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.