New York Harbor, 1885. Only 20 years after the Civil War. New York was the epicenter of the world.

Bubs McFee had traveled all the way from Maryland to be here, hoping to get hired as part of the auxiliary metal-working crew that would help assemble the world’s most famous statue.

Competition was stiff. Everyone wanted this job.

A big-bellied foreman surveyed the long line of hopeful young laborers, sizing them up like an infantry. When the foreman’s eyes landed on Bubs he laughed.

“God sakes, son,” said the foreman. “You don’t look old enough to shave. You sure you’re in the right place?”

“Yes, sir.”

The other applicants laughed.

“What are you, twelve?” said the foreman.

Bubs said nothing.

At age 23, Bubs looked like he was an adolescent. But he had worked the steel girders on exactly 28 buildings and three truss bridges in Pittsburgh. Bubs had been laying rivets since his fourteenth birthday. He could climb anything, lift twice his weight, and swing a nine-pound hammer so hard you’d feel its impact from three states away.

“Your mama know you’re here?” said

the foreman, whose belly jiggled with laughter.

“Yes, sir.”

This got another laugh from the group. But Bubs did not break a smile. He merely stared at the foreman.

The foreman looked at his clipboard. “Bubs, huh? That your real name?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, Bubs, you have any idea how many beamwalkers die each year on my clock? Have you ever laid a rivet in your life? Can you even lift a hammer with that puny arm you got?”

“Yes, sir.”

The foreman shook his head. “You’re naturally gabby, aren't you?”

Bubs took the Fifth.

The foreman squinted and leaned in. “Well, I think you’re a liar. I don’t think you’ve ever worked with iron in your life. I don’t think you’d know a rivet from your own butt.”

The foreman held up a hammer.…

The radio played George Jones at the barbecue joint where I ate lunch. I was eating Saint Louis ribs. Overhead, George Jones sang “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

Whenever George sings the opening lyrics to this tune, a chill dances up my spinal column and I get sentimental. Immediately, I remember sitting in my father’s truck cab, wearing my Little League uniform, listening to the staticky AM station.

I glanced around the barbecue joint to make sure I wasn't being watched during my musical moment. Then I dabbed my chin with a napkin and helped George remember the words.

I write a lot about old country music, and I’m sure the subject gets tiresome. But I do this for an important and well-planned reason:

Because I don’t have to do any actual research.

But also, because if you and I don’t keep these timeless melodies alive, who will?

As a boy, my family drove great distances to support the cause of Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff. We paid good money to watch Roy tear up his

apple-tree fiddle and crack jokes alongside Sarah Cannon. Ernest Tubb was still making appearances at the Opry when I was a babe. And I don’t want to let all that go.

The idiocy they’re cranking out on the radio today simply cannot compare to the country tunes of yore.

Classic country is folk art. Plain and simple. It is subtle lyricism based on a two-beat bassline, a steel-stringed rhythm section, and bottled malt beverages. This music was the poetry of stick welders, sharecroppers, and coal miners’ kids. And it’s ours.

When Loretta Lynn sang “Blue Kentucky Girl,” you weren’t merely listening to a radio. You were listening to one of your own take the microphone. This is why whenever Willie sang “You Took My Happy Away,” your daddy’s allergies always acted up.

I don’t mean to be critical, but new country is an embarrassment…

A cafe. I’m drinking coffee, typing on a laptop. I am trying to do some writing. But it’s hard to concentrate. Namely, because I am sitting beside a group of middle-aged women who are having a conversation about Tupperware.

“Do you remember my friend Martha?” says one woman. “Martha has a Tupperware container, she got it at Target, she can put anything in it.”


“Yep, anything she wants, she just puts it in the container.”

“Martha does?”

“She got it at Target.”

“They have good containers at Target.”

“Martha just loves it.”

“I’d love a container like that.”

“You should go to Target. That’s what Martha did.”

Shoot me.

I’m no longer writing. I’m people watching. My stare travels across the cafe where I see an old man seated alone. He is eating a sandwich, sipping coffee. He wears a ratty ball cap and gazes out the window. I have a soft spot for old men who look out windows.

Over to my left are teenagers—boys and girls. One boy is wearing a Boy Scout uniform, a girl sits beside him. They are holding hands. I smile because these kids

are so happy Norman Rockwell would eat his heart out.

Also, I see an elderly couple sitting behind me. He’s talking into a cellphone, using a voice loud enough to register on the Richter Scale.

Cellphone Guy shouts, “My doctor said my heart is looking good, honey! There’s nothing to worry about! I don’t need surgery after all!”

And the ladies beside me keeps talking:

“Yep, Martha told me the lid just unscrews off her container.”

“The lid unscrews?”

“On and off, just like this.”

“How does it go back on?”

“When you wanna put the lid on, you screw it on. When you wanna take it off, you unscrew it.”

“Whose container is this again?”

“Martha’s container, she got it at Target.”

Give me strength.

So I’m not…

I watched one of those TV award shows last night. You know the kind I mean. The award ceremonies where celebrities you’ve never heard of accept accolades for doing stuff you don’t actually care about.

There is always that miserable part of the ceremony when the winners say their thank-yous.

My wife and I watched one such winner wave his hood ornament around and read through a prodigious thank-you list that lasted about as long as veterinary school. When he finished, my wife turned to me and said, “He didn’t thank his mama.”

I couldn’t believe it.

She was right. Here was a guy on television, winning a major award, sporting a modern hairstyle that looked like it had been coiffed by electro shock therapy, and he didn’t even mention his mother. None of the other winners did, either.

Later that night my wife and I attempted streaming a popular dramatic series. I am told this particular series is popular right now. Known for its “lifelike” authenticity.

In a heated scene that depicted

an argument between a teenage daughter and her mother, things got out of control. They threw stuff. Vases shattered. People screamed. Lots of crying.

The crescendo came when the daughter started cussing at her mother and called her everything but a child of God. At one point the scene became so “lifelike” that I canceled my monthly streaming subscription.

And all this has me wondering what’s happened to the image of the American mom? Our culture used to respect Mama. Mama used to be a sacred institution. Mama was everything.

Once upon a time, pro football players mentioned their mamas during Super Bowls. On the nightly news, civilians inadvertently caught on camera were required by federal law to wave at the lens like an idiot and yell, “Hi, Mom!” And on ABC prime time, “Family Feud” host, Richard Dawson, could be seen French kissing half the mothers…

I was driving around, looking for the nursing home. I drove back roads until I got lost among a tangle of red dirt highways. I called my friend Randall for directions since his grandmother lives at the retirement facility.

“It’s easy to find,” said Randall. “Just roll down your window and follow the Elvis music.”

I eventually came to a rural place with a screened-in porch and a few old guys reclining out front, doing their part in reducing the gnat population.

The nurse was expecting me. She buzzed me in, gave me a name tag, pointed me to the cafeteria, and told me the cafe was serving BLTs today.

“But don’t eat the sweet potato fries,” the nurse said. “They’re a little freezer burnt.”


I was immediately confronted with a cafeteria full of blue hair, hearing aids, short-sleeved plaid shirts, and pearl earrings. In other words, Heaven.

“More like heaven’s waiting room,” remarked one old timer.

I have long been afflicted with what my mother calls “geriatric-itis.” My life’s ambition is to become an old man.


used to take me to visit my granddaddy’s nursing home as a boy. Upon entering, I would toddle into the “hearth room” toward the wheelchairs that were parked around a console television broadcasting “Gunsmoke.”

I would introduce myself with my famous line: “Can you tell me a story?”

Mama says the old folks would gather around me like chickens around a junebug. It was only a matter of time before they began fighting over who got to fuzz my hair.

So I got my BLT and sat beside an old man with a bald head, and his wife, who wore a sweater even though it was hotter than Hades outside.

I gave the greeting. I asked for a story.

The old man laughed while eating from his ice cream cup. “Kinda story you wanna hear?”

His wife chimed in. “Tell him…

I am writing from a plane that is stuck on a runway. It’s raining. Hard. I have a screaming baby behind me. Angry passengers surround me.

I have to be in Atlanta tonight to catch a plane home, but it’s not looking good.

We have been on this god-forsaken plane for an hour, waiting out a storm. People are fussy, children scream, a man barks at a flight attendant.

A pilot talks on the loudspeaker and says we will be grounded.

People boo. A few cuss. One man throws a rotten tomato at the cockpit.

No, I’m just kidding. It wasn’t rotten.

And we sit.

One hour.

Two hours.

Three hours.

The pilot intercoms again. He says that after three hours, the government mandates he take us back to the airport.

People boo again. More swearing. A few more rotten tomatoes.

Because the only thing worse than sitting on a plane with loud infants and people carrying exotic strains of deadly viruses would be going back to the airport and sleeping on the hard floor beneath a television that blares 24-hour news.

“Just great,” one

man says.

“Well this sucks,” says the old woman behind me.

“$%&!” says the nun across the aisle.

I am texting my wife because it looks like I am not going to make it to Atlanta until tomorrow.

The pilot taxis back to the terminal. People moan. The storm is getting worse. The rain sounds like gravel on a shed roof. We’re finished.

But then...

At the last minute, the intercom dings. The captain says there is a slight break in the weather, and we are going to “give it a shot.”

Those are his exact words, which terrify the chicken salad out of me. You don’t ever want to hear “let’s give it a shot” uttered by your pilot, your dentist, your thoracic surgeon, or your tattoo artist.

Then again, anything is better than…

The supermarket is busy this morning. And this feels like old times.

During the pandemic, this store was an empty test tube. Employees used to stand by the entrance and take people’s temperatures with radar guns. Cashiers wore Darth Vader masks. Most shoppers hurried through these aisles like they were rushing for the last chopper out of Saigon.

But today, everything feels almost normal. I can’t begin to tell you how nice this feels.

I am in the vegetable aisle, translating the mysterious hieroglyphics my wife calls a shopping list when I notice a woman nearby. She is mid-thirties. She clutches the arm of a silver-haired woman who is pushing a buggy.

The younger woman wears Velcro tennis shoes and shuffles her feet without lifting them, and although it is summer she wears a stocking cap.

She addresses the older woman. “Mom, I need my grapes. Don’t forget my grapes.”

“Of course not, honey,” says Mom.

“You promised me grapes, Mom.”

“I know, sweetie. You’ll get your grapes.”

“Don’t forget.”

When the daughter sees an employee nearby, she makes eye contact. She shows a brilliant smile and waves.

She waves with her whole body. “Hi!”

The employee waves back.

The daughter practically shouts. “I’m Cheryl!”

“Nice to meet you, Cheryl.”

Cheryl is all smiles. “Okay! Bye!”

Mother and daughter leave the produce department.

Meantime, I am dutifully following my wife’s list, which carries me to the tomato sauce aisle where I am staring at roughly 32,384 varieties of canned tomato products.

In a few moments, mother and daughter enter the aisle. The daughter is still holding her mother’s arm and moving forward with a labored stagger.

The daughter is saying, “I don’t like orange juice with pulp, Mom. Please don’t buy that kind again, it’s yucky.”

“Please lower your voice, sweetie.”

“I don’t even know what pulp is. What is that gross stuff anyway, Mom?”

“Ssshhh. Inside voice, please.”