Grandson pens song about conflicted relative

Published 6:00 am Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Harry Moodie lives in Nashville now, but the child he was onceremembers Brookhaven well.

The watercolor paintings in his memory also depict hisgrandfather, Dr. Harry L. Watts, a dentist for whom Moodie, 69, wasnamed.

“His whole world revolved around this block,” Moodie said as hestood in front of Janie’s Bakery during a visit to Brookhaven inrecent weeks.

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The dentist Watts’ office was located on Cherokee Street, andhis home was on West Chickasaw. On one side his house looked at theFirst Presbyterian Church – a bedrock of his life – and the otherlooked toward his escape, the railroad track.

“He was an alcoholic but he never drank in Brookhaven,” Moodiesaid. “The No. 9 freight train would come through, and he would geta bottle of whiskey and take down his shingle and the engineerwould let him ride in the engine to New Orleans, where he’d stayfor a week or so.”

Moodie said his grandfather did that for years, until his motherwas about 6 years old.

Moodie learned of the story when his grandmother, Lizzie,finally told him years later of Dr. Watts’ double life, tornbetween the call of the church bell and that of the train whistle.It proved an inspiration to Moodie, who had an affinity for thebottle himself for a while.

It was another kind of inspiration, too.

Moodie picked up a pen and put his thoughts to song. And withthe help of co-writer Terry Pinnegar, he came up with “Down TheLine (Mississippi 1916),” a song about “Doc Waters,” a man who tookdown his shingle several times a year to go south to drink.

The song tells the story the night the doctor found himselflooking at the bottle through the eyes of his child, who didn’tunderstand why her father went away. Then Doc Waters returned homeon a Sunday morning. When his wife Lizzie felt someone in the pewbeside her, she knew he had given up the lifestyle.

In real life, Moodie said, that was the end of Watts’drinking.

“He came back from that trip, and nobody really knows whathappened to him down there, but he never had another drink,” Moodiesaid.

Dr. Watts died years later in a boating accident in Kentucky in1944, Moodie said, and it was only once he’d passed that hisgrandmother was able to tell him the story.

Years later, Moodie found himself at a crossroads of his own,torn between the whistle and the bell. As he wrote in the song,”Oh, I’ve always loved New Orleans, I guess it’s just in my genes.And I have heard that whiskey-whistle moan.”

It was his grandfather who gave him the strength and the hope toturn his eyes heaven-ward, he said.

“My first daughter was about 4 or 5, and I had a drinkingproblem, and the story of my grandfather really became a source ofstrength for me,” he said. “Knowing he was strong enough to quithelped me to be strong enough as well. This is a very personal songto me.”

That realization went beyond the bottle as well, Moodiesaid.

“Whether you commit suicide or meth is rotting your teeth oryou’re an alcoholic, whatever your addictions – sometimes life justmakes you get so into yourself that you think, ‘It’s all aboutme,'” he said. “But it’s really not. It’s all about yourfamily.”

Moodie said he has pitched the song to Kenny Rogers, and willsoon pitch it to Tim McGraw. The choice was clear, he said, becausethey were both men who could understand the story because they’dhad alcoholic fathers.

“The point of it is what you affect down the line, and the lineis the imagery … whether it’s the line like the train track orthe line like me being down the line from my grandfather,” Moodiesaid.