Virgil Clenthills was born in August of 1939 in Intercourse, Missouri - son of an illegal immigrant father who had left England in 1932 to avoid imprisonment. His mother was Virginia Mae Pluckett, a half -Shoshone Indian; but little is known of her. Because of difficulties over papers they were never married. Unable to take official employment, Virgil's father scratched a living, travelling from town to town, selling brushes, pills medicines and cure-alls at Medicine Shows and Rodeos throughout the South. There was a sister, Ella Mae, five years older than Virgil. And much later Virg discovered, he had a half-brother: a barber, who lived in Clay County, Missouri. It is this brother who is the subject of Virgil's 1969 hit: 'Jesse James and the Barber'.
At the age of six, in September of 1945, an event occurred which was to leave a deep and lasting impression on Clenthills. On the road from Joplin Missouri to Boise, Idaho, the family’s 1940 Packard was in collision with a cattle drive and both his parents were killed instantly. It was only with the greatest good fortune that the five year old Virgil and his sister managed to escape from the wreckage with their lives, the clothes they stood up in and one or two mementoes of their family. These included a photo of his grandmother and grandfather and a half empty bottle of moonshine gin. Following the accident he could never bring himself to drive another Packhard during the rest of his life; and in fact he was often overwhelmed with feeling of nausea if he merely happened to catch sight of one in the street.
The two tragically orphaned children, came under the jurisdiction of the Federal Authorities. There, it was swiftly discovered that both their parents lacked the required papers, and that neither Virg’s not his sister’s births had been officially registered; they were virtually non-persons. This lack of an officially recognised family left a deep mark on Virgil. Many of the songs that he later came to write being characterised by an aching, searching quality; and there are endless songs of travelling in which the purpose of the journey is never clearly defined.
Ella Mae was fostered with a family in Oklahoma, while Virgil was committed to a home for orphans. Early one morning, five years later, he heard a tapping at his window and opened it to find Ella Mae soaked to the skin and weeping. She had absconded from her foster parents, taking the family car and two hundred dollars in the process. For the next year, Virgil and she lived rough in Tennessee and Arkansas. It was during this period that Virgil learned the few scraps of information about his family and his ancestors. But tragedy still stalked the young Virgil. During the heavy rains of 1950, Ella Mae caught a severe cold which turned into pneumonia and eventually swamp fever. Driving desperately through the rain-swept night towards the St Malachi Hospital , Eureka, Arkansas, Ella Mae whispered hoarsely, ‘Virg, know what I think?’ The sentence was never completed. Her head slumped between her shoulders. The ten-year-old Virg managed to grab the wheel but by the time he’d pulled up at the side of the road Ella Mae was dead. This part of Virgil's biography was later turned into a film by William Lucas Hill: 'Take my Hand and Run'. Virgil himself can be seen playing the part of the ranger who finds the car. As he opens the car door, the ten year old actor, cradling his dead sister in the rain says, 'Everything that happens to me seems to happen in cars.' The words Virgil actually used.
Virgil was returned to the Orphanage where he struck up a friendship with a blind but gifted black boy who taught him to play blues guitar and to sing in the slurred, 'moaning' style that so distinguishes him. At the age of sixteen he left the Orphanage for good and never went back He auditioned for Murray Palermo, a Hank Williams sound-alike, who toured the Honky Tonks of Tennessee, Arkansas and Texas - and was hired for his rhythm guitar. His life of touring began. Later that same year he married the daughter of a barman in Mordecai, Arkansas. He had known her for five short days. Her name was Dawn Spriggs Cliney. The marriage lasted less than two months. Virgil's passionate and erratic nature, coupled with his youth and the travelling life he now lived, made him a less than an ideal husband. The association did have one positive outcome however. The bitter crash of his marriage stimulated him to turn his feelings into music. The result was his first ever song, ‘Empty Arms and Lonely Nights’. In his ignorance and naïveté, and much flattered by having one of his songs on record, he allowed Palermo to pass the song off as his own. It had a minor success on the Country Charts and soon Palermo was asking for more songs. ‘Rivers of Wine' made thirty five on the Billboard Charts and Palermo's career was blossoming as a result of the ‘pirated’ songs. Virgil soon got wise, and one day his resentment burst out on the bandstand, when he could no longer stand the sound of Palermo's version of his heartfelt song. Heated words were exchanged before an astonished audience; blows were exchanged and the police summoned. Not unnaturally Virg and Palermo parted company acrimoniously. Virgil set up on his own, taking two of Palermo’s sidemen with him. Even this unhappy event eventually ended up on wax as - 'You can steal my Song but you can't take my Heart'.
For the next two years, Clenthills toured the bars and Honky Tonks serving his apprenticeship and compiling a portfolio of songs: sad tales of parting, loss, alcohol and adultery. When 'Heart in a Bottle' finally came out on vinyl, George Jones said: 'That's it, that's Country. You can't go further down that road less’n you die.’ But this was two years down the road. For the present, the record deal he so desired, eluded him; and the bitter Palermo wasn't helping: bad-mouthing Virgil’s reputation all around Nashville.
In June of 1959, he married for the second time: the seventeen-year-old, April Baille, daughter of a Nashville sound engineer. With her business connections, she wasted no time in getting her talented young husband into the recording studio. The first Album under his own name: 'Bar Rooms and Blacktops’, hitting fifteen in the Country charts. He was building up a reputation as a natural descendant of Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubbs and Hank Williams. But he had a poetic quality and, a strange yearning; an ever-present sense of loss, that was entirely his own.
A string of albums followed. His raw singing style and his subject matter, too harsh to give him success in the more commercial pop charts, found him a small but discerning following with lovers Country Music. He was happy singing what he knew best: hard songs of honky tonks and life on the road. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he never wandered into balladeering, rockabilly or rock ’n roll. Virg Clenthills was always pure Country. However he was cherished by other songwriters, both in America and Britain; musicians as varied as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones, Dire Straits and Elvis Costello, acknowledging his influence.
His 1965 album 'Root Beer,Roses and Rodeos' was runner-up to Roger Miller in the Grammy Country Awards. Lack of this kind of recognition, never really worried him. ‘Hell,’ he would mutter, ‘I get too successful I know I’m doin’ something wrong.’ He always claimed that he sang, ‘…for the people out there. The lonely ones who know what a heartache and an empty bed can do to your soul'.
He began to make appearances in films. The first being a singing barman in John Wayne’s 1961 Western, 'The Waltzing Kid', for which he wrote and sang the theme music. Since then he has made a string of brief appearances, usually playing himself or somebody very close.
But the songs kept coming. He was fêted by writers and intellectuals; and in 1970 was made a Bachelor of Letters at Paul Jones University, South Carolina. Professor Cristopher Ricks wrote a short monograph for the Bodley Head: 'Virgil Clenthills and the Semiotics of the Road'. In 1972 his early life was ghosted and he featured on the front of Life Magazine. In 1973 he was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
But the songs, at last, were beginning to dry up. He seemed to be haunted by a ghost of the past. He began drinking more and more heavily. Late in 1973, he was involved in a shooting incident, as a result of which, a bullet ricocheting off a the pedal steel guitar, lodged in the pancreas of his bass player, Chuck Kinver .(The pedal steel now occupies a place of honour in his home and serves as a reminder, whenever the urge to go off the lines gets too strong.) He served a year in prison. By early 1974 his second marriage went the way of his first.
For a number of years he quit the music industry and his financial status declined after ill-advised speculation in a number of business ventures. There were no songs. Occasionally, news of some of his more self-destructive escapades would creep into the press. He attempted a reconciliation with April, but excessive drinking and bouts of psychotic behaviour made him too difficult to live with. ‘How many second chances does he think he’s going to get?’ April said, on a now famous TV interview.
For a time he disappeared completely from the scene. Now and then he would make guest appearances on other people’s records. Ringo Star used him as a guitarist on an album he recorded in Nashville. But this was seen more as an act of charity for a once admired star, rather than a genuine revival in his fortunes. Sadly, his memory, under the influence of heavy drinking, began to fail. He suffered terrible nightmares. But no matter how many whiskies he threw down his throat, he couldn’t wipe out the ache from his past. Old friends remarked that he looked like a haunted man. For a time he was committed to a psychiatric institution. People who met him said he looked fifteen years older than his real age.
In 1978 he married a nurse, Patsy Slaughter. There was still the great darkness that his memory wouldn't allow him to face, but he seemed calmer. He settled for the security and comforts of domesticity and marriage; a far cry from the traumas and excesses of his travelling days. He became a small stock farmer in Cheetham County, Tennessee - raising horses and a few cattle.
He sold his guitar.
Everything on the surface appeared to be calm; he seemed to have made a recovery. But his underlying, unstable mental condition would manifest itself in his desire to continually move house. He always gave out a sense that he was looking for something that was somehow beyond memory; somehow out of sight.
Then one morning in 1984, without explanation, he bundled Patsy into a car and drove her 200 miles to the scene of that tragic accident all those years earlier. It was only the second time he had been back. Once in 1960 he had returned to plant a tree and have the rusting Packhard transported to where his parents were buried. It hung in chains above their grave. Now, at last, he was able to tell Patsy the whole story. ‘Cried like a child,' she said later. ‘See, Virg he never had no home. No family to speak of. That's what he'd always been looking for. He felt like a stateless person. It had been eating him up for years.'
Then one afternoon she came home to find him on the stoop in his stocking feet, strumming a guitar he’d just bought. He wrote a song that emerged from his darkest, most hidden feelings. The old hard edge was still there but mellowed by a new-found wisdom and understanding. He went on the road again; just himself and a guitar, singing the stories of his life. He was happy that he wasn’t entirely forgotten. He refused to appear in large theatres or on TV. He wanted to see the eyes of the people; wanted to sing directly into their hearts. 'Once you get more than eight hundred people in a theatre you lose all that. I don’t care to sing any place where there ain’t no bar in back of me.’
But there was still something missing in his life.
He suddenly announced he was going to tour Britain. This struck his friends as strange. He had always harboured a bitter resentment of the English after the pain they had caused his father. He wanted to find the home of his grandfather, Willie Clenthill; the house where his father had been born. Then, he felt, he would be able to rest easy at last. From nowhere, a new song about himself and his father, ‘Stone Drunk Again’ was written. It charted, and began to restore something of his reputation.
Young people, who until then, had hardly heard of him, began buying his old albums. His story featured in Newsweek under the title, ‘Back in the Saddle Again!’
In the late Summer of 1986 he landed at Heathrow for a concert tour. In his bag were a couple of the photographs that had survived the crash. They were all he had to go on, apart from his own meagre memories and the stories that Ella Mae had passed on to him. His only partner was an old friend; one time bass player, now manager, Chuck. Virgil had a feeling that he was coming home.
It was somewhere he'd never been before.
To watch the full movie Old Country online, left click the disk below: running time 54 mins.