Ashland, Alabama—I gave a speech in a little theater. I told stories to warm up the audience before a bluegrass band took the stage.
The band was good. The lead singer was the grandson of Ralph Stanley, and he sounded like it. The boys picked their strings so fast their instruments started melting.
The people in the audience were in good spirits. Thank God for that. Last week, I spoke to a crowd of Presbyterians in Florida. I’ve had conversations with water heaters that went better.
I wish I could tell you how much I love Alabama, but I think I already have. I’ve been writing about this state for a long time. I wrote a novel about it, sang about it, told stories about it, and once I got stuck in Birmingham traffic on a holiday weekend.
I am not from Alabama, I married into it. But I’m glad I did. There are a lot of reasons why I love it.
One big reason is barbecue. You can get pulled pork anywhere in the state. In Mountain Brook it comes served on fine China with garnishes of parsley. Down in Georgiana, you get it from a utility shed beside a gas station. Tell them Sean sent you.
Alabama football is also important to me. I have been watching the boys in crimson since the day of my birth. Literally.
I was born during the third quarter of a Liberty Bowl. My father held his infant son before a black-and-white TV in the delivery room and introduced him to Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. It was decided that my middle name would be Paul.
The literature from Alabama couldn’t be any better. I don’t care who you are, Kathryn Tucker Windham is queen.
And music, Lord have mercy. William Lee Golden couldn’t be any cooler. Nat “King” Cole had no equals. If I had a son, his middle name would be Hiram.
His first name would be Jalen. Maybe Tua. If I had twins: Satchel Paige and Willie Mays.
A lot of people don’t realize that the Florida Panhandle, my home, is an unofficial extension of Alabama. At one time in American history, West Florida and Alabama were the same territory. Politicians fought over who owned the Panhandle. Alabama lost, and we became Floridians.
Even so, few who I ran with rooted for FSU or the University of Florida. At least not publicly. There were only crimson caps with white “A’s,” or orange caps with the letters “AU” embroidered upon them.
I have seen tavern-clearing brawls over these two caps.
Once, at a joint in Pensacola, I saw one such fight. It was just after the Iron Bowl. An ambulance had to be called. The paramedics didn’t bring enough stretchers to accommodate all the injured. They placed the fallen victims in the parking lot like soldiers after the Battle of Atlanta.
Before each man was placed into the back of an ambulance, he would either moan, “Roll Tide!” or “Gene Stallings can kiss my…”
Assuredly, it’s a great state. I don’t know how a place can feel so much like home when it’s not.
Take me to the Panhandle bay of my youth, and I will swoon over our wiregrass, palmettos, and endless longleafs. But drop me in Alabama, and I become a novice poet.
Bessemer, Dadeville, Gadsden, Prattville, LaFayette (pronounced: la-FETT).
Loachapoka, Notasulga, Weogufka, Macedonia, Letohatchee, Opelika, Tallapoosa, Montevallo, Talladega (tal-a-DIGGA), Sylacauga, Tuscaloosa.
I enjoy sunrises on Lake Martin. I like the streets of Tuskegee. The Mount Vernon Theater in Tallassee is perfect.
Hank Williams’ boyhood home still stands in Georgiana. In McMullen, they have a population of ten people.
The porches overlooking Lake Guntersville are a revelation. I know a judge in Greenville who picks one mean guitar. I know a football coach in Ashland who wears overalls.
Don’t drive too fast through Eufaula, you don’t want to miss the old homes. Visit Luverne at least once, and eat at Michael’s.
Don’t forget the Loveliest Village on the Plains.
A lot of people think that after they die, if they’ve lived a good life, they will wake up in Fairhope.
It’s all lovely to me.
Once, at a crucial time in my life, I thought I had no family. Somehow I was invited into the arms of a place called Brewton. There I found the greatest thing this state ever produced. Her name is Jamie.
She’s a woman whose straight-talking father used to say, “If you don’t like football, strong women, loud preachin’, pork butts, Hank Aaron, Jesus, and the Bear, then you ain’t an Alabamian, you just live here.”
I think it’s time I found some barbecue.