One of the best parts about America is that no matter where you visit on the map, American historic music is alive and kicking. And it sounds just as good as it ever did.

LAKE CITY—This is a laid-back city with sleepy streets that are lined with mossy trees and old Victorian houses. In other words, this region of Florida is about as Southern as you get.

A lot of people don’t understand Florida. I have visited several states this year, and every state seems to have its own screwed-up ideas about Florida.

People in the North perceive Florida as a tropical paradise where Cuban girls stand at roadside kiosks selling Navel oranges, cigars, Cape Canaveral trinkets, Key West timeshares, and Mickey Mouse hats.

And I’ve met Southerners in places like Arkansas and Tennessee who think Florida is full of retirees who speak with New York accents and listen to Sinatra while wearing their jogging suits.

A few months ago, a lady from Kentucky told me that she didn’t think Florida qualified as part of the American South. I just smiled and blessed her heart.

If you remember nothing else from this poorly written column, I hope you remember that we who live in North Florida are very different

from people in Orlando, Tampa, or Miami.

We border Georgia, and Alabama. This means we eat okra, pimento cheese. It means we do not pronounce Gs at the ends of our ING words. It means we would not be caught dead wearing nylon workout wear.

Would we wear NASCAR tank tops and cutoff jean shorts? Yes. Jogging suits? I think not.

But getting back to Lake City. I’m in town to do my one-man show tonight. I arrive at the theater. I am running a little late for soundcheck. Already on stage ahead of me is tonight’s band. They are named the SongFarmers. They’re rehearsing.

At most of our little shows we usually have musical groups. Most often it’s a bluegrass band or a traditional Americana band, sometimes Dixieland jazz.

We’ve worked with lots of small-town bands who are ridiculously talented and deserve all the…

Lots of people act like jerks nowadays. It’s become “trendy” and “hip” to be a jerk.

This holiday season has the potential to be a good season as long as you aren’t a total jerk.

The question is, how do you NOT be a jerk when the world is full of jerks? They’re literally everywhere. Waiting on every corner. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to flatten four or five jerks just backing out of your driveway.

Lots of people act like jerks nowadays. It’s become “trendy” and “hip” to be a jerk. Personally, I blame that there newfangled internets.

Yesterday, I was in the grocery store and I saw something very jerkish. Three strangers stood in an aisle, browsing shelves. A man, a college-age girl, and a little old woman.

They were all standing at the shelf of potato chips. You know the aisle. Every store has a potato-chip aisle. In this aisle are roughly 127,024,211 bags of Frito-Lay products.

Which just goes to show you that times have certainly changed. When we were kids there were only three kinds of chips available. Fritos, potato chips, and those stale pretzels your mother used to buy which

tasted like leftover rations from World War II.

But today, thanks to society’s great thinkers and brilliant minds, we have tons of chip-brand choices. They have such weird flavors out now that I cannot imagine normal people actually spending money on these things. Chips such as—these are actual flavors:

—Cinnamon and Sugar Pringles.
—Walker’s Shrimp Cocktail Crisps.
—Flaming Steak Chips.
—Peanut Butter potato chips.
—Lay’s Nori Seaweed Flavored potato chips.

I wish I could have been at the marketing meeting when someone came up with seaweed potato chips.

“Hey, I have an idea, Frank! Let’s make a potato chip that tastes like material scraped from the bottom of the ocean floor!”

“I love it!”

“I second this motion!”

“All in favor, say aye!”

“We’re all gonna lose our jobs for this, aren’t we?”

“Yep.”

Food…

DEAR SEAN:

What is your favorite Christmas movie? Mine is “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the one with Yukon Cornelius, and my mom says you look like him. Not Rudolph she means, but Yukon Cornelius.

Thanks,
KIMBERLY IN PENNSYLVANIA

DEAR KIMBERLY:

It’s a little early for Christmas movies, but I appreciate the compliment. Sort of. I mean, Yukon Cornelius isn’t a bad-looking guy per se. But he’s a little chunky, and I’ll bet five bucks he has severe sleep apnea.

I’ll be honest, I would much rather look like, for example, James Bond. But then I suppose looking like Yukon Cornelius is better than resembling the Abominable Snowman, or worse, Dudley Moore.

One of my good friends—for privacy reasons let’s call him Randy Hopkins—went white-haired prematurely. Overnight, Randy was transformed into Santa. All of a sudden, kids were approaching him on the street and asking for Barbie dolls, Batman figurines, peace in the Middle East, etc.

My friend would always bend down and smile at them with this wintery magical look on his face and say, “I’m younger

than your mom, you little brat.”

But you asked about my favorite movie. Firstly, you should know that this is a tough question. There are too many good ones to count.

When I was a kid I loved “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964),” just like you do. Especially Yukon Cornelius and the show’s hit song, “Silver and Gold.” Which I will refuse to sing from now on because I am self conscious after receiving your letter.

I also like “Frosty the Snowman (1969).” Whenever I hear Burl Ives sing about Frosty, I am a five-year-old again, drinking turkey gravy directly from my mother’s gravy boat, even though I know that my aunt Eulah will catch me and possibly beat me within an inch of my life using a wet dishrag.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965).” It doesn’t get any better.

“It’s a…

And if you ask me, the holidays can’t get here quick enough.

It’s eight days until Thanksgiving. The neighbor’s house is buzzing. There are vehicles lining the street. Minivans, trucks, SUVs, Fords, Kias.

My neighbor’s family is in town to celebrate an early holiday. His grandchildren just arrived from Georgia. They’re playing in the front yard. I overhear them screaming, “TAG! YOU’RE IT!”

“I’M NOT IT! YOU’RE IT!”

“NUH-UH!”

“YES-HUH!”

“OUCH! I’LL KILL YOU!”

“I DARE YOU TO TRY!”

“#$%!@”

“HELLLP! GRANDPAAA!”

Just yesterday, a cantankerous elderly man up the street asked if I would help hang his Christmas lights. I reminded him that it’s too early. He insisted. So, I pointed out that I’ve had two back-surgeries, one tonsillectomy, and I’m Southern Baptist.

He is Pentecostal and doesn’t believe in tonsillectomies.

It took three hours on a ladder to hang those god-forsaken lights. He stood below and preached my ear off for the entire time.

When we were through, I was sweating. He opened a garage refrigerator and asked if I wanted an ice-cold chocolate milk.

“That depends,” I said. “Is it manufactured by the Anheuser-Busch Company?”

Some Pentecostals can’t take a joke.

“Chocolate milk will be fine,” I remarked.

Christmas

comes earlier each year. It wasn’t but a few weeks ago that children in pirate costumes were at my front door, panhandling for candy. Now it’s Christmas lights in November.

And if you ask me, the holidays can’t get here quick enough.

My wife has already started cooking to get a jumpstart on Thanksgiving. She’s practicing. Our little home is alive with aroma. It smells like cornbread dressing, allspice, and sweet potato pie.

There are candied pecans on the counter—fresh from the baking sheet. My wife will brain any man who ventures near them. This I know from the trial-and-error approach.

A ham is in the oven. And a poundcake is in the immediate vicinity. I sampled both without permission this morning and got neutered with a melon baller.

She…

COLUMBUS—It’s morning. We are at the Stewart Community Home homeless shelter. Kara is our tour guide today, she helps run the place.

We begin the grand tour at the reception desk. Here, Christmas decorations have already come out. On the desk there is a colorful plastic mailbox which is labeled: “Santa’s Mailbox.”

“That’s where residents put their Christmas lists,” says Kara. “They pick three things they want from Santa, and we buy them. We have a guy who plays Santa Claus, he’s got the real beard and everything. You should see our Christmases, most fun you’ll ever have.”

I ask what kinds of gifts residents ask Santa for. Kara says they mostly ask for socks, hats, mittens, underwear, or haircuts.

“Last year,” Kara says, “one lady just wanted an arts and crafts set. You know, it’s the little things.”

An elderly black woman shuffles to Santa’s Mailbox and places a letter inside. She does not make eye contact with me. She hurries away before I can talk to her.

I meet a middle-aged woman in a wheelchair. She

has one leg. She is parked in the hallway so she can greet passers-by.

“She’s been through hell,” Kara whispers. “First a horrible divorce, then doctors found a blood clot, she lost her leg, lost her job, her money, no family. We found her living in her car with her cat.”

This is just one version of a similar story for most residents here. And you can see this story all over their faces.

An old man in slippers walks the halls accompanied by a tiny dog on a leash. The dog is named Rat Rat.

“Hey, Rat Rat,” says Kara.

The old man says, “Where’re your manners, Rat? Say hello to the young lady.”

We all take turns greeting Rat Rat. Then, the old man lifts the dog into his arms for a kiss. These two have been together for a…

I was in traffic yesterday when I saw a vehicle carrying four boys in the truck bed.

It’s not a good idea to let your kids ride in the bed of a pickup truck. It’s a bad idea, actually. Of course, most people already know this. But apparently some don’t.

Oh, well. I suppose that people are going to do what they’re going to do, even if it’s a fatal mistake. Otherwise we wouldn’t have so many karaoke bars.

I was in traffic yesterday when I saw a vehicle carrying four boys in its truck bed. I was behind them at a stoplight. It wasn’t busy traffic, there was no real danger. And, I’m sure the driver of the vehicle wasn’t going very fast, but it’s just a bad idea.

You can trust me on this. I know what I’m talking about. We used to ride in the bed of Mister Danny’s pickup before and after Little League practice, or when riding to games. I estimate that during my Little-League years, each week I would spend hundreds of hours in the back of a Ford pickup with my sweaty teammates who smelled

like gut-eating buzzards.

We were not a great team. We were the team who always showed up looking like a bunch of messy-haired inmates on punitive work-release programs from a state institution.

One of us, and I’m not naming names here, (Darren Marion Jenkins) even kept a package of cigarettes rolled in his sleeve. They were just candy cigarettes, mind you. But to us he was James Dean.

Mister Danny would pile nine boys in the back of his pickup, four crammed in the front seat. Also in the truck bed were two duffle bags full of wooden bats, baseballs, and a Coleman cooler full of Mister Danny’s special “coaching juice.”

Every game went the same way. We would jump out of the truck and end up playing a really slick uptown team who wore matching black uniforms. These teams were usually named after some…

Mya, the reporter, and I are in my dressing room, standing before a camera.

COLUMBUS—It’s a rainy night in Georgia. I have an interview on the local evening news. This is a monumental occasion. My mother called to make sure I was wearing clean underwear.

The last time I was in Columbus, I was in college. I was wearing clean underwear then, too. I was an adult student, traveling with a bunch of eighteen-year-old music students on a school trip. That weekend, I saw some of the world’s most accomplished pianists perform in concert. And it was great.

I was a different person back then. Back then, I had this ridiculous idea that I was going to be a pianist one day.

I wish someone would’ve told me life doesn’t happen how you plan, no matter what kind of underpants you wear.

Anyway, being on the news is a big deal. I have only been on the news twice before.

The first time, I was helping judge a barbecue competition. Me and my friend Buck were interviewed on a local channel. There were cameras with blinking lights, teleprompters, cameramen giving hand signals,

and a makeup lady kept powdering my face and saying, “I’ve never seen so much oil on one godforsaken forehead.” And the interview basically went like this:

“So, tell us about the upcoming event, Sean.”

“Uhhhh…”

“Sean, what can people expect at this event?”

“I uhhhh...”

“Back to you, Terry.”

The other time I was on the news was when my cousin accidentally stole a luxury sedan. His elderly father-in-law had forgotten that he’d agreed to let us borrow his Buick for a road trip. He reported the car as stolen.

We got pulled over in Tennessee. After much confusion with local law enforcement officials, we all had a good laugh about it. And I can say one thing about the upstanding penal system in Tennessee, they serve delicious hamburger steaks.

But getting back to Columbus. Tonight’s news interview is about the…

There is a perfectly good reason why for breakfast I ate a leftover fried chicken breast that was big enough to qualify as an amusement-park ride at Dollywood. Because my wife is a Southern woman.

And this is what we eat in our household sometimes.

These days, the public image of Southerners has become skewed by popular culture. Take entertainment television.

There is a new breed of reality TV shows which often feature Southerners as leading characters. These characters often use corny “downhome” phrases which were actually invented by television script writers who all grew up spending summers in Martha’s Vineyard.

These writers come up with phrases like:

“That’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout, son.”

And “Sweet as sugar, baby child.”

And “That is finer than THE frog’s hair.”

This is an affront. Nobody I know says, “THE frog’s hair.” There is no “the” in this well-loved phrase. When misused this way, this phrase seems to imply that there is a proverbial frog traipsing around THE Great American South wearing a little hairstyle like THE Reverend Jerry Falwell and constantly reapplying

THE Brylcreem to its little rug.

Anyone will tell you that the expression simply goes: “Finer than frog hair.”

Of course, there are regional variations of this expression.

If you travel below Tennessee, for example, you might hear, “Finer than frog hair split four ways.”

Go to middle Alabama and they will say, “Finer than frog hair split four ways, sifted ten times.”

Travel below Montgomery and they will simply say, “Day-um.”

So Southerners are often portrayed as complete idiots on television. This is sad. Because there was once a time when Jimmy Dean, Buck Owens, Andy Griffith, Dolly Parton, and Porter Wagoner graced the television air waves.

Whereas today, you see young people talking in hammed-up country accents, using the word “y’all” in the wrong place. And this is perhaps the worst offense of all.

Contrary to Hollywood’s opinion,…

My mother looked for distractions that made us laugh, things that made us smile, games, puzzles, crafts, or road trips.

I bought a jigsaw puzzle at the grocery store today. The box features an ornate cathedral with red roses and blossoming foliage. The cathedral is in Germany. The puzzle cost two bucks.

My mother and I used to do jigsaw puzzles. Big puzzles. We did them together. I was no good at jigsaws, but she was an expert.

Long ago, puzzles cost seventy-five cents, and provided hours of distraction. We needed distractions back then. We welcomed anything that took our minds off my father’s untimely death, and the gloom that came thereafter.

My mother looked for distractions that made us laugh, things that made us smile, games, puzzles, crafts, or road trips.

Once, she took us to Branson. She took me to see a Dolly Parton impersonator. The show was spectacular. After the performance, the woman in the blonde wig hugged me so tight she nearly suffocated me with her enormous attributes.

When my mother saw me locked with the buxom woman, she shrieked and started praying in tongues. She yanked me by my

earlobe and drug me away. And I have been a lifelong Dolly Parton fan ever since.

Anyway, my mother loved doing things with her hands. She made large quilts from old T-shirts, she gardened, she did puzzle books, anagrams, crosswords, cryptograms, she knitted, crocheted, and painted.

She played cards with me, sometimes checkers, and she was a Scrabble fanatic. But jigsaw puzzles. Those were our thing.

My mother started each puzzle by saying the same thing:

“We gotta find the corners first, that’s how you do it.”

The idea was that once you found the corners, the rest of the puzzle would come together. Thus, we would sift through twenty-five hundred pieces, looking for four corners. Once we found them, we’d dig for the edges.

We’d place pieces into piles, then link them together. Piece by piece. Section by section. Mama and I could spend a…

One of my guitars is a glorified piece of garbage, but it has a story behind it.

It was built in a Jersey City factory, in the 1920s, whereupon it was shipped to an Atlanta music store. Probably during that same year, it was bought by a man who was visiting Atlanta from Britain. He took it to England, and that was that.

Almost ninety years later, I bought it from a kid who was visiting Florida from Devonshire, England. He played this old American guitar for me and I fell in love.

It was a crummy old thing. Falling apart. And really, if I’m being honest, it was a piece of junk. But I have a soft spot for old junk.

I’ve been playing a guitar for most of my life, and after all these years I can truly say that I still suck at it. I have to hold my mouth right just to play certain chords.

But the real reason I wanted this guitar was because when I

was a kid, my father bought me one just like it. Same brand, same shape, same size, and model. My father got it at a garage sale. He gave it to me one summer day and seemed to simply expect me to learn how to play it.

He was always doing things like this. Years later, when I was nine, he did the same thing with a piano. He gave me one and told me to teach myself. It took me almost a lifetime to learn to play—this is not a joke—“Happy Birthday.” Because this is not as easy of a song as you might think.

When the tune gets to the happy-birthday-dear-So-And-So part, the chord doesn’t work with the melody.

So I never quite figured it out. Which would often make me look like a complete dipstick at, for instance, birthday parties. Because during the apex of the…