Tell Me a Story, Sing Me a Song

I did an interview Tuesday that aired on a couple of radio stations in Florida and Arkansas.

If you are interested, go to this podcast site.

You can also hear it on my website here.
Thanks to the ones who had time to write reviews for Go Down Looking. I still need more and you can post your review here .

George Clooney: “O’ Brother Where Art Thou”

Do things always happen for a reason?  Can we cause coincidences to happen?  Can we bring the powers of the universe into our particular lives?  Can something we did long ago cause an event (intended or unintended) today—many years later?  Instead of just wishing for a desired event or outcome, can we do something to bring it about?

Many of you know that I have two biscuits left by my father when he died more than forty years ago. They are sealed in a small malted milk jar and are now over ninety-four years old. Obviously, they had special meaning for Daddy and thus, to me.  Sunday was Fathers’ Day and that always brings back the biscuits story.

Those biscuits made a journey across Texas in 1918 in a covered wagon with Daddy and his parents and siblings. He kept them because they were made by his beloved Aunt Minnie. I carried them on a repeat journey (in a different covered wagon) in 1998.  It was symbolic, for sure. Sentimental? You bet. My way of apologizing to my father for not paying more attention to the stories he told me about what the biscuits meant to him and why he had kept them all those years.

They say that when a man dies, his library burns down. And I had let part of my daddy’s library burn down.  So I chronicled that return trip in Biscuits Across the Brazos.  The trip was more Marion Shepherd’s (my cousin) idea than mine, but we both wanted to honor our departed fathers, our grandparents, our aunts and uncles, and our heritage.

If I had know then what I know now, I would probably have put more sentiment into the little book, more of the feelings I had as I tried to bring back something that could not be seen with the physical eye. I made a stab at it in a few places, but I didn’t want to take the risk of being too sappy or causing readers to roll their eyes. After all, who cares about somebody else’s old biscuits? People have their own stories to tell.

I was wrong, of course; people do care. And not just because they have their own similar stories, but they really do care about yours. It was heartening to discover that.

A few years after the book was released, Jan and I went to see “O’ Brother Where Art Thou?”with George Clooney.  I was skeptical and not a huge fan of Clooney’s (sorry, ladies). But Clooney was brilliant in this movie. Laugh-out-loud funny, too.

Clooney plays a vainglorious fellow whose primary purpose in life is to find a ready supply of pomade for his hair. He has an inflated sense of his intelligence and is possessed of a vocabulary of words that he can’t string together in coherent sentences. Yet, he is profuse in advice for those he views as lacking in all the wonderful qualities he possesses in abundant quantities.  It’s not that the character doesn’t know anything, it’s just that most of what he knows is not true.

As I look back on it now, I am reminded of what self-effacing Richard Farnsworth, one of my favorite actors, said about his role when he was nominated as best actor for The Straight Story. Richard said something like this, “It’s pretty easy to do well when you’re playing yourself.”  Now I know why Clooney was so good in his role.

What does this have to do with coincidences? We made the trip across the Brazos in 1998. O’ Brother was released in 2000. When I saw the movie, I was surprised (make that shocked) by how much I enjoyed it. Yet, I could not explain exactly why.

Jimmie Rogers

When I bought the soundtrack, I discovered that it had a lot to do with the music. I played the CD repeatedly. I loved Man of Constant Sorrow, O’ Death and all the songs. But one song in particular almost always made the hair stand on the back of my neck and chill bumps come up on my arms. More than once, it brought unexplained tears to my eyes.

I memorized the words from hearing it so often, but there was nothing in the lyrics to explain the feelings it brought.

                  I had a friend named Ramblin’ Bob,

                  He liked to steal, gamble and rob

Not all that inspiring, and it doesn’t improve much in later verses. So I attributed my abnormal reaction to the plaintive, pure sound of the old-time instruments and the voices of the Soggy Bottom Boys.

In 2005, Jan and I went to see “Walk the Line”. I boasted on the way home that I had one of (and maybe the first) Johnny Cash album, a 33 RPM vinyl record.

Eager to prove my claim when we reached home, I searched through my collection and found it. When I picked up the album, showing a young Cash in a straw farm hat, I noticed another album just beneath it—Daddy’s copy of a reproduced Jimmie Rodgers album. We had given it to Daddy for Christmas more than fifty years earlier.

I sat in the floor and looked at the list of songs on the cover. My eyes went directly to it: In the Jailhouse Now. Daddy loved to hear Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music, sing. Call me sentimental, but I like to think that those moist eyes, chill bumps and hair-standing episodes were Daddy saying he approved of our trip across Texas carrying his biscuits.

About four years after that, I came across a relatively obscure book (Provinces of Night) written by William Gay that led me to visit the author in Tennessee. There, I saw an old poster of Jimmie Rodgers. I seems that Gay uses Jimmie Rodgers tunes in his books and short stories. One is featured in “Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down”, later made into this movie. Gay’s author photo has him sitting in front of that Jimmie Rodgers poster.

Coincidences? I don’t think so. If you think so, come to my office sometime and let me show you a copy of a vanity poster in my office showing a reproduced 1997 magazine article.  The interviewer asked what I was reading. My answer: Goodbye to a River (a book about the Brazos) and Flow, which later became the theme for my first novel.  Coincidences? Maybe. But I don’t think so.


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  • Jim, I have intersections with this blog all over the place. I have a William Gay novel on my shelf, I’ve read Goodbye to a River several times, I love O Brother, Where Art Thou, I’ve played and sung Johnny Cash songs forever, I spent three years on the banks of the Brazos at Waco and once heard Johnny Gimble lead what was left of the Light Crust Doughboys at the park next to the river. I heard Merle Haggard play Mama Tried about a hundred yards from that same river. And I am reading a book right now called Rivers Flow from some author whose name escapes me. We are all connected more than we know. That’s why when we pick a place to write about, it turns out to be somewhere that is chiseled in our DNA.

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