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Chapter 40 from COUNTRY by Shelby Stephenson article

Chapter 40 from COUNTRY



Charley Pride’s from Sledge, Mississippi; his

singing made his career as a country music


star:  “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” plus

the Hank Williams songs:  he could sing them


and take on Hank’s pain and almost his name: 

Proffitt?  Never made a dime from his Tom Dula song


all those years before The Kingston Trio reworked

it, touring and touting it as a folk song:  John Foster West,


Wilkes County, wrote a novel based in that triangular

love of roving feelings for another:  he knew:  so


did North Carolina’s Doc Watson from Deep Gap,

Watauga County:  the local bleeds stories


surrounding  “Who killed Laurie Foster”:  the specific

flees origins and starts something in memory the


mind changes to other locales:  pretty soon, place

becomes the weigh-station to palaces airy and


grand, with talk too of Charley Pride’s life on the

road as one who broke in the biggest way the


colorline in country music:  took a long

time:  there are a few “black” acts in what’s


now considered Bluegrass:  The Chocolate

Drops, Joe Thompson too:  Charley Pride


(birthday, March 8, 1938) is three months and

six days older than I:  some have


said he did for country music what

Jackie Robinson did for baseball, something


like that:  what did our slave girl, July, miss

out on?  Why, baby, why, do we cry baby,



cry?  Wade Ray sang songs I want to sing: 

“Heart of a Clown,” “I Was Just Walking Out the Door,”


“The Things I Might Have Been”:  Susan Reed’s

zither I never heard and don’t recall her


Irish harp.  I cannot string along the page −

Courtship’s prow turns for you and me, the sea’s


bells clanging all the time − trochees, iambs, the

dales and dells, reapers, weavers − in short − Nothing


can erase Memory:  Del Reeves from Sparta,

North Carolina, pushes his shield into his


melodies, guitar around his neck, packet of

songs in his pocket, five years and one month


older than I:  the heart of music undoes the belt

one’s country fits:  that’s Del Reeves:  he


broke music’s door down, knocking,

fronting disk jockey shows, spinning records when


turntables zinged and earphones popped and the

jockey bounced in his chair like a swiveling


mule, spread-legged, planting green gushes of

corn along dirt roads, the odor distinct as


fancy Del Reeves wove into “The Belles of Southern

Bell” or “Girl on the Billboard, Wearing


Nothing But a Towel on the Big Old Highway,” the

will to travel on that “hard circus road” as


Maxine Swalin told me, sending me the

history of the North Carolina Symphony she


helped her husband write, saying This little girl outside

Whiteville, North Carolina, waved her hand at


the Symphony bus-driver searching the rural

fields for the high school in those days, inquiring



of the girl, and she said, “See that Hard Circus Road

yonder?  Go straight and turn and the schoolhouse’ll


be right there” (Hard Circus Road:  The Odyssey of the

North Carolina Symphony, by Benjamin Swalin:  The


North Carolina Symphony, Inc.:  1987).  That’s

all she wrote, the cabbage headed, the cow chain


drug through the pies, the “Golden Strip” Reeves

played in Vegas full of glitter for Houses of Gold:  ditto,


Jim Reeves, Panola, Texas:  “The Blizzard” reminds

me how the “Beowulf Poet” interlaced into Epic


stories of heroic proportions:  Nin’s dad started

another EPIC − Every Person Influences Children − after


a young boy intruded their farmhouse, wanting a

boom-box, taking the life of Nin’s mom.  Grieving’s


better than Nothing.  Immortality’s a question

curling in dark corners for the right light, as Jim Reeves


and his Blue Boys tore open the public’s penchant

for lively songs of unrequited love:  “Am I Losing You,”


“Four Walls,” “He’ll Have to Go,” “Billy Bayou,”

“Welcome to My World”; then, July, ’64, trying to


get home from a gig, his little plane crashed in a

thunderstorm, his widow producing what


permanence she could with records posthumously,

positively pyramiding the predicament all of us


are in, that snow-flake about to become What we

cannot show; so we hang wallpaper in the


House, his and hers:  she squints her eyes

toward a river, her voice silent in words she


holds for translation, receiving the pull within: 

Malvina Reynolds:  “Little Boxes” displayed



the 1960’s image:  Conformity settled on hillsides

across America:  “they” are farming houses instead of


crops:  funny how decades come and go and stages

deck for pied pipers and dreamers, patch-workers, little


mermaids, lonely street-walkers, outlaws − people

who want to be buried in their overalls and versa


vicer:  I wonder what emptiness hangs on with

promise another cave upchucks, heaves ordinary


people plan:  I took Nin to ER, Rex, last night,

missed the Stephenson Family Christmas Party, her


BP up and down − scary, with intervals of humor.  She

tuned volume’s stasis without stoppage, including


appendages of pendants Fancy flies past folksters

Rinzler and Ritchie − Jean, especially, from


Viper, Perry County, Kentucky:  Tex Ritter!  How

many exams establish a survey?  The R’s not gone


completely, heat rabid as a skunk hung in a rat-hole.  I’m

reading Reed Whittemore’s memoir Against the Grain: 




the Literary Life of a Poet :  refers to himself as R

and I like that, allows him to say things he couldn’t


come right out and say:  point-of-view’s a third

person first person:  the birds have the same problem


in real cold weather:  I hope the bluebirds don’t freeze

their rumps:  good thing the sun’s hot in spots, feels


like an oven, but when dusk appears the horizon’s

coat looks gray and singing holds me up:  Tex Ritter’s


a memorable R, voice pure Panola County, Texas:  I

heard him sing “I Dreamed of a Hillbilly Heaven”


first time I know I heard it:  I never think of him as

Maurice Woodard Ritter:  got his real name before



anyone knew he’d be a household word in

high-type:  drawl:  trademark:  Hollywood:  as a


boy I heard him sing “Rye Whiskey” and I learned 

“Boll Weevil” from him:  recitations like Tex’s and Luke the


Drifter’s played a big part in my love of words, my

books, those songs:  a neighbor, gone home, Charlie Watson,


often sang “There’s a New Moon Over My Shoulder”:  my

mother’s favorite singer was Marty Robbins:  took


her to the Dorton Arena to see Marty, not many people there,

handful, terrible acoustics:  Marty kept his right hand


over his rear-end:   “I’ve got the flu, can’t cough”:  some

of his early songs I learned:  “I Couldn’t Keep from Crying”


and “I’ll Go on Alone”:  I have not learned “El Paso”

yet:  I miss Marty:  he could sing anything from pop


standards to blues, rock and roll to country:  Don Robertson

had a hand in writing “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” 


“I Don’t Hurt Anymore,” “You’re Free to Go,”

“Hummingbird,”  “Anything That’s Part of You,” and


“Please Help Me, I’m Falling”:  Robertson played piano, 

influencing that country style Floyd Cramer creamed in a


slipping lilt on the  keys, didn’t he?  Eck Robertson was

one of those early fiddlers in country music, born about


fifteen years after the Civil War ended:  his recording

of  “Sally Goodin” presents fiddle and bow in a


cornfield-symphony, with dancers in clogs, dancing up

a storm.  Carson Robison formed a band, The Buckaroos, way


before Buck’s Buckaroos:  Robison wrote

“Carry Me Back to the Lone Prairie,” lived in the


past a lot and longed for the pasture and his Kansas

home:  “There’s a Bridle Hanging on the Wall,”



“My Blue Ridge Mountain Home”:  he could

whistle too, RCA recorded it, old CR (1890-1957): 


“Little Green Valley,” “New River Train,” speaking of

which, Jimmie Rodgers, the Mississippi Blue Yodeler,


Meridian, born same year as Faulkner, 1897,

died 1933, railroader, really, worked as a brakeman, got


TB, kept him from keeping his work as a trainman: 

Victor Talking Machine put him on the musical map, 1927,


bordertown, Bristol, Virginia, the town cut in two, his band

the Tenneva Ramblers leaving him alone; Rodgers


entered a door on the Tennessee side, without a walking

stick, he came, the scene filled with Ralph Peer, for RCA,


recording The Singing Brakeman:   “Treasure Untold,”

“Any Old Time,” “T for Texas,”  “Mule Skinner Blues,”


“Peach Picking Time in Georgia”:  Jimmie Rodgers: 

first C & W artist to be selected for the Country Music Hall of Fame: 


I cannot dodge or dog the stars grounding in stages

lights and action for people folding chairs:




do not move them, the festival promoter pages − and

PLEASE do not bring high chairs in the festive




area:  rules:  Meridian’s the scene, the gray

goose’s gravy spreading out edges ragged around


reality like raisins bran jumbles up:  fiddledeedee,

fiddledeedee, the rooster marries the chickadee; cat


runs away with the singletree; little log rots,

turns a slug to rattle rats in trace-chains; the mule


neighs nut-lessly in her hames, bridle slacking she’s

tired, my Hanes sweating red from the logo


pressed against the small of my back, I, Shub,

doggerel-ling, wishing I had not got sick chewing



Brown Williamson or dipping Sweet Society or

sneaking Grandmuh Nancy’s Railroad Mills for


Emily D’s bedside frill:  my legs pop,  asses

kicking, jennies grinning:  Mama:  “Son, sing


sweet, like Marty Robbins, don’t tilt your head

back and bray like a donkey”:  Shub:  “Mama,


Mama, turning bright, in the stillness of the

night, I have neither skates nor key, but I can


tell you − I’d rather be deep − dark in a grave and

hoe my row and bow my head in the sun than


run on so long it’s been good to know you.” 

Should the Old Hillbilly Swingers drink


moonshine in their cads or wine each other up for

beer in cabarets?  George and Tammy:  “Oh we’re


not the jet set; we’re the old Chev-ro-let set”:  Webb Pierce’s

limousine sported guns for door-handles and a buffalo


horn ornament above the front bumper.  As a boy I had a

Daisy air-rifle; now I own a Red Ryder “Save & Cock” BB gun: 


what happened to Little Beaver, Tonto, the Sidewinders

and Sidekicks?  Monte Hale’s Locoweed Larson; Jimmy Wakely’s


Cannonball Taylor?  Was Paladin’s skeleton his?  What

happened to the side-men and side-women in country


music?  Where do they go?  Jimmy Day, Bashful Brother Oswald,

Kitty Wells?  That’s when I wake up, for that side-girl became a


star in her own light, a dark and handsome one, inside-out, while

Eddie Kirk wrote “Bright Lights and Blonde-Haired Women,” Buddy Emmons


on that handsome intro on the Ray Price version:  makes me

think of Alvino Rey:  Kirk kept on doing music, waiting for


the world to raise the sun for Donnie Lytle, a side-man, first, singing

tenor with Faron Young and Ray Price, recreating himself as



Johnny Paycheck until he could not get around

anymore, that Old Scratch and Grind rubbing him


ever frailer, wailing finally into dying.


Shelby Stephenson was editor of the international literary journal Pembroke Magazine from 1979 to 2010 when he retired as professor emeritus from University of  North Carolina at Pembroke. His Family Matters:  Homage to July, the Slave Girl won the 2008 Bellday Poetry Prize and the 2009 Oscar Arnold Young Award, Poetry Council of North Carolina, Jared Carter, judge. Shelby Stephenson’s most recent publication is a chapbook from Finishing Line Press:  Play My Music Anyhow. With his wife Linda he recently recorded a CD:  Shelby & Linda Stephenson Sing Don Gibson.



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