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.
Larry - November 23, 2019 6:41 am
Wonderful column tonight. I work as a security guard and when my phone rings about this time, I know it’s Sean not show time! Keep it going.
Karen - November 23, 2019 6:47 am
I don’t know how one might paint a picture of bluegrass music, but you just did. Love this. Thank you.
Dawn A Bratcher - November 23, 2019 7:26 am
It sounds like you get to experience a lot of great nights! I would love to see one of your shows! 💝👏💐
Jade - November 23, 2019 7:31 am
We loved having you here in Lake City! I was The girl with the tears in her eyes and I sat By Tom (with the green shirt on), the man that impressively clapped off beat for the entire show and gave you more thumbs up than I thought was possible! He makes a girl proud. Love your show. Your honesty. And the way you get denominations to laugh at each other in snarky tones yet end the night in unison of “I’ll fly away.” True talent, my friend.
Steve Winfield - November 23, 2019 7:53 am
Just . . . .Amen!
Steve - November 23, 2019 9:30 am
When you said “okra”, you had me. Like steel claws, I was locked down and focused. Yes old American music can bind the South, but so can food. My mom has dementia now, but in her prime made the best fried okra in Alabama. Just a dusting of corn meal, fried crisp in an ancient black iron skillet. The South is just special. In fact, when in the presence of “Yankee Interlopers”; Dad and I purposely talk about how bad it is so none of will want to move here.
Naomi - November 23, 2019 12:53 pm
I’m a born and bred Southern from Birmingham, Alabama, even though my mother was born in Russia and my father was born in Poland but grew up in NYC. I grew up during a time when Yankees thought Southerners were uneducated rednecks. I didn’t care what they thought, I have always been proud of being a Southerner.
Carl Wagner - November 23, 2019 1:15 pm
I live in Jacksonville FL. Wish I had known you were so close. Would have driven over to hear you, and the SongFarmers.
Robert Chiles - November 23, 2019 1:36 pm
Reminded me of when I was in Indiana and the church had this 93 year old lady who would come on Christmas day and play carols on the piano in completely honky-tonk style. She and her husband had played vaudeville in Chicago in the 20’s. She’s been dead now for over 20 years, but her memory lives on.
Ol' Retired Geezer - November 23, 2019 1:52 pm
Sean, your telling us that the “Real Florida” is not the Orlando and Miami areas hit home. Folks need to know that Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex are not the “Real Texas”. Those two urban behemoths are a world away from the great majority of folks in The Lone Star State. Last year a busload of folks from the Abilene, Odessa, and Midland areas chartered a train at Alabama’s Official Railroad Museum in Calera. Having been raised in Texas in the early and mid 1950’s, I was proud to welcome them, telling them how great it was to see some REAL Texans from the REAL Texas. In reply, they all whooped and hollered. It was great. And you keep up the fine work.
Teresa Tindle - November 23, 2019 2:14 pm
You are so right Sean. I am one blessed by God, woman, proud that I am Southern born and Southern bred. Thank you Lord!
Ray - November 23, 2019 2:20 pm
As I play a little Guitar myself and with a local group, I love this !
Connie Havard Ryland - November 23, 2019 2:38 pm
Wonderful. I grew up in rural south Alabama and listened to my dad and uncles and cousins play music every weekend of my growing up years. To this day, and I’m an older lady, I love country music. Real country music. Not what passes for country on modern radio stations. There’s nothing quite like listening to a live band playing guitars and singing classic country music.
Shelton A. - November 23, 2019 3:01 pm
I know, I hear the same things about FL and I’m in Jax. Then when they hear from NC they want me to do ‘Mayberry talk’. We’re just a hiccup (actually, a bend in a river) from being in SE GA. Yankees and non-Southerners everywhere, bless their hearts.
Beth - November 23, 2019 3:03 pm
Sean, you came to my hometown and I am so grateful do have been there!! It was so worth the wait of anticipation upon your arrival‼️ I love your honesty, sharing your past, reliving so many memories, making people belly laugh, probably get a little teary eyed. Amen to us southerners, glad to be one!!! You cracked me up with “Just As I Am”, but you closed with a beautiful song “I’ll Fly Away! Thanks so much for gracing our southern hometown, I pray great blessings for you and Jamie, also travel mercies either on the road or in the air 🙏🏻. Please come back now, ya hear!!!😁❌⭕️❤️
Shelton A. - November 23, 2019 3:05 pm
p.s.-modern ‘country’ is awful. Give me Hank, Sr or Jr. and the outlaws (Willie, Waylon, and the boys). Got to see Flatt and Skruggs once and they blew me away.
Jess - November 23, 2019 3:07 pm
Sean, I agree with you and people’s thoughts about Florida. I’m a proud fourth generation Floridian, which means when I was born Florida was still considered a Southern state. The relatives on my father’s side were definitely all Southern. Some people doubt I’m a true Southerner because I don’t have an accent associated with a lot of Southerners. Way back in the 1950s I had a Georgia cousin that thought Florida was mostly jungle with monkeys running around.
I enlisted in the Army in 1966, and had intentions of retiring in Sarasota because I grew up in Sarasota and loved it. I retired from the Army in 1992, and by that time Florida was packed solid with people who weren’t from around there..if you get my drift. I elected to retire in Athens, GA, because my daughter was going to UGA, and I liked the small town feel. Athens is starting to get crowded so I might have to find me ‘nother small town somewhere.
Margaret Angell - November 23, 2019 3:07 pm
Cindy Ellington - November 23, 2019 3:10 pm
Bless your heart for explaining the real Florida South. I, and generations before me are from Madison, halfway between Lake City and Tallahassee. The South, where people can vegetables from their gardens, come out on Friday nights and support the local football team and say yes ma’am and no sir! Heaven on Earth!
Paul E. Click - November 23, 2019 3:14 pm
I grew up on the west shore of Lake Okeechobee. When I talk, most think I’m from Alabama. We always liked imports who enunciated, but sat on their front porch with a sign that informed, “we ain’t from here, but got here as quick as we could”! Well done! Music, food and fishing bring folks together!
Linda Moon - November 23, 2019 3:52 pm
Doctor Ralph Stanley! His grandson! Two shout-outs from me! I hope the SongFarmer Show is on your Podcast. I’ll be listening for it. It is OK, Sean, about not understanding life. I sure don’t, but most people wouldn’t like to admit that. Music, books, movies…these are my happy and noble distractions. And that Floridian who “blessed a heart” like a true Southern Homeboy is too!!
Kathy Smith - November 23, 2019 8:22 pm
Many towns across the country have SongFarmer groups. We have a great one here in Tellico Plains, Tn.
George T Jacoby - November 23, 2019 10:05 pm
I’m from Louisiana, which is Southern with a Cajun twist, but it’s the deep South, and I fully agree with that slightly trite slogan “Southern by the grace of God.” The military took me out of the South for a tour of the lower 48, then brought me back to South Carolina. My baby graduated from high school here in Sumter, then Troy, then Auburn Pharmacy School, and I will never again live above the Mason and Dixon line. Welcome home, Sean 🙂
Pat - November 23, 2019 10:48 pm
Can’t think of anywhere else I would like to live other than the Deep South!
Melissa Williams - November 23, 2019 11:38 pm
If you’re ever near Sewanee , TN, let us know you’re comin’ and I will show up with a mess of people!!!💜
Mary Rice - November 24, 2019 12:41 am
November 21 was little Jessie’s 13tn birthday and my 74. Drove up from Sarasota just to hear you. Was a wonderful evening. Real Southern people live in and around Lake City. We don’t have many of them in Sarasota. But if you do ever come this way I’ll be the red head in the 3rd road center just like I was Thursday night. Safe travels.
Gayla Warner - November 24, 2019 3:12 am
Carolyn from Georgia - November 24, 2019 12:38 pm
When near Atlanta come to Matthews Cafeteria on Main St. in Tucker on Wednesdays for a great band of about 20 people from the area who just show up & play from 6-8. They too always end with Will the Circle Be Unbroken!
Edna B. - November 24, 2019 4:41 pm
Music is medicine for the soul. You have a wonderful day, hugs, Edna B.
Ann - November 25, 2019 3:46 pm
I love being from the South and I love saying I’m from the Florida Panhandle. Never just “Florida”, because as you say, there is a marked difference. I guess the demarcation in the state is the change over from Eastern to Central time zone as you drive west on I-10. I don’t care that people think Floridians are crazy. The rest of America can play the Florida birthday game all day long, I’ll just sit on the sugar sand and watch our sunset.
Melissa Claunch - December 26, 2019 10:56 am
I was honored to see you in Tallassee along with several of my cousins,and aunts. The Goat Hill String Band was great! I enjoyed the man in overalls buck dancing, and your performance was probably the best one ever! We nearly peed our pants laughing that night!