Friday, August 28, 2009

Hill country backroads: Oxford to Louisville, Miss.

Saturday, April 18, 2009  

It was the end of winter in New York; the height of spring in Memphis; the beginning of spring in D.C. Now it’s late spring in Bolton. All within a few days.

I was feeling pretty tired by the time Saturday morning rolled around, from all this travel and from being "on" for so long, and my first thought when I woke at Lisa and Richard Howorth’s house was bourbon, which provided the narrative thread the night before. The night started at a place called the Blind Pig, with Brian Gallagher and Matthew Dellinger. Brian is a fact-checker at Vanity Fair whose acquaintance I made while searching for someone to fact-check Sultana; Matthew until recently worked at the New Yorker and is now working on a book. They were also staying at the Howorths’, who joined us later, as did the daughter of the late, great Jim Ely, who also works at Vanity Fair, and the actress Joey Lauren Adams, who starred in the 1997 movie Chasing Amy.

After the Blind Pig we headed out to a restaurant called Snackbar, with four of us riding in the back of Joey’s old Chevy pickup. It was a scene to remember: Sitting on the wheelwell across from the stunning Ms. Ely, who was dressed to the nines for an earlier wedding party, and whose flaming red hair danced in the wind as we passed beneath the streetlights on North Lamar. After Snackbar we went to Proud Larry’s to dance, and I finally caught up with my friend Chris Douglas.

Mere hours later, I was driving bleary-eyed down Highway No. 9 toward Calhoun City, bound for Louisville, where the Mississippi Arts Commission teamed up with the Winston County Library to host “Unburied Treasures,” an event that included Clarion-Ledger cartoonist Marshall Ramsey, Senegalese singer Guelel Kumba and me.

Along the way I stopped at the Texaco station in Calhoun City (formerly “The City Ready for Tomorrow” on the welcome sign; now “Birthplace of Ace Cannon”) for sustenance, and the woman behind the counter said, “You cut off your hair.” I was confused by this, and allowed as how it had been many years since I had been there and she must be thinking of someone else. She said this guy hadn’t been in there in years and he had really long hair. I insisted I wasn’t him, and though I’m not sure she was convinced, she did give me a discount on my sausage biscuit. For many miles I felt like a guy who had once had very long hair.

I love driving backroads, passing places like the Harmony Free Will Baptist Church, Dwayne’s Meat Processing and Stylz by Megan. Since I drive a truck, everyone else driving a truck waves. Headed south, the landscape got greener with each passing mile, and the roadsides were lush with crimson clover and yellow wildflowers.

It was refreshing to see that Marshall Ramsey was the headliner at the Winston County Library, based on the sign out front. Much as I want to publicize my book, there are times when I grow weary of attention, especially when I feel worn down from so much travel. Still, lest anyone think I did not give it up for the small crowd gathered for the library event, I did. They were a great group, and energized the atmosphere.

Marshall started things off. He was absolutely hilarious as he showed cartoons on an old-fashioned projector. He has few peers in his profession – literally, not only because there are so few newspapers with political cartoonists left but because few are as good at it as he is. Any city would be fortunate to have someone of Marshall’s caliber, and he also happens to be quite an entertainer. He had everyone laughing all the way through. I was actually a bit chastened by that when it came time for me to talk, because the Sultana story is somber by comparison, but the crowd seemed interested. They were interesting, too. There was a woman from Chicago who teaches art to disadvantaged students and adults; a woman in African dress whose grandfather was a slave in Winston County; and an immaculately dressed, sharp and absolutely beautiful lady of 95.

After I spoke, Guelel Kumba performed. He has a lovely, sonorous voice and plays acoustic guitar; one man later asked if he has perfect pitch, because his voice and the strings of his guitar seemed to be in perfect harmony. I met Guelel years ago at a signing at Turnrow Books, where I read and he played, and I’ve been a fan ever since. He’s a truly charming, soft-spoken guy who sings in his native Fulani language. He found, when he first visited Oxford, that his musical style was similar to the local blues musicians, though their heritage was separated by many centuries. He ended up staying in Oxford, where he lives and works as a musician today. I think it’s safe to say he was the first Senegalese musician to play in Louisville, Miss., and the crowd loved him.

Afterward we all went to lunch at Lake Tiak-O-Khata, where the library staff treated us to a delicious buffet that included some of the best lemon meringue pie I’ve ever had. All in all it was a very nice day. I very much enjoyed hanging out with Marshall, Guelel and the people who put on the event. I didn't know much about Louisville before, but it's a wonderful little town.

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