The sign said, “Like Coming Home.” If Saltillo is any indication, Mississippi means it.
It took some doing to get there. We left Atlanta and wondered if we’d make it. A gas shortage on the East Coast meant you had to get fuel at twenty bucks a pop, but forty dollars of gas and twelve bucks worth of catfish and chicken later, we were there.
We no more than got unpacked and headed for Saltillo Methodist to play a Hee-Haw show. Talk about enthusiasm- as soon as I laid eyes on the place I was inspired. This was a beautiful old church (the first paved road South of the Mason Dixon line runs right by it) with a modern family center in the back. The steeple was destroyed by Katrina, but they had fixed it. The stain glass windows weathered the storm intact. I was glad- I am sure they would be hard to replace.
I found Smitty and went back stage. We had time to run through a couple of songs. I was familiar with the tunes, and the folks were bluegrass friendly, so I fit right in.
They say there are 3,8000 folks in Saltillo, and I bet 2,800 were in that gym. The excitement was palpable. I’ve played enough of these to know. When the house is packed, and everyone hangs out in the aisles, they are there to take it in, and our job is to give them our best. All the kids sat down front in anticipation- a sure sign it’ll be a good show.
The lights went down, the spot light came on, and a blond girl fiddler/singer kicked off ‘Love of the Mountains.’ It rocked. We cruised through old standards like ‘Power in the Blood’ and ‘Sunnyside.’ It was a tight band. The girl could sing and fiddle. There was a fine Scruggs style banjo man, two guitar player singers, and the bass player kept perfect time. Me and Smitty mirror imaged twin mandolins- he is a lefty and I play right-handed, so it was excellent visual symmetry as well as fine music.
For the most part Smitty directed traffic and nodded when it was turn to take a break or sing some harmony. The banjo man signaled the end of the tune with a lift and a shake of his right leg. I see the old time people do this a lot, and my friend who came in from England one time used the same code. Bluegrass folks is the same everywhere.
The skits and joke were polished well beyond the showmanship you’ll expect in such a small community. There was a Conway Twitty, and Loretta Lynn was so spot on I almost went to to the parking lot to look for my old ’57 Chevy. The only thing I couldn’t figure is why all 3,800 residents didn’t turn out. If you live in Northeast Mississippi for heaven’s sake don’t stay home and watch re-runs on T.V. Get out and see the Saltillo folks play when they put on another show. It’s a good’un and for a good cause too.
While I was in Mississippi I went to visit Saltillo High. It was my primary purpose of the trip. I wanted to meet the kids in the Bread Loaf program. We were pen pals last year, and they were a major inspiration for me to write. I read over their e-mails the night before the visit. I was amazed how their advice mirrored my agent’s as to character development, dialogue, and how to constuct a tight story. Their teacher, Ms. Turner is a gem who has taught them well.
When I met all those kids, I sure was struck how old I have become, but my heart is right there with ‘em. I hope they realized your opportunity to learn never goes away. Here this old guy shows up at High School, but is still digging. They were way ahead of the game, though. I think part of it is this Bread Loaf program, and I plan to learn more about it. Ted Lehmann has told me it is very big up North. Next year on my New England tour, I’m gonna go see for myself.
We also talked about some tough issues like age old human problems of greed and prejudice. There just wasn’t enough time. Like one of the students said, we coulda gone all day and it’d been too short. Thanks to all you guys- you are an inspiration.
The students bought cookies and smiles and told me of their dreams and plans. It made me want to be a teacher. As a Doc and a writer I like to think I am to some degree, so I appreciate being teacher for a day. My mom was an English teacher, and a big influence on me, so maybe with this whole writing gig I am reliving my youth. Old guys do things like that, so I thank you.
There is much more to tell you about our trip to Saltillo, so I’m gonna post on this over several days. I just can’t type fast enough to tell it all at one time. When I was in High School, my typing teacher was old and had cataracts. I sat in the back of the class and we’d slip out a window and go to Popeye’s store to pick the blues on the guitar. (Kids, I don’t recommend this approach) I pay the price to this day, as I am a lousy typist. That is why I never do long posts, and my book is will take two and a half years instead of the six months it should have. But I am about there. One more revision and a bunch of prayers and maybe a publisher will look at it by the first of 2009.
Of course they might read it and decide, like the first agent who rejected me did, that I ain’t chick litty enough. If they do, and knock me out, I’ll get up off the canvas and try again though. I can’t stop now.