The mountains of North Carolina. Mitchell County. I am in a country church. This is a homegoing service. These are mountain people.
It’s a simple chapel, founded the same year Granny was born, back in 1912. Woodrow Wilson was in office. The hit song was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
We are in an all-wooden room. The floors. The pews. The altar. The pulpit. Wood, wood, wood. Even the priest is made of wood.
Wait, no. I’m mistaken. The priest is just being reverent right now. Namely, because this is a funeral.
There is an urn placed on the altar. Some members of the congregation are weeping. My friend Amy is seated in a pew, dabbing her eyes. Her sister, Tammie, is closing hers. My wife, Jamie, is in the rear pew, lightly sobbing.
Heads are bowed. Noses sniffing. My friend Joel is wearing a sport coat, delivering a eulogy at the pulpit. And in a few moments, I will play a funeral song on my banjo.
I am a musician. I am not proud of this per se, but we are who we are. And when you’re born as a music maker, you will play lots of funerals.
I have played the funerals of my late friends, and my friends’ late parents. The funerals of my grandparents. Aunts and uncles. Old friends. And young ones. I played at my own father’s funeral.
When I was high-school age, I was often asked to sing for funerals. People tried to pay me for this service, but my mother always made me give the money back and tell the grieving family: “It was my privilege to be here.”
And I’ve always believed in my mother’s lessons. Don’t mistake me, I am not a model Baptist boy. I freely admit, I am a backslidden man. I drink cheap beer, I sleep in on Sundays, I like the smell of cigar smoke, and when I mash my thumb with a hammer, I don’t exactly sing “Blessed Assurance.”
But I still believe the instruction my mother. And I will always play at funerals.
Being a musician is not easy. It’s even harder to be a writer. As a writer, you’re destined to starve. I’ve heard all the literary jokes: “What do you throw a drowning writer?” “His laptop.”
Or: “What do you call a writer who breaks up with his girlfriend?” “Homeless.”
Musicians have it just as bad. Once, when I was 4 years old, I told my mother I wanted to be a guitar player when I grew up. She smiled at me and said, “Sweetie, you can’t do both.”
At times in my life, I wished I would have been born as something else besides a musician and a hack writer. Maybe, perhaps, I could have been a doctor or lawyer or such. Maybe I could have been born a bank examiner. Then, perhaps, I wouldn’t have to play so many send-offs.
But no. I was born to fundamentalist parents, and my only outlet for music was church functions. Thus, I have been singing and playing for the Redeemed since I was old enough to manufacture mudpies.
As a boy I wasn’t a gifted musician, mind you, but you don’t have to be when you attend a little church with an all-wooden room. All that’s required of a music leader is that he or she has a pulse and, hopefully, all his or her teeth.
As a result, I’ve been to many weddings. Many christenings. And many funerals.
On the day of my grandfather’s funeral, I sang “Amazing Grace.” At my father-in-law’s funeral, I sang “Precious Lord Take My Hand.” I have sung “Peace in the Valley” more times than I can count. And on the day of my own father’s service, I played “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and broke down weeping so hard I had to be escorted off the platform.
Right now, I’m about to sing “In the Garden.” And I’m thinking about the lyrics to this song, which were penned the same year this little mountain church was built. Old words; timeless sentiments.
“…He speaks and the sound of his voice,
“Is so sweet, the birds hush their singing…”
Currently, I can hear birds outside, singing summer’s golden song. I can see the Purple Mountains Majesty through the windows. My friends are mourning the passing of their mother. And although I don’t know much about life, I know one thing for certain.
It is a privilege to be here.