A New Thing

Could it be that in your quest to make a difference or leave your mark on this world, you are in fact on the cusp of realizing it, yet it doesn’t seem so? It was put this way through the prophet Isaiah: “For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?”

Perhaps the bigger the “new thing”, the more time needed to be able to look back and see what you were a part of.

As long as I’ve known him, my stepfather, Vern Wilson, has been casual about his seventy-five years as a musician. Actually, I doubt he’s ever called himself a musician, he just says, “I played with ___ band in this town,” as we pass through on drives, or “I never learned to read music, I only play by ear.” Only play by ear – I wish I could play an instrument by ear!

Over several sittings in the past month, I asked for details of Vern’s early years of playing and unearthed a compelling history. He gave his permission to share it, so for those who know him, or who appreciate local history, or who will recognize the lesson in his story …

Vern grew up in a musical family near New Windsor, Illinois, where he learned to play fiddle, bass, mandolin, guitar, steel guitar, piano, organ, and accordion. Around 1938, when he was only twelve, he began playing fiddle at barn dances throughout the region with “The Pleasant Valley Boys”. By his late teens, he played live radio on WOC-Davenport.

TV with image, 1946, crop for Vern's blogWith the end of World War II, broadcast television exploded to replace radio in homes across America. Someone heard Vern on WOC radio and hired him to play at the newly-aired WHBF TV-Rock Island. He played fiddle with “Buddies of the Airlanes”, who provided several live music programs per day. That’s Vern (age 24), in the photo below, second from the right.

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Here’s what they sounded like, although Vern wasn’t there when this was recorded – he played with them only for their TV program.

We were together at my dining table when I did a search and found the following article. To go from having little to no memoirs of his early band days, to finding a little something online was a nice surprise. He’s in the front in the photo.


From 1951 to ’54, Vern trained tank operators in the U.S. Army. By 1957, he was back at WOC, this time doing television instead of radio, and joined by his younger brother. Vern (age 31) and Ron (age 22) played a live show with the band, “Wes Holly and the Rhythm Ranchers”.

This is one of only two recordings that he has of his decades of playing. Wes Holly wrote the song on the drive to Chicago to record at a studio. Vern remembers they had a 2:30 a.m. studio slot, and slept in a YMCA after. Vern played fiddle, Ron played bass, and both sang backup. Those who know them recognize their youthful voices in the chorus. Now 89, Vern hadn’t heard this for years, so Youtube helped make Christmas day heartwarming when I played it for him and Mom.

And lastly, here they are with “Wes Holly and the Rhythm Ranchers” in a book published in 2010 about WOC AM-FM radio and television history.

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I asked Vern if he realized back then it was a big deal to be part of the birth of television. His honest reply?

“No, we just did it.”

That’s often the way it is when you’re in the midst of a new thing – it doesn’t seem all that significant in the moment. But give it time, and … Oh, it is … So. Very. Significant.

DSCN0403.jpg book cover final, WOC, Pat SundinFor I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.  –  Isaiah 43:19 – New Living Translation