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'When life hands you lemons ...'

Ramblin' Joe Durbin ready to get back on the road again

Ramblin' Joe Durbin hasn't let the fact he has no arms/hands keep him from enjoying the music he loves to play and sing.
Ramblin' Joe Durbin hasn't let the fact he has no arms/hands keep him from enjoying the music he loves to play and sing.

It's been said when life hands you lemons ... you should make lemonade. Bureau County resident Joe Durbin has taken that old saying to a completely new level.

Born 89 years ago with only his left hand and arm, his right arm ended just at the elbow. He would never know what it was like to have two functioning arms and hands, so he did what he knew to do — he moved forward and went through life without a complaint — making lemonade with only one hand and arm.

Durbin held a host of jobs — a truck driver, a factory worker, janitor, but most important to him, he learned at an early age how to play the guitar. His father made a prosthesis for his missing arm/hand that would allow him to play the instrument, and ultimately, it would be his love for music and his ability to play a guitar with only one arm and hand — along with the prosthetic arm — that would ultimately change his life.

But on Dec. 6, 1952, Durbin's life changed. For most, it would have been a devastating and career-ending event.

"It was at the Westbrook Grain Co. in Sandwich," he said of the grain mill accident that occurred that day with an auger-type machine after slipping on some wet hay. "They had said if you ever get your hand caught in there, you have to let it take it. If you try to pull it out, it will take your whole body.

"I stood there and let it cut my (left) hand off. I could feel it go through the gristle, and then I didn't feel anything," he remembered.

By all practical purposes, a man with no hands would never be able to make lemonade, but Durbin's father inspired him to keep moving forward, telling his son, "You made it before with just one hand, and now, you'll make it again."

Another prosthetic device was constructed for his now-missing left hand, and before long, Durbin was again playing and singing music.

His left arm is fitted with a leather strap and a buckle which has a guitar pick inserted in the device. His right arm has a contraption that has a bar on the end of it that allows him to press on the strings of the neck of the guitar, while he strums with the other.

The result is a musical serenade that perfectly compliments Durbin's country/bluegrass and spiritual twang, as he croons songs he's written and performed thousands of times in his life.

While singing and playing — or even just talking about his career in music, the 89-year-old Durbin appears as excited as a young musician who deftly strums his first perfect chord or sings his first impeccable song. Durbin's eyes sparkle; the corners of his mouth quickly form a smile; and he is lost in the moment, as the sweet music pours as freely as that sweet lemonade he's learned to make.

Throughout the years, Ramblin' Joe Durbin has played in clubs, bars and a host of other venues throughout the Illinois Valley and beyond. He had two bands — the Illinois Valley Boys and the Country Ramblers. He's cut records, published songs, and he's taken his music career to places most would never imagine.

Perhaps his biggest claim to fame was when somebody sent a story about Durbin to the well-known country artist Johnny Cash. One of Cash's representatives, Joanne Ingle, sent Durbin a letter in 1971 saying the Man in Black was interested in Durbin. The letter read:

"We received a newspaper clipping this A.M. ... with your picture and your determination to play and sing despite your handicaps. John (Cash) is very interested. He said for me to write to you and ask you would you please send him a tape.

"He is not promising you anything, but he would like to hear what you sound like.

"We will be waiting to hear from you."

In the music business, Durbin knew there were no promises. Instead of sending that tape, he got in the car and headed to Nashville, inevitably ending up at the House of Cash in Henderson, Tenn. — a suburb of Nashville.

"He (Cash) said to me, 'Do you know any gospel?'" Durbin said. "I told him I got two I'm workin' on, so I played for him the two songs I'd written."

Apparently Cash liked what he heard, and he told Durbin, "I'll record it in Madison (another Nashville suburb). I'll record it, and you'll get some royalties."

The relationship between Cash and Durbin continued. He remembers meeting and being impressed by June Carter Cash, and he will forever be grateful for Cash nominating him to be a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Durbin has a scrapbook which chronicles many of his musical accomplishments — everything from ticket stubs, to copies of royalty checks, his 45 rpm records and more. The smiling face of a younger man looks at you from the pages, not too differently than the 89-year-old fellow of today.

While Johnny Cash was a big name friend, Durbin has also played with a host of others, including Uncle Dave Mason, the Wilburn Brothers, Loretta Lynn, Billy Walker and his personal favorite, Ernest Tubb, where he appeared with Tubb on his well-known Midnight Jamboree in Nashville.

Durbin has been playing/singing music since he was 10 years old, and he's not planning to stop any time soon. He has been undergoing some physical therapy for a recent fall he took, but in his own words, "He's ready to go."

More importantly for Durbin, once he's completely back on his feet, he'll be back on the road with his music again — playing the clubs, singing his songs — and making some of the sweetest lemonade you'll ever taste.

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