Charley Packard shared heart through music

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(Photo by DAVID GUNTER) Songwriter Charley Packard will be remembered tonight at a memorial celebration at the Panida Theater. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the memorial starts at 7 p.m.

SANDPOINT — To know the true heart of an artist, you have to first become acquainted with their art.

In Charley Packard’s case, it would be tempting to think that could be achieved by listening to the body of musical work he left behind — a trove of fine songs that not only stand the test of time, but get better with age. They’ll make you laugh and cry and think and get up from your listening session a more compassionate human being.

But, even with all the rewards of having gone down that road, you’d still have missed your destination. For the man’s artistry wasn’t fully embodied in his songs. Though brilliant and expansive, they were never big enough to hold what he was put on Earth to create and share with the rest of us.

Charley’s art form was love.

He took a hell-bent for leather approach to life as a younger man and — if you count careening wildly from one side of the Cosmic Highway to the other — he definitely took the scenic route. Luckily, he took notes along the way. And those musings, in the main, found their way onto paper and into great songs.

“How many roundups have I been on?

How many long trails have I been down?

Don’t they all lead to one house in Heaven’s only town?”

(“Heaven’s Only Town”/Charley Packard)

Charley took me under his wing almost exactly 50 years ago. I was 13 years old and just starting out as a folksinger when he welcomed me and my junior high school music partner onstage in the restaurant bar where he and his band, Charley D. & Milo, were performing at the time.

It was a gracious thing to do, while, admittedly, also allowing the band members to slip outside and be band members as two kids sang their hearts out.

Afterward, he pulled me aside and said to keep playing, keep singing and never forget the importance of gratitude as a musician. It’s a gift, he admonished, and we need to remember where it came from and who to thank.

Back then, his voice was that of a resonant tenor — a quality that would steadily give way to the timeworn, gravely tone we came to associate with his songs. Through the ups and downs, the gains and the losses, gratitude was an overarching theme in Charley’s life.

I’m still clinging to a memory of visiting him at Life Care, where a tiny, cancer-battling version of the rough and tumble character I once knew intermittently snoozed and blinked to wakefulness for a couple hours as we held hands in silence. Each time he came around, he opened his eyes and laid that sweet smile on me. After a long time of just sitting together, he looked over and said: “You know, we are so lucky. We’ve been so blessed in our lives.”

Gratitude. Just one more lesson at the feet of the Rev. Charley Packard.

Others come to mind now, in his absence, so, with your permission, I’ll share a few here.

On inspiration: “I’m easily inspired — by other songwriters, a good poetic sentence or pickin’ my guitar.”

On songwriting: “Keep everything; don’t ever throw any line away. You never know when it might be just right for another song you’re working on down the line.”

On the muse: “I don’t want to get too far out, but there seems to be a ‘song space’ of poetry and visualization, of melodies and harmonies. If you’re sitting on the couch and you tap into that, you can get guided into something that will appeal to a group of folks that those energies wanted to appeal to. So, you become sort of a vessel. Dylan knew that. All folk singers and poets know that.”

On whether being a tunesmith is an art or a craft: “Art sounds better.”

On encouraging young songwriters: “After I listen to their song I say, ‘You get an A. Now write another one. And then write another one. Just keep on writing.’ It’s art — it’s a continuing thing. That song might be done, but you’re not done writing songs.”

On the prospect of fame and a recording contract: “The fact that I was under the umbrella of CBS Records was really something. I was optimistic, for a while. But, like a lot of things, it doesn’t wind up tasting or smelling like you thought it would.”

On the Sandpoint music scene when he arrived (having just mentioned how musician friends Dennis and Carol Coats played a big part in his decision to move north): “Beth and Cinde were here and they were so, so good. Pat Ball, Tom Newbill, John Knapp. There were some great bands floating around here. It was like ‘Johnny B. Goode’ — they’d all come out of the woods and kick butt.”

On finding out he had esophageal cancer: “It was a big gulp, because there were so many questions. Are you going to have to take away my vocal cords? Will I even be able to speak? But I had an incredibly gifted surgeon who was very positive and told me, ‘No, you’re going to be able to sing.’ I knew, if I lived through it, someday I’d be singing again.”

On sobriety and music: “I’ve grown as a musician, but I think I’m more of a poet. I’d never consider myself a real musician, but I love melodies and harmonies, I love to sing and I love to perform — more and more. Especially now that I’ve been clean and sober for about 20 years. My appreciation for life and for music, in particular, makes me grateful that I chose to hang around with musicians and poets.”

On finding love after loss: “I’m blessed to have a new partner, Karen (Bowers), who was there constantly — I mean constantly — through all this. I was married for 38 years to a lovely woman, Colleen, who died of cancer. She was diagnosed and died within two weeks. I was in shock for a few years. And then I fell in love with somebody I’d known for 35 years.”

On the May 1, 2015, tribute concert in his honor: “It makes me rather uneasy and I’m kind of embarrassed by the whole thing. I’ve been encouraged to stop thinking that way and lend my energy to it. I’m grateful that people thought about it now.”

Imagine — a guy so known for loving on his friends being so uneasy about being loved on by his friends. And so grateful. There’s another lesson in there. As a community, we got to let Charley know how much he meant to us while he was still here to hear us say it. Maybe we can carry that notion forward in our lives. It doesn’t take renting out the Panida Theater, nor is it necessary to have a standing-room-only crowd on hand.

It can be as easy as listening to that small, still voice that says, “Stop by so-and-so’s house and give them a hug.” Pick up the phone. Write a letter — a real letter. Sing them a song or read a poem. Sit in silence and hold hands.

If we’ve learned anything from our time with Charley Packard, it’s that love makes a difference. Love can heal broken hearts. Love can save the world. He gave his so freely that it became an art form. And he reminded us that we are artists, too.

Charley, I guess, was what you would call a mystic Christian. He fondly acknowledged the words and work of myriad prophets and avatars, but Jesus was the man. He had no qualms about calling Him his savior and — without chest thumping, proselytizing or berating other faiths — kept his own quietly powerful faith right up to the end.

When he took on the moniker of “reverend” — a mail-order ordination in those days before the internet — he took it seriously. He officiated the weddings of more than 1,700 people in ceremonies that made each one a uniquely sacred rite. They’d tie the knot and he’d sing ‘em a song. A Charley song. One they’d always remember.

And now we are faced with letting our buddy Charley fly from us. It’s important that we do so. He’s got a big gig booked and a hot band waiting onstage. There’s music to make and loved ones in the audience. And Jesus is in the house.

“There’s a band up in Glory,

And they know every chord.

And they play ‘em loud and happy,

When someone finds the Lord.

There’s a band here in Idaho,

Plays it just as good,

Playing songs about lovin’ Jesus,

Like a poor old farm boy should.”

(“Heaven’s Only Town”/Charley Packard)

A memorial celebration of Charley’s life will be held tonight at 7 p.m. in the Panida Theater. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Due to the number of speakers and musicians expected to share, organizers are limiting time to five minutes for each person so that as many people as possible can do so. The gathering is open to the public.

(This writer would like to extend his love and heartfelt condolences to Charley’s sons, Jesse, Buck, and Mason, to literally hundreds of surviving friends in the community and to his lady, Karen.)

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