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  • Jim Bessman

Wilford Brimley--An appreciation


Wilford Brimley performs "Fraulein" with Riders in the Sky

Following word of his death Saturday at 85, the twitterverse quickly filled with submissions by Wilford Brimley fans of favorite movies like Coccoon, The Firm, The Natural and Absence of Malice, not to mention his TV work in such series as The Waltons and Our House, and of course, his immortal “It’s the right thing to do” Quaker oatmeal TV spots.

Obituary writers understandably settled on adjectives like “gruff” and “curmudgeonly” in typifying Brimley’s screen portrayals, though in real life, said his manager Lynda Bensky in a statement, “he had a tough exterior and a tender heart.”

“Wilford Brimley was a man you could trust,” said Bensky. “He said what he meant and he meant what he said. He was one of a kind.”

And while he wasn’t as well known for it, Brimley was also a recording artist whose catalog included an album of jazz standards named for the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer song This Time the Dream’s on Me (2004) and a 2013 collaboration with Grand Ole Opry country & western group Riders in the Sky entitled Home on the Range.

“I’m not really a singer,” Brimley told an interviewer ahead of the latter album’s release, speaking softly on the phone from his home in Wyoming. He recalled how he had contacted Riders in the Sky to perform at a local charity event organized by his wife and her friends, promising that they’d “feed ‘em and fan ‘em and whatever else we do”—everything, that is, except pay them, because all the money raised went to the charity.

“And, hell! They showed up!” he marveled.

“I was deeply touched and moved by that,” Brimley continued, “and then they asked me if I would do something with them and I said, ‘You know this song?,’ and of course they knew it and I sang it--and the next thing I know I’m in Nashville doing a record album with them and making appearances on some shows with them.”

The song requested by Brimley, incidentally, was Bobby Helms’ 1957 melancholic country classic “Fraulein.” The recording of it on Home On The Range had left “not a dry eye in the [studio] room,” according to one witness.

Brimley had chosen “Fraulein” and the rest of the album’s repertoire (also including personal favorites like the titletrack and “I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen”) with Riders in the Sky’s blessing.

“They were very, very gracious about that,” he recalled. “We got the songs all done and had a lot of fun, and as part of the bargain I went to that famous old radio show in Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry, and to the club [3rd & Lindsley] where [Riders’ guitarist/vocalist Ranger] Doug Green plays weekly with the best swing band I’ve ever heard in my life [The Time Jumpers]—and I’ve seen Bob Wills and Spade Cooley perform!”

Brimley later traveled to Arizona to perform with Riders in the Sky. “He’s a delightful and wonderful guy to work with,” Green said ahead of the gig. “He has a great presence, and people just love him.”

Contacted yesterday, Green expressed surprise at obituaries describing Brimley as “`gruff and cantankerous’—as a person, not as he frequently was in his screen roles.”

“We all found him to be charming, witty, a storyteller of incredible talent, a fine singer in his way, and a complete delight to work with and hang out with,” added Green.

“Doing that album with him was a real delight--as was his friendship. He’d often call just to chat, and it’s been a highlight to have been part of his circle.”

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