A half-mile from my house is a gospel-singing hall, which holds concerts the first Thursday of every month last time I checked. It used to be a video store with, according to the hoarse and cracking whisper of a worldly neighbor friend, a substantial porn offering. Now there are pews where the shelves and racks used to be and two plastic trees in baskets. A few crumpled handfuls of gospel tracts cover the old check-out counter.
I biked by there one November in high school and heard the music and saw the light and stepped inside. The preacher was large and loud, and he boomed out the end of a gospel message over staccato piano chords of “Just As I Am.” The six old people in attendance huddled in little lumps on the pew velvet and murmured drowsily their assent. But the man kept calling wayward souls to “come to Jesus,” and I stood in the back by the pamphlets and the frosted plate-glass windows, helmet in hand, and wondered why it was only the old and the saved that came back each week to hear wandering and lonesome souls beckoned back into the fold of God, and why it was that these churched people wanted so badly to hear absent sinners damned and wheedled with threats of hellfire and promises of everlasting light.
I say this because I feel that I need to explain why I became cynical about Gospel and Country music, which predominates the radios and churches of East Tennessee, from pretty early on. Both shout what we already expect to hear about ourselves. Mainstream country, in particular, can seem especially disingenuous because it claims to be blue collar: there is just something obscene about someone who owns a private island twanging about driving an old ford pickup down to the dirt track on a Saturday night, or some diamonded debutante howling about how her man is shooting pool with some “bleached-blond tramp.” It rings false.
What it seems to lack is a vision and respect for the culture and the region it supposedly represents. At its worst, it turns the American South® into a trademark, reduces the birthplace of William Faulkner and Jim Crowe into frog gigging on Fridays and “thank God for cheap beer and freedom” and “slap your grandma look at her legs” or something equivalent. What’s worse is that it pretends that these attitudes, these caricatures, are something to be proud of. I can’t help but feel that someone is laughing at a place I love, and making quite a bit of money doing it.
And so, when I saw a neon sign one Friday night outside a little building in Birchwood advertising for a band called the Mars Hill Porch Pickers, I expected, more or less, something I could laugh at, quip about, somewhere with octogenarians and washboards and Lester Flatt covers and maybe an altar call.
I expected something like what you find at the Dayton Hardy’s on Tuesday night, or the Gospel Singing Hall on the first Thursday of each month, or a less polished version of one of the many country music stations on the air. I was, more or less, determined to be an ass about the whole thing.
Birchwood sits off of Highway 60 about halfway to Cleveland and you wouldn’t notice it if the speed limit didn’t slow to an unreasonable 30 mph for a whole three miles, giving you plenty of time to see everything that’s not there. There is a white slat board church, a few houses, and a two-pump gas station near a pond called “The Island Oasis.” The Birchwood Family Opry itself sits right off the highway in the dead center of town across from Birchwood Elementary in an old church building of cinderblock, aluminum, and walnut-stained 2x4s. There are still pews, and the wood floor snaps underfoot. The whole building is still garlanded and garnished for a St. Patrick’s Day party that must have happened the week before — there is a lighted shamrock hanging in the rafters next to the disco ball.
We arrived late, right as the band Hickory Wind was beginning their act. Aside from a couple grandchildren, we are the youngest in the building. An older lady in a gingham dress greets us at the door and takes our tickets and motions us to sit in one of the pews. The band bills itself as a Gospel-Bluegrass act, trying “to bring both Gospel and Bluegrass music together to entertain as well as spread the Gospel.” They play “Long Journey Home,” a song about sin and heaven, full of long fiddle draws and a spoken word interlude that manages to include something about mother, Jesus, and the end of the world.
And it’s wonderful. All music is sentimental, but there is a difference from sentimentality that comes from love and that which is packaged and sold stale. Hickory Wind loves their music, and they love the tradition it came out of — the amalgamation of mountain folk, country and gospel hymns that are this region’s lifeblood. The band has played together for 20 years, and everyone knows their instruments and their harmonies, feels them even. The acoustics of the place — the oak and brick — lend richness to the upright bass and the wandering mandolin lines. They pause their concert to retune — their fiddler, an old man who wears a flat brimmed Navy Veteran trucker hat over his thinning hair, tightens and retightens his bow. They stand there for a minute, and it’s impossible not to notice how old they seem in their loose polos and baggy jeans when the music stops, but then how suddenly and wildly their hands move when they begin the next reel.
Seemingly on cue, nearly a dozen of the audience, all old, stand and walk slowly to the front as if responding to some strange and silent altar call. But the moment they pass the last pew, they shake their arms down to their hips and begin to dance. They’re cloggers. The men wear jeans and tucked-in t-shirts, the women anything, so long as it includes sequins or calico. They smile and shuffle across the stage, their bodies still and rigid above the knee, their foreheads shining, their legs pumping in slow and practiced steps across the worn dance floor. They all face the audience and smile — they know they are part of the music, their steps clattering closely along to each beat.
I ask a girl if she would like to dance, and we grin and sway and try to figure out how to fit some rigid waltz steps inside the strains of “Blue Kentucky Girl.” A lady wearing feathers and leopard print tells us she likes our dancing, and we blush. She invites us to come back to take clogging lessons on the first Saturday of each month, and we say that we will sometime and sit back down for a little while. An old couple begins to slow dance to the opening chords of the next song, but sit down when it turns into “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Propriety, it seems, dictates that you shouldn’t cuddle to a hymn.
When the set ends, everyone is sweaty and sleepy, and someone announces a dollar raffle for a prize I can’t remember. I don’t want to remember it, really — the music is so sweet, the dancers so much a part of it, so pleased to move to it despite old knees and rheumatism. There is grace here, and a kind of Gospel. People move here to echoed hymns — they stand and hobble and sway and hop past leprechauns and shamrocks on their way to the altar, and the disco ball throws stars on the smiling and sweaty faces of the congregants. This is what good music does: it animates. It may not tell us anything new at all, but it moves, it stirs us to come to the altar, even if we’ve already been saved. Here there are hymns and dances and songs about girls and home and Jesus, and the room smells like old church carpet and sweat, and all around is light, sound and reverberation.
Most everyone parks across the street next to the elementary school, and the slow old people dodge slower traffic as they cross the narrow road, wives and dates clinging to their men as they totter across the asphalt to the cars, shielding their eyes from the headlights. Their clogs dangle and dance from the laces around their necks, and the night grows colder and more silent with the fading echo of each song.