Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (15/19) — Chapter Fifteen, Rhododendron (3/3)

OUR MOUNTAIN LAUREL, standing next to our basement door, took three full weeks to bloom, from buds to blossoms. This was its second stage.


BOONE, N.C. (June 10, 2020) – Things aren’t always what they seem. Take that rhododendron-like shrubbery outside our basement door here in Rutherwood, for example. As I’ve said before, I initially thought it was a regular rhododendron and then a variety called punctatum before I did some research and found that it’s actually mountain laurel, in the same heath family but of a different genus.

In everyday terms, that’s like saying you and I are both American, but, say, your ancestors came here from England, so you’re British, while I’m Scots-Irish. My mother’s ancestors were Lowland or Ulster Scots, Protestants who moved to Ireland to escape the Church of England, then emigrated to America for religious freedom. Twenty U.S. Presidents, including Barack Obama, were at least part Scots-Irish.

In case you’re wondering, Donald J. Trump is of German ancestry on his father’s side. In 2017, CNN broadcast published reports that “Trump’s father repeatedly sought to conceal the fact that he was the son of German immigrants.… [He] sought to pass himself off as Swedish amid anti-German sentiment sparked by World War II.” So the Donald’s phony heritage is consistent with everything else in his life.

But I’m getting off track. I was talking about our mountain laurel, at least the one that didn’t get crushed by a neighbor’s tree a few winters ago. When I was telling that story a couple of weeks ago—about that ice storm—I noted that the row of bushes consisted mainly of Catawba rhododendrons, but last week when their blossoms finally started popping open, I saw that the most damaged shrub is actually a mountain laurel.

By their blossoms and fruit we shall know them, right? And we can also consider their leaves and bark.

TODAY’S ESSAY DISCUSSES four of my favorite singer-songwriters: (clockwise from upper left) Steve Forbert, Michael Reno Harrell, Mike Cross and Livingston Taylor.

Mountain laurel makes me think about one place in particular—and, no, it isn’t Laurel, Mississippi, that “dirty, stinkin’ town” made famous by singer-songwriter Steve Forbert. I think of Jonas Ridge, a small mountain community in Burke County where my parents began married life and taught school, and the place where my wife Timberley’s maternal grandparents grew up, got hitched and started their family.

And then I think of “goin’ down to Laurel; it’s a dirty, stinkin’ town, yeah.” Once that earworm crawls into my head, I can’t knock it out or off for days, I’m telling you. Just ask Timberley. She’s been putting up with this Rain Man behavior of mine for going on 40 years now, if you count our years of courtship. Yep, that’s a long time to listen to a guy sing odd lines of obscure songs over and over, love him or not.

Mississippi native Steve Forbert wasn’t the first singer-songwriter I paid my own hard-earned dough to see, but his show in the winter of 1980 at Appalachian State University was my first college concert, if that’s a category that works for you. Steve’s big hit then was “Romeo’s Tune,” and if I’m not mistaken, he started the show with it. Unfortunately, his microphone kept cutting off throughout the whole song.

It didn’t matter. I’d liked his music ever since I saw his 1978 debut album, Alive on Arrival, reviewed in Rolling Stone and then purchased it at Tape Town in Morganton. Through the years I bought several of his other albums, usually finding them in discount bins, and I never really understood why his career hadn’t finally landed on the moon after that initial takeoff and first Earth orbit. I don’t remember him on MTV.

CLOCKWISE FROM RIGHT — Steve Forbert performing on “stage”; a Jim Dunlop capo like one that Steve tossed to a fan during his solo show that we attended; and Steve signing a CD for me after his concert.

I finally got to see him again some 30 years after that first concert at ASU. On Jan. 2, 2010, Timberley and I attended Steve’s solo show in a small venue at the Whitaker Center in Harrisburg, Pa. He played downstairs in a room that held maybe a hundred people. His “stage” was a three-foot square of wood that he’d had cut that day at a local building supply store. It was an intimate and excellent performance.

In the interim, Timberley and I had taken road trips from Boone to New Orleans a couple of times and had driven through Steve’s hometown of Meridian, Miss., then through Laurel down the road, and we had learned that Laurel did, in fact, stink. The odor was similar to that of the galax plant that grows in our mountains or to the stench of mudflats on our coast—or to stinky pulp and paper mills anywhere.

Yes, I sang snatches of Steve’s catchy “Goin’ Down to Laurel” from Alive on Arrival the rest of the way to New Orleans, just as I’d sung bits of George Strait’s hit “Amarillo by Morning” all the way to Santa Fe after we crossed the Texas Panhandle on an Interstate 40/Route 66 road trip in 2005. That was when we had no iTunes or Sirius/XM to bemuse us on the open road, just FM radio, cassettes, CDs and me.

Of my favorite old singer-songwriters—older than me, that is—Steve is the only one with whom I have no local connection, other than hearing him that first time at ASU. Livingston Taylor—I’ll go ahead and say it, yes, James’s brother—is another tunesmith and performer I’ve followed for decades, and he does have a bona fide Morganton background. His dad grew up here. Kin still live here. Kin are buried here.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT — Albums by singer-songwriters Steve Forbert, Michael Reno Harrell, Mike Cross and Livingston Taylor. All have Western N.C. connections except Steve, a Mississippi native.

Timberley and I attended a solo concert by Livingston Taylor in the summer of 1997 at ASU’s Farthing Auditorium, where I’d seen Steve and his band 17 years earlier. Liv played guitar and grand piano. He sang some songs for kids along with his songs for grownups, and he told stories that we all could relate to. I remember his rainbow-striped guitar strap. We met him after the concert but chatted only a minute.

I’ve had longer talks with former Nashville singer-songwriter Michael Reno Harrell of Morganton, and I consider him a friend, though he has been more of a teacher to me since we met him and his wife Joan at Brown Mountain Bottleworks a few years ago. Before this pandemic closed everything, Michael and Joan always came out to sit through gigs and open mics in support of the local songwriting community.

Several years ago, Michael also led a local songwriters group that met one night every month to share songs and to discuss the kinds of things musicians talk about—you know, the same stuff everyone else talks about, except that songwriters see everything as potential lyrics. Michael continues to amaze me. Not only is he a gifted musician and storyteller; he is also a talented essay writer and artist/illustrator.

Timberley and I have attended Michael’s usually annual appearances close by—in Morganton, Hickory, Lenoir and Boone over the past few years that we’ve known him. The only old singer-songwriter we’ve seen more often in this quartet of living, breathing troubadours about whom I’m now writing is another Michael, another archangel like Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger, whose machines surround and kill hate.

I’m referring to Mike Cross, who grew up in Lenoir, one of my hometowns, and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the only college I ever really wanted to attend but couldn’t for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere. The ticket I bought during the summer of 1978 for Mike’s hometown concert in the Lenoir Hibriten High School gymtorium was the first concert money of my own that I ever spent.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT — A memoir, essay collection, personal letter and textbook on stage performance by four singer-songwriters.

I remember him telling funny stories to set up even funnier songs, and stories about playing golf, going off to college on a golf scholarship, sitting out a big snowstorm by learning to play guitar, and working a summer job for the rural electric co-operative and meeting a poor old mountain woman who couldn’t understand why she got a monthly bill even though she never turned on the lone lightbulb in her cabin.

“Well, ma’am,” Mike explained, “you’re still charged a small amount each month whether you use any electricity or not. It isn’t much, but there is a minimum charge.” The old lady couldn’t believe it. “My, oh, my!” she exclaimed, plugging an extension cord into the light fixture and unfurling the cord out into the room. “Well, then,” she said, “if I’m paying fer it anyways, I’ll just let it run out on the floor!”

I don’t remember which of Mike’s songs that story set up, and I don’t remember ever hearing him tell it again, though I’m guessing he probably did. After that first concert at Hibriten, my alma mater, I heard Mike again the next summer at the Waldensian Festival in Valdese. The main stage sat in the side street between the old Belk store and Valdese True Value Hardware, where I worked part-time then as a clerk.

I was leaning on our sporting goods department’s display case up front so I could look out the big plate-glass windows and watch passersby when Mike himself walked in the hardware store’s front door. “Hi, there,” he said. “We’re setting up outside, and I need a three-prong electrical adapter—you know, for a two-prong outlet.” I said that, yessir, we had ’em, and I ran over to the electrical aisle and got one for him.

He nodded as he took the orange adapter and stuck his hand in one pocket. “How much do I owe you?” he said. I shook my head. “That’s OK. No charge,” I said, figuring my boss didn’t mind doing the Town of Valdese, all of the festival goers and my new favorite singer-songwriter such a crucial public service, especially for under $1. “No, I need to pay you,” Mike insisted with a smile, and handed me the money.

Somehow I managed to put together my lunch and afternoon break, and take them while Mike was on stage that afternoon. I also remember standing with one of the prettiest girls in town the whole time I was out there on the street as I listened to Mike sing and play guitar and fiddle, and I wondered if life could get any better than that. It could and did. Timberley and I were dating the next time I heard Mike.

We heard him perform at least a couple of times in Morganton, once at the historic and elegant old Alva Theater that had been converted into a discotheque called Showcase ’29 in the late ’70s. When the disco craze finally subsided, the building became the infamous Mainstreet Music Hall and Mike played there. That was before it closed after my future employer’s son shot a guy dead one night at a Johnny Paycheck concert.

If you wonder which of my employers that was, here’s a clue: It was the only place I’ve worked where I wanted to tell my boss to “Take this job and shove it!” but got fired before I could. Ain’t work grand.

THREE OF 14 ALBUMS by Mike Cross, who grew up in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee: Born in the Country, At Large in the World, and Crossin’ Carolina.

Oops. Getting back on track, probably the best concert experience we ever had seeing Mike Cross was in the early 1990s while we lived at Ocean Isle Beach. His appearance at the N.C. Baptist Assembly at Fort Caswell near Southport coincided with one of my parents’ rare trips to the coast. Mike’s concert, a solo gig, was in Hatch Auditorium, which doubled as the Baptist camp and conference center’s church.

Now remember, my dad was a Baptist minister. He had retired from full-time pastoring maybe 15 years earlier, but Baptist preachers never stop being Baptist preachers, if you know what I mean. My dad sure didn’t. So we were sitting there in that Baptist sanctuary, and Mike started telling his funny stories and singing his funny songs, with his other fine tales and tunes about more serious aspects of life and love.

We wouldn’t have taken Mom and Dad to Mike’s concert if his material weren’t so wholesome—or at least as wholesome as stories and songs about moonshining and inbreeding in the N.C. mountains can be. Still, my father was the type of Baptist preacher who’d make me turn off a televised football game if he happened to walk through the room when a beer spot was airing. “Turn that junk off,” he would say.

So I kept one eye on Dad as Mike, down front with that big wooden cross on the wall above the altar, worked through his set. These songs are probably out of order—I mean, this was almost 30 years ago—but my old man just laughed at the fooling around described in “Elma Turl,” at Paddy the Irishman’s work problems in “Dear Boss,” and at the prize-winning attire of one lucky fellow in “The Scotsman.”

Then, echoing throughout that Baptist sanctuary above Mike’s supple guitar picking came these clearly enunciated though drawl-inflected words from his mouth: “Lord preserve us and protect us; we’ve been drinking whiskey ‘fore breakfast.” He even repeated the line at the end of each verse … and Dad’s head didn’t explode. He just laughed and laughed, having more fun than I ever thought my father could bear.

Things—and people—aren’t always what they seem to be.

Ordinarily I’d stop there with that sentence, but not today.

Sometimes things and people are exactly what we expect.

A fews weeks ago, around the time our mountain laurel started blooming, I decided to do something I’d been wanting to do for several years—that was, to order a CD copy of Mike Cross’s debut album, Born in the Country from Mike himself. I’d visited his website and read his explanation of why he has retired from touring. I’d also noticed that Born in the Country was available on compact disc for the first time.

We already own most of Mike’s 14 albums; however, the early ones in our collection—including Born in the Country, with the hit song “Nobby,” a favorite tune of mine about a pimp and his prostitutes who “make hay while the streetlights shine”—are on vinyl LPs, and that particular album is worn out. Also, I bought his Prodigal Son before buying an album on Compact Cassette was grounds for commitment.

So I wrote Mike a letter and ordered Born in the Country and two other albums that I already have but not on CD. In my quick note, I mentioned some of the things I’ve elaborated on here, one thing being that I’m “60+” or, in other words, old enough to have bought Mike’s first album releases on vinyl. Last week my heart skipped a beat at the post office when I saw the yellow, package-pickup card in our box.

The parcel contained three albums—Born in the Country and two others that I hadn’t ordered. The way my memory is deteriorating, though, I wasn’t entirely sure I hadn’t asked for those two particular titles until I unfolded and read “A little note from … Mike Cross,” what was actually a typewritten, one-page personal letter with a refund check clipped at the top. The two other albums were complimentary gifts.

“By the way, Mr. 60 Plus,” Mike teased, “welcome to the far side of the hill! It’s the place where you can most clearly see where you’ve been, what you’ve done and how quickly it all went by. I’m sure you and Timberley have some wonderful memories which will warm your winter nights and bring smiles to your summer days. Here’s wishing you both joy and laughter for the next 60 years. Ain’t life grand.”

Those last three words weren’t a question but a declaration, even considering what all we have endured.

All four of the singer-songwriters I’ve written about today have special ways with words, as the figure of speech goes, whether they’re telling us stories or singing us songs, and whether they’re bringing us joy, laughter or sometimes loving tears. That’s what our words should convey to others—to audiences, if we have the public’s ears and eyes, even on social media; and to fellow travelers we meet in person.

THREE BLOOMIN’ STAGES, one per week, of the mountain laurel outside our basement door, from buds to blossoms.

Life is too short to waste with hateful words and hateful deeds, whether we answer to Paddy, to Mr. 60 Plus, or, yes, even to Mr. President. After all, life really is grand, even if that beautiful mountain laurel or rhododendron or punctatum outside our back door does remind us of some dirty, stinkin’ place we have been. Life is what we make of it, whether others care that they help give our lives meaning or not.

And that shrubbery at my basement door? Turns out it’s not one individual bush; it’s three different shrubs—the laurel, a rhododendron and a struggling azalea—all growing together, come what may.

The punctatum? It’s at the edge of our drive and is in pretty bad shape. The punctatum stands alone.