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.