Rock Stars Need Grandmas Too

My grandma is a terrific seamstress. I don’t know how that talent didn’t get passed down to me, but it absolutely didn’t. The one time I used a sewing machine, I scratched my coffee table. Yes, the two are related, and obviously, things didn’t go well.

I know it requires practice, and honestly, that’s not something I’m good at: practicing. As I grow older, I’m starting to think that those with a “knack” for something are just willing to put the time into something and learn it. The rest of us then chalk it up to intrinsic talent.

Grandma is also one computer savvy lady. She always has been; she worked at a law-firm, creating documents that made other people look good. Now she works at a online high school. She gets technology in a way few of my peers’ grandparents do.

So, we’ve established that Grandma is hip in certain ways. But she is my grandma. She’s a great cook and fiercely protective of her family. She wears pastel tops and khaki pants. Her hair is always carefully dyed and coiffed. She’s a grandma.

She’s not a rock star.

In comparison, John Paul White is legitimately a rock star. Every article mentions his visual similarity to Johnny Depp. It’s not just his hair length, color, type, beard, mustache, or eyes that force you to come to that conclusion. It’s more so White’s demeanor onstage – mellow, cool, deep. The vibe you get from Depp as he walks the red carpet. Rock star vibe.

White is one-half of the Civil Wars, a band that’s erupted onto the world stage in the last year to rapturous applause (and not just by me). They put out a live album for free online, and before they or anyone else knew it, their music was being played on Grey’s Anatomy and MTV, and their gigs were selling out concert halls.

They deserve every accolade, and yet it’s hard to explain the alchemy. White is a southern boy from Alabama. His counterpart, Joy Williams, is a sunny girl from California. The duo sings about love and broken lives in voices that blend like strawberries and crème, so smooth and effortless that you’d assume either a) they’ve been singing together for years, or b) their emotional intensity is produced and amplified by a romantic attachment to each other. Not so, not so, as they’re both married to other people. But the musical marriage is something to be commended. Musical soulmates.

I was privileged enough to see them in concert, sitting in the second row of the old Aladdin Theatre in downtown Portland. It was a memorable experience, fully enjoyable, beyond entertaining. The pair are actually better live than recorded, which is saying something.

Afterwards, I did what everyone does: gushed about it over Facebook. Two days later, I get a Facebook comment. From my grandma. It said this:

Grandpa and I have been to a Civil Wars concert too!! They were thank-you tickets, for I stitched up the male singer’s pants so he could appear on stage that afternoon! REALLY, I did!!

Let me just rephrase this for you, just in case you missed it. My grandmother stitched up John Paul White’s pants.

She made me wait for the whole story until the next weekend when I saw her at a family reunion. Until then, I just entertained marvelous, hilarious images of Mr. White standing in red heart boxers, chagrined, while my grandmother sewed up his pants and gave him a firm talking-to about ripping his nice work clothes.

When I did hear the story, it was basically what the comment said. The pastor’s wife at Grandma’s church is a cousin of Joy Williams’s husband. The Civil Wars were coming through Minneapolis. JPW ripped his performing pants earlier that week, apparently performing the previous gig with them torn, poor fellow. So Grandma came to the rescue. She grabbed her sewing machine and her husband, and both of them met the duo at the theater, where she set up shop before whipping through the repairs.

In the words of my grandmother, “Apparently he travels with only one pair??” She’s still incredulous about that.

I get incredibly starstruck with anyone I admire: tongue-tied, red-faced, the whole nine yards. Hearing this story nearly put me over the edge, because this story was just what I needed. An “in.” A topic of conversation to lead me into a meaningful encounter with someone I find amazing.

You see, before the Civil Wars concert I attended, my friend Martha and I went to the bar next door for dinner. We were seated in a solo booth by the entrance. The bar was a dumpy little place with cheap food and none of the classic glamour of the venue. We were sitting, eating too much, getting excited, when I got up to use the restroom. Returning, I was able to see the booth behind us against the wall on the other side of the door. Sitting there were John Paul White, Joy Williams, the incomparable opener James Vincent McMorrow, and a few other folks.

My eyes grew wide. I froze. A million thoughts ran through my head. Should I say something? They were eating. What would I say? “I like your work?” No, uber lame. “Welcome to Portland.” Dull. “What’s up?” Not a chance.

What would I have done if I had known the story relayed to me after the fact? That my grandma hangs out with rock stars? Probably exactly what I did when I didn’t know: sit down in my booth, eyes wide, stuttering. I’m not good with rock stars.

If only my grandma had been there.

Check out the Civil Wars and their debut album, Barton Hollow, at

Image copyright Sara Kelm, 2011


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