Stories and a Lesson From the Road
When The Muscle Shoals Legacy of FAME was released on June 29 of this year, I didn’t go on some sort of full blown book tour or anything like that, but I did make a few stops across the state of Alabama. And that’s an interesting thing; chatting with people that you don’t know about this thing that you have created that they connect with.
When I finished writing the book, I never really looked at it again. It was no longer mine. It belonged to the publisher, it belonged to the people that bought it (many of you) and it belonged to the Shoals community; the latter being my top priority in the effort. When I negotiated that deal, I wanted to find a way to bridge a giant divide from the “Muscle Shoals” story that had been told and the one that we are still living out. There was no blueprint for that, and I felt the best way to create one was to simply speak to the people that lived it, people still living it, people that I call friends.
I think I hit the target. I’ve been told, at least, that the work was partially responsible for new life in the Fiddleworms. And nothing could make me happier.
But I digress.
Largely, when people want to talk to you about your work, it’s nothing more than a pleasantry. A “congratulations.” A “I look forward to reading it.”
But occasionally, someone will find some deeper connection. And I was reminded of this recently after reading “The World’s Largest Man” by Harrison Scott Key. I felt such a connection to his story that I felt a need to reach out to him and tell him and then I immediately felt like a dolt. He didn’t know me from Adam’s House Cat, the pet or the band which I wrote about, extensively, in the book.
I ran into at least two such men during my travels this summer. And it’s not strange, really, though it could be easy to dismiss it as such. It’s a little…difficult? When this type of interaction happens, the person you are speaking with can often be at Point Q in an A to Z conversation, while you are rapidly trying to catch up. They know about this thing they want to share with you. It’s something that they are very passionate about. Maybe you could be passionate about it? You’re not sure. This is the first that you’ve heard of it.
The first gentleman was 70, or thereabouts. He came to me at Coldwater Books in Tuscumbia, Alabama on July 19, the second Shoals appearance I had made that day. He took off his hat, a cowboy hat which was suede if I recall, and he politely handed it to me. He asked me, “Do you know where that hat came from?”
Well, no. I did not. We had only just met, and this was my first time holding his cowboy hat.
“That hat came from Jimmie Davis. And do you know who Jimmie Davis was?”
I still didn’t. But that was okay. It was just that he was at Point Q in this conversation and that I was trying to catch up and also that he didn’t care that I was behind. He just needed someone to listen.
“Jimmie Davis recorded a lot at FAME and no one ever knew it because he came in the back door. No one wanted to talk about it. I know it because I drove him to the studio and he gave me that hat as a tip.”
The stranger went on to tell me of how Davis, a gospel singer that I later learned wrote the song “You Are My Sunshine,” lived to be 100 and served as the governor of the State of Louisiana. “Someone oughta write a book about him.”
They should. But I don’t think this gentleman understood that what I wrote wasn’t really anything near his story. For him, it was simply a jumping off point to finding someone with an ear that might care. And he was angry about it. He told this tale with passion, mad that no one had ever properly honored the recording career of this man born a century ago. He wasn’t mad at me, but it felt that way throughout the conversation.
I can’t really find an authoritative book on the subject. There’s a small collection of stories from an old friend of his that I picked up on Amazon for, like, .99. And plenty of his music is available to stream on Tidal or Spotify or any other streaming service of your choice. But there’s not much in the way of a thorough narrative. And the story is pretty fascinating. And I’m glad this gentleman shared it. It just happened to be one of the stranger interactions in my life because he was so passionate about the subject and I was so far behind.
When I was in Montgomery, a gentleman introduced himself to me and we spoke for a long while. He had done some record producing at some point in his life and was quite interested in the recording process. He asked me for my address, something that I had no reason to fear giving him; perhaps blind faith, perhaps naivete. And he sent me a compact disc in the mail, a format I really don’t even have a way to play anymore. So the envelope sat with some other unopened mail in my living room for a month or so; it’s been a busy autumn.
I opened it recently and gave it a spin. Mindreader by Danny Angel and Bo Galigher. And you know what? It’s a really good blues record. It didn’t win a Grammy. You’re never going to hear it on the radio. But I enjoyed it quite a bit, and I’m glad that this stranger felt compelled to share it with me.
What’s the point? Well, I suppose it’s not to dismiss people. I’ve been guilty of it, too; guilty of dismissing someone else’s passion because it wasn’t important to me. But because I don’t know someone and otherwise never will doesn’t mean that their life’s work wasn’t an important accomplishment. It doesn’t mean that their most passionate hobby is a waste of anyone’s time, including my own. I was on the radio for the first time when I was 17-years-old. It was my life’s goal. And my first significant project was Tiger Local 959, a locals only radio show on Auburn’s 95.9. I went in that office one day and told them, “If you’ll give me just one hour a week, I’ll do it for free.”
And they did, and I did. And I listened to every record made by local artists from, roughly, 2002-2004. And most of them weren’t very good. It was a little bit after the explosion of Immortal Lee County Killers and Quadrajets and whatever incarnation of Drive-By Truckers existed within Lee County (Horsepussy, I believe). But at the time, it was the best that any of us could do. And the musicians put a lot of effort into it, and I put a lot of effort into getting it heard. And to dismiss any of those efforts as futile or judge them as unimportant is unfair.
“Decide what to be and go be it.”