Saturday, September 10, 2011

Remembering Kris Black

I lost one of my best friends the other day. That's her on the left in 1974 with Esther Jackson, former wife of former Buckaroo Ronnie Jackson. Kris and Esther were born on the same day, same year: September 19, 1950.

Kris Susan Lynn Black died in her sleep at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, September 7, 2011, twelve days shy of her sixty-first birthday.

I came to know of Kris back in late 1995 when Ruth Lance Wester, former wife of trick roper and honky-tonk owner Ken Lance, purchased a copy of my first book and asked me to personalize it and mail it to her friend Kris Black. Little did I know then, that this would spark an association that would last sixteen years and beyond.

When Kris received the book, she wrote me a long letter, thanking me and relating bits and pieces of a life that had seen its share of highs and lows. The letter, which mentioned that she had been associated with Buck Owens, was one of the most hair-raising tales I had ever heard and I thought I should file it away because I might need to refer back to it someday. I now have two very thick files that hold sixteen years of cards, letters, photographs, and articles.

As I was researching my second book on Buck Owens, I was sitting at the kitchen table of Don Rich's widow poring over old photographs and came across one of a long-legged beauty in black and white, sitting poolside with a quiet look on her face. "Who's this?" I asked Marlane. "Oh, that's Kris Black. You should talk to her. She was engaged to Buck, you know. They were going to get married." I remembered Kris's name and told Marlane about the letter she had sent me a few years earlier.

Shortly after returning to my home in Virginia, I wrote to Kris and arranged to interview her in Dallas. Kris was the one who connected me with disc jockey and Grammy-winning songwriter Bill Mack, another friend for life; Buck's shirttail cousin Mary Lou Cushman; former Capitol Records executive, Wade Pepper; the beautiful and legendary founders of the International Fan Club Organization, the Johnson Sisters--Loudilla, Loretta, and Kay; Hee Haw producer Sam Lovullo, and several others for the book. Not only had she been one of Buck's undercover lovers, but also she had been under contract for nine years as his Girl Friday, radio personality, national promotion director, and more. In fact, she along with several others, were responsible for "signing" Buck's signature on many of the autographed photos in circulation today. She was on-call 24/7 and her contract spelled out that her duties would be of a "unique and special nature." Buck had taught her well about how to never give up in contacting people and she could charm people into doing anything she asked, within reason, of course. Kris's dogged persistence was not unlike the dripping-water technique, and she was relentless in making calls, sending letters, and getting things done.

As a journalist, I am obligated to keep a professional distance between myself and my sources. I had a discussion years ago with one of my editors at The Washington Post, Jeffrey Frank, who is now a senior editor at The New Yorker. I asked him how he handled this and he told me it was often hard to keep from becoming too close to some of those who supplied us with vital information. His general rule was to wait until at least six months after a project was completed to become friends with a source.

After spending thirteen long years researching and writing the Buck Owens biography, I found many of my sources so likable, I knew we would be friends after the book was done. Kris was one of those people. And while we were friendly during the years I was working on the book, I maintained an open mind and a neutrality where she was concerned. Recently when the esteemed journalist John Seigenthaler interviewed me for his Nashville Public Television show, A Word on Words, which will air at 10:30 Central time on Sunday, October 2, 2011, he raised the subject of Kris Black. Mr. Seigenthaler noted that Kris had come across in the book as somewhat of a jealous lover. Yes, I suppose it did seem that way, but Kris didn't have a problem with how I had portrayed her. She had acquired an associate arts degree with honors in journalism from what was then Bakersfield College, and was professional enough to know I was going to write an honest, journalistic portrayal of her association with Buck Owens. I worried that she might hate me for being so blunt, but I had a job to do. Instead, she thought I had written a wonderful book and had told the story in an honest and forthright way and did her best to spread the word.

Part of what made Kris such a beautiful and special person were her flaws. She was a walking, talking, loving, feeling human being. She was one of the most spiritually in tune people I've ever had the opportunity to meet. To many, she was one of the gorgeous and lucky people, who exuded glamour and privilege. She became associated with some of the biggest and most influential people in country music and beyond. She was a real lady, gave credit where credit was due, was hard-working, tough, prideful, forgiving, passionate, spiritual, private, loyal, energetic, optimistic, and generous to a fault.

Kris had her share of troubles, though, and she knew Hardship on a first-name basis, especially in recent years. She also had her demons and was unashamed to admit she suffered from bipolar disorder. She took control of it, however, and became an influential spokesperson on mental illness for both her church and the National Association of Mental Illness in the Dallas area. If she was going through a rough spot, she wouldn't talk about it to even her closest friends; she didn't want to bother them. I knew if I didn't hear from her, she was having a hard time. When she was better, then the phone would ring off the hook, sometimes as many as eight times a day. She always dwelled on the positive. Always.

I could probably write an entire book about Kris and the complexities of her life, loves, and soul; that is how well I came to know her. She was one of the truly beautiful people, inside and out, flaws and all. Not only was she a knockout, but also the beauty that came from within far outshined any physical comeliness. She was the type of person who would give the shirt off her back to the man on the street no matter how little she had. Even in death, she donated her organs so her legacy lives on in others.

Kris called me a couple of weeks ago and was very excited. She was telling me about a coat of hers she wanted to give me for my birthday in November and that she wanted to have my name sewn on the label next to hers because we were "sisters." I told her she didn't have to do that and it was the thought that counts. Her last words to me were, "I love you," which is how she ended most all of her calls. And "love" was always long and drawn out in the sweetest, sing-song way. It was more like: "I luuuuhhvv you!" with little hearts hugging each word. That was Kris, pure and unconditional love.

People who were friends with Kris consider themselves lucky. I am glad to say I am one of the lucky ones.

The world is a lesser place without Kris Black in it, and I miss my friend.

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