The first guitar songs I learned to play were crying songs. They were the only songs I liked as a kid. Back then, 99 percent of the country music genre was comprised of sad songs that caused grown men to weep into their malt beverages. Crying songs.

It was my uncle John who taught me to play my first crying song. After my father died, my uncle John parked his RV at the edge of our land and lived beside us. He needed a free place to crash; I had no father. So it was a win-win.

Within his dank RV he doled out my nightly music lessons. I learned to pick six strings beneath his tutelage, I learned how to handle tunes like “Faded Love.”

Sometimes John would stay up until one in the morning, fueled only by caffeine and his big heart, teaching me the workings of the fretboard. To the untrained eye it looked like we were practicing music, but really he was helping

me grieve.

It was John who helped me find the nicest instrument I would ever own from the wall of a dingy pawn shop. He negotiated with the stogie-chewing clerk until we got a “sweet deal” on a battered Gibson B-15 model, 1968 guitar. Truthfully, the guitar was glorified firewood, but to me it was twenty-four karat.

John haggled like a horse trader until he’d whittled the pawnbroker down to his penultimate dollar. They shook hands. I dug into my pocket and placed a pile of crumpled cash on the counter. John immediately removed a ten-dollar bill from my money stack and said, “My commission.”

One time we went to Branson together. My uncle and my mother treated me to a non-stop week of country music and Dolly Parton impersonators. We must have visited every opry theater and playhouse in town.

Throughout each live performance, Uncle John would make wisecracks, trying his best…

DESTIN, Fla.—I’m in a traffic jam. Standstill. Cars are backed up to the horizon. I am stuck among them, trapped on Highway 98, suffocating within a cloud of blue exhaust and unspeakable misery.

We are moving at 0.002 miles per hour. I look out my window and see a gopher turtle crawling past my truck.

Our town has been having bad traffic lately, ever since the city began highway construction shortly after the Civil War. There are a million-and-one orange construction barrels located on our roadways. And these barrels keep multiplying.

At night when everyone sleeps I’m convinced these barrels all get together and have wild parties and reproduce lots of little baby construction barrels.

The powers that be told residents these highway “upgrades” would be finished a few years ago, but things keep getting pushed back. Currently the Florida Department of Transportation does not expect current upgrades to be finished until the installation of the next pope.

Thousands of years from now, when Florida’s coastline is underwater, archaeologists will find

millions of petrified automobiles still stuck in Destin gridlock, miles beneath the Gulf, awaiting the completion of upgrades.

Most of the vehicles in today’s congestion belong to summer tourists. Such as the flock of Range Rovers Autographs ahead of me with Georgia plates. A few of these motorists strike me as the uppity type because they occasionally glance at my rusted, ugly Ford and wince.

Something also tells me they aren’t crazy about my bumper sticker, which reads: “You mess with me and you mess with the whole trailer park.”

It’s hard to believe our town used to be a sleepy village, complete with captivating trailer parks. But there was indeed a time when Destin had about 7,500 full-time residents, and one small grocery store that played Hank Snow on the radio.

Today, the summer population here swells to somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000. And I firmly believe that…

There are about 5,240 folks living in the town of Brewton. Although last week someone had twins. So now there are more.

This township has all the things you look for in the quintessential American hamlet. A Pic-N-Save supermarket. Barbecue joints. Muddy trucks parked outside the attorney's office. The occasional stray dog hanging by the mill.

The train tracks run parallel with Highway 31, which means that diesel locomotives roll right through the downtown like they own the place. On Douglas Avenue storefronts still line the street like they did when Woodrow Wilson called the shots. There are flowers everywhere.

But Brewton’s masterstroke, if you ask me, is not its clapboard churches, or the begonias on the main drag. Neither is this town’s glory found in its rainbow row of antique and Greek Revivial homes on Belleville, nor its citywide devotion to jayvee sports.

The magnificence of Brewton lies over on Lee Street inside a nondescript brick restaurant.

The humble eatery sits between a vacant lot and a welding shop, almost invisible

if you’re not looking for it. There is an American flag flying out front. A few potted plants.

This place is named Drexel & Honeybee’s Donations Only Restaurant, it is owned and operated by Lisa Thomas-McMillian and Freddie McMillian.

This afternoon I swung open the café’s front door and found myself immediately standing in a line of omnivores, waiting to place my order. When it was my turn I approached the buffet sneeze-guard and was confronted with the kind of food my mother cooked.

The woman behind the counter filled my plate with ribs, mac and cheese, cabbage, okra, and scalding hot hoe cakes. There was peach cobbler, and the tea was so sweet I had to pray away the type-two diabetes.

I asked how much all this home cooking was going to cost me. They said it was free.

“Donations only,” one volunteer said, pointing to an…

Entering Conecuh County. That’s what the little green sign reads, off Highway 31. I’m heading north, passing through a small sliver of the county. I love Alabama.

A few weeks ago, I was driving to Birmingham, I listened to an audio book. The narrator spoke with an accent like a New Jersey paperboy. He pronounced Conecuh as “Koh-NEE-queue.”

That hurt.

Now entering Butler County. Wingard’s Produce Stand. B&H Cafe. Dollar General. There’s the McKenzie water tower.

And God said, “Let there be kudzu.” I also love kudzu.

I once planted some in my backyard in hopes that one day it would swallow my house. Everything looks better when swallowed in kudzu.

Georgiana is eight miles away. If you’re keeping score, I also love Georgiana. I’ve visited the Hank Williams boyhood home in Georgiana too many times.

Anyone who knows me knows I also love Hank Senior. But then who doesn’t? My affection goes back to childhood. My father’s workbench. A radio. Hank, blaring from a small speaker while he changed the oil in our corral of Fords.

My favorite part

of the Hank museum tour is the underside of the house. A tour guide named Miss Margaret told me Hank used to practice his guitar there.

“It was cool down there,” said Miss Margaret. “He’d sit on an old car bench-seat to avoid the heat.”

Miss Margaret. I loved her, too. I didn’t know much about her except that when I met her she was elderly. Half her face was paralyzed. Her accent sounded like a Camellia garden on the Fourth of July. I remember wishing she would adopt me.

Georgiana also has Kendall’s Barbecue joint. Love it.

Although “Love” is a weak word for Kendall’s. I would tell you more about this place, but someone wrote me an ugly letter once, saying:

“You talk about Alabama barbecue TOO MUCH! I'm from Texas originally before I moved to Alabama… I…

Will the Old Folks’ Club & Elderly Persons With Ridiculously Expensive Hearing Aids Society meeting now come to order? Thank you.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a privilege to welcome this evening’s keynote speaker to our podium. He is 94 years young, his name is Jon. Let’s give him a rousing round of applause.

Sustained applause. A few cat calls.

“Good evening, friends, constituents, and esteemed members who are still awake. My name is Jon, and I am pleased to be addressing the Old Folks’ Club & Elderly Persons With Ridiculously Expensive Hearing Aids Society tonight.

“I’d first like to thank your chairman for inviting me. I’d like to also thank the Methodist ladies group for providing the extremely tiny crustless cucumber finger sandwiches. Let’s all give them a hand.”

Applause.

“Tonight I have a story to share. My tale begins when I was a much younger man of seven. I can hardly remember back that far.

“I had a nice childhood. I liked playing marbles, I was active in neighborhood baseball games, I loved Mallo Cups.

Sadly, at my current age I can’t eat candy anymore, and I have yet to relocate my marbles.

“When the Great Depression came along—I don’t have to remind you how hard it was—life changed more for some of us than others.

“In my family we were helpless. There was nothing to be done. My dad lost his job, my mom lost hers. Me and my little brother, Skeeter, didn’t know how bad it was, except that we were eating a lotta cabbage soup.

“My parents started falling behind on house payments. They began taking whatever jobs they could, but each month things got worse. Our water got shut off. Then we had no electricity, and Skeeter and I weren’t getting along because he was a boob.

“Anyway, my dad started working for a grocery store and delivering groceries and such. The money stunk,…

A beer joint, somewhere in middle Alabama. I pull the truck over and walk inside. It’s getting late. The place is mostly empty except for a few stragglers and an old guy at the bar eating a hamburger in the dark.

Overhead the radio is playing Johnny Paycheck’s “Don’t Take Her She’s All I Got.” The server-slash-barkeep this evening is bearded, stoutly built, with hands like Virginia hams.

“Something to drink?” says the man behind the wood.

“Whatever’s cold.”

“Got the big three on tap. Your call.”

“Surprise me.”

“Ite.”

He pulls the stick. The amber juice arrives in a heavy mug with a handle, the kind of mug people used long before they quit visiting dancehalls. The beer tastes stale, flat, and perfect.

“Something to eat, buddy?”

I eye the menu. “What’s good?”

“Anything that ain’t from our kitchen.”

“I’ll take a burger.”

“Ite.”

Johnny Paycheck gives way to Porter Wagoner who is singing “The Cold Hard Facts of Life.”

The old man at the bar beside me is quietly singing along while trying to eat his hamburger. But he is having mild to severe muscular tremors,

and he can hardly hold his food with his stiffened arthritic hands.

Then things get even worse when his sleeve accidentally swipes across his plate and food flies onto the bartop.

The barman returns and sees the minor mess. “Hey, you spilled your food.”

“Sorry.”

“You old coot.” The barman laughs and takes care of the old guy’s problem like it’s no big deal, smiling the whole time, keeping things light and unembarrassing. This barkeep is good people.

Soon my hamburger arrives in a red basket and the music du jour has become Don Gibson’s “Throw Myself a Party.” The old man sings backup while the young bartender removes fries from the would-be rowdy’s lap.

“You like this old music, don’t you?” says the barkeep.

The old man grins. “Shoot. Grew up…

BRIAN—Hi, Sean. I read your story yesterday about miracles and it really hit a nerve…

I wanted to share one of my own miracles with you from when I was 23 years old and my wife gave birth, she died after delivery from sepsis and I was sure my life was over.

I thought about putting my daughter up for adoption because I didn’t think I was man enough to raise her alone and I wanted her to have the best life she could ever have, even if it wasn’t with me.

Holding my daughter on that first night I felt an overwhelming peace that it would all be okay and I should raise my daughter, knowing that I would have lots of help from above. My daughter is fifty-eight now. Thank you.

CHERYL— My miracle was when mom had cancer after she retired. They all told her there was nothing they could do.

My mother lived until age ninety-two.

BENJAMIN—I was in a car accident when I was coming home from work and

I rear ended a logging truck. I probably should have died, but I am alive because of a man who was passing by me and pulled me from my car.

DOROTHY—When [my sister and I] were girls our dad and mom were going to get divorced and me and my sister were living in fear… Because my mom wasn’t a stable person and we also knew my dad was going to leave us.

My aunt showed up that night unexpectedly to take us to come live with her in Arizona. My mom ended up in an institution for people dealing with mental issues and my dad totally disappeared.

My aunt said that it was a dream that woke her up and told her to drive those six hours to come get us and raise us.

GRACE—I’m not ready to share what happened to me yet, but…

When I was a kid I believed in miracles. All kids do. In fact that’s the best part about being a kid. You believe in practically everything and everyone.

You believe in Santa, cowboys, Bigfoot, love songs, happy endings, and you seriously believe that if Rachel Alison kisses you it means you're automatically married.

Personally, I was a big believer in eating SpaghettiOs for breakfast. I also believed in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and especially in Dale “The Intimidator” Earnhardt. I believed in angels, in magic, and most of all I believed in miracles.

But something changed over the years. I quit believing in stuff. I can trace this change back to fourth grade when my family life sort of went downhill.

By fifth grade, my home life completely fell apart, and shortly thereafter things got even worse when my father used a hunting rifle to remove himself from our lives.

That same year I learned some basic lessons about human nature. Firstly, I learned that nobody—nobody—knows how to deal with you after

you’ve experienced trauma. So they just don’t.

Friends quit returning calls. People instinctively distance themselves from you. They don’t mean any harm, but you end up getting blackballed just the same. Eventually you become a kind of foreigner in your own homeplace.

Which is why I dropped out of school, I felt like a sideshow among my peers.

By high-school age I was working on construction sites, and I was missing out on teenage rites of passage like homecoming, prom, football games, applying toilet paper rolls to trees, and mooning law enforcement officials on spring break.

The way I grew up left me disappointed with this world. I was disenchanted. And miracles? Don’t make me gag.

But one summer when I was an adult, this too would change.

I had just finished my high-school equivalency classes and enrolled in community college. I was trying to…

Troy, Alabama. Five years ago. It was a funeral unlike anything you have ever seen before.

It was raining hard in Alabama. The bleachers in Troy University’s Sartain Hall Gymnasium were filling with mourners. Lots of them. One by one the people came.

Outside the gym a Haynes Life Flight helicopter sat parked on the pavement for effect. Surrounding it were fire trucks, police cruisers, and five-hundred acres of ambulances and flashing lightbars. The horizon was packed with emergency vehicles.

The visitors came from all over the Yellowhammer State. Coffee, Pike, Covington, Dale, Elmore, and Montgomery. They came to honor their own.

In the gym, on the free-throw line, were three caskets draped in American flags. The funerary boxes were huddled together in tight formation. The hems of their flags barely moved in the air conditioning.

Those in attendance were wearing EMS blues, flight suits, duty belts, and class-A uniforms. Many were on-call. Radios were still clipped to vests. Tactical boots were muddy. Some had been working long shifts and were running on

fumes.

Gentle murmurs came to a close when an audio recording played on the sound system overhead. It was loud. The sound reverberated off the smooth surfaces and wooden floor.

This arena usually only hears the noises of screaming fans and the squeaks of rubber shoes. On this day the court heard the last radio transmission for Haynes Life Flight Two.

The helicopter crashed eighty miles south of Montgomery, only days before this service. This radio call was a ceremonial message to the deceased, a traditional send off among the initiated.

Static. “November-Nine-One-One-Golf-Foxtrot, we show you departing with four souls onboard, we’ll take it from here…” More static.

The sounds of sniffs were everywhere. And EMS workers don’t cry often.

The accident had happened during the wee hours on an average Saturday. The helipad crew at Troy Regional Medical Center was having a quiet night when a…

DEAR SEAN:

Since I am writing a book I wanted to know what it’s like being an author. So I prepared the following for you:

1. Does it get weird when people you don’t know know your name?
2. Is writing tiring?
3. Do you get too much attention?

Write me back soon with your answers. How are Otis and Thelma Lou and Ms. Jamie doing? Tell them I said hi.

Sincerely,
10-YEAR-OLD-IN-BATON-ROUGE

DEAR BATON ROUGE:

First off, kudos for writing your book. Books are fun. Writing a book is a lot like jumping out of a speeding vehicle. It hurts, and all your friends send Hallmark cards when they hear about it.

In fact the hardest part of the whole book process is simply beginning. I have met many people who want to write books, who have great ideas for books, who possess heaps of bookish talent, but never actually sit down and write the dang book.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. You asked three well-formed questions. Therefore I will answer.

And I promise to answer with the kind of straight talk I wish someone would have used with me when I was your age.

You see, I’ve wanted to be a writer since the fourth grade. Whenever I would tell this to my teachers they usually responded by patting my head and saying, “Well, just remember God needs janitors, too.”

1. “Does it get weird when strangers know your name?”

You must be confusing me with someone else, nobody recognizes me.

Then again there was one time when I was in a train station after an author event last year. I deboarded and two excited kids rushed up to me with smiles and notebooks in their hands. I was so flattered.

One girl said, “Can I have your autograph?”

I did my best John Wayne and replied, “Be glad to, ma’am.”

No sooner had…