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The audience heaved a collective sigh at seeing the performer shimmy his way to a seat at center stage. Gone were the trademark mutton chops and youthful face-filling smile. Gone were the limber fingers that tore up banjos, guitars and fiddles to the point where actors sharing scenes with him broke character in awe when he played. All had been replaced by a frail old man buried beneath a brown coat and hat. At seeing the audience, he tapped his cane on the floor and flashed a grin as the crowd rose with welcoming applause.

Finally seated, a winded Roy Clark took the microphone. He and his faithful band members proceeded to sing, tell stories and entertain fans for hours last Friday night in downtown Bentonville.

One fan seated before him was also barely recognizable. The last time the two had spent significant time together was through a television screen in the 1980s. She was a knob-kneed country girl who sang and danced away her evenings on green linoleum while watching the popular TV series Hee Haw. One night, she fell asleep as an 8-year-old girl and awoke at 43, still clad in blue jeans, cowboy boots and a flannel shirt, seated in Meteor Guitar Gallery before Roy Clark.

"It's sad, getting old," whispered a beautiful lady in her late 60s sitting beside me. "The forgetting ... the knowing you're forgetting." At times, Clark struggled to recall dates and names, and the audience tried to assist him by calling out answers we thought he sought. Much of the time we were right, and he would look innocent, quipping, "They've voted 1969 to be the answer." Other times, we were the ones corrected, as we offered the help of "Johnny Carson" as The Tonight Show host, while Clark smiled as his mind retrieved "Jack Parr."

The experiences were all there -- just filed in a folder that took a little longer for his cataracted mind's eye to locate. His voice wasn't as strong as it used to be, but he came alive when he sang, with the melodies and lyrics permanently etched into his core. The audience was allowed to submit questions on index cards as a way for bandmates to informally interview Clark. He told of his boxing and baseball careers, of learning to play instruments, of hilariously losing trailers and equipment on the road and of finding fame and friendship along the way.

"Tonight's last question is very specific," announced a bandmate. "What was it like to sing 'Yesterday When I Was Young' at Mickey Mantle's funeral?"

Clark shut his eyes, then described his longtime friendship with Mantle, the final days he spent with him, and Mantle's fervent request for Clark to perform that song. As he began to sing of misspent youth, I thought he'd answered my question with such clarity that perhaps he, too, had drifted to sleep last night a mere child and awoke in a tiny guitar shop in Bentonville. And we were all the better for it.

NAN Our Town on 03/16/2017

Print Headline: Yesterday, when I was young

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