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 limelight they can get. Sadly, they end up stuck onstage with me.
But we have had some real fun. There was the show in Tallassee, where the Goat Hill String Band played to a packed house. The whole theater began hollering when the fiddle started whining. A gentleman in the front row who weighed, I don’t know, three hundred pounds, buck danced in the aisles.
In Ashland, Alabama, Ralph Stanley’s grandson played onstage to open our show. That was a treat. He looked just like a young version of his granddaddy. Afterward, when it was my turn to take the stage, the audience politely asked me to shut up and bring back the band.
In Bradford, Pennsylvania, we had a honky tonk-style band. It was led by a young woman in a cowboy hat. She had a voice like an angel. I wasn’t sure how Pennsylvanians would feel about this kind of downhome music.
But as soon as the band fired up, the people went slap crazy and started howling. Those Pennsylvania Yankees got so jazzed up about the music that they all immediately ran home to put cheese on their apple pies and dress up in their jogging suits.
No, I’m only kidding. That was a cheap joke. They were probably cherry pies.
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.
The SongFarmers band is one such group of old-time music lovers. They’re unlike any band I’ve ever seen.
Tonight, there are almost twenty SongFarmer musicians on stage, seated in a half circle. Young and old. Male and female. Expert and novice. Redhead and cotton-top. Guitars, fiddles, mandolins, banjos, accordions, homemade instruments, and singers.
The leader of this colorful ensemble is Skip Johns. Skip is in his late sixties, he plays clawhammer banjo like his hair is on fire.
In a chair beside Skip is a twelve-year-old girl playing fiddle. Whenever she plays, Skip encourages her.
“That’s what our group is all about,” Skip says. “Encouragement. Show me any other place where a twelve-year-old kid and an old guy can have this much fun together. Music has no age.”
Skip ought to know. Throughout his life he’s shared mic stands with almost every big musical name you can think of. Ricky Skaggs, Bill Monroe, Marty Stewart, Ralph Stanley. The list goes on forever. And I don’t have all day to read it to you.
“I was twenty-six when I first played the Grand Ole Opry,” Skip tells me. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life, everything else was downhill after that.”
At his age, with his resume, Skip could be living in Nashville, making big money, cutting records alongside glitter-jean-wearing country-pop stars who write hit songs with the emotional depth of leftover meatloaf. Instead, Skip heads the SongFarmer community band. He teaches children and adults the art of American song so that our ancestors will live forever.
The house lights dim. The crowd falls silent. The SongFarmers take the stage.
They are in top form. They play “The Wreck of the Old 97.” The audience eats it up. There are whoops and hollers. Screams. One sweet elderly woman throws a brassiere onto the stage.
The band plays “Walk That Lonesome Valley,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” and “Jambalaya.”
They finish with “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” And I am a child again, listening to old men sing around a fire. These songs remind me that it’s okay not to understand life. Just as long as you can sing about it.
I peek through the backstage curtain. The little girl takes a fiddle solo. Skip smiles at her. People applaud her. The child plays her instrument so sweetly, so sincerely, so honestly, that it makes a Florida man like me close his eyes and say:
God, it’s good to be home in the South.