BURTON — Near the end of the first set Oct. 5 in the Burton Senior Activities Center in Genesee County, the band Southbound turns lead guitarist Dick Palmer loose on the Vince Gill country song “One More Last Chance.”
Palmer obliges, his right elbow flicking out as he picks his guitar with emphasis, singing into the microphone in an energetic rendition about a desperate fellow pleading with his sweetheart who’s about to end their romance.
His effort strikes a chord with Bud Steenburgh, 77, of Millington, seated among about 40 people in the audience, who hear Palmer and his bandmates deliver songs by Roy Orbison, George Strait, Don Williams and Ronnie McDowell.
“Too many people don’t play this stuff anymore,” said Steenburgh, watching Palmer – 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds, clad in shined-up loafers and a rust-colored dress shirt tucked neatly into his blue jeans – take care of business.
“We’re gettin’ to lose it – this good country music,” Steenburgh adds, as couples occupy the dance floor and five men and women dance and converse in a small group.
The music, it seems, comes and goes, like the line dance some of the audience members engage in during several of the band’s songs. Dick Palmer of Vassar, however – known by some, perhaps, as “Little Dickie Palmer” – is just around. Still around, at age 80, strumming a guitar – he pronounces the word as “GYIT-tar” – like he has since he won a talent contest at age 10 at the Vassar Theatre in Tuscola County.
That sent “Little Dickie” on air on a live radio show on WKNX-AM in Saginaw, a broadcast featuring the late Little Jimmy Dickens, a 4-foot-11 country-music singer and guitarist who performed in Michigan but would wind up in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“I’m probably the oldest guitar player in this area now that’s playing,” Palmer said. “Most of them are gone. It’s not that they’re not playing. They’re gone. They’re dead.
“I feel good to still be playing, especially when I get calls wanting a guitarist. Most of (the callers) are not from the area, and they don’t know me. They call and say ‘Are you Dick Palmer? You play guitar, don’t you?’ I say ‘Yes, that’s me. And yes, yes I do.’”
His brother, the late Chester “Tex” Palmer, taught him to play three chords on the guitar, though Tex was a left-handed picker and Dickie picked with his right hand.
Tex Palmer “went into World War II in 1942 – he was drafted in the Army, and I can remember him telling my mother when he left, ‘Don’t let Dickie mess with my guitar,’” Palmer said. “I heard that – I would have been six years old. After a while, I’m struggling to learn this guitar (designed for a left-hander), and I can remember thinking ‘Well, my brother’s been gone a while, he ain’t coming right back.’
“So I took that guitar and strung it around the other way, for a right-handed guitar player. He didn’t get back home until 1945. He wasn’t coming right back.”
After the brothers reunited, they teamed up to compete in the 1947 talent show at the Vassar Theatre, with Dickie Palmer as the frontman. He said he won the event. Not long afterward, Palmer joined the Michigan Rangers, which played, in his words, “hillbilly” music. Vassar’s Lee and Florence Warner, Willard Leach, Johnny Sonderhouse and Palmer’s sister, Corrine, were among those in the traveling band, which played frequently at double features in area theaters in Michigan.
On occasion, the Michigan Rangers were the warm-up act for Little Jimmy Dickens, who later became known for his 1965 hit “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose.”
“They used to book us – at these theaters like this – to perform between the two movies,” Palmer said. “One time one of the theater marquees (advertised) ‘Little Jimmy Dickens and Little Dickie Palmer.’”
Palmer recalls a Vassar furniture store operator, Ed Willoughby, taking him to the Owosso Armory in the 1940s, apparently to perform on stage with Dickens.
Dickens and a woman were arguing vehemently backstage before the gig, though. “They were using four-letter words and (Willoughby) said ‘C’mon, Dickie, you’re not going out there on stage,’” Palmer said. “I never did perform with (Dickens). He went to Nashville after that, though I did get to play music with his drummer and bass player about 40 years later.”
As a teenager, Palmer took a job working for the late Glen Zimmerman at a Gulf gas station in Vassar. He worked for years at a Vassar foundry but also played for several decades in a band with his wife, Ann, a vocalist who played bass guitar.
Palmer brings his wife to his shows, including the one in Burton last week. Even after enduring the effects of two strokes, Ann Palmer took the stage with him, and the couple – who have six children – sang several songs together in the band’s second set.
“We’ve both been blessed,” said Dick Palmer after the show, wearing – like his wife – a necklace with a crucifix attached to it. The Palmers have been married for 62 years. They once led the band Southern Sounds, with vocalist John Chapelo, drummer Bob Clark and keyboard player Gary Fobear.
“Dick would give you the shirt off his back to help you,” said Maryetta Steenbergh, 59, of Millington, who with her husband, Bud, attends many of Palmer’s concerts.
“He’s so awesome with his wife,” Maryetta Steenbergh said. “He just dotes over her and does everything he can for her.”
Palmer said he occasionally declines a chance to perform these days. He’s spry and conversational at 80, and jogged in a road race last year at age 79 in a nod to another of his passions – distance running.
“Here I am 80 years old and I still get calls to play gigs,” he said. “I could be working pretty steady, actually, if I wanted to.”
Palmer has crossed genres, musically, with various bands, trading 1950s country songs and waltzes for rock ’n’ roll numbers. The band Southbound, last week, sprinkled in Bob Seger songs along with the venerable “Takin’ Care of Business” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
“I like to do Lynyrd Skynyrd, too, and ZZ Top,” Palmer said.
Palmer said other musicians, through the years, have asked him to leave Vassar and strike out for Nashville, or other parts.
“When I was playing steel guitar, there was a steel guitar instructor out of Nashville who had a studio and I got to know him pretty well,” Palmer said. “I met him and went down to his jams and stuff. I never attended his school, but he sent me a letter one time when Branson, Missouri was first getting started, saying Branson needed steel guitar players. He said ‘If you’re interested, I’ll send a letter down there and you’re in good with them.’
“But I had a family. I had a house, and a payment I had to make. My family came first. Some of the guys that I played with, they drank and they did the other stuff, and they ran women. I never did. I love my music, and I love my wife and my family. I played my music and I never drank very much, and I never got into the other stuff, and I never chased women.
“But I’m still playing music, see? I’m still playing music. The good Lord lets me do it.”
Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at [email protected]