The Making of "Earl Hamner - A Joyful Noise"
About twenty years ago, my phone rang. It was Earl Hamner. He said, “Jon, it’s your old Uncle Earl. I want to make a CD. I’m going to call it A Joyful Noise. I’ve written some stories, based on the hymns my family used to sing at our little Baptist church in Schuyler. I really liked what you did with The Waltons Christmas CD, and I wondered if you might like to partner with me and provide some accompanying music on guitar and piano?” I jumped at the chance to work with my old friend again.
Many years after The Waltons and Falcon Crest, Earl was still working, creating. He kept regular hours at his office on Ventura Blvd in Studio City, an office he’d had since the early 60’s when his career in Hollywood first blossomed. As anyone familiar with Earl’s television counterpart, “John-Boy” might expect, Earl was driven to write. There was always a new book idea, a film, a television show, perhaps an idea for a Broadway musical. I’d always admired Earl’s talent; the way beautiful words seemed to flow effortlessly from his fingers to his typewriter and onto paper. “Write what you know” is the advice young writers are given, and Earl always did, imbuing his work with wonderful honesty, authenticity and feeling.
I read Earl’s stories, and they were lovely, what I like to call “classic Earl.” His depictions of growing up in a simpler time, of home, family, the changing seasons, of love, laughter - and music - were new, but reminiscent of his very best work. We met at a little recording studio near Earl’s office, and as always, Earl did a beautiful job of reading the words he had written. Hearing that rich, honeyed Virginia accent took me back - about thirty years - to when I stood in another recording studio on the Warner Brothers lot, watching Earl record his voiceover narration for The Waltons. “John-Boy’s Voice As A Man,” is how the script referred to this character. When his novel The Homecoming was being cast as a Christmas film in 1971, Earl had said to the director, Fielder Cook, “Who are we going to cast as the narrator? Fielder didn’t hesitate.
“You,” he replied.
A Joyful Noise was meant to have been released years ago. Earl’s idea was for us to partner on what is referred to in Hollywood as a “spec” project, meaning no one was paying us to do it. Our agreement was to work on it in our “spare time.” As fate would have it, life interceded. I found myself in a marital separation and divorce and in new accommodation, without a proper recording studio or equipment at my disposal. Necessarily, I became steeped in other, outside, musical work. For the moment, “spare time” ceased to exist. Earl was, as usual, very patient and understanding. He knew how important it was to me to complete A Joyful Noise and deliver to his fans a CD we could both be proud of.
Creatively, I was troubled by another, nagging thought. The recording I had of Earl’s voice was simply magnificent. I began to feel that a simple guitar or piano accompaniment were, somehow, inadequate. Earl’s fans knew his voice well - and loved it - but they knew it from The Waltons, where it was featured alongside stunning visuals and a gorgeous musical score composed by Alexander Courage. I felt Earl’s performance of A Joyful Noise deserved more.
One of the benefits of my increased musical workload was that I had the opportunity to become acquainted and perform with many different musicians. Often, musicians are hired for a gig or recording session without ever having rehearsed or even met beforehand. This has been known to spell disaster, or sometimes, create magic. Patrick Copeland is a musician I had the great fortune to work with during this period. He is a superb keyboardist, and we found it inspiring and effortless to play off one-another, improvising music, bouncing ideas back and forth in front of a live audience. We became great friends. After years of running a recording studio, producing and engineering records and scoring films, Patrick had just moved all of his studio gear into a room in his home - the perfect, low-key work environment. I told Earl I thought Patrick would be the ideal addition to our project. Earl said, “If you think Patrick is the right guy, let’s include him!”
We put Earl’s vocal track up on the studio computer monitor, and we played… The sort of musical improvisation we had explored onstage came alive in the studio, playing off each other as Earl told his stories. It just worked. We overdubbed more instruments; Patrick on keyboards - piano, organ, accordion; myself on stringed instruments - guitars, mandolin, string bass, banjo, snare drum, harmonica. The tracks began to sound like a film score without a picture, which I loved. It left room for the listener’s imagination.
In the end, we decided to record full-length versions of some of the song’s featured in Earl’s stories. The snippets heard during the narration seemed to tease the listener into wanting to hear more. At first Earl wasn’t sure about this idea. I said, “With a CD we have the luxury of being able to include more material. We’ll call them “bonus tracks.” It’s a nice way to give the fans more value for their money.” This appealed very much to Earl’s sense of fairness, and he agreed with the decision.
About this time, a documentary film, Earl Hamner, Storyteller, was being made about Earl’s life and career. It was taking up a lot of his time. We discussed how and when to release A Joyful Noise. Earl wanted to wait until after the Storyteller video was released, so A Joyful Noise was temporarily placed on the back burner. Sadly, Earl became increasingly ill around this time, and work ceased to be a priority. Tragically, we lost Earl in 2016. It was a tremendous loss - for Earl’s fans, for our Waltons family, but most of all, for his own family. A Joyful Noise was shelved, indefinitely.
Recently, I approached Earl’s son, Scott, with the idea of releasing his dad’s CD. He was receptive to the idea. We both liked the idea of Earl Hamner - A Joyful Noise being released in 2023, in honour of what would have been Earl’s 100th birthday.
Often, people come up to me and ask, “Why aren’t there any shows like The Waltons?” Well, it comes down to money. Television networks chase trends, following what’s new, hip, edgy, in an effort to win viewers and sell advertising. Although we know there’s an audience for family entertainment, the networks don’t feel it’s a priority. While it’s true there isn’t a television show these days like The Waltons, at least there’s a CD that is.
When I put A Joyful Noise on in my living room today and heard Earl say, “When I was a boy, growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia during the Great Depression, I thought that no one could have quite so good a life…” I got goosebumps, and, if I’m honest, a little teary. Earl Hamner - A Joyful Noise was an absolute labour of love. I hope Earl’s fans will enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoyed making it.
To purchase "Earl Hamner - A Joyful Noise" or other items, please visit the online shop www.jonwalmsleymusic.com/shop