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.
“Got the big three on tap. Your call.”
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.”
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.”
“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 on a steady diet of it in my daddy’s truck. What happened to good music?”
I already like where this conversation is going.
The bartender takes a seat and begins cutting the man’s burger with a knife and fork. He painstakingly feeds the man one bite at a time like a parent.
“Shoot,” says the old man chewing a mouthful. “You ask me, music was pretty good till the kids got a holt to it. Shoot.”
“That’s what you always say.”
“Know what I think made old country music so good?”
“Shoot. None of them singers had nothing to prove way back’en.”
The bartender feeds another bite to the shaky man, patiently waiting between laborious swallows. “What do you mean nothing to prove?”
“Well,” the old salt says. “Buck Owens was just Buck Owens. Jim Reeves was just Gentleman Jim. Ain’t nobody trying to be something they wasn’t. They were us, and they sang songs about us. These days you got Nashville studs strutting around with naked girls, $800 coolers, and jacked up trucks. That’s not country.”
The bartender laughs, then dabs the man’s chin with a napkin. “Will there be an altar call after this?”
They both chuckle then glance at me when they hear me laughing too.
The bartender dips the man’s fries in ketchup, then places a fry into the man’s mouth.
“You realize,” the barkeep says, “it’s talk like this that means you’re turning into an old man.”
“Shoot.” The old guy opens his mouth again, signaling he’s ready for a follow-up fry.
Suddenly we’re all hearing Hank Locklin sing “Please Help Me I’m Falling,” circa 1960. Locklin was from my wife’s hometown in Brewton. His name is even on their welcome-to-our-city sign.
“This’s one of my favorites,” says the old man. “The third Hank.”
The old guy smiles. “In Alabama there’s Senior, Aaron, and Locklin.”
“Ah,” the bartender says, brushing more crumbs from the old man’s shirt, then straightening his collar.
The overhead music turns once again. This time it becomes solid gold. And by “solid gold” I of course mean the Redheaded Stranger. Only it’s not mega-famous Willie from the 1970s. No, this is the hard stuff. These are the early Mister Nelson LPs your granny once listened to in dark rooms.
I’m talking about songs like “This is the Part Where I Cry” (1961), and “You Took My Happy Away” (1963), and “No Place for Me” (1957). I find myself humming throughout the whole musical set, thinking about my late father in the front seat of his rusted F-100.
The bartender eventually helps the old fella off the tall chair and into a folding wheelchair in the corner. He uses a wet rag to wipe the man’s lean neck and lined face, he fixes the man’s disheveled hair, rebuttons the man’s shirt, and treats his elder with unwavering dignity.
When the Willie music ends, I leave money on the bartop and take my exit. The bartender smiles, thanks me, and wishes me a good night.
On my way out I overhear the barkeep whisper to the old man so quietly that I almost can’t hear it. “Uh oh, Dad, I have a feeling that you and I are gonna be in one of his columns.”
You never know, bartender.
You just never know.
Sandi. - June 7, 2021 7:00 am
What a delightful surprise ending to an already good story, Sean! You’re getting more and more well known and recognizable all over the South, as well as other places, too.
Debbie g - June 7, 2021 7:05 am
The best smiling thr tears amazing son and father and you Sean thank you
Steve McCaleb - June 7, 2021 8:32 am
Great story Sean (as usual). You brought back a lot of almost forgotten white washed cinderblock memories. You could learn a lot in those old places. I won’t forget the bartender and his dad anytime soon. My favorite joint I used to inhabit was a joint in Pell City, Alabama back in the mid 70’s. It was owned by a female member of the Grand Ole Opry who shall remain nameless.When you walked in 2 guys the size of upright freezers grabbed you and patted you down looking for firearms…. if you didn’t have one, they gave you one. You have to love people who have a true sense of giving a man a sporting chance. Thanks again my friend.
JERRY York - June 7, 2021 5:49 pm
You sound like a columnist, yourself.
Connie - June 7, 2021 9:52 am
Shoot, Sean. Thanks for the smile and the tears this early morning. Precious story. Maybe I’m old too. I pretty much only listen to old country music. You have such a gift.
Susan Corbin - June 7, 2021 9:57 am
Good Monday morning to you, Sean!
Te Burt - June 7, 2021 10:25 am
It’s 6.:20 am. Dogs are beginning to fuss and scratch. But I’m quiet. Reading your column is the start of my day. Every morning before I get out of bed. Thank you for being there – Every morning. You’ve made this past year more hopeful.
Scott - June 7, 2021 11:24 am
I loved this for so many reasons. Ya know every town in AL has a joint just like this and the one I frequented was called “The Club”. The owner spent a month trying to come up with a name and finally settled on the best of three. Imagination is the key to great marketing dontcha know! “The Club” is a great name, who could forget that. And I have stories that could keep you writing for the next decade, good and bad!
Steven - June 7, 2021 11:48 am
Chills man. I love your writings. This made my morning.
Ann - June 7, 2021 12:14 pm
YOU KNEW…beautifully done!
Jan - June 7, 2021 12:16 pm
So glad they made your column! Beautiful portrait painted with words!!!
Janice - June 7, 2021 12:23 pm
All I can say is “Fantastic!”
Glenda Busby-Fowler Hinkle - June 7, 2021 12:58 pm
You made me cry……………..AGAIN!!!
Bobbie - June 7, 2021 1:04 pm
Beautiful story to start the week. Once again a reminder that there is so much good out there that we never see or hear about. Thank you for the encouragement and inspiration. God bless❤️
Bobbie - June 7, 2021 1:06 pm
Beautiful story to start the week. God bless you.
Tammy Rouse - June 7, 2021 1:11 pm
Tammy S. - June 7, 2021 1:21 pm
I knew it, I knew it, I just knew it!! Guessed it was his Dad. Love, LOVE this one! Hope your burger & beer were good, but either way, this column was great!!!
joan moore - June 7, 2021 1:43 pm
I’m glad to know that as long as you can observe mankind, we’ll be reading about it in your columns. Sean, I am not a writer, but next time throw in a little Johnny Cash…
Bex - June 7, 2021 1:31 pm
This is one of the reasons (1 of a million) that I read your column every morning with my coffee! It sets me up for a ‘What can I do today to help someone?’
You help make it a “Not all about me!” Day! You remind us that it is WE NOT ME and there is good in the world still, no matter how mean, petty and crude others are. God bless!
Jim Flanders - June 7, 2021 1:38 pm
Your rightful criticism of today’s so-called country music is overwhelmingly valid. Classic country music is the only real country music and you do not have to be a born southerner to know that. Sean, you tell it like it is and better than anyone. You might have to be over a certain age to know what you are talking about in regards to genuine country music. For those of us who miss the era of “country” singers who you can recognize by just hearing their voice, accolades to you for standing up for us. Today’s youth and the clueless music “executive” decision makers in Nashville are out of touch with what real country music should sound like and what the messages should be.
Bob E - June 7, 2021 1:42 pm
Just seems proper to take care of those who cared for you.
Gordon - June 7, 2021 1:52 pm
Another great heartwarming story, Sean. Thanks.
Bill Heaton - June 7, 2021 1:54 pm
I absolutely loved it (as usual) – and I needed it, too (as usual). Thanks Sean (as always)!
Sonny Moncrief - June 7, 2021 1:56 pm
Lots of memories in this column…yes sir
felina - June 7, 2021 2:02 pm
Loved this story!
Bob - June 7, 2021 2:44 pm
Great stuff and the way the world is “supposed” to be. Thank you.
Suellen - June 7, 2021 3:47 pm
Tears again this morning Sean. I have been disabled for 13 years. My husband had a stroke 2 years ago. I always thought he’d be the one taking care of me but here we are. At this age you become a lot more aware of your vulnerabilities. That father is so lucky to have his loving and caring son.
Christina - June 7, 2021 4:09 pm
We always know you have a good story to greet the day
Chasity Davis Ritter - June 7, 2021 4:12 pm
Dang Sean you got me again! I mean ya had me about half way through but when I got to the end you totally had me and here I am crying at work AGAIN!! I’ll never learn but it sure is worth it!!!
MAM - June 7, 2021 4:20 pm
I had a hunch that it might be the barkeep’s dad he was taking such good care of, and you proved it at the end. So, so sweet. Thanks as always for your great word pictures, sounds, and feelings. Your writing is superb, Sean.
Susie Murphy - June 7, 2021 4:39 pm
I have an old Dad….as well as an old Mom. It is a pleasure and privilege to care for them.
Tom - June 7, 2021 4:58 pm
This was a good in. And you are correct- Country music ain’t country anymore. Allen Jackson nailed it when he sung “Murder’s been committed down on music row”.
Susan Wold - June 7, 2021 5:26 pm
I loved everything about that and hope the bartender sees the column so he can read it, along with the comments, to his dad. Thank you Sean for writing it for them and thank you bartender for being the good in the world.
Barbara J Schweck - June 7, 2021 5:33 pm
My Blue eyes are now crying in the rain!!!
Christine - June 7, 2021 5:53 pm
Great story about the son and his love for his father.❤❤
Patricia Gibson - June 7, 2021 6:53 pm
Linda Moon - June 7, 2021 7:51 pm
The colorful juice in a big mug made my mouth water, and Porter Wagoner’s song perked up my listening ears. I worried where this was going when I read “you old coot”, but it was all good. A red-headed columnist who tells stories of regular people like the old man and the barkeep is even better than The Redheaded Stranger! So, just keep ’em coming.
Dave Conkle - June 7, 2021 9:15 pm
Thanks Sean. Made a good day better.
Marc Beaver - June 7, 2021 9:40 pm
Love this, Sean. Thanks for the “heart” of things!
Allison Gilmore - June 8, 2021 1:18 pm
I grew up in the 1950s in Elmore County, Alabama, and during those years, Elmore was a “dry county.” And trust me, living in a dry county in Alabama did not mean that people who lived in that county didn’t drink plenty of alcohol. It just meant that they couldn’t buy the alcohol there. So on the highways leading into dry counties, there was often a “county line” beer joint just outside the dry county. These beer joints sometimes had a cheesy name like “Last Chance,” but I just remember hearing the one that Daddy always stopped at being called “the beer joint.” If my brother and I were in the car, we had to wait in the car while Daddy went inside for a few minutes and then came out with a can of beer. Cars in the 1950s didn’t have cup holders, so I grew up thinking that everybody’s daddy drove with a can of beer in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other. To this day, I can’t quite figure out how he managed to always get us home safely, but he did. I can remember wondering what it was like inside that beer joint and why we couldn’t go inside with Daddy. I seriously doubt that Daddy’s Alabama beer joint had a bartender who was taking such good care of his aging father while also taking care of his customers. But it’s kind of nice to imagine that while my brother and I were waiting in the car, Daddy was inside buying his beer from a nice guy like this bartender in Sean’s story.
SAS - June 8, 2021 8:14 pm
Tears. Thank you. When my dad died, we went to his favorite Alabama beer joints to share flowers from his memorial service. One had a memorial set up for him near their juke box complete with his photo, favorite beer, a set of dominoes and a deck of cards. Last time I was home I heard that all his favorite local places have closed. I am relieved he didn’t live to see that. The love of God shows up in all kinds of places.
Jackie Clements - June 8, 2021 10:03 pm
Very easy going and meaningful story. Brings back a lot of memories, mostly good but some regrets that I was not closer to and more available for my parents in the later years of their life.
Rhonda Hooks - June 12, 2021 2:39 pm
This gets a big smile from me
Martha - June 23, 2021 2:45 am
Michael S Smith Sr - July 1, 2021 1:38 pm
Just toooooooo sweet. Brought a tear!