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A-Pickin’ and A-Grinnin’
Glen Dale Robertson couldn’t help but be a musician. Music was his inheritance, handed down to him from his parents, as surely as if it had been written into a will. Embedded in his genetic makeup, Glen’s musical ability is an intrinsic part of his nature, a legacy that cannot be measured in dollars and cents. To paraphrase the popular commercial: value of inherited musical talent: priceless!
Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, Glen realized that his family, while rich with musical ability, was not well endowed in other ways. “We lived on a little old farm in the suburbs of Almartha, right on the Ozark and Douglas County line,” Glen explains. “We were so poor, when the trashman came by, we’d beg him to leave us a couple of bags.”
All joking aside, Glen says the Robertsons may not have been blessed with much in the way of material goods, but his parents, Lemuel Paul (known by all as Shorty) and Dottie Henley Robertson, had the means to raise a family right. A huge garden and some cows, pigs and chickens provided them with plenty of food; inspired by their Christian parents, their home was filled with faith, love and happiness; and for entertainment, there was music!
“We’d go all over the place to play and sing, to Wasola, Souder, Rockbridge or wherever our folks knew they were gathering for music,” Glen remembers. “We looked forward to it all week.”
To illustrate the point of how important music was in their lives, Glen Dale relates a story that also sheds light on another important bit of Robertson family history.
“My grandpa, James M. Robertson, was a Civil War veteran,” he says. “He was in the 24th Missouri Infantry, and he was 69 years old when my dad, Shorty, was born. Dad remembered his daddy telling war stories, especially about how hard it was to get home after the war because of bushwhackers. Anyway, at one time our daddy was the last surviving son of a Civil War Veteran, and that was a big deal. They were going to have a big to-do about it in West Plains, with a parade, and give him a big award. But when Dad found out he’d have to miss a music party, he said no, thank you. Music was more important to him than that history stuff!”
When the Robertsons loaded up to go play and sing music somewhere, there was a car-full and then some. “Mom and Dad had 11 kids that lived,” Glen explains proudly. “And there were six that didn’t make it! Two more sets of twins and two more who didn’t survive–17 babies in all. Now that would have been a houseful!”
As it was, the Robertson house was filled to the brim anyway. The 11 children, 10 of whom are still living and get together regularly, included Peggy, Esther (the only one deceased), Raymond, Leonard, Junior, twins Candy and Claude, Gary, Henry, Glen and Berdena. And in addition to their own 11, Shorty and Dottie Robertson raised four of their grandchildren after Esther passed away suddenly in 1963. At that time, her children, Cindy, Dean, Russell and Deniece Martin, came to live with their grandparents in Almartha, fitting right in with their aunts and uncles, many of whom were close to their age.
Glen says that every one of the kids and grandkids were musically inclined, but he notes that had she lived, Esther was the one who might have become truly famous. At the time of her unexpected death, she was singing on the Grand Ole Opry with the famous Mother Maybelle and the Carter family. Esther had begun her road to stardom as a cast member of The Jimmy Gately and Harold Morrison Show, broadcast from Springfield, Mo. When she passed away, Porter Wagoner and her other Grand Ole Opry friends helped get the children back to their Ozark County family.
Glen Dale grew up playing the guitar and singing, and he also played drums in the band at Gainesville High School, where he graduated in 1971. Though he didn’t intend to pursue music as a career, he continued to broaden his range of skills. After being befriended by Mike Breid, a professional banjo player who played on the Slim Wilson Show and later with the Presleys in Branson for 18 years, Glen was inspired to take up the banjo, which became his instrument of choice.
“Mike was my mentor,” Glen says, “He’s the picker’s picker. It’s all he ever did, and he made me want to get better.”
For a dozen years, Glen Dale went through a series of jobs, none of which turned out to be permanent or satisfying. At one point, he moved to Nebraska to live and work with his older brother, Raymond, and while there, without even competing, was chosen by the Nebraska Country Music Foundation as their Banjo Picker of the Year in 1980.
Shortly after that, Glen did decide to give “working music” a whirl and signed on with a band out of Chicago; he toured with them for quite a while. “We traveled all around the country, especially up north and into Canada,” Glen remembers. “It was a nightclub circuit, and we played in a lot of ski resorts. We were busy, and it was fun. I played banjo, mandolin and sang. But something wasn’t right. I wasn’t using my music in the right way.”
Long months later, while traveling through Madison, Wisc., one day, Glen says he looked out the window and saw a church and immediately knew that’s where he needed to be: using his music to serve God.
“About that time, our band leader got a chance to go to Nashville, and I just came back home. Right away, I got saved and a week later asked my girlfriend, Teresa, to marry me. It’s been 27 years now, and I have no regrets.”
Glen Dale and Teresa settled at Goodhope, in western Douglas County, have raised two fine sons, David and Adam, and are active in the Goodhope General Baptist Church, where Glen shares his music in any way he can.
He and his niece, Cindy Smith (his sister Esther’s daughter), frequently play and sing for funerals and upon other special occasions.
For the last 16 years, Glen’s main gig has been on the stage, every Saturday night, at the Oldfield Opry, in Christian County, where he is the featured banjo picker. It is a role he relishes.
“Who could beat this?” he exclaims with an enthusiastic grin. “I get to play with the best bunch of folks in the world! We’ve never even had one argument or upset in all these years, and we pack the house every single week, 52 weeks a year. The only problem we ever have is in running out of seats. Folks come from all over the world, literally, to our Opry, and we just have a great time.”
The others who share the Oldfield Opry stage with Glen Dale include Jess Grimes who plays fiddle and steel guitar, Steve Byers, Ed Goins, Dave and Hank Thompson, Dwight Armour, and Bill Coats, all on guitar, Doyle Yoder on harmonica, and the three young women who add vocals, Denise St. Clair, Kerre Thompson and Tonya Gardner. Phil Baker, a comedian who performed for the Baldknobbers for many years, appears most Saturday nights as Willie Makeit.
“What people seem to like about the Opry is that it is unscripted and uncommercialized, just like a big jam session,” Glen notes.
Recently, Glen retired from his job as wastewater treatment plant manager for the City of Ava; he also monitored water quality at the city’s pool. And these are positions he continues to fill, on a part-time basis, until other employees become licensed. In addition, he has just begun working for the Bradleyville school system, handling their water treatment system.
Besides music and work, Glen is an active Gideon, he breaks and trains Missouri Fox Trotters and sometimes does a little drag-racing. But no matter how busy he is, Glen Dale Robertson will continue to find time to play his five-string Gold Star banjo.
“I want to keep a-pickin’ as long as my body and brain hold out,” he earnestly insists. “I do it just for the love of it, but I do have to concentrate. Playing banjo is challenging, but it sure is fun! I wish there was more of an emphasis on music in schools. With most sports, a kid will give it up once they’re out of school, but music is something they can do for the rest of their lives…like I intend to do!”