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Mac McCarty stared at the papers splayed before him and tried to focus his attention on the job at hand. It was not an easy task. As Lands Officer for the infant Laurel Ranger District of the Cumberland National Forest, it was his responsibility to make sense of the myriad parcels of worn-out farmland the U.S. Forest Service had acquired since the creation of the national forest in 1937. Most of the tracts had been hastily purchased from farmers in McCreary County eager to sell, but whose knowledge of property lines was limited to what “grandpa told me,” and whose ownership had been determined in the past by whoever held the loaded shotgun. Straightening out the mess was a job of nightmarish proportions, but it had fallen upon McCarty’s shoulders to do it.
By mid-afternoon, McCarty had become weary of trying to match parcels of land to the boundary descriptions held by the Forest Service. There was little that could be done until he spent more time in the field. So, he sat back in his chair, lit a cigarette, and tried to relax. It was quiet in the ranger station. Only the hum of the fan on the dispatcher’s desk broke the stillness of the summer afternoon. Stirred by the memory of something he had witnessed at the railroad station in Stearns last winter, he opened a drawer on his own desk, removed a stenographer’s pad, and started scribbling. The memory was vivid in his mind as he wrote. The words came quickly, and he hurried to write them down before they left his brain, never to return:
“Page by page, our lives are written in the Master’s
Wonder if He makes an entry for each darling mother’s love,
Like the one I saw this morning enter through the
She was crying, softly crying, teardrops falling in the snow.”
Espie Clay McCarty, better known as Mac, was not a native McCreary Countian, but he lived with his wife, Nora, in Stearns for many years. He was born in Bath County, Kentucky on April 3, 1907 and was a land surveyor by profession. When the Cumberland National Forest was established, he was asked to join the team of professional foresters whose task it was to reclaim vast acreages on the Cumberland Plateau that had been abused by decades of uncontrolled burning, erosion, and acid run-off from mines. Their goal was to turn these unwanted tax liabilities into a continuing source of wood products and create places where outdoor recreation would be within a short drive of most Kentuckians. In a Depression era nation where steady jobs were scarce, Mac was happy to join the new Federal effort to save those damaged lands. He was assigned to the Laurel Ranger District whose office was located in the Dixie community between Stearns and Whitley City.
McCarty performed his duties efficiently and thoroughly and was a dedicated member of the Forest Service team, but his heart lay elsewhere. Mac McCarty was a songwriter. A guitar and a pencil with which to record his thoughts appealed to him more than topo maps and measuring instruments.
“There’s a new made grave a waiting, and its depth
are dark and cold,
Just to claim this mother’s darling, war for her has
But, I’m sure they’ll meet up yonder, where God’s
children always go,
And, I always will remember, teardrops falling the snow.”
The woman McCarty had seen at the Stearns depot was but one of many such women who had met trains delivering what was left of their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons during the dark days of World War II. Although he had not served himself, in that woman, he had seen the horrid side effects of the war. He wanted, more than anything else, to capture that moment in time in a medium he knew best, and what he knew best was how to write a song. Mac McCarty wanted to preserve that moment in song. So, he started composing Teardrops Falling in the Snow.
When McCarty had finished Teardrops Falling in the Snow, he sent a typewritten copy of his song to Mercury Records Corporation, an upstart recording company in Chicago. The company executives liked the song and, soon, a check arrived in McCarty’s box at the Stearns post office. The record company, in turn, pitched the song to a popular country and western singer named Bonnie Lou and, in 1949, the song was released. It was an immediate hit and radio stations throughout the nation beamed the words and melody of the plaintive tribute to a mother’s love to every family that had a radio.
McCarty was ecstatic and plunged into his songwriting with renewed vigor. Soon, “Preachin’,Prayin’, Singin” was sold and picked up by Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Like Teardrops Falling in the Snow, it, too, was a hit. Other songs followed. By The Hands of God was well-received by fans of Southern Gospel music and when Life of a Poor Boy was cut by Stonewall Jackson, McCarty’s reputation as a songwriter escalated. It crested when Columbia Records released My Lonely Heart’s Runnin’ Wild by Carl Smith, by far the most popular country and western artist of the 1950’s.
All of the songs written by Mac McCarty were money-makers for the artists performing them and for the record companies that produced them. It was not so for McCarty. Sadly, he lived in an age when selling a song was little different than selling anything else on the open market. There were no residuals and no royalty payments each time a song was played. Not until 1978 would songwriters receive fair compensation for their work. So, unlike Stonewall Jackson, Carl Smith, Ricky Skaggs, Porter Waggoner, and Charlie Daniels, all of whom performed his work, Mac McCarty was denied the monetary rewards that accompany song writing today. Instead, he was forced to live the simple life of a Federal employee in a humble dwelling in Stearns. Mac didn’t seem to mind, though. For him, it was never about making a lot of money, anyway. He continued to stitch together the patchwork of properties owned by the Cumberland National Forest, write his songs, and serve as a member of the popular gospel group from Blue Heron called the Honeysuckle Quartet with Little Jimmy.
By 1962, years of chain smoking had taken a toll on McCarty’s health and he passed away in June of that year. He was only fifty-five years old. He was carried back to Bath County and laid to rest beside his family members in Dickerson Cemetery. Like so many others who have walked the hills and hollers of McCreary County, he has faded from memory, erased from existence by the ever-moving hand of time. Yet, in a mystical sort of way, he is not entirely gone. As a fan of and frequent attendee at the Blazin’ Bluegrass Festival, I have felt his presence many times when one of the great bands takes the stage and performs Preachin’, Prayin’, Singin’ to a packed audience at Sand Hill Camp. It is almost a sure bet that, at some time during the festival, that happy song will be sung by somebody There is no snow in McCreary County in September, of course, but, if there happened to be some on that occasion, I am pretty sure someone sitting near me would look down and see some teardrops falling in the snow.