The life of Jimmie Hills is the stuff of a country song. If I wrote it, I’d call it “A Southern Boy Gone Good.” I picked up Jimmie at his house in Athens on a hot July afternoon, and we headed toward Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. We were searching for the grave of outlaw Frank James. Never mind that the bank robber is buried in Independence, Missouri. That didn’t faze us one bit. “I saw his tombstone,” said Jimmie. That was good enough for me. Never let facts get in the way of a great adventure. We didn’t find the road to the cemetery, much less the cemetery, but we did eat a fine lunch at the Mustang Café in Loretta, Tennessee, once an old country store with the walls decorated with memorabilia. After spending an afternoon wandering through the rolling hills of Lawrence County with Jimmie, I know why country music legend, George Jones, enjoyed his companionship. He’s just plain fun. We drove past a field of rolled bales of hay. “You know the government has outlawed rolled bales,” Jimmie said.
“I don’t believe it!”
“Yeah, they don’t give a cow a square meal,” he deadpanned.
I met Jimmie last year when he volunteered at the Alabama Veterans’ Museum. He and his second wife, Barbara, had recently moved from Florence to Athens to be near her work as a lab tech with Dr. Quereshi. Jimmie, a Navy Veteran, poked out his hand. “I’m Jimmie Hills.”
“Hill or Hills?” I asked.
“Hills with an s.”
I dubbed him Jimmie “Two” Hills. We’ve been friends ever since. Jimmie, an award winning barber, created George Jones’ famous hairdo – the possum cut – and was his good friend, barber and frequent traveling buddy for 22 years.
Jimmie was delivered at home in Killen, Alabama, in August of 1938 by his grandmother, while his father, Willie Hills was walking nine miles to Florence to fetch a doctor. His father loved his liquor – and once fell into the well while tipsy – but never missed a day’s work at Reynolds Metals in 27 years. With one of his first paychecks, he walked from Killen to Florence and purchased a radio, which brought them the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. Jimmie’s mother, Ethel Loveless Hills, owned the only piano in the community, and played banjo and several other instruments. On Saturday nights during the 1940s, neighbors showed up at their house to jam. Some would become famous. Jimmie’s first cousin, Kenneth Loveless, played guitar with Jerry Lee Lewis for 33 years. Buddy Killen played bass and ended up at the Grand Ol’ Opry. He also became a record producer, music publisher and owner of Trinity Broadcasting Network, as well as Tree International. Autry Inman, Wesley Stephens and Charles Haggard would go on to play at the Opry. Jimmie attended Green Hill School with Melba Montgomery, a singer and recording artist with the Opry, who also sang duets with George Jones. Melba’s brother, Peanutt Montgomery, one of the most prolific and famous song writers in America, is also a friend of Jimmie’s. Jimmie grew up across the street from legendary musician, Spooner Oldham. Spooner would go on to write songs, play at Fame Studio at Tuscumbia, back up Neil Young, and be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, as well as the Alabama Hall of Fame in 2014. Being surrounded by such talent, one might think some of it rubbed off on Jimmie. His talent lay elsewhere.
While we bumped down country roads, Jimmie reminisced about growing up in Killen. I love a good story. “Preacher Tommy Davis could preach the Holy Ghost right down on you,” says Jimmie. “He had liked his liquor and good times before he started living for the Lord. After a bad car wreck and broke neck, he was hunched over. Sometimes he’d get to preach’n and stand up straight. He preached on the courthouse square in Florence on Saturday mornings, and would preach so hard he would lose his breath and have to start over.” Preacher Davis made a brush arbor and called a meeting where he preached, played guitar and sang old timey gospel songs. “The women would get so happy and get to shout’n and testify’n and bobby pins would start fly’n,” says Jimmie. “The men would shake and some people would speak in tongues. It scared us kids to death. “Walking home in the darkness, Jimmie and his sister, Mildred, clung to their grandmother’s skirt, afraid that the Devil was going to jump out of the bushes and get them. “When we got home, they put me and Mildred in the back bedroom, and we crouched all the way under the cover and tried to hide,” says Jimmie. “We could hear the old Devil at the foot of the bed.”
Jimmie rebelled in the 8th grade at St. Florian. His parents were fussing and not getting along, and he began playing hooky from school, often leaving and hitchhiking to Florence. If he had a dime, he went and saw a movie. “I didn’t care if I flunked or passed. The more Mama whipped me, the more I didn’t care,” says Jimmie. They sent him to Detroit one summer to stay with his sister Mildred, who was living there with an older sister, Opal and her husband, Coon Thompson. “Mildred got me aside one night,” says Jimmie, “and told me to go back home, because no one up there wanted me; that I was in the way. That really hurt my feelings.” His mother wired him money by Western Union the following day, and he caught a bus back to Florence. “I went back to school in the fall, but I just couldn’t handle it.” He ran away from home when he was 14 years old, caught a ride to Lawrenceburg, Tennessee and was given a ride by a guy driving an 18-wheeler who took him to Michigan, where Jimmie’s brother lived. His brother called their father, and then put him on a Trailway back to Florence. His father met him at the station and asked, “Are you okay?”
Says Jimmie, “He never said another word until we got home, and then said, ‘Go to the back room.’ I knew what was coming. He pulled out the longest belt I’d ever seen, and whipped me as I lay across the bed. I thought my name was ‘Dammit, Boy’ until I went in the Navy.”
Jimmie ran away again, but remembering the belt, decided to return home before nightfall. In 1953, his father bought their first TV. “It would be so snowy, we couldn’t see anything,” says Jimmie.
“There was wrestling every Saturday night, and we always watched it. Uncle Clyde Thomas and his family came over. He’d get so mad when the bad guy got the best of the good guy, he’d get down and pound the floor with his fists and cuss the referee. ‘Why does he turn his back and let the SOB do that?’” It was a harbinger of things to come.
When Jimmie was 17 years old and running with the wrong crowd, he got in “a little trouble,” as he called it. “We borrowed a car and wrecked it.” The Judge gave him a choice of jail or military service. “I enlisted in the Navy in 1955, but they sent me back home to fatten up.” He was four pounds underweight. “I ate bananas until they came out of my ears, but I gained the four pounds.”
His first Navy haircut was unforgettable. He sat down in the chair and pointed to a mole on the back of his neck. “That was the first place he put the clippers. He cut that mole half off and you talk about bleeding,” says Jimmie. “The company commander came up to me and said ‘Boy, if you bleed on that shirt, I’ll kill you.’”
“I wanna go home,” said Jimmie.
The commander laughed and sent him to sick bay.
While serving on the U.S.S. Epping Forest, Jimmie learned to barber. It was a skill that would open many doors for him in the future.
By: Jerry Barksdale