As his father yelled at his mother, Mittie Cooper, yet again, Jimmie Ray Cantrell, then 11, heard something that would change his life. Cantrell learned that he was illegitimate and that the enraged man on the other side of the thin wall was not his true father.
Things began to make sense. As he got older, it led to seeing his mother’s relationships with abusive men in a new light.
Now, the Summerlin resident’s play, “Mittie’s Song,” has premiered at the Plaza Playhouse Theater in Carpinteria, Calif. Shannon Saleh played the lead, with Cantrell’s wife, Cyndi –– accompanied by Jimmie Ray on the guitar –– singing the songs.
The couple are no strangers to the stage. In Las Vegas, they’ve performed their Johnny Cash tribute show, “Jimmie Ray & Cyndi’s Johnny Cash Tribute,” at the Starbright Theatre in Sun City Summerlin, along with scores of other local venues and corporate events. They are frequent performers at Fremont Street’s outdoor stages with the Johnny Cash Tribute & Black Train band. They have also toured in several states. He has the deep voice to match Cash’s style. Cyndi performs alongside him as June Carter and other characters, such as Patsy Cline.
View caught up with the pair before they returned to California for more rehearsals. What was it like to see his work come to fruition?
“We got to meet the cast, and we got to do one of our Johnny Cash shows over there, so it was fun,” Jimmie Ray said. “After seeing it ‘work,’ after working with it with live people, and taking it off paper and putting life on it, of course, I’ve always liked the music.”
Jimmie Ray was 44 when he tracked down his true father in 1989. The trouble was, his dad had died 19 years earlier. Cantrell said he visited the gravesite but could only stand there, wishing he’d located his father sooner so they could have met.
“The evening I found him, I went home and wrote a song about it, expressing my feelings about finding him,” he said.
The song gave way to the idea of writing a screenplay, “Son of Shame.” He began writing it from his own viewpoint. It quickly became apparent that it wasn’t his viewpoint that carried the biggest impact.
“It kind of turned into more (of) my mother’s story,” he said. “… She was abused her whole life.”
The screenplay took less than a year to finish. He then turned it into a book using the outline of the screenplay. The book, which does not use his father’s true name, took only a couple of months to complete. It has the same title, “Mittie’s Song.”
Jimmie Ray added his love for music to the book. He had the main character express herself through song lyrics at the end of each chapter, as a response to the storyline. The lyrics come from the original Appalachian-style songs he wrote for it. They can be heard at jimmieraycantrell.com, and he’s secured the domain mittiessong.com, where he plans to offer the novel, photos, a sample page and music. The music prompted the title.
Cyndi said it was odd to sing the songs from her mother-in-law’s perspective but that the production shows what Mittie went through.
“It’s gut-wrenching in some places, but you see her lust for life,” Cyndi said.
Jimmie Ray self-published “Mittie’s Song” through PublishAmerica in 2001. He and Cyndi promoted it locally at Borders by performing some of the songs at their book-signing events.
This year, Jimmie Ray revisited the work and made it into the musical drama. He admits to taking artistic license with the topic, pumping up the dialogue and adding elements such as the father running for political office and Mittie pursuing a career as a country music star, which never happened in real life.
He and Cyndi had performed their Johnny Cash tribute at the Plaza Playhouse in the past. The building has a vibrant history dating to 1928. Judy Garland sang there, and MGM brought a lion in a cage to sit outside the theater whenever its movies opened there.
Asa Olsson, artistic director and chairwoman of the board for the nonprofit theater, agreed to host “Mittie’s Song” after reading the screenplay. She is also the play’s director.
“It really spoke to me,” Olsson said. “I know so many women in (an abusive relationship) and feeling that they can’t get out of it. … That this young woman, Mittie, through her music, was able to tap into her feelings, and that was her way of surviving.”
Jimmie Ray was born in Big Willow, N.C., near Hendersonville. His mother was Mittie Claire Belle Cantrell. When she found herself a single mother facing her parents’ rejection, Mittie signed on to be a mail-order bride.
Her stunning good looks shown bright in her photo. It wasn’t long before a man responded and sent for her. But Mittie had neglected to mention that hers was a package deal — she arrived with her toddler in tow.
It was not the best way to begin a relationship. Mittie would go on to have two abusive marriages. Through it all, she maintained her sense of humor and protected her son as best she could.
The production covers the period from 1944 to 1956 and deals with only one marriage. It has highs and lows, with some areas where audiences will likely break out in spontaneous laughter, Jimmie Ray said. It also contains dialogue true to Appalachia, such as when referencing to a nonstop talker: “Her mouth don’t take no Sundays.”
The Cantrells said they’d love to bring the production to Las Vegas but wouldn’t focus on that until after the three-day run in California and their latest gig, performing their tribute show in Virginia City.
Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at email@example.com or 702-387-2949.