When I was about 8 or 9 years old, my father was a job superintendent for a large construction company. Daddy was building a big concrete silo for Ideal Cement Company in San Andreas, CA around then, and he hired a strong young man by the name of James Charles Watts to work on the job.
I’m not sure what their relationship was like during working hours as I was busy going to the 4th grade, but Daddy must have liked J.C. a lot as he took him with him from job to job, and even from company to company. I met J.C. when daddy brought J.C. and his brothers home to help him pour a new patio in our back yard. My father had big dreams of one day owning his own ranch, and soon daddy was running cattle on some land in the San Joaquin Valley. That’s when J.C. started coming around a lot. Whenever we had to move cattle, put up a barn, or in general whenever dad needed help he hired J.C. to give him a hand.
We lost touch with J.C. while I was still in high school. Decades later just after I wrote the song, I googled him and all I found was a J.C. Watts who was a congressman from Oklahoma. When I won the Kerrville Folk Festival songwriting competition with the song a few years later I googled him again. Still nothing. I had given up, but when “Let The Storm Roll In” came out in the summer of 2011 I sent a copy of the CD to my sister Marsha and she googled him. She discovered a family tree that his cousin Olga Nelson had since put up on the web, and sent me a link to it. I contacted Olga, and after a few emails back and forth she finally sent me one saying “You have found your J.C.!” I was stunned. I had lost hope of even finding him, let alone finding him still alive! I called my sister and for the next several months my sister and I tried to figure out a time when she could come out from California and we could both go down together to Sumrall, MS where he is living. Health issues kept her from coming, and finally last September I routed myself through MS on my way to perform in Texas so that I could stop and see him.
Skyping my sister Marsha with cousin Olga and J.C.
Driving down there I was so keyed up I couldn’t even talk on the phone or listen to music. I finally got there just as it got dark, and knocked on the door. When his beautiful wife Cleo answered, I was ushered in to be greeted by a large group of his family and friends, and a seven foot long table of food that included 4 cakes! I was made to feel like a celebrity.
J.C.’s wife Cleo
After I had met all the women, I looked around and said “well where is he?” A moment later he came around the corner from the den where he and the other menfolk were watching the game, and then he smiled. That big, slightly crooked smile, and I was ten years old again. I’d have known him anywhere.
We had a marvelous visit. He told me stories about my dad that I had never heard, and I brought him up to date on events since we saw him last. I learned a lot about his family too. How his great-great grandfather Hark Watts had homesteaded 300 acres in Sumrall after he was freed as a slave, and how J.C. had 16 brothers and sisters from the same mother!
It was amazing to see how much his life parallels my dad’s. He has a beautiful home he built himself, a lovely farm, a gracious and gentle wife, and a nice herd of cattle. Just like my dad did. If my father is looking down on us, my guess is he’s awfully proud of J.C.
Photos courtesy of Ron Nelson
I’m sorry to add here, that J.C.’s lovely wife Cleo passed away this month. She was a gracious and charming woman who will be dearly missed. I spoke to J.C. and he is doing well. He told me that he would have liked for Cleo to stay here a little longer but that we have to accept that God has a plan for us and we don’t know what that is. Then he added “God don’t make mistakes”. If I ever need anyone to explain acceptance to me again, I can just call J.C.