|I had called to give him a couple of personal news items that I thought would amuse him. He and I have been playing music together, off and on, for over 35 years, and I had recently finished writing and recording a jingle for Chicken ’n’ Ribs Barbecue Sauce that had been airing on the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. "Think about all the times we dreamed of playing the Opry," I told him, "I finally made it to the stage...or at least my voice did."
Item Two was the re-appearance of our old friend, Bill Dockery, a big-time newspaper man, who had submitted an article for this issue of SouthernReader.
"Okay, I’ll bite," said my musician friend, "Where’s the invisible silver thread?"
The invisible silver thread, I explained, ran through the 1975 Fourth of July weekend, traveling all the way from our little Baptist college in East Tennessee to present-day Nashville, via New York City, Atlanta and various colorful stops all along the way.
We had gone to college with Bill Dockery, who had graduated before us and was well on his way to a newspaper career while we were still playing coffeehouses and college parties. As my graduation drew closer and I was nearing the end of a two-year tenure as editor of the college newspaper, I received a note from Dockery written on the stationery of the newspaper where he worked in nearby Sevier County. He was complimenting me on my paper and offering to set up an interview with his publisher after I graduated.
I did end up in Sevier County a few months later, but not at the newspaper with Dockery; I got a job as a reporter for his newspaper’s competition, and Dockery and I started going head-to-head on everything from football games to county board meetings to the various sordid crime stories. Actually, the latter were few and far between; the most dramatic of them had featured the county sheriff setting fire to a ton of confiscated marijuana plantssince the owners of the plants were never found or arrested, the burning was the main event.
That is, that was the case until the 1975 Fourth of July weekend. That was when true crime came kicking and screaming into Sevier County in the form of an honest-to-goodness ax murder, and Dockery was there to record every detail, which he so thoughtfully shares with us in this issue of SouthernReader.
But where, you may ask, was the afore-mentioned, so-called competition?
Ah, good question! That weekend I had been with my friend (from the intro paragraph) and, along with our other musician friends from college, we were soaking in blissful bluegrass joy at the annual Smithville, Tennessee Fiddler’s Jamboree. Every year, in the center of the summer, the Jamboree was the perfect bluegrass festival for a reunion of our tribes, and it was a great excuse to relax, camp out and just play music for an entire weekend.
My friends and I spent most of the time playing music on the lawn in downtown Smithville on the opposite side of the courthouse from the stage where the fiddlers and other musicians were competing. Crowds would gather around us, dissipate and then gather again like a listener ocean. Oblivious to everything and everyone, for hours on end we’d play everything from "Banks of the Ohio" to Monkee songs done bluegrass.
That year, the fiddling competition came down to two incredible fiddlers: the reigning 65-year-old local champ, Frazier Moss and a young, twenty-something fiddler from Triune, Tennessee. That evening, as they both fiddled their hearts out, we sat out in the audience and listened. As good as Frazier Moss played, we felt like the kid from Triune had the edge. Looking back, maybe we were just rooting for him because he was closer to our age, but whatever the reason, when they gave the award to Frazier, we shouted our "No!" incredulity. The judges, however, were unswayed.
The next four or five years were a blur for me. I left the newspaper and East Tennessee, went to Nashville to write songs for awhile and then to New York City, where I went to work for Record World, a weekly music trade magazine. We wrapped up the magazine on Thursday nights and took the PATH train to Jersey early on Fridays to oversee the final proofs at the printer in Hoboken. We were usually finished by around noon, so we’d get back into the city by early Friday afternoon and have the rest of the weekend off.
One Friday afternoon, I returned to my place in Brooklyn Heights and settled down in front of the TV with a bowl of soup, and an item in the TV Guide caught my eye: "3:00 p.m.Showdown at the Hoedown, A documentary about a bluegrass festival in Tennessee."
"That’s cool," I thought, "I wonder if it’s Smithville." Sure enough, the camera caught the scenes on Interstate 40 leading to the cut-off road to Smithville, and then on into town under the "Welcome to the 1975 Fiddler’s Jamboree" banner.
There were taped conversations with the mayor, shots of the bands competing on stage, and a sidewalk interview with a cowboy-hatted guy who declared: "This is a great place to be, but the real music is what you hear on the lawn in front of the courthouse..."
They cut to a shot of my friends and me, and there I was, red Loggins & Messina t-shirt and banjo, intent on finger-picking "Banks of the Ohio."
At the end of the film, just before the "showdown" they interviewed the mayor one more time and he was saying, "This Crisman boy from Triune doesn’t have anything to be ashamed ofhe played real good."
"And he should have won!" I screamed at my TV from my Brooklyn Heights sofa, the old indignant passion flowing back into my voice. When they cut to the stage where they announced the winner, you can hear us screaming "No!" from the audience.
My friend stopped me at this point. "Yeah, I remember," he said, "But what does Smithville have to do with Dockery’s ax murder?"
"That Fourth of July weekend, we were sitting around a campfire just outside Smithville, singing songs and getting ready for our big film debut," I explained.
"Okay," he said, thinking he had me, "How does your silver thread attach to your Chicken ’n’ Ribs Opry jingle?"
"Thought you’d never ask," I said, and then I told him the rest of the story.
A few weeks ago, Riders in the Sky were the hosts of the Chicken ‘n’ Ribs portion of the Opry that aired the jingle I wrote and sang.
I met the guys from Riders in the Sky a long time ago at Record World, the music magazine that I art directed. My editors brought me out to the lobby and introduced me as the art director and resident bluegrass musician from Tennessee (they also regularly used me as an interpreter whenever any Nashville recording artists visited our New York office). The guys in the band were pleased and invited me to join them onstage that night at their gig at the Lone Star Cafe down in the Village.
"I never knew you played with Riders in the Sky," my friend said.
"I didn’t," I replied, "The show was on a Thursday night, and I had to be at the printer in Jersey early the next morning. But, as a consolation prize, they gave me an album."
"Okay, where’s the invisible silver thread?" my friend asked again.
I paused for effect and told him that the other night, when I was listening to Riders in the Sky introduce my jingle on the Opry (lead singer Ranger Doug said that he and his wife used the barbecue sauce in their hot tub), I went and found the album they had given me all those years ago and a bio sheet fell out from the dusty sleeve. And there, in black and white, was a picture of the band with their names and hometowns. Under the fiddle player (who I had always known only as "Woody Paul"), it said "Paul Woodrow Crisman, Triune, Tennessee."
The silence on the other end of the silver-threaded line was the only affirmation I required.
Click here to hear the Chicken 'N' Ribs jingle:
|You Can't Spell 'party' Without a Little 'p' In another installment of Lisa Love’s Most Embarrassing Moments, this would have to be the number one misadventure.
My First Ax Murder Writer/reporter Bill Dockery’s true account of a 1975 Sevier County, Tennessee murder and its after-effect.
Jordan Springs Reunion Kay Bartberger’s touching memoir of reunions in her childhood paradise, now gone, but not forgotten. You can also hear a (5MB) song about Jordan Springs, which can be downloaded as an MP3 at http://www.SouthernReader.com/JordanSpringsIntro.mp3
Lone Goose Poetry by Marsha Mathews.
Murfreesboro: A Town 'Captured' Shirley Farris Jones’ account of a Middle Tennessee town’s Civil War hardships and victories.
Old Man of the Mountain Michael Saunders weaves a fictional tale about an old mountain man, his granddaughters, and their mysterious Cherokee connection.
Serving the King Jerry Barr’s account of an almost-lost tradition of table syrup renewed and enjoyed.
A Thing Like Birds Flying David Clark revisits Andersonville and Vietnam and the unspeakable joy of freedom.
The Mole Underground poetry by Doug Combs.
Sax and Violins and Fake ID's Ron Burch’s memoir about being on the wrong side of the law, a jealous boyfriend, and late ’50s rock and roll.
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