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Tuesday, November 17, 2009


red wheel

Several people have said God sent me to Jr to help him through his hard time. I add that God sent Jr to me for a teacher to expand the realm of my understanding. I heard from the source the story of a life I can only look at in awe. I learned a great deal about bluegrass and old-time musicians of this region, tales of various musicians Jr made music with over the years, like Cullen Galyean, a banjo picker from Low Gap Jr had the highest respect for as a picker and as a man. Jean and I drove to Cana, Virginia, one night to hear Cullen Galyean with Henry Mabe on the fiddle. They played some mighty good bluegrass I would have missed if I'd not known Jr.

In the time I was thinking about putting together a music store to be a source for the music of the central Blue Ridge, I wanted to talk with Jr to get his take on whether or not such an effort might work. I drove by the shop and he was sitting inside the big open doorway in a wooden chair beside the stove watching the vehicles go by. I'd hoped to find him at a time when he wasn't busy. I stepped into Jr's world walking through the big doorway, a world of tools, tractors and tractor parts, the black patina of grease everywhere, and on his hands. In a way, it felt like he was in a cave of dark gloom. Blue work pants, lighter blue work shirt, work boots, a blue and white billboard ballcap, the bill straight across. It said Maxwell in small letters below some logo, something to do with tractors.

I felt sorrow seeing Jr depressed as he was unto despair. Having company, he was animated and came to life. We talked for an hour or so and he asked me to the house for a drink before I go on. Sure. I was enjoying a conversation with Jr Maxwell after knowing him for 27 years, but not well enough to sit and talk at length. Like the way you know a lot of people, like Amos Wagoner at Farmer's Hardware. When you live in the same community, you are aware of each other and speak as though well acquainted when paths cross. Let's call them pleasant acquaintances, people who don't give us a difficult time.

I was a foolish tool to have lived in Whitehead during the last 14 years of the Green Mountain Boys, when they were at their best, and never saw them once. I have what I believe a false memory of dinner at High Meadows in my first year in the mountains and a band playing, people dancing. It was a local bluegrass band, though at the time I didn't know. I associated bluegrass with horse racing. Beverly Hillbillies theme with Earl Scruggs' banjo was an irritant. Lord have mercy, I feel retarded looking at myself then from now.

With my grandmother through the early 50s I heard on Grand Old Opry the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and others I hold the highest now, but paid them no mind then. It was country, like saying aint. I got scolded at home and at school for saying aint. Don't use that word, it's country. My parents were the children of country kids that married and moved to the city for work and raised kids in the city. I had some country relatives and they were soooo country. Backward they seemed. But to them I was the one backward.

I was several years emerging from city mind. Then it turned out I was country all along and the city part was a detour. Jr told me of making music with fiddlers Tiny Pruitt, Jim Shumate, Otis Burris, Art Wooten, Vaughn Brown (from Charlotte), Johnny Miller and several others. He took me inside the music world of his experience, fiddlers conventions in the parking lot. Home Sweet Home was his winning fiddlers convention tune. He pulled on the strings in a way to make the waving note like Earl Scruggs did with special pegs. The disappearance of his fiddlers convention ribbons and trophies is a mystery he never solved. One of two women has them and both swear they don't. I have my suspicions, but it's irrelevant now. Jr didn't care enough to worry over it.

When I left he'd ask me to come back the next evening, which I did, and we sat at the table sipping 2 glasses apiece of nice smooth liquor over 2 hours. I asked him once if there was ever any goal he wanted for himself. He said, "I wanted to be like my daddy." Phew, I thought, how many men can say that? He told of the time his daddy was elected to county commission without running, then refused to accept it. I began to see Jr's depression was lonesomeness. He had the lonesome blues. His heart was broken and trampled in the mud a few years before. Since then, in his words, he wasn't worth shootin.

He kept himself out of the depths of despair working, staying in the present, letting the past go, dwelling in the present and future. He told stories from the past for me, seeing that was what I wanted to hear, such that it turned into telling his entire life, which I did too, though not at much length as I've lived my life in my head. Jr was more interesting to me than I was to him. Mostly he told me accounts of moments along the way, from childhood on up, a host of names I never heard of, never a hint of judgment of anyone he brought up. After half a dozen years of hearing his life, I saw it bear out what he told me early on, that he looked up to everyone.

There came a day in the time just before Hospice came along that Jr was wanting to pay me something for staying with him so much. I told him he paid in advance, 5 years of sharing the best liquor on this earth with me and telling me his life. I said, this is payback time for you. You wouldn't let me help you pay for any of the liquor we drank, so you don't pay for anything I'm doing now. What I learned sitting there listening to Jr Maxwell is more than I could tell. The way I can honor Jr's time and attention is to live what I learned from him, which is so considerable I wouldn't know how to track it all down to tell it.

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