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A father and son in rural Tennessee look back on a life filled with music

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's Friday, which is when we hear from StoryCorps. Seventy-year-old Jim Von Stein made a living installing heating and air conditioning systems. In his trailer in rural Tennessee, there are also mountains of notebooks, scraps of paper and napkins where he's scribbled song lyrics. He's been writing songs since he was 9. Few people heard them. He came to StoryCorps with his son, Jason.

JIM VON STEIN: My mom used to listen to people like Elvis and Patsy Cline, which really - that touched my heart for those lyrics. And my dad, he barely played on a guitar. He played three chords, and I think one of them was wrong. But every once in a while when he drank, he'd get that guitar out and play. Of course, now I wanted to get a guitar. My dad said, you're not going to have that noisemaker around here. But that made me become a lyricist for sure, because that was the only way I could connect to music. You know, it was through lyrics - still telling stories. But, you know, you got to have heartstrings. And that's why I write songs. I try to write not just about me, not about any of my life, but about everybody's life.

JASON VON STEIN: You worked at the shipyard for many years, and they would send you out to San Francisco, and you really missed us. I remember you came back, and you wrote that song, "Always Missing You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALWAYS MISSING YOU")

JIM VON STEIN: (Singing) God, how much I miss you.

JASON VON STEIN: And then we did a recording of that for Mom. I guess I was 5. When you were writing those songs, those were No. 1 hits. When did you first realize you were sick, Dad?

JIM VON STEIN: Well, they told me I had severe emphysema. There was a doctor, and she came in here, and she said, here's a picture of your lung. And they were coal black. They told me, you know, that I had an expiration date. It's like you're going underwater, and you're trying to catch your breath. That's what it feels like all the time. But I'm still breathing. That's what matters. I remember you asked me, what were my regrets? Did I have any? And I told you I regretted that I didn't go out and play my music. You stopped everything you were doing and learned songs of mine. You learned every one of them. And I didn't realize it until you started playing them. Why did you decide to do it? I mean...

JASON VON STEIN: Because your songs deserve to be heard. You can't spend your entire life devoting yourself to something, and then nobody hears that. That's not OK.

JIM VON STEIN: You got so much time in your hourglass, and that's how you use it. And that's up to you. Long after I'm dead and gone and people forgot who I was, the song has its own life. And you are the voice for my songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE BIT OF ME")

JASON VON STEIN: (Singing) Got a boy, and he's 5 years old. He don't listen to what he's told.

INSKEEP: Oh, man, Jim and Jason Von Stein. Jim still writes songs every day - more than 8,000 to date - and Jason plays his dad's music wherever he can. Hear more of their story on the StoryCorps podcast at npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE BIT OF ME")

JASON VON STEIN: (Singing) ...Smashing heads on his favorite snake, stomping ants in the backyard plot... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Vassili