I've been reading in a collection of my friend Chris Cox's columns he writes for the Asheville paper. Chris is from Alleghany County and many of the people he writes about are people here. Some of them I have known. I'm enjoying reading his accounts of people I know and know of. His first collection of his columns he published in a book, WAKING UP IN A CORNFIELD. Amazon has it with 5 stars from customer reviews. I don't see a consensus of five stars on amazon reviews very often. Chris's writing is clear, concise and poetic in the best sense of the adjective, not floral but insightful. His columns are lovingly conceived, coming from somebody whose mind is in touch with his heart. He may not think of it in these terms; it's so much a part of his character he wouldn't notice. In a sense, he is what I mean when I call somebody "real." It's what I call the mountain people, real. When somebody is bad, they're real about it. When somebody is good, they're real about it. By real I mean true, true to self, true to others, honest, straight-forward, says what he means with no compulsion to say what he doesn't mean. And by honesty I mean something more expansive than true and false. I don't mean always telling the truth or even seldom telling the truth. Not that Chris makes things up, he doesn't need to. I'm defining my use of the word, not Chris in particular. Chris is mountain people; it comes naturally to him to connect with the humanity of individuals he writes about. One in particular sticks with me, a friend of his dad's, Leo, who played poker seriously, a great guy, who, the first thing you need to know about Leo is never trust him. Know that and you never have a problem with him.
Leo was a really good acoustic guitar picker who could not play with a band for being unable to get along with anybody long enough to finish rehearsing their first gig. Understanding where Leo came from helps one to see Leo in an empathetic light; his dad was in prison through most of his childhood for killing a cousin over a still they were working together, whose last words were, Y'kilt me. When I say rough people, I don't mean sandpaper rough, but sawmill rough. Leo was one of the very first people I met here, maybe the second, after his uncle Tom. I was inside my house, which was completely empty, making bookshelves for a wall. It was Christmas day, 1976. I'm not a Christmas celebrant, so I spent the day preparing the house to start bringing my items in. It started snowing. I was driving a 4 wheel drive Jeep pickup with good tires and let it snow. The snow was up to four inches and I was shutting down to go back to the house I was staying in waiting for this house to be emptied by the previous owner. I saw a 61 Ford go up the road. I thought, You won't get far, and went out the door thinking it a good thing to have tracks in the road to drive on. On the road I saw parallel tracks that looked like two huge snakes went up the road side by side. I knew for sure he was not going far. A short ways after the road starts uphill I saw him, driver's side tires in the ditch, back wheel spinning. It was a gravel road then. I stopped, went to his passenger side door with window open and saw him face-down on the steering wheel, passed out drunk, foot on the gas pedal holding the motor wide open. I spoke to him, he jerked upright and I asked if he needed help. Duh. He told me to push it back onto the road. I went back to the left rear fender and pushed the car sideways while he spun the tire. Easily pushed it out of the ditch, hardly any effort on ice, and he was gone, snaking up the road out of sight. He turned left where I turned right. All I know of what happened next was he and the car survived the drive to wherever they went.
I saw his car go up and down the road several times during my first months. His uncle Tom had told me he was living up the road with his girlfriend. In the spring I was working with Leo's cousin, Bill, clearing a meadow that had grown up in saplings with bush-axe and chainsaw. We saw Leo's car go up the road and Bill said, There goes the most worthless man in Alleghany County. I had to double-take on Bill saying that of somebody. Bill, himself, was a contender for the title. It made what he said all the funnier. Bill said it to mean that guy is even more worthless than himself. Bill had his issues, too. His daddy died of a heart attack driving a tractor when Bill was 12. He and his half dozen brothers and sisters came up in the worst kind of Appalachian poverty, a house you'd call a shack, looked down on by everybody and called 'inbred" because mama and daddy were cousins. He and his brothers became a small gang. They were not aggressive tough guys, but you take one on, you've got them all to deal with. They stuck together to hold their ground. I learned quite a lot about Leo from Bill and Tom. He was a living character for me by the time I met him. And he'd heard about me from his cousins. I don't know how they characterized me, though it would been something like a college-boy that don't know nothin, though he can drink himself stupid and likes to ride around in the car with them on weekends drinking beer and laughing, is respectful and doesn't look down on them. It was easy to be respectful, I was half afraid of them until I found they were my bodyguards when they took me to places I'd never dare go alone. Looking back, I could have easily gone alone with no problem, but then I was looking at the unknown with fear. The pool room on a Saturday night late when everybody was red-faced and red-eyed is something I could never have experienced without my bodyguards. They knew everybody. Everybody already knew I was the new college-boy that worked with them, and were no more interested in me than if I were a bottle cap in the parking lot. I liked it like that. I didn't want their attention. I'd never been in such proximity with so many really rough looking guys. I felt like Pee Wee Herman in the biker bar. And that is not an exaggeration.
On the sixteenth of April my friend Pat was visiting from the city for the weekend. It was her birthday. She was at a wok in the kitchen when Leo's car stopped out front and we heard a knock on the door. I opened the door. It was a woman in jeans and jacket wearing an old-timey bonnet, blond with blue eyes and black teeth. She put out her right hand and said, Hi, I'm Margie. By this time I'd heard so much about Margie she was a legend already, from Bill and his brothers. I about fell over backwards. This was the first time I'd seen her. They didn't say she had black teeth, but I heard about all the rest of her. She said Leo was waiting in the car. They had some vodka and some chaser and beer. Did we want to party? I said, Yeah. Margie went back to the car and they both returned toting the condiments, a guitar case and a banjo case. Pat turned off the stove and joined the party. We started off with some drinks, getting acquainted, where you from?, talked, laughed, Leo took out his guitar and started picking. Margie took out her banjo and sang, It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels. She had a harmonica, called here a harp. It was the only song she knew. She sang it over and over as the night went on and we got more shit-faced. It was her song. She loved it so much she didn't need any other songs. The song was her life. I never tired of hearing her sing it. I put a cassette on to record her singing it and let the tape go as she and Leo made music and we laughed and partied. Bill stopped by, seeing Leo's car, and went to town for more liquor. Pat was loving this spontaneous moment at least as much as I was. We were both in awe of what was happening before our eyes. It could not have happened if either she or I looked down on these people. Margie told us she'd learned to play the banjo in prison, harp too. Leo was an impressive guitar picker. I thought Margie's banjo pickin was beautiful. I loved her singing, the first my ears had beheld of hillbilly singing. She sang it from her soul. It was right. It was right like Big Mama Thornton singing Summertime and Nina Simone singing Porgy. I gave the hour and a half tape to Pat for her birthday present. She still has it.
all photos by tj worthington