I have to jot that down right up front because otherwise I’ll forget. Despite the years that are on him, there is nothing old about Slim.
He taps his foot almost nonstop. He sings whenever he gets a chance, and if you ask him about country music in Maine, Slim will talk without drawing a breath. When he picks up his guitar and begins to play in earnest, he sounds like Johnny Cash. Not old Johnny Cash, mind you, but Cash when he was young and fresh.
Slim looks like a man who could still play deep into the night at the raucous honky-tonks where he cut his teeth nearly 70 years ago. He is country through and through, a man who has endured sublime happiness and crushing despair.
He lost three sons, did Slim, and two wives, one to breast cancer and one to alcoholism. Like all great country stars, Slim put that pain to work for him. It shows up in his music, even if it doesn’t appear in his day-to-day demeanor.
“Most country music is written about the hard times in life,” Slim says. “It’s music of the soul.”
But it’s not just that. When you hear Slim’s history, you get the feeling that he was born to play country music. Like maybe the universe made that decision for him.
He’s played all over the world, but Slim is straight out of Lewiston, Maine. When he was a boy, he lived over Switzerland Road way, going to school at Barkerville, in the area that is now home to Marden’s. The country song that is Slim’s life began around the time.
His daddy bought him a crystal radio set and Slim listened to WWVA out of Wheeling, West Virginia, almost around the clock.
He got himself a guitar and made a deal with his sister’s boyfriend to take lessons.
He started playing what he liked and what he liked was country.
“People asked how I could remember so many songs,” Slim says. “Well, I’d put my headphones on and I’d fall asleep. By the time I woke up, I’d have learned three new songs.”
When he was 11 – at a time when the horrors of Pearl Harbor were still fresh – Slim entered a talent show at Community Theatre in New Auburn. He did a “remember Pearl Harbor” piece and wowed audience members, playing them as well as he played his instrument.
“I held my guitar in one hand,” Slim says, “the American flag in the other. I won the contest.”
When Slim was 13, his mother passed away and the family moved to Boston – to the rough and tumble Dorchester area where, in spite of the upheaval, Slim continued to play his music at churches and any place that would have him.
No story of country music glory would be complete without a stint in the armed services and Slim’s got that, too. In 1948, he joined the Army and spent three years in Germany, where he – you know where this is going – entertained the troops by teaming up with other musically inclined soldiers.
“Every fifth guy in the Army had a guitar,” Slim says. “That’s where I really gained experience. You’re playing with guys from all over the world.”
Slim was also part of the Berlin Air Lift during the blockade. For those of us who admire his talents, it’s easy to forget those things, the way it’s easy to forget that he was an insurance salesman for a time; one so accomplished, he was hired to teach others the prosaic but vital craft.
For our purposes, it’s all about the music, and when Slim came home from overseas in 1952 his career got rolling. It got rolling so fast that he was compelled to change his name to Slim, saying farewell to his birth name – Leonard Andrew Huntington – which just didn’t seem right for the honky-tonks and juke joints that were to come.
It seems like every country music star can trace his beginnings back to one specific place. Johnny Cash had Sun Records in Memphis and Slim Andrews had a club called Nick’s Place on Nantasket Beach in Hull, Mass. By then, Slim was still playing churches, but he was itching for more. Turns out the foot-stomping patrons at Nick’s were ready for something better, as well.
“They had a God-awful three-piece band in there,” Slim says. “They couldn’t keep time in a room full of clocks.”
You know how this goes. Slim had his guitar at the ready and he offered to get up and give the band – and the patrons – a break.
“I got up and finished the set, probably eight or 10 songs,” Slim says.
And because life is a country song, the man who ran Nick’s called Slim the following day and asked him to play at the club on a regular basis. Slim got some guys together and got down to making music.
“That was the beginning of my new career,” Slim says. “I struck while the iron was hot.”
He also got down to making a family, marrying his high school sweetheart, Pearl, and fathering five sons and a daughter. Country music wasn’t paying the bills yet, so Slim went into insurance, first with John Hancock and later with Prudential. It was a comfortable time for Slim, but you can look through his long catalog of music and you won’t find a single song about his chosen profession.
“It’s hard to snuggle up,” Slim says, “with an insurance policy.”
‘Slim knows country music going in, coming out and all the way around.’
In 1958, while peddling insurance by day, Slim formed The Berkshire Mountain Boys, a band based in Brockton, Mass. The boys played the clubs and pounded out a pair of albums. In those days, if you were aspiring to succeed as a musician, you took a gig even if there was a decent chance you wouldn’t survive it. Some of Slim’s best memories are of the rough and tumble bottle clubs that dotted New England.
“There were places with chicken wire strung around the stage,” he says. “If they didn’t like what you were doing up there, the beer bottles would fly.”
When you listen to Slim’s music, whether it be old or new, you hear the sound of his soul. He’s either howling with unrestrained good cheer or offering up the dolorous notes of a man in pain. And it’s old country music, don’t make a mistake about that. Slim, like most of his compatriots, have no use for the new stuff masquerading as country. His songs evoke memories of Johnny and Willie, of Hank Williams and George Jones, of Red Foley and Dick Curless, who also happens to be from Maine and who shares space with Slim in the Maine Country Music Hall of Fame.
Slim is better known in Maine than Massachusetts because he returned to his home state in 1971, when he was nearing the height of his career. He formed the Cumberland Valley Boys and got to work legitimizing his chosen genre.
In 1976, Slim created the State of Maine Country Music Awards along with Gini Eaton, the woman who would become his second wife. Together, they also launched a booking agency and operated Gini’s club, the Silver Spur in Windham, and helped to found the Maine Country Music Association.
By the end of the ’70s, Slim was booking Nashville acts all over New England. In 1980, he was cited by the Maine Sunday Telegram as one of the most influential drivers (along with Curless and Al Hawkes) of country music in the state of Maine.
Slim and Gini moved around a bit – first to Michigan and then to Georgia – but when Gini was diagnosed with breast cancer, they came back to Maine to be near their children.
Gini didn’t go quietly into that good night. She lasted 14 years after she was first diagnosed.
“Those were 14 wonderful years,” Slim says. “It never whipped her. She was a bright shining star of country music. Just a super, super lady.”
The very first song on the CD “Simply Slim with Harry,” which he put out in May 2006 with teen musician Harry Bailey, is titled “Our Gini with an I,” written by Slim’s son Jamie.
But lest you get to thinking that Slim’s music is all about heartbreak, you should have a gander at the rest of the titles – including “Rambling Man,” “Born to Win,” “Freightliner Fever” and “Don’t Give up Your Day Job, Son.” This is the country music of truck stops and barrooms, where every man has to fight for his woman once in a while and there’s usually a dog and a pickup truck in the backdrop.
Slim Andrews is all country all the time. That’s why when he walks into the Maine Country Music Hall of Fame in Mechanic Falls, he looks every bit at home as the album covers, studded gowns and battered guitars hanging on the walls. When it comes to country in Maine, Slim is the institutional memory.
“Slim knows country music going in, coming out and all the way around,” says Betty Gribbin, among the first to be inducted into the Hall of Fame way back in 1979. “Slim is a scholar and a gentleman. I believe he knows all there is to know.”
Now 91 years old, Gribbin is no slouch, herself. Between 1954 and 1971, she was featured with Ken MacKenzie on his popular television show. She was also Maine’s first female disc jockey, with a daily show called The Yankee Barn Dance. Slim refers to her as the funniest person – man or woman – he has ever known.
“And she can still tell a mean joke,” he says, “so look out.”
Gribbin, who rubbed elbows with Slim over most of his career, gives it right back.
“Boy, those were the days,” she says. “I can’t remember a day when we weren’t friends. He’s right on the ball, Slim. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
You hear a lot of that if you happen to run into the other living members of the Hall of Fame. You get the feeling that they all attended one decades-long party together and the memories are still fresh. Slim was at the center of it all.
“Slim is a hoot,” says Frederick “Tommy” Thompson, who played in the Dick Curless Band and who was inducted into the hall in 1999. “He’s real fun, but he’s also a very knowledgeable guy. He’s been around for so long, he knows just about everybody. He knows the history.”
‘There’s power in this man.’
Touring the Hall of Fame one recent weekday, the most enjoyable part for me was listening to Slim’s tidbits about everyone showcased there.
There’s a section dedicated to Dick Monroe, who worked with MacKenzie, among others. Slim says: “Dick always said he sang in English but he yodeled in French.”
For Tim Farrell, inducted in 1997, Slim nods with great respect. “He played the fiddle for 42 years, you know. Just a great guy.”
On and on he went, strolling down his personal memory lane and sharing some of it with me.
“He was also a wrestler,” he said of Rusty Rogers, the Pemaquid Cowboy who passed away just last week. “One of the best yodelers ever.”
“She made all of her own outfits,” he said of Lewiston’s own Betty Cody. “Also a great yodeler.”
Before we left, we came across a banged-up guitar hanging on a wall. It once belonged to Slim and it had many miles on it. That instrument looked like a tired old dog who was happy to be resting at last.
“My old guitar,” Slim said with a trace of fondness. “I left it out in 17-degree weather in Georgia one night. Guess what happened?”
The guitar was ruined, but Slim Andrews played on. In 2002, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, joining so many of his friends and colleagues. He also received the very first Pine Tree State Trailblazer Award for his work in advancing the genre. He’s a two-time recipient of the Duke Knight Award, and in 2008 was awarded the Living Legend Award from the Maine Academy of Country Music.
And so on and so forth. Awards, trophies and memorabilia crowd his Auburn home, but when you visit, you might forget to look at it all once Slim gets to strumming on his guitar. While I was there, he banged out Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and Ray Charles’ “Seven Spanish Angels.” His voice was rolling and strong, his fingers a blur on the strings.
If this is what Slim Andrews plays like at 82, it’s hard to imagine the power of his performances in his younger years.
He’s semi-retired now, but still plays the occasional show to help raise money where needed. He and others recently performed and raised $20,000, for instance, for homeless veterans. Maybe someday he’ll stop playing altogether, but it’s hard to imagine it when you get to see him perform up close.
“The voice isn’t what it used to be. It cracks,” Slim says. “I used to play four-hour gigs, but these days, after an hour or an hour-and-a-half, my hand cramps up. You reach a point where it’s a matter of diminished returns.”
That may be true, but Slim still has power over people. When he plays, they still tap their feet and snap their fingers. One of them is local doctor Robert Kester, who has become friends with Slim and who hopes to learn from the man he considers a legend. Because it’s country music and because Kester happens to be a urologist, Slim was quick to give his friend the new nickname “Doc.”
Kester doesn’t mind. From the first time he saw Slim play, he’s been mesmerized.
“There’s power in this man,” Kester says. “Until you sit next to him and observe, you might not get that. He has power and he has presence.”
Slim still has some of that magnetism left for the ladies, too.
After Gini died in 2001, Slim was back in the clubs. He went to play and to help mend his broken heart. Sooner or later, he met a woman named Carole Ann and, because this is country music, romance bloomed in its peculiar way.
“I met him on a dare,” Carole Ann says. She smiles girlishly as she tells the story. “I saw Slim walk in and I thought, ‘oh, I’d like to meet that man.’ The girls dared me three times to go ask him to dance, so I did.
“I never planned to get married again,” Carole Ann says. “I was having too much fun.”
Now she’s having fun with a Maine legend of country music. With Slim, having fun doesn’t seem like a very difficult thing to do. He’s jovial and even impish. He tells a great story and his guitar is never far away. Slim Andrews isn’t an old man pining for long-ago glory. He knows where he is and where he’s been. He knows he’s lucky to have achieved what eludes so many others.
Slim Andrews has no trouble with perspective.
“I’ve been blessed with a good memory and thank God for that,” he says. “I think back to all the years and all of the places I’ve been. I remember all the good times, and the bad times, too. You’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet. Life is what you make of it.”
He said all that and then was quiet a moment. Another man of his age might be hankering for a nap after serving as tour guide all day, but this was Slim Andrews and Slim Andrews did what he always has done.
He picked up his guitar and began to play.
Want more Slim?
Slim Andrews might be 82 years old, but he’s no technological noob. His website at www.slimandrews.com has pretty much everything you need, including a full bio and links to his music.
Want to see Slim Andrews live and in color? August is just the right time for that, thanks to a pair of shows in which the Auburn crooner will be performing.
Check out the 6th Annual CountryGrass Festival at Broken Acres Retreat in Jefferson, a three-day country music bender featuring Slim and many others including Pat & Freddy Thompson, Tony Booth and Jade Jack. For more information, call 207-426-9580 or see the website at www.macmhome.org
On Aug. 23, there’s the Maine County Music Hall of Fame & Museum Benefit Show at the American Legion Post 205 in Augusta (396 Eastern Ave., Route 17). This one features Slim, Fred Thompson again, Bob Elston, the other Bing Crosby and many others. Admission is $10. For more information, contact Nancy Crosby at 207-645-2472 or Slim himself at 207-795-1119.