The Folklore Project
My father was a railroad man. A conductor, to be specific, on the L&N Railroad, then the Seaboard Air Line (“Through the Heart of the South”), then CSX, until the corporate structure whittled the personnel down to Dad riding solo on a GPS-equipped locomotive. Forty-seven years. He used to take my sister and me down to Howell’s Yard in Atlanta to clamber over the cabooses on Sunday afternoons, until we got too old to appreciate the magic of a red caboose, or until CSX eliminated cabooses entirely. I can’t remember which happened first.
Railroad work brought him down to Atlanta from the farms of East Tennessee. He married a city girl and settled down to the best-paying work he’d ever had. He loved Atlanta, but his country childhood never left him — not when he was conducting freight trains through some of the toughest neighborhoods in the city, not even when he battled traffic on Interstate Highway 285 to get to the rail yard. He was nostalgic about his early years, but not sentimental about growing up on a Tennessee farm in the midst of the Great Depression. When I was in college and enamored of the Southern Agrarians, I regaled him with their idylls of the simple life, plowing behind a mule. His response was immediate: “Horseshit. Plowing behind a mule is the hardest work there is. You say these Agrarians are college professors?” That ended the discussion.
Saturdays were his half-days, and he would come home in the afternoons smelling of creosote and clean sweat, would shower and shave and settle down in his rocking chair with the afternoon edition of The Atlanta Journal until “Hee Haw” came on the television. The show was corny as hell, but he loved it as much as my mother hated it. My sister and I would lie on the rug in the den, half watching the show and half watching this regular episode of contention between our parents, as Dad laughed and Mom groaned. He would settle back in his rocking chair, body relaxed and easy, his work week done, and my mother would flit back and forth between the kitchen and her Ethan Allen chair. The whole notion of deliberately calling “opera” “opry” grated on her sense of proper Southern diction. Dad didn’t care. Later on, I came to realize that the skits with Nurse Goodbody held an appeal for him beyond the forced humor of the corn-pone doctor. My mother rolled her eyes.
And yet one or two pieces of genuinely good music forced their way through the hokeyness of “Hee Haw” just about every Saturday night. It was these moments that deserved to be taken seriously, that moved the proceedings a step closer to art. For a few minutes, the rhinestone curtains of Nashvegas would part for the likes of Loretta Lynn or Waylon Jennings singing one of their originals, or Roy Clark would dispense with the yucks and play a marvelously technical guitar instrumental.
“Now, that’s real country,” Dad would say as the last note died.
“You say that like it’s a good thing!” my mother would protest.
But it was.
He was proud of our place, of the house he’d built for us. He had bought acreage in Vinings, northwest of Atlanta, way out in what was the sticks back in 1967. That suited him fine. His friends would rib him about moving nearly as far out as the Boy Scout summer camp at the foot of Vinings Mountain.
“Keep the city,” he would say. He loved the trees.
He built a three-bedroom, two-bath ranch house on the property, at the top of a hill, and we had woods to play in every Saturday, every free afternoon. An old ditch ran through the trees behind our house, and I would eventually learn that it dated to the Civil War, an entrenchment dug either by Sherman’s besieging troops or John Hood’s retreating ones. The woods backed up to railroad tracks that ran from Columbus to Chattanooga and marked Vinings’ westward boundary. It wasn’t my father’s route, but he liked the proximity of the trains that would run through at all hours of the day and nights. When we had friends sleeping over, they would wake us, terrified at the screeching wail of the midnight locomotive’s whistle. We always slept through it. At breakfast the next morning, if a friend brought up the midnight shrieking, Dad would respond that the whistle sounded like a paycheck to him. To me, it always sounded like music.
That was in the pre-Volvo era of Vinings’ development, before the 1980s brought yuppie families with their luxury cars and new money. The old ranch houses started disappearing, torn down to be replaced by sprawling mansions that spanned entire lots. To my father, they were “monstrosities.” We watched as the glittering tower of the Overlook office building sprang up on Wilkinson Mountain, as the farmers’ market was replaced by Jubilee Village, and the African-American settlers on the mountain yielded their homes and cemetery to a boutique hotel. Years later, a kindly security guard at the Overlook would allow me access to one of the balconies to propose to my girlfriend on a cold March night when a snowfall had blanketed Vinings Village in white. We celebrated with a drink at the Old Vinings Inn. It was one of the last truly magical nights I remember of the place.
When my parents finally decided to sell and move out to the exurbs, Vinings real estate had grown so valuable that they were able to pay cash for their new house in North Georgia — bought it outright, no mortgage. But it was set on a micro-sized lot with potted pin oaks in the yard, no old growth or towering pines. I believe my father thought it was a concession, whatever the numbers said. Now, our old house has fallen under the wrecking ball and in its place on Valley Trail Drive stands a monstrous, lot-spanning McMansion. It’s one thing I’m glad he did not live to see.
Imagine my mother’s relief when I turned Dad on to the PBS series “Austin City Limits.” When it became our regular Saturday evening show, she felt her years of endurance had finally paid off. Here was real music, and nothing but it — no skits or sketches or women in skin-tight nurse uniforms. And not all of it country. Dad would watch, giving his full attention to each new act, just like that exemplary audience in Austin did every Saturday night. He even watched Eric Johnson and Stevie Ray Vaughan, although he said they weren’t playing real country music. John Prine’s “Jesus: The Missing Years,” he pronounced sacrilegious. He gave his enthusiastic endorsement to Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam, and Emmylou Harris. And of course, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard were his gold standards.
I was a teenager by then, and we were at the stage when a father and son’s relationship enters its rockiest shoals, when a little ranch-style house is barely big enough to contain two men — if it is big enough at all. The Saturday evening hour of “Austin City Limits” became a kind of cease-fire interlude, our family vespers, communion. Whatever trouble I was headed out to find later that Saturday night, it could wait until after the show. It was the only hour of the week my ears weren’t filled with R.E.M. or the Cure or the dB’s, and my father was tutoring me, whether he realized it or not, in how art does not have to be detached or ironic to be genuine. There was a kind of trueness to the best of the Austin music that rock and roll was too coy or cool to approach. When you heard Lucinda sing, “I think I lost it,” you knew that she had — and had found it again when she captured that plaintive longing in her song. Lyle Lovett’s “This Old Porch” carried a metaphor as far as it could be carried, but never made a misstep. His battered, weathered porch was Texas, and by extension, the South, the nation, us. And Emmylou Harris — her angelic voice carried you from Boulder to Birmingham, hoping the trip wouldn’t ever end. Dad listened hard, and I listened with him.
I remember the Saturday evening Dad granted his grudging respect to a young turk named Steve Earle, who played the likes of “Hardcore Troubadour” and “Fort Worth Blues,” who sang that he wasn’t ever satisfied, never would be. I like to think that somewhere in Oklahoma, a kid about my age named Evan Felker was watching that night, too.
Decades later I found myself on a book tour for my second novel, crisscrossing the Southeast while my father was dying of melanoma and dementia in Atlanta. I visited as often as I could manage. We watched his body and mind wither away but his spirit hardly flagged, his nature getting kinder as his mind deteriorated. I like to think that when he died in mid-October, his spirit had gone back to the childlike innocence he was born with.
The weeks leading to his death had made the fall a whipsaw of emotions, the happiness of seeing old friends in every city on the book tour tainted by the knowledge that he was back home, going. And now he was gone. Joy and grief, pride and loss. A week after we buried him, I was in Athens, Georgia, for a reading at Avid Bookshop. Passing the afternoon downtown, I was in my favorite place in the world — where I’d been, with him, many times — but feeling that my world had lost the cardinal point on its compass.
When I heard a steel guitar playing from the speakers in a store on Clayton Street, I went inside. I didn’t shop; I listened. The band was incredible — the singer good and the lyrics better, the groove tight as a drum. He sang about a wrecked relationship, a wrecked car and a wrecked house. It was a good metaphor, sung from the heart but not corny, earnest but not sappy, the musicianship first-rate. It was too good for “Hee Haw,” but the band would have lit up the “Austin City Limits” stage. I searched for the title “Wrecked” on my phone and came up with a band out of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, called the Turnpike Troubadours. When the song ended, I walked back out on Clayton Street resolved to find more of the Troubadours’ music. As much as I could.
My plan was to have a beer at the venerable Globe, my old hangout, then get back to the hotel to get ready for the reading at Avid. At the corner of Clayton and Lumpkin, I saw a familiar sight across the way — a tour bus idling at the curb of the Georgia Theater. And on the theater’s white marquee in red letters, TURNPIKE TROUBADOURS. TONITE.
It was Saturday, October 24th.
I bought a ticket.
After the reading, it was easier than I anticipated to talk my sister and brother-in-law, and his little brother and his wife, into spending a hundred bucks on tickets for a band they’d never heard of. Turns out it was a bargain. I imagine that for everyone unfamiliar with the Troubadours’ catalog, that first show is what it would have been like to see the early Bruce Springsteen in concert. The songs just keep coming, one after the other, incredibly strong, and the band plays as hard and passionately as the E Street Band. We laughed and cried and tried to soak in every note.
The show was the perfect ritual for that stage of our grieving process — when the survivors grant themselves permission to go on living, when it begins to seem not indecorous to celebrate the good and the fun of the life that’s been lost. And the Troubadours’ music was everything Dad loved: from the rollicking “Wrecked” to the story songs like “The Funeral” and “Gin, Smoke & Lies” to the majestic “The Bird Hunters” and “Long Drive Home” to the beer-hall swing of “Easton & Main.” We danced and tried to sing along with the choruses as we learned the new songs. Quail hunters, gamblers, lost lovers, wrecks on the highway: It was all there. The band closed with “Bossier City,” and no one in the full house even shouted for an encore. There seemed to be a tacit understanding that nothing could top that song.
We knew we were witnessing something special. Call the Troubadours’ music what you will — Americana, alt-country — I honor my father’s memory by calling it real country.
It was a week after his funeral, 10 days after he died. I hated that Dad had missed hearing the Turnpike Troubadours by such a short margin of time. Had time and fate allowed it, we might have even persuaded the old man to step out that Saturday night with the young crowd at the Georgia Theater to hear the Troubadours live, like we had watched all that good music on “Austin City Limits,” on all those other Saturday nights. I hated it that he could not be there with us.
Except that, as I watched my sister dance, I knew he was.