THE LORD WILL GIVE YOU A SONG
On a bright, clear July day in 1997 Joe Haney and his wife Martha awoke, ate breakfast, and headed off to work together as usual. Joe hadn’t a clue this was going to be one of the best days of his life. Nor could he have known it would be the worst. For the past eighteen years, the two had worked side-by-side at their barber shop, Hair Plus, at 4008 Rhea Road in Wichita Falls, Texas. Many wondered how they did it—working together every day, but the two of them never gave it any thought. They loved each other that much. Martha was dusting and straightening up, and Joe was cutting a customer’s hair and discussing the weather when it happened.
Joe’s mind suddenly filled with lyrics. And music. And they wouldn’t go away. Startled, he grabbed a pencil and paper and began jotting the words down. When he was finished, he’d written a song. And soon after that, another. He would later name them Rise to See Glory and Break Away. “It was the darndest thing,” he says. “They just came from nowhere. The truth is I’d been trying my hand at writing Christian songs for a few months without any luck. Needless to say, I was shocked. And so was Martha.”
Sadly, they had little time to enjoy the day’s excitement. That night after supper Martha became ill. Joe rushed her to the emergency room, and upon examination the doctor on duty discovered her kidney was much too large. And something else. Martha had cancer.
In eighteen years, Martha Haney had not missed a single day of work to sickness. “She never, ever complained about anything,” Joe says. “Looking back, had she done so this one time, we might have found it sooner.” Still, the couple’s strong faith sustained them. “We simply never considered that God wouldn’t heal Martha. We knew He would.” But just five months later, in December, Martha died a few days short of her birthday. She would have been forty-eight.
“Martha’s death was devastating to us all,” says Joe. “Especially after what had happened to my mother.” Only two years prior, Vivian Haney also had fallen ill. A tumor was found behind her breastbone. It was removed, and she survived. However, during the operation some vocal chords were accidently clipped, and Vivian, whose heavenly voice had brought such joy to her family and friends for so many years, could no longer sing. Heartbroken, she took solace in the words of her son.
"Don’t worry, Mother,” he told her. “The Lord will give you a song. Someday. You’ll see.”
“It’s no secret that after Martha died, I was lost for quite some time,” Joe admits. She and I didn’t have children of our own, but I had four from a previous marriage. They all loved her. Everyone did. We just couldn’t understand why she was taken from us.” But Joe held onto his faith. Then, one day, a customer suggested to him the significance of the two songs he’d written that day in the barber shop. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d written those songs for my wife. Before we even discovered she was sick. I believe that.”
Soon after, Joe began writing songs again. With a flourish. And something else. He began to sing. “I sang at home, in the car, even at work. People would say, ‘I didn’t know you could sing.’ Then one day, this fellow showed up asking for a job. I needed help so I hired him. His name was Jimmy Boggs.”
It wasn’t long before Mr. Boggs became aware of Joe’s new talents. “You come to my house tonight,” he told his new boss, “and we’ll get you on tape.”
In addition to being a barber, Jimmy was also a musician—talented and well-known in the music industry and with a recording studio in his home. So Joe showed up with his songs, and when the two of them were done that night, they’d recorded eight of them with Jimmy playing all the musical instruments. Because Jimmy had been involved with Country & Western bands most of his life, the result was traditional gospel with a heavy dose of C&W mixed in. Not the way Joe had heard the songs in his mind, but unique nonetheless. Friends and family were astounded. The music. Those lyrics. And that voice. Encouraged to pursue finding a record producer or selling copies of the tapes himself, Joe declined.
“I don’t do this for money. I sing because it brings me joy.” Soon he was being asked to perform at local churches and other gatherings. His fans grew in number, but his biggest fan was, and will always be, his mom.
One night he received a call from her. “Joe, honey, at first I didn’t know what to make of your new talent for song writing and singing. Only that it brings me such pleasure. Your father, too. You know that, don’t you?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“Well, now I understand.” She paused. “Do you remember what you told me when we learned I’d never sing again? I was so hurt. But you said not to fret because someday the Lord would give me a song. Do you remember that?”
“Yes, mother. I remember.”
“Well, son, He has. God has done that. You are my song.”
I visited Joe one night not long ago and was pleased to find his parents there. We all sat around the kitchen table enjoying homemade carrot cake and coffee. Soon to be eighty, his dad Sanford recounted his younger days as a welder in my hometown of Archer City. Vivian talked about her boy.
“Joe’s the best son any parent could ever hope for. And he takes such good care of us.” We discussed his music. He still writes songs. Just not in the conventional way.
“I’ve tried,” he says, “but with little success. Most of them still come to me when I least expect it.”
And we talked about Martha.
“We all loved her so much.” Vivian said softly. “Losing her was such a hard thing.”
“You know,” Joe added, “I never felt sorry for her because I know she’s in a better place. Rather, I guess I always just felt sorry for myself.” He paused. “I don’t anymore. I know I’ll see her again. We all will.”
Later, as I got up to leave, Vivian had a request. “Joe, play and sing something for Jim. For all of us.” He declined, but we relented, and he finally gave in. He sat down at a small electric organ he’d taught himself to play. The song was not one of his own, but an old standard, The Green, Green Grass of Home. The words were about longing for an old hometown, mama and papa, and a girl named Mary. I’ll never forget the love that was present in that room that night, nor the sound of Joe’s voice. And as I sat there, I knew somewhere Martha was listening too.