March 24, 2023. The year of our Lord. I am backstage at the Opry, about to perform.

This cannot be real.

There are tour buses outside which cost more than tactical nuclear submarines. There are performers in clothes that look like disco balls. Rhinestones everywhere.

The security guard is a guy named Jim who shows me to a dressing room.

“Welcome to the Opry,” he says with a smile. “We’re so glad to have you.”

On my way through the hall, we pass display cases containing Loretta Lynn’s gown, antique Stetsons from the heads of famous troubadours like Ernest Tubb, and Luke Bryan’s pedicure kit.

There are framed portraits of Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, Little Jimmy Dickens, George Strait, Garth Brooks, and several other stunningly attractive performers of country music who I’ve never heard of.

This can NOT be real.

I am not here. This is not reality. I am not Opry material. I have red hair, buck teeth, and my nose is so big I look like a guy sniffing a tomato. This is a dream.

Now I am

in my dressing room. They tell me this room has been used by debuting artists since 19-hundred-and-forever. There’s no telling who has changed their skivvies in this room. Alan Jackson. Garth Brooks. Reba.

“Dolly might have changed her underwire in this very room,” someone remarks.

My cup runneth over.

So I change my clothes. I look at myself in the mirror, shirtless, surrounded by lightbulbs. I am frumpy, goofy looking, and when I grin I bear a striking resemblance to Mister Ed. This definitely can’t be happening.

There is a rap on my door. It’s time for soundcheck.

I meet the house band. We shake hands and run through tunes. These guys are virtuosos. My heart is pounding like a Sousa march.

Soundcheck is over. Back to the dressing room.

The Opry begins.

I sit on a sofa watching the…

I remember going to see the Grand Ole Opry as a boy. My father drove through the busy city of Nashville. I was five, he was thirty-six.

“Daddy,” I said, “Do you think that there will be anyone famous there?”

“Do I?” he said. “You better know it. There’s always famous people at the Opry, and famous ghosts, too.”

“Ghosts? Really?”

My daddy always was good with a ghost story.

“Why sure,” he said. “The ghost of Hank Williams, for one thing. And Hank Snow, and Lefty Frizzell... There’s always ghosts at the Opry.”

“Are they nice ghosts?”


“Depends on what?”

“On if you’re a nice little boy or not.”

“What happens if I’m not a nice little boy?”

“A ghost will swoop down from the rafters suck out your soul, and send you to Hell and make you listen to classical music for eternity.”

Daddy’s ghost stories always were a little offbeat.

Then he would laugh. My father had a laugh that sounded like Mister Ed.

My father and I walked into the amphitheater and were greeted by the smell of

hotdogs and popcorn. I had the greatest evening of my life.

Men in ten-gallon hats. Women in rhinestones. Steel guitars, dueling fiddles, the sound of Keith Bilbrey's silky announcing voice.

We were suspended from the real world for a while. It was a star-studded dream, wrapped in a beehive hairdo, with a guitar strapped to its chest. Onstage we saw Jerry Clower, telling jokes.

My father laughed, slapping his armrest. And there was that Mister Ed laugh again. His odd laugh was funnier than any joke that ever inspired it.

But the height of our evening was not the music, nor the laughs, nor the sparkling rhinestones. The apex of this memory happened after the show.

We made our way to the lobby. There was a horde of people waiting in line. We couldn’t see what they…

Buc-ee’s convenience store sits outside Athens, Alabama, like a giant squatting beaver.

This Texas-based gas station place is not a mere gas station. Buc-ee’s is a dwarf planet. You’re looking at Six Flags Over Circle K.

And the place is packed today.

“We’re packed every day,” says an older employee wearing a cowboy hat. “Every day is like a Who concert in here.”

If you go to Buc-ee’s, be prepared to wait in a line of traffic. There are 120 gas pumps jammed full of SUVs, compact cars and oversized trucks. They come from all over. The license plates read Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, Vermont, and Alaska.

Walking into the store is like going into an Alan Jackson concert, only less organized. We’re talking 53,470 square-feet of commercial retail space. You see people from all walks. Rich and poor. Old and young. Yoga pants and partial nudity.

They have everything here.

Buc-ee’s features a Texas-style barbecue pit with line cooks wearing cattleman hats. The brisket is good. The employees call you Sugar, which is sweet, but also weird inasmuch as

some of the employees are old enough to be your great-grandchildren.

The food is good. They roast nuts here. Try the cinnamon glazed pecans, they taste like licking the throne of the risen Savior.

They have fudge in every shape, color, and political party. The mint-fudge has been legally classified as a narcotic in three states.

Buc-ee’s serves banana pudding, which isn’t bad. They have ghost pepper jerky that will utterly ruin your bowels.

They sell baby onesies, vape pens, barbecue grills, deer feed, machetes, fishing kayaks, and tactical helicopters. There is a wall of beer.

Also, Buc-ee’s sells the kind of crafty merchandise you’d find in a Hobby Lobby. There are American-flag cutting boards, for example. They sell bejeweled steer-head skulls. There are Buc-ee’s underpants.

I see a bumper sticker reading, “I bet Jesus would have used HIS turn signals.”

It was our place. That’s what it was. I grew up in a little fishing village, nestled in the Florida Panhandle.

This was long before the tattoo parlors, before the T-shirt shops, before Whole Foods and Bass Pro.

Today our little town is not even a shadow of its former glory. On any given month, Destin is inundated with 8 million tourists wearing thong bikinis. And those are just the men.

But once upon a time, we had Pepito’s. It was your quintessential Mexican dive restaurant. It was clean. The staff was friendly. They had ugly orange walls. The joint was always packed.

They served good food. The chips were always hot. The salsa was fresh from an actual tin can. They had ice-cold Tecate.

You could order a “King Burrito,” and you wouldn’t be hungry again for the next three or four presidential administrations.

My first kiss happened outside Pepito’s. It was late. Her name was Teresa. She had red hair and she smelled like Head and Shoulders.

Do people name their kids Teresa anymore?

As a young man, all my friends went to Pepito’s because it was where you went. We spent entire evenings in those booths, discussing who we were going to grow up to become.

For a few bucks, you could fill your belly on queso dip that would turn your bowels into stone. If you had enough cash left over, you could take in a movie across the street.

Years later, I worked at the restaurant next door to Pepito’s. We served cheap sirloins. I was a line cook. I worked in a dank kitchen until 1AM every weeknight, doing dishes.

They were long nights. Pepito’s shared our same dumpster. So whenever I took out the trash, there were always a few Latino guys out there smoking cigarettes, speaking in rapid-fire Español, drinking longneck Pacificos.

I learned to speak Spanish in that alley. I had…

It was quite a night in Heaven. The angels were busy. The cherubim and seraphim were fluttering around, batting their wings, in preparation for the big party.

Moses, the commanding officer, was barking orders at the kitchen staff.

“Did you remember the queso dip?” Moses asked a subordinate angel. “God gets ticked off if we forget the queso.”

“He does?” answered the angel, private first class.

“Oh yes,” said Moses. “Remember Sodom and Gomorrah? That was because God ran out of queso dip during a big game.”


“Yep. And do you remember Noah’s flood? That’s what happens when God runs out of Old Milwaukee.”

So the angels were on top of things. They were making sure all the trimmings for the big party were in place.

They made sure the Igloo coolers were stocked. They made sure the hors d'oeuvres were perfect. They got a deli tray from Publix.

The Beulah Reception Hall had never looked lovelier. There was a massive radio tuned to 650 AM, out of Nashville, Tennessee, so everyone could listen to the “Grand Ole Opry.”

Barbecue had been

catered from A&R Barbecue in Memphis. Ice cream had been flown in from Dairy Queen. The worker angels had hauled in enough queso dip to sink the U.S.S. North Carolina.

“I don’t see why this party is such a big deal,” said one of the angels. “I didn’t know God listened to the ‘Grand Ole Opry.’”

“He does,” said Moses. “God invented country music.”

This party, however, wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill soiree. God was throwing this particular party for one of His best friends. His friend’s name was John.”

“John must be very important for God to throw a party for him,” said the angel.

“He is. God loves him very much.”

“How did John die?”

Moses got quiet. “Does it matter?”

Soon, the party was underway. Guests started arriving. Within moments, the reception hall was full…

BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—I was trying to write a column about what’s doing in Alabama when a blind dog wandered into my office. This dog crawled into my lap, started snoring, and began emitting smells. Powerful smells.

The column was going to be about how a current 27-year-old Alabamian contestant on “American Idol” named Johnny Knox offered a bribe to celebrity judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie. The bribe was sourdough bread. And it worked. Because this is the current IQ of the television industry.

“I think you’re only going to get better,” replied Katy Perry, with a mouthful of carbs. “We need to [transform you] from sourdough starter to a loaf.”

You have to worry about this country.

So that’s what I was writing about when a dog wandered into my office. My office is nothing to write home about. It’s a disorganized mess of books and junk. This room is a sloppy nightmare. My wife calls it The Hellhole because it contains half the organic matter in the known solar system.


are three accordions scattered around. A few banjos (I swear, they aren’t mine). I have old boots, several of which are missing heels. Old camping gear. A graveyard of coffee mugs. A rubber chicken named Ed Lee. And Daddy’s ancient Zenith radio, which is busted and only picks up classic country stations or broadcasts involving Red Barber.

So when this petite blind dog meandered into my office and crawled right into my lap, it was difficult to maintain my focus.

Because writing takes extreme focus. The problem, of course, is that I tend to be a little ADD. Throughout my life, I’ve had a difficult time following through on anyth

So as this dog placed her heavy head onto my arm, which was currently engaged in tapping on a laptop keyboard, there was no way I could maintain concentration.

And then came the smells. These were…

I have a thing for trees. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’ve always been a nerd.

I think it all dates back to my days in Boy Scouts. My cousin Ed Lee and I were second-class Scouts, and we earned our forestry merit badges one summer. Actually, I earned both his badge and mine. He mainly read Archie comic books while I did all the fieldwork.

I’ve been obsessed with trees ever since. Namely, because I’ve always felt that trees are the strongest things you’ll ever see. Trees endure the hell of an earthly life, and they just keep on living.


The first officially published story I ever wrote was about a longleaf pine. The story was published in my small hometown paper in Florida.

In Florida, the longleaf is our flagship specimen. At one time, they covered 90 million acres in the southeast. Now they cover less than 3 percent of that.

Throughout history, mankind has ceremoniously massacred longleafs to build his railroads, his battleships, his Dave and Buster’s and his crappy

D.R. Horton express homes.

The mighty longleaf is endangered, in case you were wondering.

I will go out of my way to visit a good tree.

There was the Angel Oak, just outside Charleston, South Carolina. The oldest oak east of the Mississippi. Sixty-five feet tall, 28 feet in circumference. Its branches cover 17,000 square feet. The largest limb reaches 187 feet long. The tree is 500 years old, predating Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

I’ve also seen the Methuselah tree, in the Inyo National Forest. The tree stands in a distant location between the Sierra Nevada range on the California-Nevada border.

The Methuselah is 4,853 years old. That’s a Stone Age tree. It’s not just the oldest tree on earth. It is the oldest living organism on Earth. You want to talk about strong?

The exact location of the Methuselah is kept secret to…