Hesitating to Help

When I got to the church tonight for the regular rehearsal with the Old Time Band, the person who sits in the entry hall to direct folks to whatever room their meeting is in was sitting next to a young teenager, who was leaned over, elbows on his thighs, talking into a cell. “Momma, can you come and get me? Please?”

I went into the LCF room and set up my hammered dulcimer. I was the first one there. so I checked to see if I was out of tune (I wasn’t, fortunately), and came back out to get some water before everyone else arrived. He was still there, still on the phone. He handed it to the sexton, who started giving the address of the church, and then he looked up at me. “Can you take me home?”

I hesitated, and he returned to the phone. “There’s a guy here. If he’ll bring me home, will you pay him?”

Immediately regretting my hesitation, I said, “I don’t want your money. Where do you live?” He told me and then said, “You don’t have to take me all the way in if you don’t want to.” Where he lived was a public housing project, and I guess he was anticipating my probable reaction.

“Let me get my hat,” I said, and we went out into the parking lot. We were headed to the car and I said, “Do I need to know what’s going on here or do you just want a ride?”

“Just a ride,” he said.

We made small talk on the way there, about school and how he liked football and was trying to get a summer job, and when we arrived he directed me down a dead end street, saying, “You can just let me out at the end here.” When I stopped the car, he offered me his hand, said thanks, and was gone.

I’ve been thinking about this incident ever since. 

It saddens me that I felt that hesitation when I learned where he lived. And concerns me that he didn’t want to say what was going on, how he ended up at our church early this Monday evening.

It shouldn’t have been any kind of big deal at all, should have been just like I told him when I said I didn’t want any money. “We’re supposed to help each other out. That’s how it’s supposed to work.”

But there, standing in the church lobby, just for a moment what I was thinking was whether or not to help out a kid who needed a ride. Should have been a no-brainer, but it wasn’t.

Going Home (Or Just Passing Through)

Yesterday I called my mother and told her I’d probably come down to see her for the Mother’s Day weekend on Saturday. She, of course, said come on anytime, so I baked a gift loaf of rosemary bread and started out about mid-morning today. 

I decided to make a detour and swing through Greenback, where I had lived for most of my youth and had gone to school from second grade through graduation, so I turned right at Maryville and headed down Morganton Road. It’s been a long time since I’ve made that trip.

The road used to cut through farms; now houses, churches, and subdivisions stretch almost all the way from Maryville to Greenback. The feel of the road was the same, but the view was completely different. I pulled up next to my grandmother’s old place, at the flashing yellow light, and then drove into town.

If my memory serves, fifty years ago there was a bank with a public library on the second floor, a farmer’s co-op, a post office, a grocery, a drug store, a small department store, and a gas station. I don’t remember the flashing yellow light, but there was a set of railroad tracks at the end of the business section, which was two blocks long. Today there is a bank (not the same one), a museum(!), a post office, a secondhand store, and the drug store. The railroad track is gone. I didn’t check on the co-op; back then it was on a side street. 

There was an empty slot in front of the museum, so I parked there and got out. As soon as I looked across the street to the post office I remembered the Wagon Train. Every year we would close off the main street and have a huge square dance the night before the horses and wagons made the trip to Glendale the next day. I went into the museum and had a quick look around, seeing lots of familiar names on the labels identifying the clothing, farm equipment, school and soldier memorabilia, newspaper headlines, and photographs. 

The drug store was barely recognizable; gone were the standing shelves in the center of the store, the book and magazine rack on the left, and the drugstore section in the back. It had been transformed into a diner. They had burgers and fries and wings and salads and stuff like that. But more importantly, they had fried honey buns with ice cream on top, just like fifty years ago. Now, on the menu, it’s listed as their signature item.

Later, on my way out of town, I found the new library location just past the turn to Lenoir City in a building that also houses the community center. It was closed. By two o’clock, about the time I made it to the family farm in Lenoir City, the drug store/diner and the museum would be closed, too. It was good that I came through town when I did. 

Mostly I was just passing through my old home town; I didn’t see anyone I recognized (which would have been surprising, given the passage of time) and as far as I know no one recognized me. For a couple of minutes, though, sitting at the counter, savoring that honey bun hot off the griddle with the ice cream melting over it, I was awash in memory.

Out in Public

I spent the day at an elementary school reading two of my books to groups of children:

One of the groups was arranging itself on the carpet in the library and a second grader looked up at me and said, “I Googled you.”  I must admit I was taken aback, and all I could manage was, “Oh, really?” Not exactly a snappy comeback.

I didn’t know that my voice would last; altogether there were 13 groups of children, and I read “The Box of Toys,” “Father and Sister Radish and the Rose-Colored Glasses,” or both, to each of them.

One little girl was wearing a tee shirt with a saying on the front I thought was amusing. When she looked my way I pointed at her and said, “Nice shirt.” She didn’t smile, just stared at me for a second and then dropped her eyes, and had such a look of sadness and resignation on her face that I thought, oh, boy, I know that look. I’ve seen it a thousand times in my career. What really struck me today was that during my professional life most of the young people I worked with had that look as a normal feature, and here, in this place, it stood out as unusual. I can’t help but wonder if I did the young people under my care a disservice by seeing that look as normal. Not that I could have fixed anything; I am under few delusions about how much power and influence I had. The fact that my view of normal life had ended up mirroring theirs is the real point here.

One of the teachers had her class write next chapters to “The Box of Toys” after they went back to their classroom to make space for the next group. I was given their efforts by the end of the day and spent a delightful hour or so going over them. They ranged from extensions of the central message of the book, that of generosity, to one student who took the idea to NASA and extended the notion to outer space, one who uncovered a scam on the part of one of the recipients, one who was clearly taken with the word “very,” one who got a real loaves and fishes thing going, and several other variations on their starting point, which was the ending of my story. It was a pleasure to read them.

The staff and administration of the school did a great job moving the children in and out of the library, maintaining order during the readings, and generally making me feel welcome. My thanks to them.

And to my friend Doug, who helped me with my presentations for the entire day and was great with the kids and as an active co-presenter, impressive considering we had not planned anything out in advance.

A Proposed Solution to Fake News

After careful reflection, I believe I have the solution to the epidemic of fake news ravaging our fair nation from all across the political and social spectrum. All prospective news releases, internet memes, headlines, etc. should be vetted by the teams in charge of evaluating the answers displayed and the subsequent questions posed on Jeopardy. As a long time viewer I feel certain that they would not dare risk the wrath of the faithful by getting even the smallest detail wrong and thus have the principles of accuracy so deeply ingrained that we could rest assured that we were receiving the real deal, the straight poop, the absolute unvarnished truth. 

It would, of course, slow down the news cycle to a noticeable degree, which I personally think would be a real plus. Also, if we were very lucky, we might have Mr. Trebeck, possibly the only public figure untouched by scandal, serve as Secretary of Truth, or at least put in an occasional appearance if the occasion demands a public statement. He is, after all, fluent in many accents, if not the languages themselves. 

And to those who would argue that the river of knowledge on Jeopardy is often a mile wide and an inch deep, I would agree, and point out that that is a vast improvement over what we are confronted with today.

Hot Tea and Vinyl

“Well you know, she still laughs with me

But she waits just a second too long.”

John Prine’s self-titled 1971 album was how I started my day this morning, and, as usual, I was struck by how very good a writer he is. Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore, Sam Stone, Hello in There, Paradise, Illegal Smile, Quiet Man, Donald and Lydia, Spanish Pipedream, Far From Me, Angel From Montgomery, and more. I mean, really. On one album.

Songwriting, like poetry, is a genre I have great respect for, largely because I can’t pull it off myself. In the best examples of both, the writer is trying to show us a little glimpse of truth and there is no waste. All the words, all the phrases matter. I have read paragraphs of prose and felt that same thing, that everything worked and every word was necessary. If I get a few of those over the course of a book, I think I’ve found a real gem. A songwriter, a poet, does nothing but that. It’s a rare and wonderful thing, a gift of that caliber. 

Art for the People

It’s raining this morning, which means that the art on Market Square is probably already gone, washed off the concrete. I would like to have been there to watch the pictures turn into rivulets and puddles of color as the portraits, landscapes, and fanciful scenes disappeared. Walking the Square this weekend was a wonder-full experience, watching artists of all ages at work and seeing what they brought to this year’s Chalk Walk.

Here are just a few images:


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


What they brought included Pat Summitt, and Stephan Curry, and a pipe-smoking bear, and a little girl with a flower, and a woman’s face and hands pressed against a window, and a pond full of fish, and Rosetti’s muse, and a trombone player, and a toucan with a gigantic beak, and a woman’s face framed in dogwood blossoms, and dozens more, some whimsical, some serious, filling the Square and extending into Krutch Park. There was also an area marked off with more than a hundred small squares just for young children to let their imaginations go, and in many places not set aside for the Chalk Walk there was spontaneous art of all kinds, quick sketches and messages to no one and everyone.

The weather was perfect and the art was free, my favorite daughter and son-in-law were in town and joined us for a while, and Suzanne and I made it to Yassin’s Falafel House just before the lunch rush. All in all, Saturday was a very good day.

When I was a young man I took pleasure in making fun of Knoxville, with its moribund downtown area, uncontrolled sprawl to the west, and single-minded emphasis on college football. I feel differently now, partly because as I get older I see less and less purpose in passing judgment on most things, and partly because Knoxville is changing (as all cities do). Perhaps the most hopeful change I have seen is the making of art available to the people.

I have come to believe that art is essential to the life of a society; it helps define us, shows us beauty in both expected and unexpected places, pokes and prods us and makes us uncomfortable, and gives us a glimpse into things that only artists see clearly. One of the reasons that art can save a society from itself when it turns rigid and lifeless is that it cannot be contained. It can and sometimes has been driven underground, but the artist is always there, always offering us things that otherwise would escape our notice. While it is true that there are pompous, self-centered artists (as is some small part of every group I’ve ever been associated with), when they get it right, artists of all kinds – painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, and all the others – give us something no one else can. They show us what we need to see.

So when Knoxville does things like Chalk Walk, and WDVX’s Blue Plate Special, and the sculptures in Krutch Park and other places in the city, and Shakespeare on the Square, and the summer concert series, the city is doing more than entertaining us. It is feeding us.

A Fine Piece of Southern Fiction

“A Land More Kind Than Home” by Wiley Cash is a fine piece of Southern writing. Set in the mountains of North Carolina, it is the story of what happens to a community when some of its members are led into the darker recesses of Christianity by a preacher who is both secretive and controlling. It’s much more than that, of course; for me, at its core it’s a story of fathers and sons, and how history that stretches over a lifetime can color events of the present day.

The narrative is shared by three people: an old woman, the sheriff of the county, and a nine-year-old boy. The woman, a matriarch of the community, participates in the unfolding events from the perspective of one who has helped many of the locals into the world and recognizes the danger posed by the preacher more quickly and accurately than most. She speaks with the authority of age, and doesn’t have time to waste being anything but honest. The sheriff, carrying his own burdens and connections with the townspeople, balances the demand for privacy of the people he serves with his sense of duty to the county as a whole. The little boy, a third grader, watches the events unfold and gets swept up in them without any more than a child’s understanding of the importance of the role he plays.

Cash’s understanding of the Appalachian culture rings true, as does his command of the language. The descriptions of sights, sounds, and smells are highly evocative. I have spent my life in the shadow of the Smokies; this man knows what he’s talking about, and chooses his words so carefully and well that I scarcely have to close my eyes to put myself in the moment. I listened to the book on CD, read by three actors, and even though it is a dark story, it was a pleasure to experience. I don’t remember a false step or wasted paragraph.

Where Boone comes from

If you know my history, both personal and professional, it’s easy to see where Boone comes from. I was raised in rural East Tennessee, like Boone. I have a younger sister, a little closer in age to me than Hannah is to Boone. I was (and am) socially insecure, just like Boone. The similarities start breaking down after that, and the rest of Boone’s personality and history comes from the hundreds of young people I worked with over the years.

I spent my professional career working with teenagers on the fringes of society — they were dealing with emotional problems, behavior problems, drug addiction, court involvement, often in combination. That was part of who they were, but only part. They were also kind and generous and funny and perceptive young people, but they didn’t show that to everybody. They had very little reason to trust anyone in authority and a lotPBcoverwithsubtitle.jpg to be angry about. Many of them had no idea of the sweep of American history or the beauty of the English language or the power of mathematics, but what they did have was a finely honed survival instinct. They could read situations and people, but frequently their anger and mistrust interfered with casual social interactions. They had limited choices available to them and were sometimes not aware of the choices they did have.

Boone lives on the fringe of society. His family history, anger, and overall stubbornness are all pushing back against any chance of him gaining entry into the world that Nancy and Tiny and Curt and Mark live in, and mostly he’s trying just to get by. Once in a while he learns something that sticks with him; once in a while he lets down his guard. He’s trying, as best he knows how, to do the right thing when he can figure out what that is.

I write about Boone because he and all the other folks in his situation deserve to have their voices heard. More on that in a later post.

The Journey Begins


“Everything changes. Everything is connected. Pay attention.”mobius strip.jpg  –  J. Hirschfield


Big Ears 2018

My third Big Ears and second with a full weekend pass. As before, the music was world class, breathtaking, and mostly from people I had never heard of before or knew only by reputation.

Thursday’s highlight for me was David Hidalgo and Marc Ribot at the Tennessee Theater, one of the crown jewels of downtown. Two guitarists, moving from folk to Tex-Mex to blues to straight ahead rock; a great start to the weekend.

Friday, an unscheduled performance at the visitors’ center by Jerry Douglas and later on, groups from Morocco and Niger, and the Black Twig Pickers from Virginia in between.

Saturday was more jazz oriented, with separate solo performances at St. John’s Cathedral by Peter Evans and John Medeski, Jason Moran and Wilford Graves at the Bijou, and back to the Tennessee to see Anoushka Shankar and, later that night, Diamanda Galas.

Abigail Washburn on banjo and Wu Fei on Chinese zither at the Bijou on Sunday completed my weekend. Weaving together Appalachian folk and Chinese traditional music, laughing and talking together, throwing in a little Chinese opera duet, the hour was gone long before I was ready. Pure magic.

Big Ear’s gift to the city of Knoxville and to music and film lovers generally is hard to pin down. Ashley Capps and company, who put the festival on each year, have no genre to promote and no theme beyond gathering the best musicians from all over into one place over the course of a weekend. What happens is first class music both scheduled and improvised, set up in advance or spontaneous, and a real joy to behold. And hear. And experience. People come from all over the world to Big Ears, and so do performers. Like I said, pure magic.