn’t move,” Roger says. “What do they say about us? We’re the poor man’s Liberace.”
It’s got to be encoded in their DNA somewhere. Night falls and Roger plugs in two power cords swinging from the front porch, which kindles the Christmas display. The snowmen and Santas glow and a tinkling carol escapes from an illuminated sign over the poster board memorial to Jack Sr.
Their dad was always big into the holidays, they say, and back in the 1960s, he made his own Halloween decorations because you couldn’t buy them in stores. Sometimes he’d use the boys’ old clothes to make zombies and scarecrows.
When his dad died in 2003, Roger almost didn’t have the heart to put up the decorations. But his neighbors kept on him about it, asking when the lights were going up and offering encouragement, so he called into work.
“I told them there was something I had to do,” he says.
Since then, he’s been putting up the old decorations every year. When Jack Sr. was alive, the family gathered at the house on Chapman Street to celebrate Christmas, but these days, everyone’s just got too much to do. Roger usually works security at the Coliseum on the holiday, and Jacky may spend the day in Stokesdale with his wife Teresa.
This year Jacky is asking for a new guitar for Christmas.
“It don’t matter what kind,” he says. “Just something I can cover up with leather that my brother’s going to make for me, even though he don’t know it yet.”
They send me off with a verse of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and I step into a night that’s not quite cold, and not quite dark, but a good bit more of both of those things than the little house on Chapman Street.
To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at firstname.lastname@example.org.