Bible Belter

Thousands hear him every day. But after a lifetime of singing, Tom Merl Goins still feels that no one is listening.

The midday sun has finally emerged from behind the top tier of the Circle Tower in downtown Indianapolis, and gradually, it starts to lift the building’s broad shadow. Sunshine slowly pours into Monument Circle. The old cowboy grins.

Bending forward over the guitar strapped to his torso, the cowboy drags his guitar case onto a newly illuminated patch of brick sidewalk. “I follow the sun,” he says, gruff through a mouth of mangled yellow and brown teeth. “It’s nice in the sun.”

Today the sun, a steaming cup of black coffee and the Doral Ultra Light he’s pulled from his coat pocket are his only sources of warmth. It’s March 22, the second day of spring on the calendar, but a bitter breeze reminds the red-faced man that winter still holds sway. With one callused, wind-burnt hand, he flicks the flint of a lighter while shielding its flame with the other. The temperature flashing on the Emmis Building marquee across the way says 43 degrees, but damned if it doesn’t feel colder to the cowboy. He’s hungry. Hasn’t eaten since early this morning, and he’s fighting a cold. But “as long as the sun’s out,” he says, “I’ll be okay.”

After a couple drags, the cowboy checks his watch. Break’s over. He swipes off the lit end of the cigarette and sticks the remainder back in his pocket. He clears his throat, hocks phlegm from the back of his esophagus and spits the wad onto the sidewalk, smearing and spreading it out with his boot so as not to offend the passersby. He caresses his guitar, checking the tuning of its strings to make sure the cold hasn’t warped them, then looks up at the sky, the sun gleaming on his smudged sunglasses. Pulling a pick out of his hatband, he strums a slightly sour D chord. Then, in a deep, soulful vibrato that should belong to a much bigger man, the cowboy sings. He is Lord, He is Lord, He is risen from the dead …

At that instant, as his distinctive baritone moan sounds strong and true, bouncing off the buildings and filling the Circle, he becomes what he is to most people: an element of the downtown environment almost as familiar as the Monument itself. As the words of the old spiritual spill from his chapped lips and rise into the air, he becomes visible to the people of the city street as the “Christian Cowboy.”

Or “the Guitar Man.” Or simply “The Singer.” To some he’s merely a disembodied voice that cascades down the downtown alleyways. To others he’s just another sidewalk beggar to avoid and ignore. But to those who actually listen to his words, some who even diverge from their routine sidewalk paths to answer his sincere salutations of “Hello, brother,” or “Howdy, sister” and maybe toss a nickel or dime or even a dollar into the case and spot the wooden cross around his neck or the worn beads of the rosary wrapped around his hatband, he could only be the “Christian Cowboy.”

His name is Tom Merl Goins. He’s been playing his guitar and singing his versions of gospel and secular music on the streets of Indianapolis for 20 years.

Every morning, when the 6 a.m. sun seeps through the windows of his humble two-bedroom house on Indy’s near-east side, slipping between the blinds to kiss the old man’s wrinkled forehead and lift open his blue eyes, sunken and sad, he begins his day. He trudges over the matted carpet of his room, across the kitchen floor of scratched linoleum, and opens a can of tuna for his black tomcat, Mister, then a can of dog food for his pregnant mutt, Ms. Sweetie. The pair are his only charges. “They eat first,” he says. “They’re my responsibility, and if they don’t eat, I don’t eat.” Fortunately for all three of them, Goins draws enough from a Marine pension, some occasional freelance concrete work and his daily street performances to keep food in all their dishes—at least most of the time.

Goins eats mostly tuna fish and eggs, which he fries up or scrambles, sprinkles with raisin bran and serves with slices of wheat bread for breakfast. Washing that down with two or three cups of black coffee, he’s ready to start his day. His morning consists of practice and prayer. In the winter, he sits in his bedroom beside a small electric spaceheater, one of two in the house (the other keeps the pregnant dog warm), mentally reciting the Lord’s Prayer over and over and strumming his guitar. He doesn’t practice the actual songs per se, just the rhythm, pounding out random chords in standard 4/4 time. It’s as if he’s trying to get his mind churning and his heart beating in sync with the percussion of the strings. He knows the songs well enough, says he’s memorized hundreds of them, learned them mostly by ear, everything from “Proud Mary” to “Hound Dog” to “This Old Man (Knick-knack Paddy-whack),” but his forte, what truly feeds his soul, are the gospel songs for which he’s known. “How Great Thou Art.” “A Closer Walk With Thee.” “Amazing Grace.” “I’ve been playing those songs all my life,” he says. “And through them, I’ve spread enough spirit for six lifetimes.”

Save for one painting of Jesus that hangs framed in the living room, the drab, cobwebbed walls of Goins’ home are bare. “I’m not a picture-taker, not one for mementos,” he says. He stores the fading images of his past between the pages of the songbook in his memory.

He was born in Indy on January 1, 1944, the first of four children to a moderately successful insurance man named Jackson Goins. Though Tom’s mother did most of the rearing of her son and his three sisters, Jackson provided the two pillars of Tom’s life: music and religion.

Jackson bought 13-year-old Tom his first guitar, a banged-up, off-brand acoustic that had only three strings. Tom remembers listening to Elvis Presley on the radio, seeing him on TV and then trying to mimic the King’s sound and moves, shaking his hips and curling his lip as he plucked and learned the instrument.

Tom’s father also made sure his children had religion. Tom grew up reading the Bible and watching televangelists like Oral Roberts and his hero, Bishop Fulton Sheen, preach the Word. And though he’s backslid his share over his 62 years, he still considers himself a nondenominational “TV Christian,” as devout today as ever. “I looked into other religions, been in every cult there was,” he says. “But the only truth I ever found was in Jesus.”

Now he’s made his life’s work the spreading of that Truth through his voice and through his guitar. Every day, even during the punishing Indiana winter, he goes to work at 11:30 a.m.: bundling up in a wool-lined nylon coat he bought off a desperate vagabond for $2, donning his hat and sunglasses, and lugging his guitar to the bus stop a block south of his house. One dollar and twenty-five cents gets him downtown, where he’ll play from 12:15 until around 5 p.m., collecting whatever the city’s populace deems fit to give him on that particular day. Sometimes that’s as much as $40. Usually, it’s far less, as little as a few dollars. “Performing is about drawing energy from the people and giving it back,” he says. “I try to create an energy when I play. Some people pick up on it. Some people don’t. Either way, the Lord will provide. I just try to stay positive. That’s about all you can do.”

But Goins still has his gripes. And today, despite a sky-full of unabated sunshine, he seems to be in a foul mood.

As if being poor, hungry and freezing weren’t enough, today a boy has perched himself on the concrete flower beds beside the cowboy’s sunny spot in front of Chase Tower. Uninvited, the youth has been imposing his high-pitched, boy-band voice, singing along with the cowboy’s songs for a good 20 minutes now. And between songs, he’s actually been breaking into his own compositions. He claims to be a Christian rapper. The smooth-as-ivory–faced boy can’t be older than 17.

Goins humors him, even picks out a few bars on his guitar to accompany the impetuous youth. But the kid can’t stay on key long enough for Goins to find the right chords, and it’s too damn cold for an old man’s worn voice to try to shout over him.

“You keep doing what you’re doing,” Goins says, pulling out the Doral and re-lighting. “You’ll be famous someday. You’ve got nice looks. Nice teeth.”

The teenager looks down, gives himself the once-over in his designer jeans, pressed white-collar shirt and leather Air Force jacket. He smiles and keeps singing.

“Maybe that’s what’s wrong with me,” the cowboy continues, hands in his pockets. “Maybe I’m too ugly, too old.” He takes a puff, looks down into the case at $5.36 in ones and loose change. Along with the $10 bill he’s slipped into his pocket, it’s all he has to show for a half-day’s work.

“I don’t know what to do,” he says. “I’m too old. But I was too old at 30, too old at 40. Now I’m 62. I’m just in a rut. In a rut here in Indianapolis.”

“You need to learn a new tactic,” the boy says. “People don’t like that old-school stuff.”

He brings a cupped hand to his mouth, breaks out in an erratic beat-box rhythm.

“Some do like the old stuff,” says Goins. “Besides, I learn something new, and people don’t care. They just don’t get it.”

The cowboy lays his guitar in its case. The eager youth sees his chance.

“Mind if I play?”

He does mind. But he’d never say so.

“No,” he says. “But don’t play too long.”

The youth picks up the guitar and starts to clumsily thumb at the strings.

“You’re going to be famous,” Goins continues. “Just learn to play the guitar and go to church. You’ll be famous.”

It’s the same advice he’s given himself every day for as long as he can remember.

He continues. “I have ambition, you know. I have a dream. I’d just like some recognition. Play some churches and get paid. But they don’t want me. Maybe it’s the way I look. Maybe it’s because I play secular music.”

The boy picks away, oblivious. The cowboy goes on as if he’s speaking to the boy, the people walking by, the sky, the sun. Everyone and no one at once.

“I don’t know. But I’m not a beggar. Not a cup-shaker. I asked for a quarter once. Just one time. And I felt about an inch big. I earned everything I have. But I’m tired. Tired of doing something for nothing.”

Again he flicks off the cherry of his cigarette and stows the remainder. He holds out an open hand, black fingertips with several layers of skin worn away on the tight-coiled guitar strings. The boy relinquishes the instrument, grabs his bag and quietly walks on, east down Market Street. The cowboy finishes the conversation by himself.

“I’m tired and grouchy and cold,” he confesses. “But I do have a dream.”

Once again caressing his guitar, Goins pages through his mental song list in search of a tune. He looks up at the sun.

“I had a dream,” he says. “But I put myself here.”

He’s been chasing a mirage of fame for almost 50 years. He’s been places, seen things, held them in his hands. But today those hands bear only the coarse calluses of a guitar player and the worn-smooth palms and age-spotted backs of an aged laborer. His fingernails are chipped and yellow, outlined in grease and earth. His droopy blue eyes reflect a secret sadness that’s been welling up behind soiled sunglasses for half a century. “You see a lot of sorrow and misery out there,” he says. “People deformed, crippled, lost. Regular people with sorrow on their faces. Makes it hard to sleep at night sometimes.”

Of little comfort are his earliest memories of a relatively happy childhood with a good, stable family life. He always felt the pull, a desire to visit places, to just go. The sense that somewhere out there, someone was just waiting to hear him, to discover his talent. Goins first ran away from home when he was 14, hitchhiking to Kansas to stay with an uncle, and from there he thumbed to California, where he played and wrote songs and poetry. His parents finally convinced him to come home, but within two years, he had decided to drop out of school and join the Marines. When he returned four years later, Goins finally graduated from Arsenal Tech, then, in 1966, went to work at the old Weir Cook Airport, where he says he learned what he calls his “other trades”—construction, pouring concrete and doing drywall.

All the while, Goins was learning the guitar and singing. At age 20, he started playing at the Talbot Street Art Fair and in bars around town. But it wasn’t long before the restlessness returned. At age 28, Goins took his guitar to New York, where he worked in a machine shop during the day and played outside Carnegie Hall at night and on the weekends. After a year of that he came back for a year or so before taking off again for California. It was a cycle that repeated itself over and over for the next decade: Louisville, Indy, San Diego, Indy, Nashville and back to Indy. “I’d go for a year, then get homesick and come back,” he says. “But then sure enough, I’d get restless again and take off.” Although he says Indianapolis isn’t as welcoming a place as the others for street musicians, his roots run deep here. “It’s home,” he says.

In 1979, at age 35, Goins finally found a home away from Indy. He met Debbie through a church he was attending during a stint in Cincinnati. She was a small woman, dark-complected from Italian descent. She sang alto, played viola and had a thin strip of hair on her upper lip. The two sang and played music together and soon were married and moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, where Goins took up concrete work. But the music was always there as the two sang together in church and at home. “We sure sounded good together,” he says.

For eight years they were a pair. She was devoted to him, he says, took care of him, cooked, washed his clothes, cleaned the house. But he was a butterfly, took her for granted and was unfaithful. He wasn’t surprised when she left. Instead of trying to win her back, he took to the bottle. Once, she called him, tried to reach out, to make things work. Drunk, he told her, “It’ll be a cold day in hell when I come back to you.” He never saw her again.

When he sobered up, he came back to Indy and rediscovered Jesus. Started reading the Bible again, and found the Truth. He realized that his key to success was through spreading God’s word. He stopped drinking. Forty-three years old, he began playing Broad Ripple, performing unsolicited shows for crowds at the outdoor cafes, until the owners would run him off. And then he took to the streets of downtown. He’s been there ever since, waiting to be discovered, trying to spread the word of God to save others and, in a sense, to atone for his own sins. Singing the music of the Lord also helps him cope with his own pain, the loneliness of performing alone.

But when he returns to his wood-framed house, feeds the pets, watches black-and-white TV reruns of The Lone Ranger, and lies alone in his bed, he can’t help but miss her, especially on the cold winter nights. “She used to radiate heat,” he says. “It was so hot, I used to have to sleep in the living room on the couch just so I could get a good night’s sleep. I don’t know where she is now, but I miss having her next to me. I miss her warmth.”

Today is even colder than yesterday. It snowed four inches this morning, and it’s below 30 degrees. With the sun smothered by a blanket of cloud, Monument Circle resembles a life-sized snow globe that has yet to settle. But huddled against the southwest corner of the Chase Building, white flakes collecting in his hat brim and in the folds of his nylon coat, stands the cowboy, guitar in hand.

“It is miserable out here,” he says. “But this is what I do, and I need the money.”

Even though there’s more snow in his case than money, the shivering troubadour stays upbeat. “When you’re singing about the Master,” he says, pulling out a fresh Doral, “he takes care of you. And besides, the sun’s going to come out soon.”

After a couple quick drags off the cigarette, he launches into “Do Lord.”

If you can’t bear the cross, then you can’t wear the crown …

He may play for money, for recognition, for God and as a form of self-therapy, but right now, playing, moving his limbs and losing himself in the music is his best chance at staying warm.

If you can’t bear the cross, then you can’t wear the crown …

A few brave souls, mostly regulars who work on the Circle and know the cowboy by his Christian name, dodge the snowflakes and drop some change in his case. With each clink of coins colliding Goins stops mid-song to say “Thank you, brother,” then picks up right where he left off. When the song ends, he sweeps the snow off the top of his guitar and quickly shoves his hands in his pockets. Then his mind shifts to its common refrain.

“Yeah, I’m not a man without a dream,” he says. “I’d like to get famous, get paid.” Then he remembers himself. “Most of all, I’d like to make Jesus famous.”

As if to punctuate his sentence, the thick shroud of gray parts just enough to let the long-dormant sun stretch its rays down upon the Circle. The cowboy looks up, the sun again bright in his sunglasses. He grins his crooked, mustached grin.

“I had a feeling,” he says.

Then he sings:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, You make me happy when skies are gray. You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.

Please don’t take my sunshine away.


This article originally appeared in the June 2006 issue.

>> Also read, “The Christian Cowboy’s Last Song” posted 7/5/11 by Tony Rehagen in the Circle Citizen blog.

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Rehagen is a writer and journalist. He joined Atlanta magazine as senior editor in 2011. Prior to that, he was staff writer and then senior editor at Indianapolis Monthly. He has been a finalist for City and Regional Magazine Association (CRMA) Writer of the Year in each of the past five years. His April 2012 feature “The Last Trawlers” was included in the anthology Next Wave: America's New Generation of Great Literary Journalists. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a Missouri native. He lives in Atlanta with his family.