Tobacco Road

My mother died in 1977. She was only 57.  I was 31.  Though I had run hard and far to stay away from her troubles, I felt defenseless against the ravages of a grief buried deep under the walls I had created  to ward off  the sense of impending danger I’d felt around her since I was a child. I leaned heavily on the music of Steve Young, his songs already my closest companion, to get through the tumultuous year that followed. Steve’s songs cut deep grooves in my experience and made me one with a body of poetry as I had never been before. The songs became a new language for me, a language of sadness and anger, potent streams flowing into the river that ran through my black and blue heart.

August 4, 1977.  Barb and I are packing. Tomorrow we will drive from Milwaukee to Jackson, Tennessee to visit my mother.  I am hopeful she and I can find some peace between us. I have not spent a night in her house since 1969. Our relationship, already rocky, began worsening three years before when she’d married Elmer, a brutal, racist drunk from Sunflower, Mississippi. After the marriage I return home as little as possible.  But in 1969, I find myself confused by a hard year in seminary and needing some place to go. I leave to spend the summer at my mother’s house in Lexington, Tennessee.  Mama and I do surprisingly well. She stays off the pills, and we are closer. Elmer is off working on the river most of the time. And when he is home on layovers, he stays drunk most of the day. It’s one of those days, late into the summer, I begin seeing signs she is being battered. I should do something, but I don’t know what to do. I’m afraid of Elmer. I sense a violent criminality, and time and police reports I’ll read years later will prove I had good cause to fear him. Mama gives no sign she wants to leave. The pull of her desperation is great.  I have felt it time and again. My heart hardened by all the times I had left before, I choose myself again and go.  This time is the most final. I will never spend another night in a house my Mama lives in.  When I do go back for brief visits over the years, our days will be mostly full of pills and pain. In 1972, I will knock on her door only to find her so out of it that she won’t know me by my name.

It’s hard to believe, but I have found a reason to be almost hopeful about this visit. Barb’s presence made our luncheon visit to introduce them a little easier. Mama has also told me an old friend  has retired in Jackson and is giving her some help straightening out her life. The results look positive. She has divorced Elmer, lost a lot of weight and has gone back to work as a cook on the river.  This fourth of August is a Thursday.  Barb and I gather our things for the trip believing Mama’s been home and busying herself for the past few days to get ready for our visit. I’d started calling the Saturday she was coming off the river to talk about the route we’d be taking, but I kept getting a busy signal. I’d soon figured out the phone was out of order, so I called the police and asked them to check on her house.  It’s been five days now, and I haven’t heard anything back from the station or from Mama.  I feel some irritation about the phone remaining out of order, but I figure everything must be fine.

Our phone rings about 7. On the line is a policeman in Jackson. My mother was found dead today, he tells us, and she may have been murdered. I am numb, coldly so, and I will remain that way for a long time. All I can think of is a verse from the song “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”:

Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison.

And I went to pick her up in the rain.

But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck,

She got runned over by a damned old train.

I sit in the living room, naked to the waist with a beer in my hand and play my latest Steve Young album, Renegade Picker. I play “Home Sweet Home (Revisited)” over and over.  It’s a song written by Rodney Crowell that Steve fished out of a roomful of tapes at RCA. The song describes the decay of a family in a series of powerful images, a rotting house, a watch that won’t run, an abandoned car and the lost war that continues to define the South. The song is about a family like mine, another one that can’t be raised up when it is in defeat.

The next ten days will be tough ones. We’ll learn my mother died of natural causes. Because they’d paid so many visits to the house on domestic abuse calls, the police had initially suspected foul play. She’d come home that Saturday as she’d promised.  She’d suffered a heart attack before she could call anyone or even turn on the air conditioner. Though the police claim to have checked out my call earlier, they hadn’t entered the house until Thursday when neighbors complained of flies at the window.

On Saturday, while Kaye makes plans for the Sunday funeral, I go to Jackson to get the house ready to be cleared out and cleaned the next week. My cousin, Jim Todd, a lawyer in Jackson, goes with me. We can’t know what will await us. The body had been in that house for almost a week during one of the hottest times of the year.  This is no job for a son or a daughter, but it has to be done. We rip up carpet, mop the floors, and air out the house as best we can. For a full week, Kaye and I will work in a house saturated with death.

The service that Sunday afternoon is held at the funeral home in Hickman. It’s mostly just family. A few of Mama’s sisters come, but they act even colder than I feel. Mama has drained everyone’s patience over the years, and no one seems to have any room for grief.  The sisters talk mostly about how devious she was.  Mama, one of them says, took out a large life insurance policy on Elmer. Because he could not pass the physical due to his diabetes, she switched out his urine for hers. I want to believe the policy was a bet on the odds, but others aren’t so sure. She had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for the past 14 years. The family focuses on her drug addiction, an addiction fueled by a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. It had been her mental illness that made both my sister and me so afraid of her so often. She had never tried to harm me, but she threw a pot of boiling water at Kaye the summer after I graduated from high school. Mama, like many mentally ill people, posed a troublesome moral problem:  how much of what she did came out of a compulsion she couldn’t control and how much out of a lack of moral character? My mother’s sisters, and even Kaye, seemed to resolve that problem more easily than I could. I will spend my life never sure how much of what she did was beyond her control and worry that in the end, I failed her as much as she failed me.

The music is canned Funeral Home music, made worse by the hiss when the eight track tape is shoved in and out of the deck. Mama, I thought, deserved something like “Rough Side of the Mountain,” a black gospel song no one would have thought to include:

I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain,
I must hold to God, His powerful hand.
I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain,
I’m doin’ my best to make it in. 

If Mama had found God again, and there would be some evidence in her house she had, she found him on the rough side of the mountain. The song I sang in my heart was another by Steve Young, “Alabama Highway,” which begins with this a ride through the Alabama red dirt, shacks and cotton fields,  and makes the losses of the life real in the drudgery of work that takes away too much and gives too little. In the chorus, the song takes a mystical turn.

Alabama highway, take me on neath the moonlight toward the day
Turn supernatural, take me to the stars, and let me play.
I wanna be free, Alabama highway.

A white funeral in rural Western Kentucky had no place for either black gospel music or a song full of what seems to me to be Native American spirituality.  An old family friend, a minister who had known my parents from their early days, performs the ceremony and brings some softness to touch all the hard faces in the room.  He remembers Mama in kindly ways, speaking of her service to others as a minister’s wife, but ends the eulogy in 1963, the year my father died. We bury her in the cemetery next to my father as Nell Eason. There isn’t much left of our childhoods among her belongings. Each of us takes a few things from the house, we throw a lot away and sell what is left for $600.

August 16, 1977. Barb and I head back to Milwaukee. We over stuff our little Capri for the trip home. Exhausted by the last 10 days, we talk little. The big news on the radio is that Elvis has died. A lot of old hits follow, though few of them please me. I long for the early Sun recordings.   “That’s All Right.”  “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”  “Good Rockin Tonight.”  The music Elvis made before the Colonel came along to make him into a movie star.

Back in Milwaukee, I try to deal with a grief that won’t come close enough to the surface for me to grasp.  I’d lost a father I adored at 17 and could have cried rivers for days, but the world seemed to demand a false front of the new man of the family.  I gave it the greatest performance of my life.  Now, I have lost a troubled mother, and I have no tears. The distance between us should have made her death easier, but it just made her death hard in a new way. Things ended as they did. She was who she was. Nothing could change now.

My own life feels like an incredible contradiction in the year that follows Mama’s death. I spend my days as a fellow at a fancy humanities center at the university. It’s in Milwaukee, but many of the people at the center have their roots in Europe. Most of those who don’t are doing their best to act like they do. My friend Mark Lucius captures the spirit of the place well in a song about one of his hipster friends: “You’ve got that Continental look. Are you sure you come from Milwaukee?” I have one friend at the center, the science fiction writer Samuel Delaney, who grew up in Harlem and has a large generous view of the world. Barb says when we go to the parties, she imagines most of the people are thinking “The Okies are here.” She has the feeling right, but the geography is all wrong. When I tell Sam about this, he replies, “Don’t worry. They don’t have a map of that part of the world.”

I spend my nights in an imaginary world of red dirt roads, kudzu vine and hardscrabble farmers:

My mother’s story is profoundly Southern. A dirt poor girl, barely 16, catches the first car heading out of the hills when a Methodist minister, 10 years older, preaches a revival near her home. They marry and work their way up the bottom half of the class structure of the Methodist Church, spending the first half of their lives together in circuits serving three to five churches.  About the time I was born, my father had his first appointment to a single church. For the next 17 years we’ll move through a string of small towns in Western Kentucky and West Tennessee, never more than 30 minutes from the Mississippi River. My mother works and worries her way through those years. Nothing she leaves behind makes me sadder than a big box of yellowed self-help clippings that charted her life. There are tips on how to raise children, give parties, meet strangers, write letters, give talks, wear scarves, arrange tables, make punch, fix hair. With those clippings to guide her and by watching closely, my mother put together a self to face the burdens of being a minister’s wife. Behind the face, she carried some part broken from her childhood. As she aged, that part became more and more painful to her. She tried to dress up the hurt by spending too much on clothes and jewelry. When nothing seemed to work, she withdrew into the haze of a world softened by tranquilizers. When my father dies, my mother falls back down the class structure. It’s a hard fall. Winding up in public housing, she scrambles to get a job. Though her life with my father helped her acquire middle class affectations, she’s still not qualified to do the jobs she imagines for herself. She ends up cleaning, and then cooking, on riverboats that push a string of large barges up and down the river.  My mother, more color blind than most southerners, will die in a black neighborhood living with a violent and racist man whose past was so dark that it only bubbled up when he was most drunk.

I am numb throughout my year at the humanities center and only come alive in the imaginary world of song where I find my mother’s story and mine time and again.  I listen to the Elvis recording of “That’s All Right” a lot, mostly because of when he died. His mother’s face also reminds me of Mama. “That’s All Right,” is a song directed at a lover he calls Mama, but I hear my own and find myself in song at least able to say “That’s all right Mama, any way you do.”  I buy albums by Grand Ole Opry stars I first heard with my Mama, Hank Snow, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams and, her favorite, Faron Young. I listen to Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and David Allan Coe. Still, I find my greatest comfort in the Steve Young songs that describe a world where people are tortured by love, punished by memories, and burdened with an insatiable longing for home.

Steve is a master in capturing the dark side of my ambivalence.  It’s there in his wonderful version of the John D. Loudermilk song “Tobacco Road.”

Tobacco Road, I hate you cause you’re filthy

But I love you cause you are home.

Tobacco Road is the Doe Creek Road where my mother grew up.  And it’s also all those feelings I carry on my own imaginary road whether I’m going home or going away. The way it touches my own intolerable tensions is part of the music’s greatest appeal. This music, I think, is a music of lines, the ones you can’t cross, the ones you must cross, but most of all the ones you just have to walk.

The only relief I can imagine is my father’s voice telling me what to do.  I use another Steve Young song “Many Rivers” about an Eastern spiritual master to invoke my father:

He said, “My son we’ve played the game, and you’ve used a rambler’s name
But you never were a true hard-roller anyway.” 

He said, “My son, I have made you many rivers.
And you’ve followed them from the mountains to the sea.
And now I’ll make you one that flows beyond the sun
Oh I’ll make a ship of grace and set you free.”

Songs about being free capture my longings, but they certainly don’t make me free. I remain one of those barroom people Steve sings about in a Guy Clark song, “Take Me to a Barroom.”

Broken hearted people always seem to drink
Tryin’ to drown those sorrows, it ain’t as easy as you think
Living with a liar is a hard old way to go
Laughin’ just to keep from crying ain’t no way to grow

Even though winter has come, the liar I am still living with is my mother. In what should be one of the best times of my life–happily married, my doctorate just finished, a fellow at a prestigious center–I feel doomed. When I find myself standing around on busy street corners pondering why I shouldn’t just step in front of the next car, I scare myself and get some help. Even with help, it is a dark time.  Because Steve Young’s voice always makes me feel like someone is really there, he remains my midnight companion.

When I look back, I won’t know how my wife stood this period, which will go on for almost a year. I’m not constantly morose, but I fall in and out of dark moods, and it seems the next one is always close by. Finally, it’s a summer night, and I’m sitting in the living room, listening to “Home Sweet Home (Revisited),” a song that paints a dark future with the lines:

Tomorrow has no home sweet homes
Look what they’ve done to mine.

Barb has finally had enough. “If you play that song one more time, I’m going to leave.” Barb knew a lot about loss and death. She had lost a husband to a motorcycle crash and her mother to a painful fight with cancer. I have never known anyone who suffered such great losses, and there were others as well, with as much dignity. She was, and still is, a strong woman who has borne much. She tolerated a lot from me. When she could get my attention, things usually started to get better.

There would come a day when I’d  have to put these sad songs away for a while in order to gain my sense of inner balance, but that would be some years down the road. The good news would be that when I returned to his music, Steve would have gentler songs waiting to keep me company.  Still, the words and music that got me through a difficult time, cemented my love for Steve Young’s songs. Even today, those first songs feel like old friends, the kind that put their hands on your heart and say “We know how you feel.” Finding that once at such a level of depth, how could I do less than open myself again and again to the experience of longing for a song?

(This is the second of two essays on the music of Steve Young. I have written this story now three times over almost thirty years. There are sentences in this essay I wrote in 1988, others from 2001, but most of it is new. Sometimes, I feel I will be writing this story until I can’t write. It is not an easy story to tell, and I learn something new every time I tell it. I had some able assistance this time. Mark Lucius and Mark Neumann looked at early versions and offered some helpful suggestions. But the piece finally started to reach its final form with counsel from my writer friend Lynne Butler, who writes as Lynne Oaks.  Lynne gave the essay her close eyes that led to a better structure and then helped clean it up considerably. Once again I am thankful for her time, attention and poetic sensibility.)

Rock me like the Rock of Ages

February 9, 1964. I come home early for a Sunday night because the Beatles are going to be on The Ed Sullivan Show. Normally, I would be at church. My father’s church has given order to my Sundays just as it did in the days before he died a few months ago. The mornings are taken up with Sunday school and worship. After lunch, I often go to the gym to play some pickup basketball. I return to the church for youth fellowship at 6 and services at 7:30.

Along with church, school, basketball and work on Saturday keep me on track. In November, my mother and I moved out of the beautiful old parsonage where we lived for more than three years. After a month in temporary housing, we moved to a small three-bedroom apartment in a public housing project located in a good neighborhood not far from our old home. The project apartment is well laid out, up to date, clean and safe, but we live among the old and the poor, and the place smells of desperation. Our neighbors are elderly women, who are very kind and do what they can for my mother.

I have become a good actor, a master of looking like “everything is fine” no matter what. At school, I am president of my class, most likely to succeed, and the captain and leading scorer of the basketball team. At church, I am president of both my local youth fellowship and the district youth fellowship, as well as a conference officer. On Saturdays, I work from 9 to 9 at A & R Department Store, owned by Louise Akin. The small town is ever present, someone always close at hand, and yet I feel terribly alone. Louise is the only person in the town who has any sense of how I truly feel.

Louise picked me out to work in her store when I was in the tenth grade. The church youth had a rummage sale out in back of A&R, and she said she thought I had a gift for sales. As it turned out, I did, but I always thought she hired me, in part, because she liked me. She took an immediate interest in my future and introduced me to her nephew Ted Welch, who was an executive for The Southwestern Company in Nashville, a company that sent college students all over the country in the summer to sell reference books and Bibles. We develop a plan. After graduation I will sell books in the summer to earn money for college. Louise isn’t in the store much, but when she is there, she often takes some time to call me into her office. She has a business sense that both my parents lack. I pay attention when she talks.

Our relationship deepened when my father’s health worsened last year. I stayed with her in March when my father went to Cleveland for open-heart surgery, in May when his leg was amputated, in August when my mother was hospitalized at a psychiatric hospital and in October when my father went to the hospital to die. I have no idea how I would have made it through this time without her. She found me on her doorstep a couple of mornings in November and December after bad nights at home. She fed me breakfast and listened attentively. That was more than enough.

The Beatles play five songs on The Ed Sullivan Show, but the only two I see are “I Saw Her Standing There” and “She Loves You.”  My mother is crying hysterically, and I am running back and forth between her room and the living room. Nothing I do has any effect. Finally, I call Louise.  Waiting often seems to go on forever, but Louise and her husband Tony arrive quickly. Dr. Phillips is with them. He gives Mama a sedative, and she floats off quickly. Tomorrow Carmon, my mother’s brother, will come and take her to Western State Psychiatric Hospital. I will move back to Louise’s for a month.

Ordinary Time. My month at Louise’s was the best month of my senior year. Mama’s sense of herself had been slipping away since I was in grade school. My father had rescued her from a hardscrabble life at 16 and had guided her life with quiet confidence. As his death grew nearer, she became more and more a stranger to me. Since summer I had slept with one eye open, protective of my father at first, and then later for the two of us who remained. I wasn’t sure what she was capable of anymore.

Louise and Tony lived in a big white colonial near the school. I had the upstairs to myself, and I felt safe and secure in my corner room with walls the color of the shade trees just outside the window. That room itself always comforted me, and I wrapped it around me as if it were the key to some lost order in the world. I easily slipped back into the Akins’ routines and wished desperately their home was mine. It could not be and, in any case, I had little boyhood left.

After my mother returned, there were only a couple of months before I left home for good. I learned over that summer selling books that I would always be able to take care of myself financially. Louise told me that when my father was rolled out of the house and lifted into the ambulance for that last ride to Memphis, he had grasped her hand and said  “Make sure David goes to college.” She led a drive to raise funds for my first year of college, but her greatest gift was teaching me how to be financially independent. I sold books for three summers and made a lot of money. The last year I made more in eight weeks than my father ever made in a year. That seemed obscene. Selling books taught me both the importance of being able to take care of myself and how little money meant to me otherwise.

I was in my second semester of college before I felt the full force of all that had happened. My whole life had been structured around making my father proud. With him gone, my life started to feel artificial. My deepest longing was to be real. For me, that meant living in a lot of sadness and anger. I tried to drive the hurts away with liquor, but by the end of the night, I was usually the saddest guy still drinking.

Louise was the only person who acknowledged the sadness in my face. Often when we talked, she told me to “keep my chin up” and then tenderly lifted my face with her hand. Whether I was in Newbern or at school in Jackson or Memphis, she always seemed to know everything I did, that I was drinking too much (she told me time and again about the virtues of taking only two drinks), that I was expelled from a dorm for carrying in a beer, that when I returned to the forsaken idea of going to theological school, it was a spiritual hope and a prayer and a practical way not to be drafted.

For the rest of her life, whether I was in Watertown, New York, Memphis, Carbondale, Illinois, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City or Nashville, we stayed in contact. We called often, wrote letters and sent gifts on the important holidays. I always visited when I came back to Tennessee. She and Tony remained in that big white colonial until the early 90s. When Tony’s health worsened, they moved to Huntsville, Alabama to be near their son and his family. Not long after the move, Tony died.

Sept. 24, 2000. It is Louise’s 90th birthday and her son Joe and his wife Ruby have a big party for her at their home in Huntsville. Many family members are there. Because I am never quite sure where I fit, these family situations  always make me feel anxious . I arrive late, a middle-aged professor with a pony tail. I feel lost and wish I had gotten a haircut. Before long,  Louise finds me and puts her arm through mine, and, as she has done so many times, keeps me close for much of the afternoon, guiding me to this relative and that one. After everyone leaves, she and I walk in the garden. When I take her back to her condo, we visit a little longer. We have felt so close this day, and it is as if neither of us wants the day to end.

Shortly after the party, Louise breaks a leg. She survives the injury and rehabilitation goes well. Later she develops some dementia. She often calls and talks for long periods about her desire to return to the area where she was born and some of her family still live. She is frustrated that no one else thinks it is practical. There is nothing for me to do but to remain steady and listen. Though I am not a good listener in general, I manage to do better than usual with her.

November 30, 2003. When she is dying, her family is very kind to me. Ruby calls to tell me time is growing short, and we arrange for my visit. Ruby meets me before I enter her hospital room to let me know that Louise’s mind comes and goes. I am not sure if she knows me for much of the afternoon. After a time, Ruby leaves the room for a few minutes so we can say our goodbyes. We hold hands, and she talks of facing death.

There are words we long to hear, and sometimes, the only way we get to hear them is by singing songs to ourselves. I like that Paul Simon song “Loves Me Like a Rock” and often find myself singing it as if it came to me from nowhere. Here are a few lines:

My mama loves me, she loves me

She get down on her knees and hug me

Oh, she loves me like a rock

She rock me like the rock of ages

And loves me

She love me, love me , love me, love me.

Louise grips my hand a little tighter and looks in my eyes:  “I loved you like you were my own baby boy,” she says. My eyes tear up and all I can say is “Oh, I love you so.”

In the car, I fumble through my music for The Beatles No. 1 Hits. I slide the CD into the player. Today is not a day for “I Saw Her Standing There” a song that reminds me of my mother’s hysteria on that night so long ago. Today is a day for that other song I remember from that night. I cue up “She Loves You,” and for the next 90 minutes, I sing and cry, and even laugh a little, all the way back to Nashville.

Ruts All The Way Home

My wife Barb and I are on a state road somewhere between the Tetons and Riverton, Wyoming in August of 1984. There are deep woods on either side with an occasional grassy spot filled with wild flowers. Barb says the flowers are called Firewood. We are supposed to be enjoying the great outdoors because that is what Utah, where we have moved, and its neighboring states have aplenty. Things are not going so well between us, and the isolation in nature has just made our uneasiness worse.

We left our little resort this morning and are wandering around in the car before heading to Riverton to celebrate Barb’s birthday. When we move into a part of Wyoming that seems less made for the camera, we discover an Arapaho Reservation and an abandoned mining camp. Barb fell in love with the high plateaus of Wyoming on her way out, and this part of the trip brightens her spirits some.

I remain dour until we come upon what is, and will remain, my greatest discovery in the West, the ruts of the wheels the wagon trains made going west. After all these years, the residue of travelers a hundred years ago is visible in the land. I am in awe. My imagination was made by Western movies so where there are ruts I see a dangerous muddy pass to be negotiated, wheels mired down again and again, broken and stray wheels, wagons to be unloaded and then reloaded. “Ruts, ruts all the way home,” I say it to myself as if I have discovered a lost lonely line from a Zen koan. I feel certain if I could find the other line I would be able to state the puzzle that hides some ultimate truth about life.

Barb and I have been married eight years, and they have been hard years, some of it our own doing but much of it beyond our control.  We came to each other with enough sorrow to fill up a jukebox with sad songs.  The marriage was loaded with too many deaths and other losses that left wounds that had never healed.  In our years in Milwaukee, where I had my first teaching job, there were still more losses.  Only months after our first year there, my mother died a lonely death at 57. This was followed by news that we had to accept  we would never get custody of Barb’s daughter, born out of a college romance and lost in a dirty legal deal and then a few months later that we could never have children of our own. We had deep sympathy for each other. That was our greatest strength. We kept going by creating new ways to hope, but we didn’t have very many visions of  a shared future left.

We had come to Utah on the run from some hurts I had endured in the world of university politics. As luck would have it, we were able to run up the class scale and not down it. The University of Utah was a good school with an excellent Department of Communication that liked me for all the right reasons, supported me well financially, intellectually and professionally, and  would give me early tenure while promoting me to be the editor of an important national journal.

None of that really mattered much. We left behind our last good plan. Barb would go to graduate school to get her Ph.D., we both would be professors and we would have our summers to travel. She was accepted at a number of schools near Milwaukee with offers of support at Northwestern and the University of Wisconsin and a full fellowship at the University of Michigan. I liked teaching tough urban kids in a big city, and I had helped take the department up a few levels by working hard to recruit good young faculty and developing stronger ties to the news media. We had received a provisional accreditation the previous winter, the first in the department’s history. I was next in line to be chair, and everyone expected that to happen soon.

In my tenure and promotion review, an abnormal thing happened.  I was approved by department, college, and university committees, but the university president, for the first time, overturned 17 recommendations. I was one of them.  It took three months to get my decision reversed, but a lot of damage was done to my feelings for the university and some members of my department. I wanted out.  Utah was a way to move more than a destination.  I had to look the state up on a map before leaving on the interview. Barb went along with the decision even though for us as a couple the move was the wrong thing to do.

My job was about the only thing that went right for us in Utah. Selling our house  took 18 months. Barb tried to put together a Ph.D. program at the university, but it just didn’t work for her. In Wisconsin, she had felt desirable as a candidate; in Utah, she left like part of the price of getting a new professor.  She had decided to drop out of school after a semester and would eventually find a new path in healthcare public relations, but we would never again share a common dream.

As evening approaches, we drive into Riverton. The town is an ink spot on the map where fine dining is scarce but honky-tonking is a way of life. We find our way to Al’s Gaslight Café out on Federal Way. It’s a big room with an electric bar sign motif, a good crowd, friendly barmaids and a big dance floor. We haven’t even heard any music yet, and I feel better.

The music at Al’s, it turns out, is better than anyone in the state of Wyoming had a right to expect. The band is called Wyld Oats and is from Chicago. There are seven of them, and they have been living in a trailer out back of Al’s for a couple of months with occasional forays to other joints in the West. We learn all this from the drummer, who went to SIU, where Barb and I met, and who introduces us to the other members of the band.

What makes this band special are the two sisters who front it. Cecily and Chris are the daughters of Chicago’s WLS Jamboree great Bob Atcher and have been performing since they were children as part of his family show. Wyld Oats is a strange hybrid created to showcase their talents. It is at once a show band that puts the women out front to do a range of great numbers that should be both seen and heard and a dance band designed to get everyone on their feet and spending money at the bar.  The band is versatile. It can rock a little like Linda Ronstadt, cover what today we would call Americana (Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell), and do classic country (Dolly Parton and Patsy Cline in particular) and even some bluegrass classics (“Mule Skinner Blues”). The crowd wants the band to rock more, but Al, the owner, wants more country so there is a little tension with this gig that has risen and fallen periodically over the months. Wyld Oats tries its best to find a middle ground that will keep both the audience and Al happy. The band certainly keeps Barb and me happy, perhaps happier than we have been since she arrived eight months ago.

Wyld Oats is a wonderful find in an unexpected place, and everything about the evening is perfect. Cecily and Chris are polished enough to be on stage anywhere. Chris’s husband plays lead guitar and holds the band together. The band members are very likable too. When they aren’t on stage, we trade stories and get to know each other.

At the end of the evening, I ask them to do the Gram Parsons’ song “Wheels.” They know the song but hesitate because of the owner. They have done other songs we wanted to hear, so we give up on it easily. Then right at the end of the show, the last song is a wonderful a cappella version of “Wheels” that just knocks me out. I cannot hear the song to this day without remembering Cecily and Chris singing it.

We’ve all got wheels to take ourselves away.

We’ve got the telephones to say what we can’t say.

We all got higher and higher every day.

Come on wheels take this boy away.

We’re not afraid to ride.

We’re not afraid to die.

Come on wheels take me home today.

So, come on wheels take this boy away.

There’s another verse that ends “Come on wheels make this boy a man.” The song is probably not the right song for a couple struggling to keep their marriage alive. Still, it is the perfect song for a 42-year-old self-absorbed man, who still wants to believe that wheels can take him away but has enough experience to know there will be ruts all the way home.

(Barb in this story is Barbara Bennett of Owensboro, KY.  She is the author of a poetry chapbook Sightings in the Land of the Dead (FutureCycle Press, 2013). Barb offered some helpful suggestions on the writing of this piece. Thank you.)

Please, Please, Please

The sun is going down on a farm house outside of Washington, Georgia in the hottest part of August in 1965.  Inside, I am trying my best to get the attention of a large African-American family to show the reference book I am selling. I am not having any luck. It’s a large family, and though my training tells me to gather them all in one location facing me, that seems an impossible task. There are kids here from 5 to 17 who are just too excited about what is going to happen on television in just a few minutes to pay any attention to me. Other children from up and down the road are coming into the house and squeezing into a seat or sitting on the floor. I can’t even tell who is in the family and who isn’t anymore. The parents are as excited as the kids and have secured their own places by picking up a couple of small children and placing them on their laps. Finally, I give up, lean back, and watch the show.

“James Brown and His Fabulous Flames” are appearing on national television, and I am lucky enough to be sitting in the middle of an adoring audience, primed for every word he utters, every move he makes.  I will sell books later. This is a moment to savor. Brown only does a couple of numbers, but he includes “Please, Please, Please,” a closer few acts can match.  As lyrics go, there is not a lot to the song. Brown has been done wrong by a woman, and now she is leaving him on top of that. He begs again and again for her to “please, please don’t go.” The song seems to be winding down when one of the Flames comes over to wrap the overwrought Brown in a cape and console him. Full of grief, Brown slowly heads toward the side of the stage only to bolt and return to the mike to make his plea again. One plea leads to another, and this scene is repeated two or three times, Brown plunging deeper and deeper into his sorrow until for a minute the song becomes a shriek. He drops to his knees repeatedly, but with help he regains his footing.  It is a gut-wrenching performance that ends finally when a sliver of calmness appears in the middle of a shriek, and he closes the number on his feet.

Brown’s emotion fills the room. Children and adults find their own ways to respond. There is dancing, shouting, singing, clapping, stomping and a few shrieks of emotion to match his. At the end, for a minute, the room seems as limp as Brown appears to be on stage.  It would be a sacrilege to try to sell these people anything after what we have experienced. I thank them for letting me be part of the viewing and ask if I can return tomorrow. I have seen James Brown do “Please, Please, Please,” and if he wasn’t live in that little living room, you couldn’t prove it by me.

If you knock on every door you come to, you will learn a lot about the joys and sorrows of people. If you do it in the South in the 1960s, as I did for three summers in Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina, you will learn a lot about race and the racial divide that so troubles the region. I will never forget that night, but I also always remember that if I had been black and the family had been white, I would have never gotten in the door.  Still, when a door opens and you find something beautiful, you hope you will be different because you were there. That’s a lot to ask of a few minutes in front of a television in the house of a stranger on a hot night in rural Georgia. One thing does lead to another though, and I like to think that maybe that night helped give me ears to hear a little song by Nina Simone titled Compassion a few years later:

Because I have loved so deeply,

Because I have loved so long,

God in his great compassion

Gave me the gift of song.

Because I have loved so vainly,

Sung with such faltering breath

Oh, oh, oh the master in

His infinite mercy

Offers the boon of death.

You are in Mississippi Now

There are four of us, none older than 18, sitting around a small table sipping what seems to us an exotic tea drink in a Greenwich Village coffee house. We have come here on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 1964 in search of the Greenwich Village experience. Mostly what we know about the village we learned on Hootenanny and other television shows. We picked a place out of the newspaper without much thought, but we have gotten very lucky. We have found one of the major places where folk music is flourishing, the Gaslight Café on McDougal Street. It’s about half-way through the evening and we don’t know that yet. We have watched three pleasant folk acts and are enjoying ourselves, thinking perhaps that this is how the rest of the evening will go. That will be all right with us. We have gotten what we came for, but we are about to get far more than we imagined was possible.

In a few minutes Phil Ochs will take the stage. Ochs is a topical singer.  He writes songs based on the stories we read in the newspaper about Cuba, Vietnam and, most importantly for me on this night, about race relations in the South. He mixes in some traditional poems and older songs he has adapted to balance the program, but as his first album declares in its title, it’s mostly All the News that’s Fit to Sing. He devotes two songs to Mississippi, where I had spent a few days the previous summer.  The first, “Too Many Martyrs,” is a song of mourning for fallen heroes Medgar Evers and Emmett Till.  The verses are as prosaic as the news, but Ochs wrenches some poetry out of the chorus:

Too many martyrs and too many dead
Too many lies, too many empty words were said.
Too many times for too many angry men
Oh, let it never be again.

The second song, “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” is angry, probably the angriest most outspoken song I have ever heard. It slaps me in the face and I don’t miss a word. I don’t know very much about world affairs yet, but I have a developing understanding of race relations in the South. The song devotes verses to the government, the people, the schools, the police, the courts, the laws and the churches, each connected to the whole by the repetition of a simple chorus.

Here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of

I had gone to Mississippi a few months before to visit with two boys from Ole Miss who had been my roommates that summer while we were selling books door to door. Bill and John came from  two small towns in Holmes County, a few miles north of Canton, where much civil rights organizing was occurring. My visit came during the Democratic  National Convention, and much attention was focused on the attempt of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated in place of the all-white delegation of the state party.  The atmosphere in Mississippi was very charged. Still, my friends’ families were relaxed and kind to me.

On the second day, I had dinner at John’s house. His mother was a lovely woman who lived in a gracious house that stood on a steep hill outside their little town. Her husband was dead, but her other son farmed their land. Dinner was going well when my friend John, an actor by nature, started a story from his book-selling experiences. It involved a black family, but it was a story about selling, not a story about race. In telling the tale, John improvised the dialogue with the customer whom he referred to as Mrs. Jones. About halfway through the story, his mother stopped him. “John,” she said, “you don’t have to call her Mrs. Jones, you are in Mississippi now.”  It was one of those awful Southern moments that just appear out of nowhere to leave a long scar in its wake.  I had seen this happen many times since I was a child, but none stunned me as much as “You are in Mississippi now.”

I was ready for Phil Ochs. On the morning after we heard him, I bought his first album, and by Christmas, I had a Bob Dylan album. By the end of February, I had all four of Dylan’s albums. After that I bought them one at a time when they were released.  I also listened to many folk singers in a short period of time: Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk,  Eric Anderson, Tom Rush, Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Odetta, and many others. Many of these singers did songs about the civil rights movement.

Nearly all of the folk singers were white, and I didn’t know enough about black music to hear the cry of freedom in rhythm and blues.  In my senior year, I had my first close black friend, Gil Glover, one of the first of seven blacks to attend my college. Gil enlarged my world in many ways including introducing me to Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, and Gil Scott-Heron. Nina Simone sang some great songs about the civil rights struggle, but because she came from the jazz tradition, her work was not as widely known as it should have been. One of her songs was devoted to Mississippi and was written about the same time as Ochs’ “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” It’s a simple song.

She introduces it like this:

The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam
And I mean every word of it.

And the song ends like this:

Everybody knows about Mississippi.
Everybody knows about Alabama.
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.

For me, the 1960s began on the night before Thanksgiving in 1964 in the Gaslight Café when I heard Phil Ochs and found some songs with legs strong enough to stand on, songs that finally taught me that the answer to “You’re in Mississippi now” was “Mississippi Goddam.” The decade ended in early 1971, when I was living in Albany, New York. There at a screening of a film, I heard for the first time Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel To Be Free.”

Well I wish I could be
Like a bird in the sky.
How sweet it would be
If I found I could fly.
Oh I’d soar to the sun
And look down at the sea.
Then I’d sing ’cause I’d know.
I’d know how it feels,
I’d know how it feels to be free.

I realized that day the song described not only the plight of a black person in the South, but, in a different way, my own plight there in New York. I had run almost a thousand miles away to be free of my home and of the South only to discover that running away just showed me a longing I did not know I had. The South was for me a place like the Tobacco Road  of John D. Loudermilk’s song, a place I hated for all its many sins but loved because it was where I came from. I have spent most of my life bouncing back and forth between the South and points East, North and West trying to make peace with these conflicting impulses:  “Tobacco Road, I hate you ‘cause you’re filthy, but I love you ‘cause you’re home.”

Welcome to My World

I lay on my mother’s bed on Saturday nights until I was eight and fell asleep to the muffled voices of The Grand Ole Opry. My father in the front of the house working on his sermon, Mama would take charge of the radio as the last shots of Gunsmoke were fired. The Opry meant the coming of a sleep that I resisted, but its distinctive sounds, the shape of songs grown familiar only through those Saturday night shows, filled the space between us until her world was my world and her stars were my stars.

Mama was a big woman, five feet seven inches and fleshy enough, even in her prime, to call herself big boned. She could hide her emotions in a mask as stoical as bluegrass music. But there was a hint of moody sensuality about her as well and mischievousness in her smile. Her eyes, like her hair, were dark brown.

One of twelve children, she grew up in an unpainted house in the hills near the Tennessee River in West Tennessee. The house had neither electricity nor plumbing. It was all bedrooms, three of them across the front, two beds to a room, with a kitchen in the back. She went to grade school at the one-room Doe Creek School where my grandfather taught, then walked four miles to Scotts Hill for high school. It was a hard life and left deep scars on the children, something those romantic songs about growing up poor usually fail to mention.  Still, some of our best times were when she would tell me the old stories about growing up poor, isolated, and in a crowd of brothers and sisters. She would laugh until tears filled her eyes, and I, not really understanding the stories but loving the laughter, would roll on the floor beside her.

She found a way out when my father preached a revival near her home. At 16, she quit school to become a Methodist minister’s wife, first in rural “circuits” of three and four churches with names like Campground, Church Grove, and Palestine and later in a string of small-town churches in Western Kentucky and West Tennessee. She taught herself most of what she needed to know by watching and reading, and she lied about her education and age until there was no need and then out of habit.

Her life, our life, was orchestrated to avoid criticism, about our clothes, our car, our grammar, our manners, our intelligence, about the state of our souls. She rose at five daily and worked until mid-afternoon cleaning the house. In the evenings, particularly in the summer, she often visited with neighbors. As her extensions, my sister and I felt a lot of pressure to make a good impression as well. Violating one of her rules was a major offense, and she would ridicule you no matter how public the situation. Still, not all her rules were about making a good impression.  She was the least racist person from my early childhood, and she insisted I  work at treating everyone the same. She also had a wonderful sense of humor and could be very funny even about all her pretenses.

In 1954, we moved to our first brick house. The house, a four-bedroom Tudor, stood amidst old money next to a matching church on a bluff that overlooked the Mississippi River in Hickman, Kentucky. Methodists move their ministers periodically, so we were used to finding our place in the farm towns of Western Kentucky. What we weren’t used to were the plantation airs of Hickman, the colonial houses, the big cars, the fur stoles. This was cotton country, and the large farms that filled the river bottoms made it seem more like the Mississippi Delta than the Kentucky we had known.

The town was a testament to the power of the river. A seawall, that’s what we called it, stood an alley away from Main Street and wound itself around the downtown and west to the poorer sections to keep out the high water that had flooded the streets in the 1920s. More than a hundred concrete steps climbed from the downtown to the bluff where the town’s ruling class could look at the river from their picture windows but find none of its trouble in their yards.

A few families controlled most of the rich river-bottom land and sat atop a class structure that was mostly poor people, black and white. We were part of the town’s small middle class, but much of the town’s aristocracy attended our church, and our lives straddled the class lines that divided the town. Hickman was both an alluring and foreboding place. Closer to her dreams of the good life than she had ever expected to be, Mama drank in the small town elegance of that sleepy river town and turned off The Opry.  For Mama, Hickman was a place too grand for country music.

In the years to come our lives changed in ways none of us would have predicted. The summer after my fourth grade year, we had to start facing the ongoing problem of my father’s health. Daddy suffered from a number of circulatory ailments that were heart related and were the longtime consequences of rheumatic fever and a shooting accident he suffered as a boy. That summer he had very serious arterial surgery and his health for the remainder of my school years steadily declined. My mother’s mental health deteriorated in step with my father’s illness. She withdrew more and more into herself and increasingly medicated her fears and worries with prescription drugs. The shadow of those years and the ones that followed hangs over many of the stories I tell. But before there was a shadow, a light shined from the radio on Saturday night, the room was full of music and my Mama loved me like a song.

(Some of this material appeared in “That Same Lonesome Blood,” Oxford American Music Issue, 2001.)


The Sounds of the Old Ways Falling

By the time I got to college in 1964, I had heard hundreds of songs, but I am not sure I really had an identifiable taste.  I awakened to popular music in grade school and lived by the charts through high school. I loved R&B, Doo-Wop, a lot of country crossovers, folk-based music and some of the new British music, particularly the Animals.

At my little Methodist college in West Tennessee, I was paired with a boy from Centerville, who played organ and piano in a rock and roll band and, like me, had visions of being a minister someday.  His name was Doug but everyone called him Meador, his last name, and one among us, sought poetry by calling him “Meadow.”  Meador had one album, Roy Orbison’s Greatest Hits, and he had one album I discovered, because it was the one he liked to hear. And so every night, we went to sleep to “Oh, Pretty Woman,” “Crying,” “Running Scared” and “In Dreams.”

I was an innocent, the child of a Methodist minister, who had lived in a lot of towns but none larger than 2,500 and none outside West Tennessee and Western Kentucky. As for cities, I had been to Memphis and Nashville. I had never been in a pool hall, much less a honky-tonk, never taken a drink, never smoked a cigarette, and believed that copulation was for love and procreation. Future preacher or not, Meador knew far more about the darker side of life and was quite sure I was missing out on most of life’s greatest pleasures.  His band took him to honky-tonks within a 200 mile radius and he often staggered into the room near dawn with too much of a crooked grin to profess sorrow for his sins. The ministry was a boyhood dream for both of us, but by the end of the year we would have both put it behind us. We had gotten into a fraternity because we didn’t know what else to do, but, like the ministry, it didn’t seem to be either of our callings, though Meador found out a little sooner than I did.

There was nothing stylish about Meador. He was a little heavy and some part of his shirt tail was always outside his pants.  His dress style was slightly wrinkled way before wrinkled was cool. And yet, Meador had great charm and a wicked smile that along with his curly hair seemed to carry him further with attractive women than I ever would have imagined. Meador had confidence. He was a natural born con man, and even when his deceptions were obvious, he would flash a wicked smile that said, “I know you see through all this, but think about how boring life would be if I weren’t putting you on.” I couldn’t help but like him.

Meador thought I needed a mentor, and he was just the man for the job. With Roy Orbison playing in the background, he taught me how to inhale a cigarette, drink beer and scotch without gagging, how to dance well enough to get by, and most of all, how to think I looked tough even if underneath it all, I was running scared.  Meador was the growl in “Oh, Pretty Woman.”  Though I had good cover with my Ivy League clothes and small town friendliness, I was far more the dream-filled frightened adolescent Orbison’s songs brought to life. Still I never let the songs get too close. My cover was about the only protection I had against the grief and insecurity I carried.

Meador and I were both miscast as frat boys, but neither of us knew it. There seemed so few options in September  when our college life had begun. But at the end of November, I got a vision of a different life. I visited New York City over Thanksgiving. The streets of the city showed me how limited my view of life truly was.  And at the Gaslight Café, I saw the protest singer Phil Ochs, who made the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the injustice of many of my country’s policies real for me in a way they had never been.  Implicit in his songs was the notion that citizens—even students–should think more expansively and try to make a difference in the larger world.  These were issues that would dominate my college years and beyond, but I first heard them in Ochs’s songs:

What’s that I hear now ringing in my ear?

I’ve heard that sound before.

What’s that I hear now ringing in my ear?

I hear it more and more.

It’s the sound of the old ways falling.

You can hear it if you try.

You can hear it if you try.

(“What’s That I Hear?” 1964)

At the end of the semester, Meador and I parted ways. He didn’t make his grades and left the fraternity. I skimmed by. It might have been better had I not, but changing your life is more than a one-semester project.  I found a new roommate, a dedicated student whom I thought would help me bear down. As it turned out, I was not quite ready, even then, for the studious path. Meador had taught me well, and I was just starting to develop my talents for drinking and carousing. I had a new soundtrack though, and this one pointed forward. On the day after I heard Phil Ochs, I bought his album “All the News That’s Fit to Sing” and later that month an album by a guy Ochs could not quit talking about in his show, Bob Dylan. I would come to love Dylan’s songs in all his many incarnations, but Ochs’ music pushed me on to explore what it meant to be a citizen in ways I had not even considered.

For me the old ways started falling in the Gaslight Café on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 1964.  By the time I graduated from college, I would discover a love of learning, a thirst for social justice and a more global way of thinking, but I carried a little bit of Meador along too, a personal rebelliousness that put less emphasis on fitting in, a love of hard living, and a belief in following the song.

Green leaves of summer turn red in the fall

To brown and to yellow, they fade

And then they have to die

Trapped within the circle time parade of changes.

(Phil Ochs, “Changes,” 1966)




Midnight Riders

My first semester of teaching is over. As Christmas of 1976 approaches, I am a little dizzy from it all. I have taught a full load, three new preparations, while trying to figure out how to be a husband for the second time, working on a doctoral thesis that has to be finished by March and looking closely for a crack in the hard persona Milwaukee shows to outsiders. I am sitting at Axel’s, a bar near the campus but not a campus bar. With me is Mark Lucius, a graduate assistant that I think I am going to like.  It’s after midnight and we have just left a department party together because we have discovered we like a lot of the same music. We have come to Axel’s because the jukebox has some of it, including the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ “Third Rate Romance,” Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” Ernest Tubb’s “Waltz Across Texas With You,” and the song we talked about for almost an hour before deciding we just had to hear it right then, David Alan Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.”

The song is for each of us some kind of crazy anthem about the world as we see it. It is a joke that mimics a litany of country music clichés, but Coe’s voice somehow molds the verses into articles of faith. The outsider is hurling his song at the world in a strong voice full of emotion that suggests both a wail and an angry challenge, and oh yeah, there’s a joke too, but it’s not on him.

I have been to Axel’s a few afternoons already.  It’s dark place, day and night. There’s a slit of a window to let the light get in, but between the beer sign and the dirt, it’s hard to see in or out. The bar has its homey side, with a cast of characters who tell a lot of old stories about another time in the city, but it is also a place where you have to watch your step. One of my friends will be beaten up in the parking lot after an exchange with a bartender. Another friend, a woman, will find herself being hurled from the end of the room with enough force to put her in a booth halfway down the bar. She apparently brushed up against a rough neck who felt shoved instead of brushed. These little moments of terror will come later, but I know enough already to be careful. Still the bar has been a refuge from the university, married life, my thesis, and any reference to how funny I talk. It’s been a place to use David Alan Coe’s voice to map my own territory between the joke and the angry wail.  It’s good to be sitting next to Mark, a guy who gets the duality of the song intuitively.

There are things I feel about the song but don’t say. They would be too embarrassing just now.  The song is too full of jokes to claim as any kind of reasonable account of my life. But it is a poetic rendering of how my life feels, all knotted up over being seen for who I am.  I have received much love, but I can’t seem to escape the shadow of my mother’s vacant gaze.

           Well, it was all I could do to keep from crying

            Sometimes it seems so useless to remain

            You don’t have to call me darlin, darlin

            You never even called me by name.

When my mother dies a few months later, I even hear the final nonsensical verse tie up the events I live out.

            Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison

            And I went to pick her up in the rain

            But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck

            She got runned over by a damned old train.

 We don’t talk about sad things this night, but we recognize in each other someone else who feels like an outsider. We laugh a lot, drink too many beers, and celebrate the joy of good company. There would be time enough in the next seven years for talk. We will spend a lot of time together, see the sun come up a few times and run the needle through more records than I can count. Sometimes we will sing those Tom Waits and Randy Newman songs ourselves and others I will listen as Mark sings some of his own.

A few years later, we will even see Steve Goodman, who wrote the song Coe made famous.  He does a smug version that returns the song to its origins as a simple joke dreamed up by a couple of drunk songwriters, and his crowd loves it. Then he proclaims that he is not a friend of David Alan Coe, as Coe says in his version of the song, that he has never met him nor even received a letter from him. This doesn’t sit well with me.  I fume for a bit, decide I have heard enough of Goodman and spend the rest of his set outside smoking, waiting for John Prine to come on.  “Down where I come from,” I tell Mark later, “when a man makes you more money than you have ever made in your life, you go along with the gag. You for sure don’t make fun of him as a rube.”

Mark says that was the night I also told him about how I heard my mother and her death in Coe’s song. We were good friends by then. Friends and lovers may not be able to fill up our emptiness, but they bring us some light by seeing us in our sorrow and accepting our story. I got the present I needed most that Christmas in 1976, a good friend who called me by name, and he came on the wings of a black and blue song in a room where it was always midnight.


(My friend Lynne Butler, who writes short stories as Lynne Oakes, has been a big help to me as I have gotten this blog going. She helped me out of major structural dilemmas with both “Shame on the Moon” and “A Love Letter Straight From My Heart.”  She is an accomplished writer and a skilled editor. Back when she was just beginning, she was a student of mine, but I have found that she has a lot to teach me now, and she is very generous.)




Walk on the Wild Side

I am sitting in a bar near the corner of Madison and North Cleveland in Memphis with a woman named Sherry. It’s the summer of 1972, and I haven’t seen her in five years. I found her by accident an hour or so ago when I was driving around the campus of Memphis State University. Sherry was walking, walking fast, and she looked agitated or aimless. It was hard to tell which.  I picked her up as if I had seen her a few days before, and we headed to Uncle Sam’s, a gaudy red, white and blue joint decorated to take advantage of the owner’s first name. Inside, we drink in the cool air, and look for purpose in the beer, which comes in pitchers, and the music which comes from a jukebox.

 I have been out of the South the last three years and did not see Sherry for two years before that. I never saw her often, but we created some kind of strange bond the first time we met, and I have always felt some inexplicable closeness with this woman who for much of the time seems to be teetering on an edge that I don’t fully understand. It feels like that closeness is still there between us.

The first time I met Sherry was in the back lot of a drive-in restaurant on Sumner called Monty’s. She was a little high, sitting in the back of a car playing her ukulele and singing “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” She had this wonderful smile and a childlike vulnerability. That was in the spring of 1965, my freshman year in college. We saw each other some, though the bond was never romantic. I was still a frat boy intent on becoming a minister. She was a hippie before the word was invented. We went out a few times and wrote letters that summer when I went off to work in South Carolina. I think what made the bond between us stick more than anything was that both our mothers were addicted to prescription drugs. We had been hurt in different ways, but we shared a geography of sorrow that allowed us to find a little trail we could cross to connect with each other.

Our lives were made up of chance meetings.  A couple of years later, I went to Memphis State for a year, and I would run into her on campus, where she picked up a little money modelling for art classes. She seemed deeper into the crazy life by then, and I kept track of her addresses which changed often. I wasn’t doing so well myself. I had given up on the ministry and had come to hate the whole frat boy thing. I was drinking too much, and one night she let me stay at her place to keep me from driving.  The next year I went back to my liberal arts college where I had started and that was the last I saw Sherry until this day in 1972.

Still, we talk easily. Mostly she spins a gothic southern tale that could have come out of a novel.  One day, Sherry, as she had always hoped she would, climbed aboard a train to New Orleans. It was a desire, I think, hatched out of an old Bukka White blues tune, one of those train songs about a woman hurting bad and waiting for a train to New Orleans to try to put all that pain behind her. New Orleans was a city for exotic dreaming, about the only southern city  it was easy to imagine as a good place to lose one’s self and become someone else.  Still, there were also songs and stories full of bad omens that marked the trail to the city of the House of the Rising Sun.

In New Orleans, she meets a man, a man of means, an artist, a concert pianist. They fall in love, marry and have a couple of children, but things go wrong somehow. He becomes abusive and beats her. She lives in terror. She tries to leave with the children, but he refuses to let her take them. She has no money, little understanding of the law, and so she runs back the way she came. Here she sits this day in an old blue plaid shirt, the sleeves rolled up, brown dungarees, and Red Wings laced to the ankle. She smells of sweat and sorrow.

We smoke my Winstons, and I buy the pitchers of beer. We keep them coming deep into the afternoon. It feels like some kind of vigil. I get up to play the jukebox often. The song of the day is Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” I am sure I play it at least 10 times. I distract myself from being overcome with Sherry’s sorrow by thinking about the song. How does Lou Reed get away with singing that line “Let the colored girls say.”?

When I was growing up, Memphis was peppered with signs that marked the races as Whites and Coloreds.  The size of these signs dwarfed those in my hometown. It was as if in Memphis they were more worried someone might forget.  The Crosstown Bus, which ran from downtown to a huge Sears and Roebuck Store, came down North Cleveland, and I am sure there was a stop on Madison very near the bar where we sat. The bus was full of black people crowded in the back of the bus. And the Sears store, like the rest of the city, never let you forget race. There was a huge water fountain station with about four fountains on the first floor marked “Whites Only.” I was a small child, but it bothered me that I never found the one for “coloreds.”  It had been such a short time—four years after King’s death—since that long march over two decades which had revealed the use of “colored” to mark a people in all its ugliness. Now this hip New York guy had brought the word back minus the sting. That is some accomplishment, I think. The song and Sherry’s story also remind me of a movie from my high school days, “Walk on the Wild Side,” the story of a young man who goes to New Orleans and finds not the romantic city of the urban fairy tales, but the New Orleans of crime, prostitution, and lost innocence. It was in black and white and starred Lawrence Harvey and Jane Fonda. All of the songs and stories—old and new–and my own memories of New Orleans swirl around Sherry’s story and in and out of Lou Reed’s provocative invitation, “Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.”

I drop Sherry off at a house in midtown. It’s the last time I ever see her.

I am in Memphis a year, but we never call each other. I hear about her every now and then, even after I leave a year later. She stayed in Memphis and seemed to get a bit of a grip, but her childlike craziness started to irritate her old high school friends. They had grown up, gone to college, and now were trying to find their ways in their careers while raising children. Sherry was living a on the fringes of society but intruding into their world. They didn’t listen to the same music or laugh at the same jokes anymore.

One day one of Sherry’s pranks backfired and made her world even smaller. She broke into the house of two friends from high school to surprise them. Sherry was hiding in a closet waiting for the right moment to jump out and share her joke.  Her friends, however, were having a frank talk, the way husbands and wives do about their friends. On this day, the subject was Sherry. Their words must have hit hard because she was unable to stay hidden and leave subtly when their backs were turned. Instead, she burst from the closet and ran out the door. They never saw her again. None of her high school friends ever saw her again though she did call one about 25 years ago. Just that one call and she wouldn’t say where she was.

As evening came on that day at Uncle Sam’s, I realized the day had beaten me down. I had come back to the South to start again after a failed marriage, running as I always will  toward a South that is and isn’t there, a chameleon that calls me home only to pull the welcome mat from under my feet. A few days earlier, I stood before the door of my mother’s house in Jackson. She was so numbed out on pills she didn’t recognize me. “I’ve a sadness too sad to be true,” sang that Memphis boy Jesse Winchester who had wandered far in sadness looking for a home. For some of us, it is so hard not to feel lost no matter where we are.

That’s what I thought that day in 1972 and for many years after, but the course of life seems to level out a lot of things, even that strong sense of displacement. Life always has surprises for us, and who is to say it didn’t have some for Sherry too. Perhaps she went back to school and got her degree, found a man to marry and had more children. Maybe she struggled along like many of us who lived through that tumultuous time of the 60s and 70s but came out the other side. On my good days, that’s what I think. On my bad days,  a shadow falls over all the stories. Often, I play  Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will” and ponder this verse in particular:

If it be your will, if there is a choice
Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in Hell
If it be your will, to make us well.





Honky-Tonk Dreamers

Last month, I found myself at the Country Music Hall of Fame reading to about 450 people. But I only had eyes for John and Lois Shepherd, who were sitting near the front. I first met John and Lois in the late 1990s at the Music City Lounge on the wrong side of Lower Broad in Nashville. They weren’t hard to find. They played and sang there most every day. You could have found them just as easy any day since 1972, when they started playing the honky-tonks that line the street.   I had been asked by Bill Rouda to write a piece about that strip to accompany a book of photographs.  He started hanging out on Broad in the mid-90s with his camera when the street was passing from “the place you most don’t want to be alone after dark” into what it has become today, one of the most iconic images of Nashville. The book happened and now a decade after it was published, I was reading from my favorite section while John and Lois sat, dressed to kill, their faces beaming up at me.

I knew before I started writing for Bill that what made the passage of Lower Broad capture the imagination of both the city and at least parts of the nation was a tremendous creative spark that went off in one of the clubs on the street.  That spark was actually going off all over town as Bloodshot Records documented in an album of Nashville “alternative” music.  Still, even Bloodshot nodded to the importance of the Broadway scene when it symbolized the gap between the “mainstream” and “the alternative” in the title Across the Alley, the alley being the one that separated the Ryman Auditorium from Broad.

There was to be sure some special magic happening on Broad. Greg Garing seemed to be channeling Hank Williams in a show at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge backroom, the “green room” for the Opry in the old days. But the most dramatic sparks were happening three doors down in a new club, Robert’s Western World where its house band BR5-49 had taken an old sound and made it new and become a story in the process.

Robert Moore, who had run a lot of clubs on Broad over the years, tried hard to get out of the club business and opened a clothing store, Robert’s Western Wear. The only trouble was Robert wasn’t selling any clothes.  So one day he decided to go back to what he knew best, running a honky-tonk. The club literally took shape before all of the clothes were gone and a wall of boots remain to this day to commemorate its origins. Opposite that wall he installed a bar and in the front window a bandstand. He added a row of booths and some tables to surround a dance floor, and Robert’s Western World was born.

John and Lois would one day get a chance to play at Robert’s, but that wouldn’t happen for a few years.  At the time, Robert’s house band was filling the place with honkytonk dreams and love. The band was fronted by a couple of guys who had been playing for tips as singles. Both played guitar and were joined by a drummer, a standup bass player and a guy who could play most anything that needed to be played.  They called themselves BR5-49 after the incomplete phone number Junior Sample always used in some of his comic bits on Hee-Haw.  “And the number to call is BR5-49.” BR5-49 was at once hip and down-home, and the combination proved to be magical.  Lower Broad was a place where you played the standards and the band did that with a rocked-up flair that was at once homage and transformation. Gary Bennett, one of the two front men, represented the hard core country side of the band and Chuck Meade, the playful, hip, self-conscious side.

BR5-49  turned the street into a happening. Out on Music Row, a mile or so to the west, the stars of the moment were getting a total makeover–working out in gyms to firm up and bulge in new places, learning the stories they were going to tell to sell their songs, and getting new hair styles and costumes—to make them look like the babes and hunks whose hits would climb the charts.  But on Lower Broad, something totally uncontrived seemed to be going on.  And you had to be a real cynic not to like these guys and the scene they created.  The band played for five hours straight without a break five nights a week. Regulars on the street loved them, the hipsters loved them, and the writers loved them. What was not to love? Soon you saw mainstream country music executives,  visiting stars, and New York writers  in the crowd. And later there were lines and then people in even longer lines waiting for someone to leave so they could get in. Robert added a balcony to squeeze in a few more folks.  “We felt like we were in a movie about a band that went to Nashville and had this great Cinderella story happen,” Gary Bennett told me.

I was trying to write that Cinderella story, but to make that story sing I needed to tell some history—how the street had risen to glory during the Opry years, fallen onto very hard times for two decades after the Opry left, how the scene at Robert’s had given the street new hope, and how ominous forces waited in the wings ready to turn what was genuine and spontaneous into a new formula.

John and Lois were the living memory of the street. They came to Broad before the Opry left, weathered the hard years, and were still there playing across the street from Robert’s as the scene happened. But most importantly, they had paid attention, remembered names, and a few dates (though it was hard to get them to agree on dates). They helped me tell the stories of Tootsie’s great days as others had before me and added to my account of the rise of BR-549, but the story that turned out to draw me in the most was the hidden history of the street between its glory days and its renaissance, the story of the ghosts of that one long Saturday night that endured for two decades after the Opry left in 1974.

John and Lois remembered all the street characters and their stories: Broadway Mae, Russell the Hustler, City View, Jule the Minstrel Man (who was still hanging on) and others.  The BR5-49 story was a Cinderella story that put a smile on your face. But life is also about pain, rejection and loss—“songs that cry to be written” as Lois writes in one of her songs–and that long party on Broadway had left a lot of broken pieces to sweep up.

Lois was born in Nashville and met John in Florida.  They came to Nashville as a couple in 1972, two years before the Opry left the Ryman, and, as far as I know, they have never been seen separately since except for the few minutes it takes John to load and unload the car before and after they play. They knew Tootsie and the people who hung out at her place in the last days of the glory years and they had stayed and played on as the street became a haven for homelessness, prostitution, pornography, some violence, and a lot of bad press.  One visiting writer said Lower Broad looked like what Bedford Falls would have been had it not been for George Bailey in the film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Over the years John and Lois had played at the Dee-Man’s Den, Big Daddy Moose’s, Wanda and Louie’s, Tootsie’s, the Wagon Burner, The Rhinestone Cowboy, Tiger’s Country Saloon, The Wheel, most every bar on the street. John had come to town to sing pretty like Jim Reeves, but he was playing six or seven nights a week just to stay alive in smoky rooms with too little ventilation.  He often tried to do side projects with a voice already worn thin by the long hours.  In 1979, he got a break and for six months was the voice on the Miller beer commercial (“If You’ve Got the Time, We’ve Got the Beer”).  His next big break was a long time coming. On one of BR5-49’s appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, the group gave up one of their songs to John who was able to fulfill a life-long dream of singing on the Opry

John and Lois had been playing at the Music City Lounge a number of years when BR-549 broke through. Gary Bennett told me that John was the Daddy of all the pickers on the street. “As hard as tips were to come by, when he took a break he made the rounds and put a dollar in each of our tip jars.” And the lesson was not lost. “What he was showing us is that we weren’t against each other but were all connected and part of one thing.”

John, and Lois understood early that if you didn’t get home with your money you might as well not have earned it. They saw too many of the players give all their money back to the bars after they finished their set.  They were at the center of a storm of wild ways but kept steady and even did their best to care for some of the broken people of the street.

I sat at their table and listened to all the stories for a long time. I couldn’t have written my part of the book without them.  But something else happened along the way. I came to love watching them perform, particularly on Sunday afternoons when they moved out of their usual 5 to 9 slot for a day show. There were some old friends who came to dance that day and there seemed to be a greater sense of good will. Sunday afternoon still had its drunks and other challenges, but for me the time also had a special beauty that was better than church. The longer I watched them the more I began to feel that transcendent thing that sometimes happens with music, where you, the other people and the place are all one.

The other thing that happened was that I came to care about them. Lois has a very soft, beautiful voice and a presence that casts a spell. I always sat beside her, and she made me feel like she had been holding that seat for me for many years before I found it. I am sure she made others feel that way too. John is high intensity, a counterpoint to Lois’s relaxed ways. He is focused, all about getting the job done and staying within his zone in the clubs. Over the years, he has learned how trouble starts and is good at avoiding it. He has had more than his share of wounds from the life of the street as well. The miracle of it all to me was that both came to trust me and keeping their trust became a vow for me. Life hadn’t turned out the way they dreamed it would, and yet what would have broken others had given them greater character. And they never short-changed anyone when they put on a show.

Many days the Music City Lounge looked like a last stop saloon. John’s crowd was made up of day workers, homeless people, and a few longtime regulars . . . . Sometimes an adventurous tourist would cross the street. . . .But there was a lot to ignore. . . There was that sign in the window that told you to leave your pack outside. And on a given day, there could be some midnight howling before the sun went down or an edgy drunk looking for an argument. . . .I always thought John deserved better. He could sing a soft, sweet country ballad with the best singers. Over the years he had taught himself to be an entertainer as well. He knew a huge number of songs and could sing them on demand as if that was just the song he had been wanting to sing all along. He could handle hecklers and calm down drunks. . . And if there was somebody in the crowd who wanted to sing, he could step aside with grace . . . Lois always joined John on stage for a few songs, including some of her own, and they had great charm together.  The crowds were better some days than others, [but small or large] they came with their ways of feeling that a lifetime had given them and their feelings that moment, which the day had given them. And we were all a little more alive because of John and Lois. On some days, John’s crowd at the Music City seemed to be the poorest of the poor, but they had their songs of the heart, and the music was live and full of power.

That last paragraph is from Bill Rouda’s book of photographs–Nashville’s Lower Broad: The Street That Music Made (Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2004), pp. 11-12.  That was the  section I read at the Country Music Hall of Fame last month. The program, which occurred as part of the Americana Association Conference and Festival, commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Lower Broad renaissance. BR5-49, which broke up some years ago, reunited for the show and played along with RB Morris, the Paul Burch Band and Greg Garing.  I asked John and Lois to come, and the Hall put them right down front. As I brought the reading to a close with the words “the music was live and full of power,” my voice caught, the words made more intimate by their presence. I then asked them to stand and the crowd responded with a huge round of applause. Before I knew it, John and Lois had left their seats and walked to the edge of the stage and both had taken my hand.

Afterwards we talked easily and softly like the old days about the things friends share, old times, our health, and our plans.  Lois had some very good news. Eight of her songs, including the title cut, had been recorded by an Irish singer Pat Whelan on an album Spirit Eagle and she had been named International Songwriter of the Year by both the Leinster Entertainment Awards and the KFM Country Music Awards in Ireland for the song “Spirit Eagle.” At long last, some recognition had come for a woman whose heart is full of songs.

John and Lois still play at Robert’s, Sunday through Tuesday from noon to 2 p.m. Try to drop in and see them. Don’t forget to tip them well, to tell them that I sent you, and to request “Cowboy Let’s Round Up Your Dreams,” my favorite of Lois’s songs.  Here’s the chorus:

Yippee-Ti-Yi-Yay come along little darling

We’ll ride out together just like we rode in.

Two hearts full a love and a car load a nothing

A guitar picking cowboy chasing honkytonk dreams.

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