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Wednesday, November 18, 2009


cutting the grass

Jr never could understand why I found his life so fascinating. To him, he was making do as needed doing, in motion toward the end of earning money for living expenses. Once he said, "I like to work like hell all week and get drunk on the weekend." Playing music on weekends he always had some liquor nearby. He drank up to the place where the liquor assists the artistry in the picking as good as it's going to, and held it there, this side of too much where the artistry gets stupid.

My life is too boring to talk about; reading, writing, painting, watching movies, listening to music, playing with the computer. When I was at the store, I could tell him in the evenings about different people who came in. Quite often I had good conversation with all kinds of people, which, for me, was more satisfying as a reason to have the store than anything else. The variety of people that came in there told me we have some very interesting people passing through Sparta or have moved here from someplace else. We also have some very interesting people from here.

The one-upmanship games some men play were pretty funny. When that game started, I bowed out. The most fun were the obvious PhDs who teach at some university, neatly bearded, professorial ego. I'm remembering one in particular started quizzing me in conversation, testing my knowledge of this or that to do with whatever. I gave an unsatisfactory answer right off, dropped a caint for can't and them for those, got summed up an idiot not worth talking to and he rejoined his wife browsing.

There was a city guy staying here temporarily with parents who came here from someplace else, talking about making a documentary film about mountain music, knowing nothing about it. Wanted me involved because I'm an "expert." I cautioned him, "I'm not an expert." "Yes you are." "No I'm not. I'm not an expert on anything, certainly not mountain music." It flabbergasted him. He just hadn't heard expert enough to be tired of it yet. I hear it on the news every day; so and so, the expert. I was testing him too, to see if he had what it took to get past that word. It was the end of it. There wasn't anything to it to start with. It made interesting conversation. City people like to talk and I like to listen.

When I met somebody exceptional that day I'd tell Jr about it. Like the man from Florida who was an old-time fiddler originally from the mountains outside Chatanooga, about 40 miles south of where my ancestors lived, and his dad was an old-time fiddler in the mountains there. He told of a time he went to Ireland and sat in with jams learning to play their style. When they played the old-time fiddle tune he knew as Red Wing, somebody sang the words. He didn't know Red Wing had words. He ran it by his dad later, and he never heard of Red Wing having words either. He took it from finding no one he talked to this side of the Atlantic knew it had words that the words to a song he only knew as a fiddle tune must not have crossed the ocean.

One thing I found about old people that younger people don't know is the old folks got soul. It's just that electric music isn't music to them. It's noise. Good old-time music can set old folks in motion their grandkids didn't know they had in em. Go to one of the dance places on a Fri or Sat night in Glendale Springs, Sparta, Cana, Floyd, Flat Ridge, Fries, and see old folks flatfootin the old-time way, floating a half inch off the floor, keeping perfect time.

Sometimes I'd tell Jr something interesting I heard or read about in the news. Like a few years ago I found a paragraph in the back of a Time magazine that told of a Russian mountain village buried in a tidal wave of mud from a melted glacier that ran 75mph. In what must have been a couple of minutes it buried the entire village and everybody in it. He wasn't interested in anything on the news, except something he can see in his mind. He can't see budget deficit in his mind. I told him other odd stories I found in the news from time to time.

His grandfather Joines was a blacksmith in Whitehead. His grandfather Maxwell was killed at the end of the Civil War by a sniper while watering his horse at Killon's branch, near where the bypass meets Hwy 21 at Blevins. Jr's dad was 3 months in the womb when his daddy died. His last 6 months in the womb his mother was in her grief. When he was born, what a treasure he must have been. He was given the same name. Jr was his from his dad's second marriage. His first wife died when their younguns were in their thirties. He married Loretta (Etta) Joines, sister to Pine Swamp fiddler Howard Joines, and Jr was born 5 years later. Old man Wiley lived until Jr was in his early thirties.

Jr's stories were all from mountain culture, which was fascinating to me, and nothing to him. Our conversations at the table brought me closer to the culture, gave me a front row seat to the music world from the inside. He never remembered places and dates, but always remembered the people around him. He liked everybody he knew. That's not an exaggeration and it wasn't forced in him. It came from who he was, all the way deep within. I knew for a long time that God had a special affection for Jr Maxwell. His life was simple as a monk's, and he'd been wrung through several wringers. The wild man in him survived all of it. When his wild man could no longer act out, he could think. His sense of humor was always turned on.

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