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.

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 placed one hand over another. I looked like a moron. I should not have been climbing that wall. Boys like me didn’t rock climb things. Boys like me liked Moonpies and had kankles.

I had dinner with an old friend. I haven’t seen him in years. He looks different since he moved to Tennessee. He has a shaggy beard, lines around his eyes, a bigger waist, and three kids.

Here’s the kind of guy he is: Earlier today, he opened his front door to find me standing on his porch.

“Wow," he said. "Do I look as old and ugly as you?”


“Getting old sure stinks, don’t it?”

“Speak for yourself, I plan on using my AARP card to get free coffee at Waffle House.”

"Waffle House doesn’t accept AARP."

Long ago, we were close. Back then, I needed a friend like him. I was a kid who had survived my late father’s mess, and I wasn't exactly Mister Sunshine.

He was a good pal. And he was no stranger to the rain, either. His mother died when he was six, from similar circumstances. His kid brother was more like his son. We sort of leaned on each other.

I remember when he got a job at a

sporting goods store. The store sold shotguns, ATV’s, crossbows, and for a few bucks you could get a fishing license. He loved this job because my friend is your all-American deer hunter.

This store also had a tall rock-climbing wall. He invited me to try it once, but I didn’t want to because I was fourteen, chubby, and I was no athlete.

I have always been the sort who spectates. Especially when it comes to sports. As a boy, I was a professional spectator. I spectated four or five times per day sometimes.

One time my friend brought me to the sporting goods store and brought me to the rock wall. He issued a dare.

Before I knew it, he had fitted me with a rappelling harness.

It is impossible for chubby boys to look dignified when wearing a harness secured to…

...I was raised on golden-era Disney classics, and I would not want to live in a world without Big Al.

My earliest memory is of a record player. It sat in my mother’s bedroom. Sometimes, she would play records for me.

In one particular memory, she holds me in her arms and we dance to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The tune is “Girl from Ipanema.”

Then, she turns off Herb. She puts on another record. It is a childhood favorite. The album is Walt Disney World’s Country Bear Jamboree. The sound of a fiddle fills the room.

Mother and I have a Disney-style hoedown.

I don’t know how I remember this, but I do. Just like I remember Mary Ann Andrews, who once kidnapped my Teddy bear. The bear she stole was the guitarist for the Country Bears Jamboree band, Big Al.

Mary Ann’s family moved to Texas, and she took Big Al with her. I was heartbroken.

My mother wrote Mary’s family a letter, threatening legal action if Big Al was not returned unharmed. In a few weeks, Big Al arrived in our mailbox

and my mother agreed not to press charges.

I still have that stuffed bear today. In fact, he sits above my desk because I was raised on golden-era Disney classics, and I would not want to live in a world without Big Al.

Anyway, my wife and I went to a concert a few nights ago. It was supposed to be fun, but it left me feeling empty. A few guys onstage attempted to see how loud they could crank their amplifiers while having grand mal seizures.

We were with friends who were younger than us. I don’t know how many concerts you’ve seen lately, but young people don’t actually watch live bands anymore. They point cellphone cameras at the stage and look at their phones instead.

Halfway through the concert, I was ready to leave.

I’d rather suffer gout than listen to music that…

There is something remarkably hopeful about this town and its residents. There is a kind of excitement here. It’s too bad the rest of the world can’t be so optimistic.

Nashville, Tennessee—The noon sun is shining on Music Row. The world-famous recording studios, radio stations, and record offices sit lined up like dominoes. I’m walking into one such studio right now.

This is weird.

I walk past mic stands, cables, and foam-covered walls.

When I was a teenager, I played music in a band. We were god-awful. What we lacked in musical talent, we made up for in body odor. One night, a Nashville man visited the bar and tipped the band one hundred dollars. My bandmates got so excited they left for Nashville to see if they could “make it.”

I didn’t go with them because I had a job I couldn’t afford to lose—also I couldn’t stand their smell.

In this town, people dream big. You can see them everywhere. Their dreams are too large to keep beneath their hats. They are hopeful, talented, nice-looking, and most of them don’t have a chance in Hades at “making it.”

At least, that’s what I’ve been told.

This morning, I met a sixty-seven-year-old man who

once moved here from Indiana in hopes of becoming a country songwriter. He washes dishes, and also works as a construction worker. His face has some mileage on it.

“I came here after my mom died,” he said. “Thirty years ago. I just wanted to be able to say I gave it my best shot.”

If you listen to him talk, you’ll find out that he believes he’s somewhat of a failure because his name isn’t in neon lights.

“No, I don’t regret moving here,” he said. “But, it’s been real disappointing, I’ve learned how to be hopeful even when nothing’s working out, you know, that’s not easy.”

He laughed. I could see he was missing a few teeth.

There is something remarkably hopeful about this town and its residents. There is a kind of excitement here. It’s…

The backroads between Florida and Alabama are perfect. The scenery is all dirt roads and sleepy homesteads. If you drive these two-lane highways with your radio playing old-time music, you will appreciate the music.

If you are so inclined, play a little Hank. If you are feeling adventurous, Willie Nelson. Romantic, try Patsy Cline.

I don’t know what it is about this drive that moves me. Perhaps it’s because this is my home county. Or maybe because I have been burning these local roads since my youth. Maybe it’s because once, I had this ridiculous idea that I wanted to leave.

I don’t know why.

Here, not much has changed since the pavement cooled. The one-story houses on the sides of the highway are frozen in time. The homemade vegetable stands, vacant until summer use. The broke down tractors, the cotton fields.

If you’re into rural beauty, there is nothing but beauty from here to Huntsville.

I pass Hart’s Fillin’ Station, in DeFuniak Springs. If you

have never been to Hart’s to eat fried chicken, you aren’t living right.

On this road you see homes with hordes of cars parked in the driveway. Those cars probably belong to adult children who have returned home. It could be that everyone is in town for a wedding. Maybe a funeral. A baby shower. A birthday. Karaoke night.

Either way, there is going to be good eating, I guarantee it.

The narrow highway lopes across a flat Panhandle. I feel sorry I ever wanted to abandon it. Soon, I am leaving my county. Welcome to Florala, Alabama. We have officially left Florida and crossed into the Yellowhammer State.

The two locales look more or less the same. There are wide fields with gracious trees that bow over the roads. Pathways adorned with live oaks, flat green pastures peppered with round bales.

I pass…

And I’ve always thought that the rhythm of playing catch feels like a slow waltz.

We bought a Roku for our TV. I’ll admit, until this morning I thought a Roku was a Japanese three-phrase poem that grade-school children were forced to write at gunpoint.

The Roku is actually a small device that plugs into your television and gives you TV service via the internet. A neighborhood kid named Tyler helped me hook it up because I am technologically challenged.

Tyler is not yet twelve, but he is your all-American preteen, which means he knows everything about technology and will likely be rich one day.

In no time, Tyler had it running and we were watching a spring training baseball game.

The Braves and the Rays were tied. Tyler and I watched in silence for a few minutes. Ronald Acuña Jr. hit a home run. People on TV cheered. I cheered.

Tyler looked like he didn’t understand what he was watching.

“How do you keep score in baseball?” Tyler finally asked.

And this broke my heart.

In my

childhood home, there was no clear division between baseball and the red letters in the Bible. We talked baseball on Sunday mornings, and we talked church during Saturday night ball games.

As fate would have it, there were two baseball gloves on my bookshelf. My wife keeps them around as decoration, to lend a masculine feel to our living room. Today, the mitts served another purpose.

The smallest of the two gloves was my old Little Leaguer. My father bought it for me when I was in second grade. I will never forget that day. Daddy took me into a store, we tried on gloves until we found the right one.

That night, my father showed me how to oil it with bacon grease.

“Grease it up good,” he told me. “And it’ll last for the rest of your life.”

To this day, I cannot smell…

I’d like to make my mama proud. That’s one of my main goals in this world. If I’ve made her proud, well, then I’ve really done something.

My mother, you see, is the kind of woman who taught me how to be nice, and how to have manners.

Long ago, she would make me sit with my cousin Myrtle at covered dish socials, so Myrtle wouldn’t be sitting alone. Mama would say things like: “Be polite, and make sure you ask your cousin how her baton twirling is coming along.”

Admittedly, Myrtle was about as interesting as watching ditchwater evaporate. But like I said, I want my mama to be proud.

Maybe I should back up and tell you where all this is coming from.

Earlier this week, I spent some time with people who were—how do I put this— not very nice. Now, they weren’t MEAN people, per se, but you don’t have to be “mean” to be un-nice.

I hope I am never an un-nice person. What would Mama think?

Mama is a woman who says things like: “Don’t talk about yourself too much, it’s like passing gas in an elevator; people will smile, but they don’t mean it.

And: “Be a good listener, your ears will never get you in trouble.”

I don’t aspire to much in this life, but I know that I want to be the kind of man who listens.

Also, I want to be the kind of man who dogs follow for no reason. I want to be the guy who does magic tricks for toddlers.

I want to go around reminding teenagers how important they are. I want to listen to the jokes old men tell when their wives aren’t around.

I want to hear long stories on porches, and I want to be the first to respond: “Well, I Suwannee.”

A good Suwannee…

Ray requires a lot of work. He’s got energy. Granny believes he is keeping her young. Granny is 72 this year, and she has the job of a 30-year-old. But there is something else.

I met Ray and his grandmother outside Cracker Barrel. Granny had her hands full. Ray was running in circles. Ray is 11 years old.

It was the breakfast rush, the hungry crowd was growing impatient. People stood in clumps, waiting their turns to eat toast, eggs, and God-willing, applewood smoked bacon. Ray ran between the people, hollering.

“Weeeeeeeeeeeee!” Ray said.

Granny called for him, but he was too busy to hear. People looked annoyed.

A hostess paged a table of ten. A group of ten fortunate people followed the hostess into the Promised Land, while the rest of us Children of Israel licked our lips, starving to death beside the licorice whips and horehounds.

The old woman kept calling for Ray. When Ray finally came near, I could see he had Down syndrome.

He was a happy child, and he apparently loved his grandmother very much because he laid himself on her lap.

Granny and I talked. I learned that Granny was a lot more than just

a grandmother. I won’t tell too much because it’s none of my business, but Ray is of no blood relation to her.

This gets confusing, so try to keep up.

Granny’s daughter-in-law brought Ray to her door when he was 2 years old. The girl was married to Granny’s son at the time. Ray came from the woman’s first marriage.

The very next year, the young mother bolted for parts unknown, she left the boy. So Granny adopted him.

“Believe me,” said Granny. “I never thought I’d have a child in my life, it’s not something I expected, and I can’t keep up with him.”

Her husband died several years ago, her son works offshore, and without Ray, all she would have is her cat.

“It’s funny, I had already accepted that I’d be alone in my old age, without anyone to…

Long ago, I thought the way all young men think. Maybe one day I would have a boy with red hair. Maybe he would be a junior. Or maybe we’d have a daughter. Sometimes, my wife and I would even fall asleep talking about it.

I am eating a cheeseburger, sipping beer, looking at a beachside restaurant full of families and kids.

There’s a band playing. They couldn’t be any worse if they detuned their instruments and started making bodily noises over the microphone.

But the children are loving the music. Some are dancing. Others are screaming, “Look, Daddy! Daddy! Look, Daddy! Daddy!”

I love kids.

I have always wondered how people with children enjoy their lives. I look around at a table of my middle-aged friends and I am thinking of this very thing.

These people seem to have more responsibility than the rest of us civilians. I’m fact, they’re so responsible that they can’t even focus on a conversation—at least not fully.

They are too busy looking from the corners of their eyes, waiting for catastrophe, or a screaming toddler.

My friend Billy, for instance, is trying to tell a story, but his sentences are incoherent because he keeps diverting his eyes toward his kids.

“Hey,” he begins. “You remember when we were fifteen…”

Billy turns his head.

“...And there was that water tower….”

Another head turn.

“...With the Hallelujah Chorus and lima beans…”


My friend Nathan tells me:

“The thing about kids is, they say ‘Daddy’ about fifteen hundred times per day. It’s enough to make you nuts.”

“Yeah,” another friend says. “And I wish my kids would just let me go pee in peace.”

My friends’ wives sit at the other side of the table, rocking babies, talking. My wife is with them.

My wife and I exchange a glance. We are the only childless couple here tonight. We smile at each other.

She rolls her…

It was March. I remember because my truck was covered in yellow powder. And if you don’t know the yellow powder I speak of, you might be from Ohio.

A lot of people who move to the South from other places think our biggest problems are humidity, mosquitoes, or evangelical fundamentalists. But those are nothing.

We have dehumidifiers for humidity, citronella for bugs, and fundamentalists won’t bother you if you play dead or talk about beer.

No, one of our biggest pests in these parts is the Satanic-dust that kills innocent woodland creatures and ushers in Armageddon.

Pine pollen.

Long ago, I tried to start a landscaping company. It was a bad idea and a colossal failure. I bought a utility trailer and some equipment. And when pollen season hit, I put a few fliers in mailboxes.

“FIRST LAWN-CUTTING IS FREE!!!!” I advertised, and I used four exclamation points.

One of my first customers was an old man. He hired me to re-sod his entire

front yard during the height of pollen season. I paid my friend Adam to help me.

Adam and I worked like rented mules. We replaced almost half an acre of centipede grass. Our noses were running, our eyes burning.

“This pollen’s killing me,” I said to Adam.

“Who said that?” Adam answered. “My eyes are too swollen to see anything.”

While we worked, an old woman came walking out of the house. She wore a nightgown, her hair was white and messy. She wandered through the yard like she were in a daze, letting the sun hit her face. She smiled. She sneezed.

"Oh, Carl!" she shouted. "There are boys out here!"

She sneezed again.

"Boys!" she said. “Two boys!”

I was afraid this woman was going to boil us in a kettle with toe of a frog and eye of newt.…