"This is the first time I've been back in over 40 years," Walter "Newt" Robinson, now of Texas, said on Main Street in Hillsboro on Thursday, May 16. "Oh, my God, has it changed!"
Ask him where he has been in the last 40 years, and he'll begin listing states like Kentucky, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, and Alaska for over 32 years. He has been married more than once, has seven children–eight, counting a nephew who lived with the family–and raised his family "all over the United States."
Two themes come up throughout his travels, and throughout his stories: hard work, and the love of music. His family says you seldom see him without his guitar. During his return trip, he is staying with niece Cynthia Sanchez in Nokomis. She and nephew Ryan Robinson led him on a downtown Hillsboro tour that included the newspaper.
The reasons behind his return are bittersweet. His granddaughter Sydney Robinson is graduating on Friday, May 24, with the Litchfield High School class of 2019. That's the sweet. The bitter? He wanted to visit his brother, Panama resident Russell Robinson, who was in ailing health. He got that chance just before his brother died on Wednesday, May 15.
Mr. Robinson was born in 1943 in a chicken house on the family farm near Walshville.
"Grandma delivered me," he added to the story; those sort of details make their way into many of his stories, and make him an interesting conversationalist. His eyes still sparkled beneath the rim of a black hat decorated with pins. His gray beard was long enough to just touch the top of his black overalls as he sat back in his chair to launch a story.
Robinson grew up in a family of 12 children–six boys and six girls. He was the second oldest. As a boy, he went to Woodsboro School, a country school southwest of Hillsboro. After that, he went to a school that he remembered as Enterprise School, then Hillsboro Junior High School, and only a year at Hillsboro High School.
But, of course, Robinson tells the story of his high school days a bit more colorfully than that: "I went in the front door of the high school, down the hall, found the back door, and that was about it."
In 1964, he and the recently departed brother Russell joined the U.S. Army.
"They sent him to Vietnam," Robinson said, "and they guaranteed me I would be a mechanic."
He spent three years in the service, and those mechanic skills, along with an untiring work ethic, helped him earn a living most of his life.
Although his memory is crystal clear throughout his stories, dates are a bit fuzzy. He blames that on the years he spent working in Alaska seven days a week, 12 hours a day.
"I once worked nine months straight with only one day off," Mr. Robinson said. "When you go so long with one day just the same as the next, you lose your timeline."
In the late 1970s–again, he couldn't pin down the date–Robinson moved to Kentucky because he wanted to learn to play the guitar.
"My mother used to play the piano by ear," he said. "'Come and sing with me, Newt,' she would say." Newton is his middle name and Newt was the name he grew up with. "That's how I know all the old songs, but I always wanted to play something so bad."
So he loaded up and moved to Albany, KY, "that's where my granddad Robinson was from," where he knew he had cousins who played bluegrass music.
It didn't take long for him to find his kin. Guitar in hand, a cousin taught him three chords: G, C and D. "Just learn those," he said, "then find a song with those three cords and play it. Make sure it's not a song you like, because you'll play it so much you'll never want to play it again."
Robinson picked "Faded Love," a 1950 Bob Willis song, "and I never stopped from there. I wanted to do it so bad that I learned to do it."
He and his Kentucky cousins earned their living by cutting firewood by day and taking it to town to sell, and "when the truck was empty we'd park it, sit on the porch and play music. And we'd get good."
"I never played music for money," he added. "It's a job then, and I wanted it to be fun."
He will be having some of that fun at WSMI on the air, beginning at 3 p.m. on Thursday, May 23, with host John Michael Marty.