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Monday, June 29, 2009


A likeness came to mind several months ago I hesitate to tell because it is so close to the line of absurdity. It doesn't leave my mind and actually grows, leading me to see it get more interesting as it goes along. It's that I've come to see in a parallel kind of way this house as a monastery for two, with Jr the old abbot fading into frailty. I'm like the devotee who serves his Master for the nearness of his wisdom.

I think a monastery because it's just the two of us here separated from the rest of the world. Only Jr's closest friends stop by to see him any more, and not for long at a time. He's being forgotten by the world he lived his life in and the people he's known. One day he was telling me about so-and-so who was 98 and he's still out putting up hay. Jr was comparing himself to this man unable to do that at 87, finding himself puny by comparison. I said to him, most of the people your age are dead. That was the end of down-on himself thinking. It helped him to remember that about all his friends have been dead a long time. He's still above ground. He outlived most of them. Once, I said, to him, "You could outlive me." He said, "I already did."

When I was new to the mountains, I had a kind of parallel vision of self in my monastic phase. I'm careful not taking myself too seriously, but still see a parallel with Chinese Buddhist/Taoist monk Han Shan, who wrote the small book of poems, Cold Mountain. He left the world to live on Cold Mountain. I saw my own coming to the mountain a much lesser version of Han Shan's.

In childhood when I first learned about Tibet, probably in National Geographic, I wanted to go there. I'd look at a globe disappointed to see Tibet was not quite the opposite side of the earth from where I was in KC, which would have to be the southern hemisphere in the ocean. But Tibet was close enough to the opposite end of the earth from where I was, following the "logic" that the opposite of an unsatisfactory situation would have to be satisfactory. I'd look at the globe longing to be in Tibet studying Sanskrit and ancient texts. Shortly afer high school I found a paperback copy of The Third Eye, a monk's own story in Tibetan monastery. I read it without comprehension, but it gave a peephole into the place whose mystique for me was that it was the other end of the earth.

In childhood I believed the opposite of something was its negation. But now I know that's not so. In fact, I've come to see the opposite as very much the same. In childhood I wanted to be the opposite of everything I didn't like. It was a driving motivation. Also in childhood, playing cowboys and Indians, I was always the Indian and the rest of the boys in the neighborhood were cowboys. None of them wanted to be an Indian and I didn't want to be a cowboy. Cowboys spoke with forked tongue. I didn't like the way kids are lied to and led to believe all kinds of craziness no one in their right mind could possibly believe (enculturation). All around me white adults spoke with forked tongues; parents, preacher teacher, other kids. It was like white people lied to each other all the time, like playing denial, following the unwritten rules of Should.

My parents taught me to lie by saying I won't get punished if I tell the truth. That never bore out. When I told the truth, there was hell to pay. When I lied, there was no problem. I couldn't share any of my thoughts with them because a lot of my thoughts questioned what they believed they believed. Not drastically, but just enough to scare them. That was blasphemy and blasphemy is the unforgivable sin. So is lying to kids about the nature of the world we live in. What we call primitive cultures, primitive meaning first, not lesser, teach kids the truths of living in this world, not denials of violence, death or foul language. Parents tend to hide their fun side from the kids and don't allow themselves fun during the serious time of raising kids. Must be a good example. Be a fake example. I say, What's so great about denial? Kids grow up knowing all that parents don't want them to know anyway, and it has to be kept a secret from parents that the kid knows more than he/she Should know. This is my own experience, not to be taken for universal.

I recall a time when I was 15, staying the summer with grandparents and working for grandfather, a golf course greens keeper. I had to go to bed at a certain time and this one night grandparents stayed up late with grandmother's sister and her husband playing cards, smoking cigarettes and drinking liquor. Talk about sin. They got louder and looser and I listened to every word they said. They were talking "dirty" and laughing, getting drink and I was loving it. Grandma and grandpa were real people, after all. In their late 50s then. Instead of diminishing them in my eyes, it brought them way up high. They were real people.
I grew up in such anti-World indoctrination in church throughout childhood it made me want to dive into the World and be an active member. That period came to a standstill of its own momentum. The continuous indoctrination that God is good and World is evil made me question it. First thing I had to do was find a definition of the World. It's not the Earth. The Earth is the Garden. The World is the mind that holds money most high, a passion for things, objects, appearance: television. To sum it up: emptiness, nothingness, a void in the heart. That without spirit. In my my later years I've come to understand what all that means, to a degree, seeing that a passion for objects requires a lot of work at a job, I'd rather work less and enjoy my life all around me here and the people I know.

Neither Jr nor I watch television, neither do we listen to radio. We used to listen to bluegrass in the evenings on WBRF, but his interest in music has been fading with all else that's fading. We sit here on the bank of Hwy18 talking on the porch, watching civilization go by, we sit inside and talk. We have much silence too, and we're comfortable with the silence. Anybody listening to our conversations would be bored out of their mind.

Neither of us is a religionist. We have our individual interpretations of what is important. For Jr the Ten Commandments say it all. For me, it's a heart guided by love, not self-interest. Ultimately, both ways of seeing are the same. We have a deep spiritual association, but there's no religion in it, no rules and regulations, no tradition. Again, we see it in different ways, but this is the core of where we're in accord. I like a monastery and no religion. We live what we believe, but what we believe is not dictated from outside our individual connections with God.

In that way, what we're doing is Zen-like, doing by not doing, living in the present, pursuing nothing. As Elder Earl Baker says: according to the dictates of our own conscience. We live what we believe. It has no name.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Station's Inn parking lot / Laurel Springs

It's a good weekend for motorcycle riders from the flatland to go to the mountains for an all-day ride in the curves of mountain highways. Awhile ago a guy rode by with his arms sticking straight up, probably handlebars custom fitted to the length of his arms so he can go around looking like Xtreme Peter Fonda. It's an all day parade of every kind of motorcycle there is. Big ones with saddle suitcases in candy apple red with lights and chrome everywhere. Some look like the rider is simply sitting in a chair. Some require the rider's legs to point straight ahead. Some, the rider leans back to make me wonder how uncomfortable that must be on the long haul. It's like it's not a motorcycle unless it has chrome everywhere. Chrome looks better than oil-coated rust.

Motorcycle clubs with 10-50 or so riders from the cities go in long caravans. A couple weeks ago I saw a string of over a hundred of them. Some have the sound quality of an F-16 that continues rumbling long out of sight down the highway. Two different bunches just now went by together, obviously not connected. The first bunch was five newish, colorful, baritone Harleys, a guy driving and a babe hanging onto his letissibles, a word I got from 50s comedian Dave Gardner meaning love handles. The second bunch right behind them was half a dozen buzzing rice rockets. They were right behind the Harleys like yellow jackets buzzing the tails of the slower bumble bees. One of them carried on the back, side-saddle, a scantily clad babe in black with long black hair, Goth. Surrealism on highway 18.

In 06 when I drove out to Kansas to meet relatives I'd never known in Perry KS, talking with third cousin Gary Ellis from my grandmother's side, I told him how driving for several hours in a straight line I had a hard time staying awake. He said, "Do the curves in the mountains keep you awake?" I said, I reckon. I'd never thought of it like that, but maybe they do. They certainly hold your attention, like when you get into one that keeps on truning and keeps on turning and you realize you went into the curve a little too fast for the circle it seems to be making, hit the brakes, keep it in the road. One of those kinds of curves will definitely wake you up the first time around it.

In the summer it's about every other week we have a motorcycle wreck, sometimes fatal, sometimes a helicopter to Winston, sometimes Sparta emergency room, seldom no problem for the rider. In almost every description I've read of what happened and knowing the location, I can see it. Like a particular curve on Jane Taylor Mountain that everybody living in this county knows, but it creeps up on somebody from the flatland and says, BOO. It's the same thing over and over. Motorcycle takes the curve riding the yellow line, leaning over into the other lane. A truck or a big SUV comes the other way around the curve straddling the yellow line. That's it. Cat shit.

Several months ago, maybe almost a year, I was driving into town on Saturday morning to the radio station around 20 after 9. In the curve at the town end of Thompson Flat, a row of 15-20 bikers, all of them affecting the traditional biker Vietnam vet look, cool bikes, cool helmets, came at me around that curve as I was going into it, every one of them on the yellow line, every one leaning way over into my lane. I rode the white line to stay out of their way, obvious beginners. I thought one or more of these fellers is going home in a body bag.

The following Wednesday in the paper, two bikers on a motorcycle club ride from some city hit a car in a curve on Jane Taylor Mountain, half way between Sparta and Laurel Springs about ten minutes after I saw them leaving town. The car wasn't straddling the yellow line either. It was up to the line, but the bikers, believing they were in the boonies, as do so many of them, believed they had the road all to themselves. Mostly they do. Then they don't.

You never hear of a mountain boy riding the yellow line around a blind curve. Riding that yellow line implies trust that nobody straddles the yellow line in cars or trucks. Live here long enough and you see a lot of them do. In fact, it's predictable that after a certain amount of time living here, like a few years, you'll start complaining about all the cars and trucks you see straddling the yellow line in blind curves. The only answer I know to give is, you'll get used to it. It's never received as a satisfactory answer, but as far as I can see, it's the only answer there is.

Station's Inn in Laurel Springs, close to the Parkway, has become a good hangout place for people with motorcycles. I've never been there, but know several who have and one who has worked there. All tell me it's a great place. They have regional metal bands play once a week. It put Laurel Springs back on the map. The place seems to have hit the ground running. It's like a little spot of Key West in the mountains. When I first heard about it, it was going good with too many motorcycles to count parked everywhere. Motorcycle people are different now from what they were in the 50s and 60s where they got the bad name.

The Station's Inn website is easy: I borrowed the picture above from their slideshow of 2008 snapshots.

A friend in Atlanta has a big Honda Gold Wing, almost a new one every year. He likes to ride country roads on weekends. He wears black leather because he doesn't want road rash. Of course, he has a black helmet with black visor so nobody can see in. He looks like Darth Vader's bodyguard. He said when he stops at a country store for a snack, the people in the store look like they're afraid of him. He means nobody any harm. He's an advertising photographer when he's not killing assassins making attempts on Darth Vader's life.

I can see by the people I know who ride motorcycles and people I see here on Hwy18 riding by all day long on weekends, it's just regular folks these days. Of all the thousands of bikers I've seen go by it doesn't seem fitting to call them bikers anymore because of the meanings that word has carried for so many years. There are still biker bars you wouldn't want to go into unless you were with Steven Seagal. The Station's Inn at Laurel Springs is the people who are just folks, meaning no harm. They just love to ride.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


For all two of you reading this who listen to NPR news on the radio, you've heard Paul Brown read the news on the hour in the mornings. Paul has been with NPR for a long time. He is also an old-time banjo picker who comes to the mountains every year for fiddlers conventions from the DC area, lived here for a few years back in the 70s when he was soaking up the mountain sound in banjo picking, learning from pickers in our area. He's also picked quite a lot with MtAiry fiddler (and banjo picker) Benton Flippen. On Benton's Rounder album NEW TIME / OLD TIME, Paul Brown plays on two of the songs. Two of the only three commercial recordings available with Esker Hutchins of Dobson playing fiddle are on that album too.
Last year an album was released of Benton Flippen and his band The Smokey Valley Boys recorded by WPAQ in MtAiry, 1984. Shortly before this time Benton was fiddler with THE CAMP CREEK BOYS, a high-energy old-time band of the Round Peak sound around Low Gap. Kyle Creed also played fiddle. It's one of the great old-time albums, up there with Tommy Jarrell and Kyle Creed's JUNE APPLE, Whitetop Mountain Band's BULL PLUS 10%, Fred McBride's STONE MOUNTAIN OLD TIME STRING BAND, the league of good as it gets.
AN EVENING AT WPAQ, 1984, by Benton Flippen and the Smokey Valley Boys is in that league. Paul Brown plays the banjo in the place of Kyle Creed, who had died by this time. Benton carried on the Camp Creek Boys minus Creed as the Smokey Valley Boys. Just the company Paul keeps on this album tells you the man can pick. When you hear it, you know for certain he can pick. This is music of northwest North Carolina, specifically Surry County, just across the county line to the east. Benton Flippen has played at the Jubilee in Sparta for several years. Closing in on 90, Benton is still winning fiddlers conventions every year.
Paul Brown recorded a solo album in 2006, RED CLAY COUNTRY. He plays the banjo with a band of his friends. Young fiddler from southern PA, Matt Brown, plays mountain fiddle awfully well. Paul aslo plays fiddle on some of the tunes. It's definitely mountain music made by somebody whose soul is in these mountains. Paul plays banjo on Matt's solo, LONE PRAIRIE. Another good album of mountain music.
I've been playing WAY DOWN IN NORTH CAROLINA, recorded 1996 by Rounder, with Paul Brown and Mike Seeger (Pete Seeter's half brother). Only the two of them playing different instruments on the different songs. At this moment they're playing LITTLE MAGGIE. Mike Seeger played fiddle with the New Lost City Ramblers from 1958-62. New York City boys playing mountain music as an old-time band such that lovers of old-time music respect them.
Mike Seeger has traveled these mountains as a folklorist throughout his life. He field-recorded old-time musicians all up and down the mountains. Recorded too much to list, but I have to mention he plays autoharp on Ralph Stanley's album of Carter Family songs, A DISTANT LAND TO ROAM, plays it beautifully. John Cohen, who played banjo with New Lost City Ramblers, has traveled up and down the mountains field-recording too, mostly interested in banjo pickers. Both Seeger and Cohen have recorded a large number of musicians in our area. Cohen made three beautiful b&w films of old-time musicians that are collected together on a dvd called THAT HIGH LONESOME SOUND. Cohen has a book of b&w photographs. He's another contributor to the legacy of old-time music in our mountains. These are people who know old-time music inside out. They live it with their entire lives.
I was keeping the volume down considering Jr was in his bed resting. He doesn't stay out of the bed for very long at a time any more. He's worn out all the time. A little bit ago he came pushing his walker in here, eyes lit up, saying, "That's good music!" He wanted to sit in here awhile to hear it better. I was a bit struck, because he doesn't like old-time much. The only music Jr ever wants to hear is bluegrass. Other musics are "just a racket" to his ears. He listened with much interest, which surprised me, still does, but less as I think about it. It's the musicianship that siezed and held his attention. It's musicianship that holds his interest in bluegrass. Some months ago I was listening to Benton Flippen at WPAQ when I first found the copy, feeling a little apologetic to Jr playing something I was afraid grated on his ears. He liked it. Liked it a lot. Again, it's the musicianship and he knew the older guys in the band, made music with them many years ago.
Paul and Mike don't make you feel like you need to get up and run to the kitchen to flatfoot by commanding your attention to the exclusion of all else like a lot of old-time tunes do. The musicianship is so fine and arrangements of the songs in new ways that are still the old ways so masterful, both the front of the mind and back of the mind enjoy it. Though it's all about sound, I found a stillness in it that I can only think of as meditative. A very comfortable stillness. It's like the music is dancing on the silence behind it. When the phone rings I don't feel like I have to turn it down, because whoever is on the other end will enjoy what they hear. It is music you can listen to while doing something else, and hear it as well as listening to it in the foreground, like I'm doing now. My attention never leaves it though my attention goes other places simultaneously. Every note rewards the listening. It's also accessible to ears not of the mountains, which an awful lot of mountain music is not.
The song that makes me stop to listen is Little Maggie. This is the 4th time I've heard it since the writing began, and I have to give it all attention every time. Beautiful rendering of that great old-time song Ralph Stanley more or less adopted. Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham did it their way. Grayson and Whitter did too. It's one of those old-time songs that continues to stay fresh down through time and however many times I hear it.
Paul Brown has a website worth visiting:
A good place to find mountain music on cd:
County is the definitive place to find mountain music, located in Floyd VA and Charlottesville VA. What they don't have isn't available, just about. Everything I've ordered from County has been in the mailbox just a few days later, surprisingly quick every time. They treat you right with prices and shipping too.

Friday, June 26, 2009


Circle L

Just now saw Welter Hamm drive up the highway heading toward home pulling a long flatbed trailer that he'd carried maybe 24 roundbales on the other direction earlier.

I see a red-tail soaring high on the wind flowing west to east up the channel of Hwy18. In the winter I think of it a wind tunnel. It's a good place to be on a summer day.
Gerald Leftwich drove by on his way toward town in his white Emergency Management pickup. Gerald is one of the county's characters and on the list of respected men in the county, not for being "important," but for being an authentic human being. Last time I saw Gerald was at the Circle L. I was having lunch with Jim Winfield. Leftwich walked in and we invited him to sit down and had an enjoyable lunch listening to one of the funniest men in the county when it comes to telling good eye-witness accounts of human hilarity in people we know, never to diminish the person, but really to hold them up as worth the attention.
Paul Reeves is another such character in the county, like Gerald, one of the last of the collectors of funny incidents, when in the past they were quite a few more than now. Paul appreciates a character, and he misses the old characters of the past. Jr is one in his own way. Paul has been a faithful friend to Jr all the way through his decline into feeble, visiting him at hospitals and nursing homes and at home as soon as he returns. A couple years ago Jr asked me why Paul kept coming around to see him. I said, "He respects you." Jr looked at me with eyes that said, "You tell me the craziest damn shit I ever heard." (His actual words spoken before. That's how I know the look.)

Jr feels embarrassed, because Paul came into his later years successful, money, good woman, good house, good car, winter place in Florida. And Jr in his last years ending up a broken man in poverty and debt. He can't believe anybody could respect him, let alone somebody who has done so much better. I tell him Paul isn't seeing him like that. Paul sees who he is. I said to him, everybody who sees you for who you are respects you. So what if you put everything on the table and lost. Shit happens. I tell him he doesn't want people liking him who only see what he has. Have little and the people impressed by stuff will pass you by. That's what you want them to do. He says, That's right. But it doesn't settle the problem for him. It's something he'll never get over.
He doesn't even like to go to the barbershop because he'll see people, and he'll see himself by projection in their eyes a failure, a man whose life came to nothing. His life has had so much suffering in it the suffering became his teacher. His experience taught him wisdom, though all he's able to see is the fool. What happens when he goes into the barber shop is at least one man in there remembers his banjo pickin and gives him some feel good strokes that embarrass him. He receives it, but shakes it off later. He's uneasy with praise. Doesn't want to hear it, doesn't give it.
I'd known the name Paul Reeves a long time before I came to know him when I was working in the register of deeds vault every day. When Paul came in, we'd talk and he would tell some fascinating story of somebody from the past who was a unique individual in a comical circumstance. I found Paul a man with a dimension to him I find rarely. One Sunday at Jr's he said something that started, "At church this morning...." I was truly curious and asked him what church he went to. He said, "Primitive Baptist," and there was the dimension I couldn't put my finger on. All of a sudden I knew that Paul was true, that I'd not read him incorrectly. The people I'd heard talk about him read him incorrectly. He has a brilliant mind and likes the money game. He's good at it and he wins when he plays. That's what games are about. Losers hate winners and I figure that has a lot to do with why I never heard much in his favor. I don't play the money game, so I don't care. The Paul I know is a good and humble man, and that's all that matters to me.

I went half a dozen times to Primitive meetings and loved every one. The singing is the best this side of heaven, the elders Bible scholars. I saw Paul stand up at the end of a meeting and bare his heart to everyone present. Though it would make him look much to the good, I can't disrespect him by telling such a private moment. It would make you think better of him than he would want you to. Paul Reeves is an honorable man who has proven himself to Jr to be his true friend, his motive respect. I don't believe Paul's respect comes cheap.

Welter Hamm drove by again in his new white duelly. Welter has taken Jr's role of the man in Whitehead who does things for the people around him. Mildred Torney, his next door neighbor, told me the other day, Welter is a good neighbor. He brings her mail in, looks in on her. Any help she needs, Welter is there. The people who robbed Welter's store put an end to the hub of Whitehead, the Whitehead Store. Killed it the same as a .45 slug to the heart. They put him out of business, because he couldn't afford to restock. It was another disheartening blow just a couple weeks after his wife died in such a sorrowful way. I forget what the third one was, but remember Welter had three life-chainging blows in a short period of time. Like Jr and a Joe Palooka doll, Welter pops back up to start a new day.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


In May of 2006 I was talking with my mother in Wichita KS on the phone. For some reason I don't remember, I was curious to know where my grandfather Worthington's family went to Perry KS from. Perry is a small town due west of Kansas City about an hour's drive, on the Kaw River, which ran close to where we lived in KC. When I was a kid in KC it was a long ways to Perry, though now KC has spread so much it's looking like KC could swallow up Perry in the near future if cities keep on growing like they have in the recent past.
I asked where grandfather Worthington's people came from. She said all she knew was Tennessee, someplace in Tennessee. That piqued my interest, as Tennessee is next door to where I live now, the place I call the home of my soul. I got in touch with first cousin, Charles Weldon, in KC and asked what he knew. He put me in touch with the Worthington family genealogist in Texas, Betty Worthington Lester. She sent me an email of 35+ pages of genealogy starting with the first one to come to the New World, Robert, from Northern England where he and his wife Alice were exiled to Ireland over something to do with being a Quaker. I found that particularly interesting, because I've felt a kinship with Quakers ever since I first learned about them, while never living in a place where Quakers had a meeting house as far as I knew. I've heard there is one in Winston-Salem, but I'm not driving to Winston for church or anything else.
Old Robert had it rough. His first son Sam came over to Philadelphia by himself and wrote back for the others to come on. Robert left two years later with wife and eight kids. Six of the kids died on the ship, the other two died soon after landing in Salem NJ, 1714. They moved to Philadelphia in 1722. Alice died in 1729 and Robert found a second wife, Mary Burtis, forty years younger, the same year and started a second family. He had a farm outside Philadelphia where he kept cattle, and an inn in town. He was in Philadelphia in the time Ben Franklin started the Philadelphia Gazette and in his Poor Richard period. I believe it could be said with certainty they were acquainted, and probably no more than that. Franklin was a free thinker and I've an idea Grandpa Robert was a hardshell in his religion. He might have thought Franklin "bold." In 1734 he was granted 3,000 acres in a new county cut off from Spotsylvania, what is now Orange County VA, east of Charlottesville.
By the time he ended up in Philadelphia, Grandpa Robert was well acquainted with grief, agonizing grief, his entire family he brought to the new world for a new life all vanished but the one boy who went ahead on his own. I'd guess Robert more than likely blamed himself for the deaths of his younguns, making it a grief he never got over, complicated with survivor's guilt.
Over the next generations Robert's descendants who became my ancestors went from Orange County VA to Botetourt County just north of Roanoke, from there to Oak Ridge TN and on down to Ninemile TN in the Cumberland Plateau, the Sequatchie Valley the Sequatchie River runs through, where "Big Spring" Bill Worthington, my great great great grandfather, had a rather large plantation and most likely some slaves. All of his five boys fought in the War of Yankee Aggression; only one didn't return. Murphy died in a Yankee prison. Every time I hear the song, The Rebel Soldier, I think of him, "Will my soul pass through the Southland?" Jimmy Arnold made that song his own. My great great grandfather Jesse Carroll Worthington is said to have taken his slaves with him into the War, perhaps as cooks, keepers of the horses, just guessing, and all returned.
All of Jesse Carroll's boys left Ninemile and went West. My great grandfather Jim, with his wife Dora Ann Hale of Bledsoe County, Tennessee, took their kids and moved to Perry KS. My grandfather Tom, whose name was passed to me, moved to KC after marriage to be a railroad engineer. Jesse Carroll worked on railroad in Alabama before the War. Railroad was the good paying work of the time like computer work is now. I can't figure whether Jessee Carroll advised his boys to go West, get out of the South, because the South was in a Depression that looked like it would never lift, or if he was so brutal on his boys, they came to hate him and left.
Cousin Wendell Walker of Ninemile told me Jesse Carroll is known to have sired four illegitimate kids and blamed them on his boys. My guess is the boys were individually fed up with him. I know for certain he drank white liquor, just because of who he was, which likely made him all the more difficult. He had no male heirs in Bledsoe County when he died. He probably came home from the war with a lifetime of seething anger called post-traumatic stress disorder. Worst of all, he had three young children just before the War, and when he came home four years later, even the oldest one was too young when he left to have any memory of him.
Jesse Carroll returned to his farm in no telling what condition with wife and kids traumatized by Yankee soldiers pillaging the farm, getting by best they could. There's no telling what she went through. He certainly had to rebuild the farm and get it going, working the kids and more than likely severely rough on them, toughening them to live in this hard world, such that this man their mama waited for turned out to be a stranger to them and I'd guess they never learned to like him. That is totally conjecture, but it rings true with what I know of my immediate family.
Jesse Carroll's boy James, who went to Perry Ks, beat his boy Sam when he was 16 with a chain in the barn. Sam staggered to the road, walked down the road to a railroad track in Perry and set out hoboing by train for the next years figuring out what he was going to do with his life. He never returned to Perry. Sam is the only one of my grandfather's brothers I knew. My grandfather died of pneumonia seven years before I was born.
My dad said to me once, "I was raised with an iron hand and you will be too!" Like it was something to be proud of. I had experience similar to one of jesse Caroll's boys; daddy went off to WW2 when I was two and came back when I was five, a stranger with post-traumatic stress disorder, who took my mother away from me and taught me in a very short time to be afraid of his irrational ways. He never gave me a chance to learn to like him, never showed me anything to like.
I left Wichita as soon after high school as a neurotic kid could get out of there, a kid whose only experience outside the home was school, church, summer jobs and rock & roll. I have to say I'm glad it was five years before the drug scene came along or I'd have dove deep into things like lsd to self-medicate my own post-traumatic stress disorder. I spent my adult life transcending this story, and now toward the end of my life find it fascinating.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


My early years in these mountains were naive about the issue of trust. I mean really naive. Coming from city mind into the country way of thinking, at first I was frustrated because nobody trusted me, because they didn't know me. Ones that knew me hadn't known me long enough, or my background. In the city way of thinking, trust is an unconscious issue. Making money to pay the bills for stuff we want supersedes questions such as what trust really means beyond trusting emplyer to pay as agreed. Trust is legislated by law where it's illegal to bilk somebody. That doesn't mean it doesn't happen. Only that a signature on a document holds up in court.
A man's word counts for nothing in our time, which is one of the things older people mean when they talk about how much better it used to be. In the old way a man's word had meaning, was even a moral issue. A handshake was an agreement of trust. What I'm getting at is trust on a deeper level than that, like the people you know that you can trust to stand by you, not to rat on you for any purpose, not to lie about you or tell your business around. These are the people you can tell anything about yourself that is compromising and know it will go no further. We all need people we can tell anything to and it doesnt' get spread around, people you can trust not to be lying whenever they tell you something, or suspect you of lying. These people are our friends, the only people who can be our friends. The way to make a friend is to be a friend first.
What I found when I came to the mountains was the importance of trust, something that seems a bit absurd to the city mind where trust is not so much a matter of concern. One year before I came to the mountains I met Kitty Davy, the woman I mentioned a few days ago who happens to be the first truly wise individual I'd met, as far as I know, or when I was ready to notice. For the first time in my life I felt in the presence of someone I could tell anything and there would be no judgment or betrayal. When I say Jr has wisdom, this is part of what I mean.
A man I know who had spent a quarter of his life in prison told me one day a few years ago he could never trust me because I'd never been in prison. That's a whole 'nother level of trust. I told him I don't mind. I don't want his trust bad enough to go to prison for it. He didn't trust Jr either, because Jr had never been to prison, but I'd trust Jr before I'd trust him, any day. I can trust Jr not to put me in a jam where that trust might send me to prison over something or other he stirred up. One of the strongest characteristics that defines Jr Maxwell is that he never rats on anybody, never tells anything about anybody that would compromise that person's individual integrity.
I've heard mountain men say, "I don't trust nobody," until I've come to believe that is as much a part of what it means to be a man in these mountains as Ralph Stanley's song, Man of Constant Sorrow. For years I thought it severely limiting for oneself not to trust anybody. By now, however, it strikes me a sound approach to living in this world where you really can't spread the trust too thin. If you do, you'll get more than a few learnings. Though it's a hard saying, it seems more every year that "trust no one" is sound counsel from father to son. Especially where you have dealings with money.
I've been talking to myself quite a lot lately about trust concerning people I trusted before Jr's time in detention. It's put me in a place where I don't want to say anything to anybody I believe is my friend, at least partially, that I wouldn't say in court. I've had trust trampled more than once in these hills. It's hard to forgive. Like I've said before, memory in this time of my life is not so reliable, but when it comes to betrayal of trust I have elephant memory. There are times I've incorporated what I call "the Sparta Look," like when I see one in particular who betrayed trust in the past. The Sparta Look involves looking somebody straight into the eyes and seeing nothing. That's how Spartans look at foreigners--not seeing them. Don't give that trust to start with and there won't be a problem later, is what I'm telling myself these days. I have tended in the past to trust somebody just to see if they're trustworthy. It tended to work out they were not.
I don't mean to imply I've been totally trustworthy, myself. I've had lapses too. I've learned from them and by this time in the life I am more reliable. Having earned Jr Maxwell's trust over several years, it is important to me that I never let him down in any way. It's this that brings out the dog in me. The trust of a mountain man of the old ways is not to be taken lightly. Chicago blues singer Muddy Waters is known to have said, "If you got something good, keep it in your pocket." He was a country boy too, from the cotton fields of the Mississippi delta. I believe I'd stand before a firing squad before I'd betray Jr's trust in even the littlest way, which actually equals the biggest way. When I write about him I'm fully conscious that I never tell anything he would object to you knowing. Not that's he's committed crimes, because he has not, but I allow him his privacy as an autonomous individual, same as I expect it for myself and you for yourself.


Whitehead skyscraper

It appears our mini-monsoon has passed, leaving us with warm days in the 70s, just enough breeze stirring to keep the air moving through the house from window to window. I've come outside to write you today because the air is so favorable to sitting on the porch overlooking lawn and meadow, Highway 18 and a mountain the other side.
I'm looking at three locust trees growing near the fenceline to the eastern meadow. Something I noticed painting outdoors, the outline of a tree is shaped like the outline of a cloud. Trees are composed of water flow just as clouds are. Water flows in spirals; you can see in an old tree that's been dead for many years, bark long gone, the tree trunk down to bare skeletal bone, the flow lines in the remaining wood make a slow spiral. Our bones have flow lines that spiral too. We're something like 96 percent water or more.
Every living thing is created by the principles of water flow. Rivers flow through the land like blood flows through our bodies. Water refreshes life on and in the earth like blood refreshes life in us. We have internal filters for our blood, like the liver. The clouds are filters for water on earth. The sun causes water to evap-orate and rise into the air where it condenses and makes clouds that then rain and refresh the earth with clean water, all impurities left on the ground where it came from.
Cars, pickups, trucks and motorcycles travel the highway this-a-way and that-a-way. Loaded logging trucks run both directions. I see a dozen yucca stalks in full bloom with their waxy white flowers along the edge of the meadow down the bank from the highway. Years ago somebody planted yuccas, evidently for the long spike of a taproot, along the steep and high bank between the Primitive Baptist cemetery and the highway at Pine Swamp Road. Wind currents, I suppose, carried yucca seeds up the wind-channel of the highway through there, because small clusters of them grow alongside the highway in both directions from the cemetery.
Mowing machines are rattling all over the county, hay rakes kicking up bugs for the swooping swallows to catch, bailers picking it up and putting it down in big round bales and smaller box-shaped bales. It's a good year for hay. It's a good year for the entire green world with plenty of rain, and most of it so gentle it soaked into the ground with minimum runoff, until the gullywasher came along we hadn't seen in at least a dozen years.
Jr's sawmill continues to wait for him to fire it up and set its wheel in motion again. It's been waiting almost 10 years for him to bring it back to life. It stands among all kinds of volunteer shrubbery growing around it and through it. Old logs lie on the ground going bad. Rust has overtaken the steel parts. Like its operator, its work life has come to an end until somebody buys it to bring it back to life. But it's not for sale.
I hear crows barking. One flew into the sycamore tree. Another joined it in the sycamore. Another perched in the locust trees I'm facing. They're barking back and forth to each other. The one in the sycamore is looking at me when he barks. They see apple man. The one in the sycamore flew down to the place I throw apple cores. He's marching around looking in the grass, barking to the others. They bark back. In that exchange I heard four different tones of the sounds they make. Sometimes it seems like one will call out asking the other to identify its location and the other will call back to report its whereabouts. It seems like they sometimes call each other to let the others know where they are at any given moment.
As I pay more attention to them I see they are connected with the others in their family by call and response. Mostly I see one, two or three crows at a time, though mostly they're solo. When one calls out, others return the call from different directions and distances. Perhaps it keeps them knowing where they are in relation to the others. The one searching for apple quit barking his location. He walked down the driveway to the road, looking in the grass. When he gave up looking for apple, the barking exchange ended.
One flew into the sycamore tree. Then he took off and sailed downhill over the meadow to the west. I see a long jet trail running north to south in the sky. It has been there so long it's almost becoming a cloud. It looks like a long spinal column. I heard on NPR news years ago that when a plane flying high enough to leave a trail flies in a circle, the trail will close in and become a cloud. I think it was one man's issue with the jet trails claiming they're bad for us. That was years ago and planes continue to fly, so I doubt his Chicken-little sermon went very far. I'd like to see it happen.
I hear a cardinal in the distance, a song sparrow and various other birds, a wren, in the distance when the highway is between tire sounds. It doesn't seem like the tires are so loud until I listen to the silence. It's a deep, profound silence where I can hear for quite a long ways. I hear a chainsaw in the far distance, quieter than distant bird song.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Gene Autry's song, Back In The Saddle Again, plays in my head this morning. Back where a friend is a friend. I'm back to looking out the window at the sycamore tree with leaves a bit ragged after the hail storm a few weeks ago. A cowbird flew up from the meadow and perched on a limb, looked around, straightened some feathers, looked around some more and flew on. The channel of clouds is the same following the air currents from west to east above the river. Another cloud current follows Hwy 18 through the gap from Wilkes, but it goes over the house and I can't see it from inside.

Three crows are marching around on the lawn close to the house, checking to see if there might be a piece of apple missed by earlier birds. One found a piece of apple. He or she is holding it down with one foot and pecking while the other two stand by watching, waiting. The bird pecking the apple walked away and left if to the one of the others standing by. Then it flew. The first flap of the wings lifts the bird into the air and the next flap sets him in the direction he's headed.

It gives me a good laugh within when I think of my new role here that began during the period of Jr's incarceration. I've become something like a dog set on protecting his master whatever it takes. When the master is threatened, the dog growls, bares his teeth, lowers his head ready to strike, glares at the intruder with eyes that say, 'I don't care who you are--back away.' Jr's last dog was named Gypsy. Yesterday I was telling him how I feel like a guard dog since he returned home. I said, "You can call me Gypsy." He had a good laugh out of that. Laughter is healing too, so I attempt to make him laugh whenever occasion rises. Old-time humor, which is Jr's, is situational. Sick jokes that have been the rage since WW2 pass him by. Jokes at other peoples' expense are not funny to him.

The dog brought to mind my great great grandfather, Jesse Carroll Worthington, Confederate veteran from Ninemile, Tennessee. He shot himself in the barn lot when he was 74. His dog wouldn't let anyone near the body until the third day. I suppose because his scent changed. My 4th cousin by one of Jesse Carroll's brothers, Wendell Walker, told me the story. My response was, "Good dog." Wendell looked at me a moment like to say no one ever said that before.

Jr's most recent period of detention clarified for him who his friends are. One morning when I went in to see him, he was in a depressed state. He was feeling sorrow to find that some of the people who make a fuss over him when they see him five minutes every two or three months, don't care. They don't visit him, they don't call him. When they do see him, it's a whirl of noise and smoke for a few minutes pretending he's important to them, then they're gone. Now that he's been home a few hours short of two days, the ones who have stopped by to visit and stayed an hour or two happen to be the ones he realized in the nursing home bed are his only real friends. Of the ones attempting to keep him locked down with lies, professions of love and caring, talking at him instead of to him, not one has shown up or even called.

Jr's physical therapist walked in while he was telling me about his new understanding. She was struck by his demeanor on sight and asked what's his problem. I said, "He's had the misfortune of living long enough to see who his friends are and who his friends are not." A pained look came over her face. She looked at him to affirm or deny what I'd said. He said, "That's right." She said, "Oh. That hurts." And she set about cheering him up. Over and over I've seen the healing power of feminine energy on him. When a woman takes hold of his hand and talks to him he is fully present. It's not romance, nor is it a sexual feeling in him. It's feminine energy. When almost any woman stops by the house to visit with him, I ask her to sit beside him where he can feel what for him is life energy.

His first day home he went to bed at three in the afternoon and rose at ten the next morning. Nineteen hours. Sometimes asleep, sometimes awake. He drifts back and forth, largely staying in that place between asleep and awake, which is both and neither. It is, however, restful. He asked me why he was so tired. I thought of what we call jet lag. I told him I've seen in people I've known who go away for an extended period of time and return home, all they want to do is sleep. I don't know that, but it seemed like a reasonable answer to his question going by my own experience. It was the best I could do. I added that all he has done for the last 2.5 months is lie in bed, maybe he got used to it, which I doubted and he did too. Last night he went to bed at 7. It's 10:30 the next morning and he's still lying down. He's been up a few times to pee. After some time thinking about it, I've come to 2.5 months of incarceration against his will caused much anxiety and tension. When he was released, those months of tension fell away and left him feeling drained. He said that felt more like it.

We both had surprises come up concerning who our friends are. When somebody I thought was a friend shows me they're not, I think of it as illusion-busting. I had an illusion and it went pop like a balloon. It doesn't feel so good for awhile, like a friend died. But I don't carry that illusion anymore; it's a relief to have it gone. Jr feels the same way. Back where a friend is a friend.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


I drove up the driveway yesterday to Jr's house to bring him home. A couple of crows saw my truck and stayed around close watching. They remembered my truck after 2.5 months. For several months I drove down the mountain to Jr's house eating an apple. I threw the core to the crows every morning, a 10-15 ft toss from the truck. Initially they were cautious. As weeks passed I'd seen them waiting in three or four different trees watching me. I tossed the core into the grass and as soon as I stepped inside the door to the house they swooped down from the trees. First one got it. Another one or two would stand aside and watch, waiting a turn. Often, the first one would peck the apple core awhile, then step aside to let the other have some pecks at it.
I sliced an apple a little bit ago and threw the pieces into the grass outside the front door. In a very few minutes here came a couple of crows. Before Jr was taken away I used to throw any leftovers out the back door. In just a minute or two I'd see them from the window gliding down the hill on outstretched wings, gliding in from several directions. They would glide full tilt to the place they aimed to land, swoop upward a foot or two and land gently on their feet. They like molded cornbread, beans, bread, anything but onion. I've never thrown out any other leftover they've declined. Eggshell they're not too anxious about, but after several days it gradually disappears too. Eggshell is good calcium for their own eggs. I thought they seemed awfuly courteous to one another. When one was pecking at something, others would stand aside and wait their turn, which eventually came as the crow with whatever it was left enough for the next bird.
A month ago, thereabouts, I googled crow. Found a few paragraphs at one site that was more about their behavior than biology. Crows don't breed until they're 3 or 4 years old. In the meantime, the younger crows stay with the family of mother, father, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, just like us in earlier traditional cultures. I'm thinking this probably has something to do with why we seldom see crows fight. Evidently, they're family centered and live in tribes composed of several families.
This morning I saw two crows just outside the window, close to the house where they'd been marching about looking for apple since apple man's truck was here. One of the crows subdued the other in a sudden scolding kind of way, standing on its wing and barking at it. The other had its beak all the way open like it was showing submission and begging forgiveness for whatever infraction. There was no pecking involved or aggression. It just seemed like a scolding meant to be understood. When the one doing the scolding was finished, it walked away with head held high in certitude. The other one limped a little ways dragging its wing like it was broken, then picked up the wing and took off flying.
That episode brought to mind cat behavior that is closer to crow behavior than to ours, though close enough to ours to make us shake our heads in amazement. Many times I've seen two of the cats pass each other when one will pounce on the other and hold it down like it's scolding. When they've had their moment, the initiator of the encounter will walk away with trimphhant head held high and the other will lie there for awhile watching the other walk away, then slowly get up and walk in the other direction. I can't know what is actually going on between them. With the cats, like with these two crows, it happened so spontaneoulsy that motive didn't even seem like a consideraion. There is no telling, and no guessing.
In the fall it looks like the tribes of a given region get together for something on the order of an annual pow wow. The first time I saw them it looked like something between one and two hundred crows in a meadow on a knob. The whole murder of them was marching forward. The crows in front were jumping into the air and repositioning themsleves when they came down. Some leapt into the air and came down a few crows ahead of where they were before. Some came down a few rows behind where they were. The crows out front marched almost goose-step in their commanding presence as the leaders.
All the crows took to the air when the pow wow was over. It doesn't seem unrealistic to call it a pow wow. I watched them gather in the air into smaller groups and fly off together to their respective territories in all four directions. I was thinking that in the thousands of years indians dwelt in these mountains, they probably knew what the crows were doing. But their knowledge is gone forever with them, like five thousand years from now our knowledge will be lost too, the same as nothing.
Twice since then I've seen them lift into the air after one of their gatherings I didn't see. Big crow noise with nearly all of them barking. The cloud of them swirled upward to a good flying altitude where they gather into families and fly to their territories. I assume the entire collection of the birds was the equivalent of a tribe. The ones I've seen are the Air Bellows tribe. Four miles down the mountain at Whitehead, I suppose the crows here might be of another tribe. Or maybe they're the same tribe. Four miles by road is about half that by crow.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


High noon Saturday our friend picked up his walker and walked away from the 2.5 month rehabilitation effort that put him back on his feet. When he went into the hospital by ambulance, he could neither stand up nor walk. He had dehydrated again. His physical therapist in the nursing and rehabilitation center brought him a long ways, from unable to stand or walk to walking easily with the aid of his walker for balance. We both shook hands with the old boy who was his room mate. It was a sad moment for him to see Wiley going home, when he, himself, could not walk away. He couldn't walk.

Riding to the house, Jr was alert and wide awake. He hadn't slept the last two nights. This morning he lay in the bed waiting. I usually get there around 10:30, but today had the radio show from 10 to 11. He forgot that I was always an hour later on Saturdays than usual. 2.5 months of days and nights exactly alike, they all run together into a continuum when the window is light part of the time and dark part of the time. No difference between one cycle of light and dark and any other. The lights in the facility are the same day and night.

On the way to the New River Bridge, just before Brush Creek Church, he noted, "I know this country. Out that road," pointing to the road on the right, "is where the man has the chainsaw shop." Everything had changed so much along the highway he said he doesn't recognize much any more. I was heartened to see he had his spirit back. It's his spirit I pay closest attention to. The body always hurts, sometimes all over and sometimes just the throbbing pain in his right knee. Like old footballers have pains all over their bodies, the same goes for old farmers and mechanics who worked physically all their lives.

Some years ago sawmilling, a log jumped back by surprise. The end of it hit Jr in the face, bending his nose over to the left, crushing sinus passages and knocking teeth loose. The teeth gradually firmed up on their own. Sinuses don't work right. At the time, he wiped the blood off his face with his sleeve and went back to working. Sawmilling is such dangerous work it could be called Xtreme. Though that was the worst he was ever hurt sawmilling, he knows a banjo picker in Ashe County, JC Kemp, whose arm was almost cut off. Doctors fixed it and he continued to play the banjo, but never again like before. It was the same with Jr, unable to pick as good as he could before. He remembers a man who fell onto the spinning blade and it took him out in less than a second.

No, that wasn't the worst he was hurt sawmilling. One day around 20 years ago he was sawing pine. Pine resin sticks to the spinning blade. The wood of deciduous trees leaves no residue on the wheel. He forgot for just a second he was cutting pine. To test the temperature of the spinning blade, he slapped it with his open hand just a touch to feel its temperature. Because resin was on the blade, it peeled off the palm of his left hand in a flash.

That was one time he went to a doctor. It required a skin graft, taping his hand to his leg for a long period of time to let the skin from the leg grow onto the hand. His doctor, named Reynolds, was a flatfoot dancer who won ribbons at fiddlers conventions. He knew who Jr was, a bluegrass banjo picker. Noting the banjo with his left hand made as good a therapy as he could have.

I was curious to see what he would say when he walked in the door of his home. The time I sprung him from the Sparta nursing home, he said, "Home Sweet Home," when he crossed the threshold behind his walker. Home Sweet Home was his winning song at fiddlers confentions competing in bluegrass banjo. He figured out a way to pull on the strings by the pegs with a finger to get the sound Earl Scruggs could make with special pegs that allowed him to tighten and loosen the string without changing the note.

Today he said when he crossed the threshold, "Good God! This is nice!" He sat down in his sitting place and gazed around with light in his eyes and a spirited countenance. He said, "I forgot what my home looked like. It isn't bad." It was almost like he was seeing it the first time. He looked at the walls and furnishings and found his home was better than he remembered it. He called his woman friend as soon as he'd settled. She came right over, carrying a store-bought pie that would make Paula Dean's eyes bug out. They sat and talked for a couple hours. He was so happy and relaxed he leaned back and faded toward sleep. He had to get up and go lie down on his bed he'd missed all day and night for 2.5 months.

Friday, June 19, 2009


In 2003 I set out to put together a music store in Sparta to be a place to find music of these mountains, specifically the Central Blue Ridge, there being no place near here to find mountain music on cd. I knew it would not be big business, that I'd never make enough to pay myself. I was living on Social Security, had the income I needed, so it didn't matter.

Junior Maxwell had been a bluegrass banjo picker in his more lively years, one respected among bluegrass musicians in the area and audiences.
He had a wall of trophies and ribbons from fiddlers conventions somebody stole from him in his later years. The Green Mountain Boys were one of the bluegrass bands in their time (c1960 to c1990) to be reckoned with at fiddlers conventions. Nobody in the band was interested in recording. They liked making music and that's all it was for them, a chance to make music. They played regularly at the gray stone building in Roaring Gap and regularly at High Meadows restaurant and all over the place. They always had gigs for the weekends, mostly dances. Mountain bluegrass is for a dancing audience. Chart bluegrass is for a sitting audience. For the Green Mountain Boys dancing was what music was about. They had a good following.

Junior was very well respected as a banjo picker. He was respected throughout NW North Carolina as a tractor mechanic. Respected as a man too, to the same degree. He is someone that if you know him, you respect him. It's not because he wants your respect or requires it in any way. It's the manner of the man he is down deep, a truly humble man. Anyone who knows Jr Maxwell is Jr's friend. I won't say he is the most respected, because I don't know, but he is among the best respected men in Alleghany County. Not 'important' men, but men known for their honorable ways. These are the kinds of men respected in Alleghany County.

His daddy told him, "Stay away from important people." There was a time when his daddy was elected to county commission when he did not run. A write-in. He declined it. A man from the Republican Party went and talked to Wiley asking him to reconsider, saying, "We need an honest man." Flattery didn't sway Wiley. It doesn't sway Jr either. Old man Wiley was a Junior too. He was named for his daddy who was killed near the end of the Civil War at Killon's Branch at Gap Civil. He was in the Home Guard. He was watering his horse when a sniper got him, his wife three months pregnant. Jr's daddy's tombstone is a smooth block of black marble with no words. I believe in his later years he was a man of constant sorrow.

Jr's world is Whitehead and Whitehead only. Sparta, Laurel Springs, Cherry Lane, those are all other places. Whitehead is where he is known for taking his tractor and blade out when it snowed and cleared an awful lot of driveways of his neighbors and spent all day doing it. Year after year and never accepted a cent. It's a long list of things like this people of Whitehead tell about Jr Maxwell. He's known as the man who went around plowing gardens for neighbors every year as long as they can remember. Anybody needed any kind of help at any time, Jr was there cheerful and totally selfless. Jr Maxwell is a living treasure of the Whiteheadcommunity. His tractor repair shop is the only business left in Whitehead.

I stopped by the shop one day when I saw Jr sitting in the doorway in his old wooden kitchen chair watching the cars and trucks go by. I wanted to run by him my ideas for the music store and see what he thought about whether something like that would go here. He believed it would. We talked for an hour or so. I'd known him since my first year here in the summer of 1977 when Tom Pruitt hired Jr and his wife Lois to help us put up hay on the Stern farm, formerly Caudill, here at Air Bellows.

After we'd talked awhile he asked me to the house for a drink. It was white liquor from a secret source, the best liquor I'd ever tasted. I liked Stolychnaya vodka and Haitian rum, but the white liquor was a lot better than that. Wild Turkey Rye is the only bonded liquor I've found to come close to as satisfying a flavor as the liquor Jr put before me. My appreciation was soaring. I'd tasted white liquor several times before, but none ever that tasted as good. He poured about an inch and a half in an orange juice glass apiece, and just enough coca-cola in his to color it. We sipped and talked for a couple of hours. He told moments from his music experience, different fiddlers, banjo pickers. We talked about people we both knew, like Tom Pruitt, his brother Millard. After two such drinks I went home and he asked me to come back the next day. And the next day he asked me to come back the next. I enjoyed listening to him talk about tractor mechanicing, sawmilling, comical memories never at anyone's expense.

He'd lived the first part of his life in the time before electricity. Jr is the last tip of the tail of mountain culture. Through the peephole of Jr's memories I saw a period of time in these mountains I have no access to knowing about but by people who lived it. It turned out that he did most of the talking. My life was so mournfully boring compared to his. Jr's life was in motion, involved totally at all times, and in the present moment. He didn't like to talk about the past, though it was what I wanted to hear, because the past is nothing. Only the present moment is where we live. And we're moving into the future all the time, so he pays attention to the future the way you pay attention to the road when you're driving.

Evening after evening he invited me back and we sat at the table with our drams and talked for two hours with two drinks. The conversation was as good as conversation gets for me. I've seen him almost every day for seven years now. The last few years I've spent all day every day about half the time and round the clock about half the time. After about 5 years he'd told me his entire life. I'd told him mine. He asked once why I don't talk about my life so much. I said, "It's so damn boring." It's not boring to me, but there's not much that's entertaining to tell about. I'd rather be reading, writing, watching a film or painting. Jr is out living, doing, in motion, in full contact with the present moment. I think of it as living face-on like a wolf with teeth afraid of nothing.

What I've learned from Jr cannot be told, because it's so much it all blends together inside who I am, such that I can't articulate very well the particulars. It wasn't long before I began to suspect wisdom in Jr. I paid attention closer. There came a time I realized Jr was the only man I've ever know I'd call wise, and without hesitation or fear of contradiction by anyone who knows him. I've known two women I believe are wise, one Kitty Davy, who lived at Myrtle Beach, the other my friend Carole Roberts who lives at Stratford, Alleghany County.

Jr can make a better case for himself a fool than I can for him wise. His evidence that he's a fool is right there and obvious, but the evidence for his wisdom is there too. I call him the Wise Fool. And it fits him just right. A truly wise man can only be a fool in this world. He is a true human being, worth knowing well, worth giving an assist in his frail and vulnerable years of buzzards circling overhead and people who don't know him at all making his decisions. I want him to retain his autonomy as an individual human being able to live by his own decisions as long as possible and not have to shut down in despair.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


morning shadows 18jun09

Lies and lies and more lies and heaps of lies, attempts to create reality by repetition of lies. I've found myself in a whirlwind of lies, coverups, power issues, consciously being lied about with an agenda. I'm like an elephant, slow to forget. I may forget a lot of details, but I don't forget a whirlwind of lies by people I thought were my friends, who'd better not ever call me on the telephone or smile at me in person. They've lied so much about me, though, they already know better than to call me for any reason. Even if they don't know I know, they know they've told a heap of lies on me, and their consciences won't allow them to call me. They're on a mission they think is at my expense, when it is not.

It's mental pirhanas that eat at the mind and get my mind going in ways I don't like it to go. It's mostly over now. I took a long walk in the green world to let my mind go where it wanted to go. I couldn't stop the thinking, so I let it have some rein, and had a look at what it was I was stewing about. What I came to was seeing they're working against themselves and I'll step back and let them. It's mental workings that cause me to pull together the principles of the martial arts, which work as well in mental challenges as they do physical. I asked a master of the martial arts how you handle it when several people are at you. He said it's no problem. They can only come at you one at a time, so you take care of them one at a time. Steven Seagal choreographs the principle for film.

Again, we're in archetypal human behavior that goes back all the way to monkeys. I think of the Carter Family Song, You Better Leave That Liar Alone. That's what I'll do. Leave the liars alone. I don't want their karma rubbing against me. And I don't want their filth in my ears. My preference is for people who speak the truth when they speak, at least the truth as they know it, allowing for individual privacy. And there are an awful lot of people like that. So many really honest people around that I can feel like I'm in a good life among them. Honest people and dishonest people don't mix very well. I feel so much better when I'm talking with someone I know is not bulling me in any way, than talking with somebody you know couldn't tell the truth if he thought he was lying.

There's a darkness around lying that the people doing it take for affirming they're alive, for some odd reason or other. Like Lou Reed's song, Heroin, "cause it makes me feel like I'm a man / when I put a spike into my vein." That clenching darkness that goes with lying gives the false sense that it's ennervating, makes you feel alive. Ultimately, it doesn't matter about lying at all. People that want to lie will lie, making it something we live with in everyday life, fact and fiction blending into a state of mind that isn't certain about anything. When we're talking with somebody we know is prone to untruth, we don't pay attention, like watching tv commercials. We don't believe or disbelieve. And don't care. It's too crazy a weave to try to untangle. So it goes in one ear and out the other.

That's a liar's credibility. In one ear and out the other. The reason the Bible recommends against it is that it distorts one's own reality into something unreal and disconnected from the true self. That kind of burden on the soul is a heavy one that keeps one awake at night. Seems to me this world is illusion enough without making it all the moreso constructing reality out of false timbers. It makes dysfunctional thinking, thus dysfunctional behavior, and being known as a liar. Hooray. Doesn't seem like much of a reward. It is a reward, just not much of one. One I think of on the negative side of the scale.

These are people who don't understand the natural law that everything comes back, you get what you give. Emote and gush lies, and guess what--they'll all turn around and come back. Again, all I have to do is get out of the way and watch the boomerang show. They've already set their own karma in motion. None of them are people I want to be around anyway. I'll miss nothing. Would rather read a good book. A good book is so much better company than that kind of mind. So glad I took the walk in the green world. I can sleep restfully now.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


fire pink

Some of the beauties we see on the banks of old roads along the edge of woods. They transplant easily and they're hardy. I've used the sides of roads that are doomed in near future to get some of these fire pinks and some ferns over the years. I don't take many and leave no traces of digging. Thinning them slightly in one place where they're doomed and putting them in another where they'll be safe seems to me a fair balance that at least keeps them going for awhile.

It makes me laugh inside that having an aesthetic appreciation for what we call the natural world, the world outside control by the human mind called the wild, is politically radical. I wonder what John Burroughs would have thought of that. He was a nature lover and he was a radical in his time. He may have been even more radical a century ago when the Robber Barons were conservative. One of the great ironies of history that happens over and over, the Reagan Revolution created more liberals than there'd ever thought of being before.

What does a fern have to do with politics? Even a mountain trout has nothing to do with politics. The times I have sat on a rock in the stream long enough for the trout to come out and swim around, they have given me beautiful shows of swimming. It takes at least an hour for them to come back out after the giant walks by. I always had fish of some sort in childhood, mostly goldfish, and then an aquarium. I could watch the fish swim for hours at a time, mind at rest. Watching trout swim for a couple of hours was one of the great moments of my life.

There's not much political about appreciation of seeing a bobcat jump across the road in front of the truck and disappear into the woods the moment he entered the trees. Every one I've seen has disappeared like a ghost. I always stop to look and search just to see if I might be able to see something. Nothing. Like the little spirit cat I used to see in the house. I'd see it and it would disappear.

A memory surfaced of the time in dense fog, driving moderately, a buck with a big rack jumped across the hood of my truck. It seemed like the size of a horse. That was one of the many unforgettable moments with nature I've been graced by. In the same place where the deer jumped the hood, I was driving in no hurry and saw in the corner of my left eye a dog I knew named Morgan, a black dog with a lot of hair, that ran "coon-footed," heel first. The way the front legs were going was the same way Morgan looked when she ran. I turned my head for a better visual and it was a young black bear loping along the same speed I was driving.

Many times I've seen a hawk fly just in front of my hood for quite a ways, wings up and down make the body sway up and down. From behind like that and so close I can see the living being moving those arms loaded with feathers up and down with perfect understanding of flight, the tail working to right or left. I've seen crows fly in front of my truck for a good ways. Those are the moments I feel truly blessed. I feel like the mountain is showing me its grace.

There was the time I was standing on a rock in the stream and heard the yip-yip-yip of the pileated woodpecker. I looked in the direction I heard the voice and saw one flying through the trees straight toward me, swaying back and forth in flight between the trees. It flew about three feet over my head yip-yipping as it went by. I heard another and saw a second one following, yip-yip-yip, and it too flew about three feet above my head. I think I said, Thank You, out loud. There was the time a crow flew only a foot or so above my head and I heard its wings. It brought to mind the song Come Angel Band, "I hear the sound of wings."

I can't call any of these moments "signs," because I don't believe they are what we call signs. I have come to take them as a momentary blessing. A blessing such that I know I would never have an opportunity to receive if my mind were outside the present moment. There is a lot of freedom in living poor. Don't need so much income to live on, so don't have to work so hard. Have a little time to enjoy surprise moments that are mine only, gifts from a place I don't understand that I call the spirit of the mountain.

I may be all wet, but when something like that happens I honestly do feel like it is my mountain speaking to me with a surprise gift I'll never forget.
How radical is that?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


Seems like whenever a bunch of people get together, any bunch of people, for a fairly extended period of time, dramas arise and get thicker and more complex until they become 'reality,' the people divide into factions and nothing can be done about it. This is how churches break up, how marriages break up, and other associations break up. We humans will make drama out of anything. It's called making a mountain out of a molehill. We love drama.

I've been in a crazy situation recently with ultimately about a dozen people thrown together around one man, all wanting to help him in his hard time of creeping up on death, the slow fade. People who wouldn't otherwise be so cooperative with each other put aside whatever heisitations they might have for the benifit of Jr. Every one agrees that's what we're about and we get along very well. Then this one and that one want this for Jr, but these over here want something else, and the offices at the nursing home have their own agendas. Then there's talking behind backs and all that goes with that.

I happened to be in his room the first day the Social Worker of the place came in to introduce herself. She was sweet and gave a great long routine of how she's not like other social workers, she works for him not the system, that kind of thing. All the time I'm thinking, after living in this world long enough to get white hair, there's something about this I don't quite believe. I've found that every time somebody comes on to me like that, the opposite turns out to be the case. While she was talking, I was thinking I don't believe a word of it. Since then, Jr doesn't even know who she is. He never sees her. That day a couple months ago was probably the last time he saw her or heard her name. That's not necessarily so, leaving room for my present state of mind that's rather aggitated, but if it's an exaggeration, it's not by much.

Like this morning I was told she's telling it that I'm "spearheading a movement" to get Jr home by telling him he's ready to go home. I'd rather she tell that to me than someone else. It set that little ole molehill to growing and I'm saying, Lord Have Mercy, of course I'm telling him he's ready to go home. The physical thearpy people in the rehabilitation department have been telling me for two weeks he's ready to go home. He's completed his rehabilitation. If Jr had no hope of going home he would shut down and waste away in despair. I see no reason for Jr to feel despair. I don't want him to despair. He's not afraid of dying. He's in there for rehabilitation, not to wait for death.

Jr wants to be at home. And when he says he wants to go 'home' he doesn't mean he wants to die and go to heaven. He wants to go back to his own bed. He sleeps on his left side every night. In the nursing home bed he can't sleep on his side, has to sleep on his back. So he can't sleep. Of course, someone can say he can indeed sleep on his side in the bed there, but he, himself, hasn't found the way after a couple months of looking for it. He doesn't like to take sleeping pills, which means he only gets a good sleep every fourth night or so. It's become his pattern. I've suggested something like Tylenol PM. No, wouldn't have it.

Then one night somebody gave him an Ambien, a way powerful sleeping drug for somebody who doesn't use drugs for this, that and the other. He's of the old way. When he got up in the night to go pee, of course he fell and hit his face on linoleum floor with cement under it. It broke open a 17 stitch cut on his forehead and gave him a knot that looked like half a tennis ball pushing through from inside his head. The whole upper left quadrant of his face was yellow and purple. Then it's his fault. He's "a walker." He gets out of bed and walks to the bathroom when he needs to pee. It's part of his life. It's what he does. He needs to pee. And they didn't know he was "a walker" until he fell, which kind of blew my mind considering he's in their care way over a month.

I've been patient with them not wanting to let Jr go home and find the physical therapy people really good. What's happened is I've been there so much I'm entering the zone of hearing more than I want to know. I don't like it, but it's what we humans do, have done all along so much it's not just tradition, it's archetypal. Cats are born knowing how to use a litter box. We humans are born knowing how to make dramas out of anything. I'm making my own drama of it right now. In fact, I'm letting off steam, because the drama has become emotional on my part. I have become determined to get him out of there first day possible.

And I'm done being nice. I was nice all the way through the banged up head incident. I asked nurses, the social worker, and others what happened. No one knew anything about it. An ambulance comes in the middle of the night and takes him to some hospital, stitches up his head and brings him back in the middle of the night. It's not like nothing is going on. The old boy in the room with Jr told me about him falling and pointed to where he fell. Told about the ambulance taking him and bringing him back.

His was the only information I was able to get from anyone. The blood was all cleaned up. His blanket that keeps him warm at night next to the air conditioner was taken away because it had blood on it. It's been a couple weeks without a blanket at night. Blood washes out very easily with cold water. They know that. I want him at home where he can call his own shots for his own well-being, not have to be expected to sleep next to an air-conditioner without a blanket.

I'm about to the point that I'm ready to become such a nuisance they'll want him out of there to get rid of me. I'm willing to let him stay a few more days for the slow turning wheels of The System to get all the paper work done, etc. But if it takes more than a few days, I might be tempted to make an ass of myself and set a few people to hissing when they hear my name, like I did at the nursing home in Sparta escorting him out the door, him bent over his walker.

Jr is a humble man, way more than I am. For him there's a point, just like for me there's a point, where a man takes the matter of living his own life into his own hands and will walk away from anything to that end. He has plenty of support at home, no slick cement floors, and his own window to look out at the weather, his own life to get back into for at least awhile. There's no telling if/when he has to go back for the final stretch. In the meantime I'd like him to be able, as a friend whose life I care about, to have his life back. I'd rather he be at home and live a short time than live a long time in a place where everything he does is directed. I just prefer than he not die in despair when he doesn't have to.

Monday, June 15, 2009


Kermit Pruitt 15 jun 09

After almost 20 years of my hair less than half an inch long, I came to a time where I was tired of clipping it myself and tired of going to the barber shop, though Kermit's is a good barber shop to go to. I wanted to stop fooling with it. So I let it grow over several months to see about letting it grow out long enough to make a bob in the back, with the idea that I won't have to fool with it any more. Turns out I was fooling with it just about all the time as it was getting longer. Couldn't keep my fingers out of it, so strange to have hair this long, never had it long before. Had to shampoo during a shower and dry the best possible with a towel, refusing to buy a blow dryer, and it takes hours to dry.

Guys with long hair told me I was in the awkward stage and to be patient, when it gets longer it will lay down. Mine doesn't ever lay down. It's inclination is to stick straight out and grow straight out until it gradually starts to bend downward pulled by gravity. But a hair has to be awfully long to be effected by gravity, especially mine. As it grew past 4 inches I had to keep a hat on all the time or it would just stick out all over. I called it my Sid Vicious didn't die look. He grew old and got white headed. When I don't put a hat on it, the hair sticks straight out all day long. Once I've put a hat on and flattened it down a bit, it will stay down for awhile. I think of black men before the freedom fro putting pomade on their hair and wearing a nylon stocking on their head to keep the hair down all week so they can take the stocking off Friday night for the weekend.

The hair got to the place that the wrong people were looking at me, like old hippies. I started looking more and more like an old hippie. I've never wanted to identify with any one way of thinking/believing/behaving. I want the freedom to think/believe/behave according to my own understanding, not somebody else's that gathers a bunch of people to his/her 'philosophy' because of whatever reasons they have for wanting somebody else to make their decisions. It's too much like living in a nursing home, where other people make your decisions, for me to jump into that circle, or any other.

Kermit Pruitt is a good barber and I like going to Kermit's shop. Kermit has been a bluegrass bass player about all his adult life. He plays bass with the Rise & Shine Band, the Jubilee's house band. He plays acoustic bass and electric bass, acoustic guitar and electric. He can play country, bluegrass, old-time and rockabilly. At the Hillbilly Show in October, year after year, he lip-syncs two George Jones songs. I've seen Kermit impersonate George Jones so many times that when I hear George Jones I see Kermit in my mind. The audience at the Hillbilly Show loves George Jones and everybody thinks an awful lot of Kermit. Put them together and you have an audience of people like me who see Kermit in their minds when they hear George Jones's voice. Kermit does it right too, and everybody sings along. I think George Jones is as beloved among country music listeners as Ralph Stanley is loved by bluegrass listeners. Ol Possum just has it right.

A few years ago at the Hillbilly Show, Joe Irwin was singing a couple of songs by Johnny Cash, actually singing like Johnny, and with his own voice, which happens to be naturally close enough to Cash's he can sing a Johnny Cash song. I tend to think Joe can play Johnny better than Johnny plays himself. At this show, Joe and Lynn Worth were singing as Johnny and June. They did it right, too. Very first lick on his electric guitar, Kermit's pick broke in half. He had to play out the song with half a pick and get used to it right now.

Kermit has a sense of humor that's going all the time, too. He's like Ernest Joines in that way, all the time seeing something funny to laugh over. On the red pickup he drove before his new white one, he kept a tag in the middle of the front bumper with an image of a multi-colored frog. With a name like Kermit, we tend to wonder how tired he must have got with everyone making references to Sesame St. Kermit deals with it by putting a frog tag on his truck, meaning he has a great sense of humor about it. He thinks it's funny too. It's a whole lot better than being named Big Bird.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


TarBaby and white line

Saturday night Everett Lilly was playing at the Lincoln Theater in Marion VA. He's 89 and was there for the appearance more than the music, though the music was plenty good. For me, it was fun seeing Everett Lilly, mandolin, fiddle and vocal of the Lilly Brothers, one of the early bluegrass bands that played straight-ahead, all-out bluegrass when it was starting up. Everett Lilly played mandolin with Flatt & Scruggs when Art Wooten was playing fiddle with them.

Seeing Everett Lilly was on the order of seeing Ralph Stanley or Earl Scruggs, the last of the living from that time. Everett and his brother B were the Lilly Brothers. B played guitar and sang too. They were from West Virginia, and, as they say, so far back in a holler even the Episcopalians handled snakes. They played some at radio stations in West Virginia and somehow landed a job at the Hillbilly Ranch in Boston where they played seven nights a week for 19 years. They lived in a trailer park and had jams going by day.

Fiddler Tex Logan, going to MIT, met them and played an awful lot of fiddle with them, enough that he became identified as their fiddler. Don Stover, from not far from them in WVA, played one of the great bluegrass banjos with them. Raymond Oakes, singer and guitar picker of Grayson County played guitar with them for a couple of years. They didn't make very many recordings. The one I like the best is the live show at Hillbilly Ranch taped by one of their friends. It turned out so good they put it on record. Lilly Brothers do Barbara Allen the very best to my ears I've ever heard it, so much so that after hearing it there is no other. So many versions of the song try to sing it too much, but Everett Lilly just tells the story. He calls her Bar-bree Allen.

The band with him was his two boys and some others, all of them excellent musicians. Everett played sitting down. Needed a little assistance walking and getting up from the chair. Just an assist. The audience gave him much affirming with applause for about every move he made. Eyes of the frail little man, about the size of Ralph Stanley, would light up and he'd reach up and touch the brim of his hat.

Pathway, a bluegrass band out of Mt Airy played. It's Scott Freeman and his brothers, a bunch of excellent musicians. Scott, primarily a mandolin player, plays fiddle with the band. A few years ago Scott was going around to fiddlers conventions playing fiddle and taking first most of the time. He did this a couple of years in a row and I wondered what he was up to. When Pathway took off I understood he was polishing up his fiddle. He'd played fiddle with Alternate Roots some and several of his solo projects. He seems to be in transition now from mandolin to fiddle, but I doubt it. He's just bringing his fiddle up to where his mandolin is.

The big name draw for the show was Blue Highway, a bluegrass chart band with all members but one from this region. They went off jet-propelled. While I was thinking Pathway and Lilly's bands were suitable for my satisfaction musically, Blue Highway ruled. They left all that went before in the dust.

Their show was better as it went along. It was a bluegrass concert. The dobro player was the one foreigner in the band, and he was from San Francisco. But it didn't matter if he came from the moon, the man can make a dobro sing. They said he got IBMA best dobro ten years. Hearing him, there's no question why. Marbletown is a good song to hear that tells what he can do.

The lead guitar player, who did vocals on Marbletown, turned out to be somebody who could imitate other people's voices. He was the band's comedian. When he said into the mic, 'O Death,' it was so Ralph the whole audience went nuts. Then he started talking like Ralph. It was uncanny. He had the place laughing and applauding and going on. It was funny as it could be, but there was a bit of the sacreligious in it. It felt something like telling an Etheopian joke on Jesus, a little quiver inside that threatens to go off if he crosses the line. Don't be making too much fun of Ralph. In fact, you might have gone too far already. He knew where the line was and didn't make Ralph look bad. He loved Ralph Stanley as much as everybody else.

The Lincoln Theater in Marion is quite a restoration accomplishment. I spent as much time admiring the walls as what was on stage. It's a faux Mayan theme all over the place and half a dozen great huge paintings of scenes from history, Robert E Lee, etc. Marion is on the Lee Highway, made famous by fiddler GB Grayson. Tim White, banjo of the VW Boys, painted a huge mural in Bristol, funny comedian, good song writer, is behind this show Song of the Mountains. It's video recorded for PBS tv by 3 cameras. Will air in about a year. Tim brought the camera crew into the show too. Tim you know of through 5lbs of Possum in my headlights. He's as gifted a comedian and artist as he is a banjo picker. I say thanks to Tim White for all of the above.