Singer Wesley Collins Jr. has known death and celebration all in one day's work

Jan. 26, 2013 @ 10:50 PM

Wesley E. Collins Jr. seemed destined from childhood for a career in music. But there were many starts, and often the music stopped.

One of the surest starts occurred on Nov. 3, 2011. It began with a mourning song in First Presbyterian Church in Lenoir and concluded with an evening celebration in Chapel Hill.

Collins’ two performances were at the funeral of his mother, Joy Collins, wife of retired furniture executive Wesley E. Collins Sr., and concluded that evening at the annual N.C. Songwriters’ competition in Chapel Hill.

For the funeral, Collins sang “Cover Me, Jesus,” written by two friends in Nashville, Tenn., April Goodman and Michael Reynolds.

“When Mom was in her hospice bed in the den, we played Pandora radio for her, mostly on the Gaither gospel station. One night, Dad, Sam [the older brother] and I were talking about our favorite gospel songs, and I told them, ‘I can guarantee you have never heard my favorite gospel song.’ I sang ‘Cover Me, Jesus’ for Mom, as much for me as for her. I honestly don’t know how I got through the song at Mom’s funeral.”

The sanctuary was packed for the funeral. Hours later a throng of family members attended the songwriters competition in Chapel Hill. Collins, one of the eight finalists, finished third.

He entered the 2012 contest and finished first. His family and friends let out a loud whoop.

Since the competition, Chris Rosser produced, recorded, engineered and mixed Collins’ first commercial CD at Hollow Reed Arts Studios in Asheville. “One Layer Down” includes 10 songs that Collins wrote, plus “Cover Me, Jesus,” and is available at the Corner Store on Morganton Boulevard.

Around age 6, Collins was singing songs by Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Mamas and the Pappas. At 7, he was taking piano lessons, without learning to read music. He memorized the keys his teacher used and played by rote. As a teenager he was a member of a band in Lenoir. Also in the early years, he got a set of drums, but that phase of the musician’s performances was brief. He was always in a hurry to move on.

Wes Collins Sr. described one of his son’s early piano recitals. “He started playing the keys before he sat down, and began walking away while he was playing the last notes.”

A music business graduate of Belmont College in Nashville with a master’s degree in library science from N.C. Central University, Collins has been performing for years, sometimes in bands and often alone in small settings. But for most of his performance years, he was playing and singing other artists’ songs.

“In 2002 I met David Snyder, a fantastic guitarist. We got together every two weeks or so for over a year and knocked ideas around. During that whole year David listened to me moan that I hadn’t ever written anything, so he sat me down one night and played every demo he had, dating back to the mid-1980s. He reasoned that if he could play that stuff for me, I could get over myself and put something original down. Two weeks later I had my first song,” he said.

“I was very happy with the song but didn’t finish another until the next year. Frustrated with my molasses songwriting pace, I took a class in 2007 and found I could produce songs a lot more efficiently with looming deadlines.

“I played my newer songs for Mom and Dad for the first time while they were in the Share Center. When Mom took seriously ill and Dad had a hip replacement after a fall on ice in his driveway, I was around helping pass the time by playing. Dad took me aside and let me know that my music really helped him. So far I have not found a way to tell him how much that means to me.”

But his father got the message. The former president of three major furniture manufacturers – Bernhardt (twice), Broyhill and Universal (twice) – Collins Sr. put his financial help where his heart was, subsidizing his son’s album.

“I play what I consider to be pop, soul, folk, country, gospel and blues in my sets. It probably all sounds folksy on the other side, because it is guitar and fingers. I change it up depending on the venue,” the younger Collins said.

Asked what started him down the trail of a musician, he said: “Music has always been my most reliable source of pleasure. The right harmony or melody can raise the hair on the back of my neck. My family always encouraged me to sing, and music seemed to be one of the few things I could grapple with and talk about with any confidence.”

John H. Adams is a Lenoir resident and retired as editor of daily newspapers in North Carolina and of The Layman, a national publication.