Most of my life, I never felt like I had a tribe.
I was always an outlier. I was voted “Most Intellectual” in ninth grade in one of the worst schools in one of the worst school districts in the least intellectual state of America. I was so ashamed I refused to have my picture made for the yearbook. I read books in a state where no one reads. I secretly read “The Communist Manifesto” in my closet in a state where J. Edgar Hoover’s “Masters of Deceit” was still mandatory reading in high school civics class. I was a cradle Democrat in a state where everyone is Republican. I thought labor unions were cool. I wanted to hang out in Matewan with Jimmy Hoffa and smash the bosses.
I didn’t know what tribe I was in, but Mississippi did not seem like the place I would find it. Like Groucho Marx, I suspected that I didn’t want to belong to any tribe that would have me as a member anyway. My tribe would have to be weird. Things didn’t get much better in college. I tried joining a fraternity, but eventually stopped paying dues or attending meetings. The theater people seemed weird enough, but scared me away with their fondue parties and drama.
Mississippi is not, you’d think, the place to find an old time tribe. Mississippi is the blues. From the Hundred Man Hall in Bay St. Louis all the way up the 61 Highway to the Devil’s Crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul, the state has been mapped onto the flat landscape of cotton fields, slide guitars, juke joints, and hoodoo. A whole academic- artistic- touristic complex has grown up around the blues, which draws money and music nerds to casinos, historical markers, university archives, blues magazines, documentaries and books. None of which is a bad thing.
But all the attention it draws leaves less oxygen in the room for anyone interested in pursuing old fiddlers or square dance music. Add to its obscurity the widespread impression that the poor whites who mostly played the music were presumably drawn from the same pool of crackers and troglodytes that produced Sam Bowers and Byron De La Beckwith, and the music wasn’t merely obscure, it was radioactive. So, for the most part, the tradition disappeared. No magazines, no books, no historical markers. And definitely no gigs.
To the extent that anyone “remembers” a country music tradition in Mississippi, it’s a false memory drawn from the misrepresentations of the lyin’ fake news media. Since I can remember, the two most popular weekend shows on Mississippi Public Radio have been Highway 61, a blues show, and Grassroots, a bluegrass show. One comes on right after the other every Saturday night. The implication, I suppose, is that this arrangement covered the two historical foundations of Mississippi popular music, and that if you wanted the “real goods” of the Mississippi country tradition, you’d find them in bluegrass. Bill Ellison, the host, works to include more of the old time tradition, but the Grassroots website still lures listeners by promising to cover music “from Uncle Dave Macon, Bill Monroe, and the Kingston Trio [to] Doc Watson, Alison Krauss and Nickel Creek,” none of whom come from Mississippi or play its traditional music. Scott Baretta, who hosts Highway 61, on the other hand, wrote a book called “Mississippi: State of the Blues.” So you see what I mean.
I’d been playing guitar since I learned my first three chords in graduate school, but almost always alone. I had tried to find others, but I couldn’t play blues. I liked bluegrass, but I’d gone to bluegrass jams and hated them. After one jam, some toothless rustic told me that if I hung my capo over the rear-view mirror of my car, I could park in the handicap spot next time.
I’d gone to a bluegrass festivals and hated them too. It felt like the state’s traditional country music scene had been pretty thoroughly owned by Confederate-flag-waving dimwits in RVs who spent ten minutes playing and two hours ranting about Jesus, Stonewall Jackson, and John Birch. I loved Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt, but wanted nothing to do with that scene.
Bluegrass was not my tribe.
Admittedly, I was not promising material for anyone’s musical tribe. I’d spend most of my short musical life playing Doc Watson and Hank Williams songs and only knew about five chords. I couldn’t keep time and found myself at the end of most songs playing twice as fast when I finished as I was when I started. I found the right key by capoing up the neck until a C shape sounded right.
But all was not lost. There was still old time.
My tribal affiliation with the old time music in Mississippi began through a chance meeting with the late Alvin Hudson. Long white beard hanging over his overalls, Alvin was claw-hammering away on the porch of the Mississippi Agricultural Museum. When I told him how much I loved banjo music and bluegrass, he smiled and delivered my first iteration of the “son, this ain’t bluegrass” talk.
He invited me to attend an old time picking. From my bluegrass jams, I thought I knew what to expect. I brought my off-brand dreadnaught, expecting the worst. I pried the Mondale / Ferraro bumper sticker off my Volvo in a futile effort to blend. I wore lots of plaid and flannel, a gimme cap, and giant ill-fitting cowboy boots. I looked at the sports scores so I could at least nod knowingly when someone brought up football. I suspected I’d be killed.
Instead, I found a tribe.
And, man, the tribe was weird: Jack Magee, wild-fiddling dentist, who hides under his bed during thunderstorms, carries catfish around in his backpack, and drives around old time festivals every morning in his station wagon with the air conditioning on. Pat O’Mire, gun-toting unreconstructed multi-instrumental musical genius and one of the funniest men in the country; Sandra Melsheimer, thrower of wild parties, snake-killer, gumbo-cooker; Cindy O’Mire, looking for all the world like Stevie Nicks puffing a cigar; Joyce Applegate, wiseass, cookie-making bassist; Rob Anders, who fishes in potholes. Real life cowboys, marathon-running pediatricians, computer geniuses, loud-mouthed conspiratorial crazies, classically-trained hemorrhoid-pillow-toting flutists in wraparound shades, moonshining mandolinists, some guy calling himself “Captain Clawhammer,” scofflaws, lowlifes, preacher’s wives, and every species of human incongruity.
I had found my tribe. These were my people.
The gatherings were epic. Sandra and Alvin’s January Pig Roast was the first real old time party I’d ever attended. Eating pig meat, drinking beer, and playing music out in the woods? Yes, please. Jack Magee’s late-October “Jackpot” Gatherings, Pat and Cindy’s New Year’s Possum Drops, and the near-weekly pick-up jams at Joyce’s house were for many years the social centers of my life. I learned to love the laughter and trash talk as much as the music. I met the out-of-towners – Buddy and Faith McClure, Buz Sibley, Harry Bolick, Ellen Rosenberg, Dave Bing, Gil and Diane Sewell – and I got the fever.
I stood in a scrum of musicians banging out “Reuben’s Train” over the thunderous yawp of the Southern Crescent as it barreled through the backwoods of Simpson County. We howled with the whistle. I gathered around campfires. I tasted moonshine. I briefly considered a tattoo. I felt really cool. I bought a hat.
Not that I blended with the tribe overnight. I hated crooked tunes, for instance, the ones that add extra beats or measures, that wander far beyond the I, IV, and V. And yet. Tim Avalon, who has taught every decent folk musician in central Mississippi (and many of the indecent ones) and Jack Magee kept playing them, in spite of all my complaints. At my first festival – Mount Airy 2005 – Greg Faiers of Dead Irish Blues waxed rhapsodic about his love of the County anthology of Mississippi String Bands, so I bought both volumes. One crooked tune after another. I began to realize that my Mississippi tribe was one of the very weirdest and wildest of them all. So I tangled with “Grub Springs,” “Sullivan’s Hollow,” “Monkey in a Dogcart,” “Captain George, Has Your Money Come,” and all the infernal Narmour and Smith puzzles. And slowly, slowly, I learned to love the crooked and the weird tunes of my tribe.
As I studied my tribe with the hawk-like observational skills of a professionally-trained English major, I began to feel dissatisfied with my rhythm-player status. The Alphas played melody. If I tried to call a tune, people looked at me like they’d just heard a dog ask for salad. After a brief effort to shortcut my way up the tribal ladder involving a “guitarjo” (a fiasco I will not record for history), I bought an actual five-string banjo.
Through my long tribal initiation process, Alvin Hudson was a source of instruction, advice, and tools I never imagined needing: rat-tail files, nut wrenches, leather punches, skyhooks, neck-stretchers. Without Alvin, I would not understand the critical importance of J-B Weld for securing loose fifth-string tuners in banjo necks. I practiced. In my office. At my house. At other people’s houses. I drove away my family. I drove away other people’s families. I lowered property values in Jackson. Johnny Rawls taught me how to drop thumb, how to add blues notes, that banjos can play crooked tunes and sixteenth notes.
I drove to tribal gatherings. I drove so much. Most weeks, the closest jam was in Vicksburg, nearly an hour away. Mount Airy was twelve. Clifftop was sixteen. Everything is far from Mississippi. Mississippi players get accustomed to driving long distances. We listen to Narmour and Smith, argue about politics, eat fried chicken and tater logs, call our mothers, sleep. I drove to Magee, Vicksburg, Natchez, Lafayette, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge, Jacksonville, Nashville, Memphis, Pikeville, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Arkansas, anywhere I could find a festival or house party. I packed tents, pop-ups, coolers, sleeping bags, instruments, so much beer, tarps to cover America, black tarps, silver tarps, brown tarps, torn tarps, new tarps, tent-cover tarps, bathroom tarps, designer tarps, walmart tarps, food-grade tarps, post-apocalyptic tarps. I packed flashlights and bungee cords and tent stakes.
My car’s interior slowly filled with the powdered mud of seven states.
Eventually, the Mississippi tribe made its own festival. Robert Gray and Tim Avalon organized the Great Big Yam Potatoes Gathering outside Natchez. Set on the picturesque campus of a now-defunct military school, GBYP celebrates Mississippi artists, Mississippi tunes, and Mississippi good times. The tribe gathers. Friday night has a giant family-reunion style picnic with everyone seated around a long picnic table. There’s a square dance in an antebellum ballroom, now barewalled, empty, echoing with the ghosts of dead soldiers and long-ago Latin lessons.
And we keep the tribal traditions alive. We play “Sullivan’s Hollow.” We cook pigs. We welcome beginners and respect old folks. We throw festivals, deliver lectures, churn out the Mississippi fiddle books (well, Harry does), we camp at Clifftop, we swap tunes with hippies and rednecks and circus freaks. Occasionally, we take our show on the road to places like Germany and teach the natives how to play “Grub Springs.” We carry catfish in our backpacks.
We sit around a fire. Somebody starts “Wolves A-Howlin.”
The tribe lives.