HUNTSVILLE—My wife and I are at a local bar. It’s midnight. The music is loud. All I want is a burger because I haven’t eaten since lunchtime. I did a show in town tonight and I ran a little long because I am a big mouth who can’t shut up.

We are very tired. Low on sleep. And the whole world feels frightening because you can’t go anywhere without hearing something new about the coronavirus.

But this is exactly why the immortal James Brown, “Godfather of Soul,” once wrote a poignant song to uplift the tired and huddled masses by stating so eloquently: “HEEEEY!!!” Then he danced the camel walk like a man with his underpants on fire.

I wouldn’t mind hearing some James Brown right about now. He is sort of an old friend to me. When I was a young man I used to listen to “I Feel Good” when I’d get off work. This song always helped me feel… Well... Better. I used to listen to it over and over and play

drum solos on my steering wheel.

This bar is the only place open at this hour. It’s crowded with young folks who travel in large packs. These are modern young people, dressed nicely, who are out on the town for a wild night that consists primarily of (a) going to bars, and (b) looking at their phones.

There are twenty-three televisions lining the walls, all playing continuous music videos. The music is loud enough to alter the migration patterns of Canada geese. I am trying to focus on the menu, but the TVs are distracting.

I’ll admit upfront, I don’t care for music videos. I suppose I’ve always wondered, “What’s the point?” I mean, when I watch “Love Boat,” it’s because there’s an actual plot, and I like Issac. When I watch “Little House on the Prairie,” it’s because Michael Landon had killer hair.

But…

I’m in a hotel room. We are on the fourteenth day of a book tour and I’m starting to forget which city I am in. Is this Birmingham? Or am I in Huntsville?

I’m past the point of trying to figure it out. Last night I awoke in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and I walked straight into a cinder block wall because I forgot I was in a hotel.

Right now I am watching “The Andy Griffith Show” on TV. This episode is one of my favorites. Barney joins the choir, but his singing voice is godawful. Thelma Lou, Barney’s girl, visits Andy when she learns that Barney is in the choir:

THELMA LOU: Barney's gonna be in the choir?! My Barney?!
ANDY: That's right.
THELMA: But Barney can't sing.
ANDY: I know.
THELMA: He's the man I want to marry, the man I want to be the father of my children...
ANDY: But he can't sing.
THELMA: Not a lick!

Pure gold. This scene is a knee slapper, no matter who you are. But if you’re a shameless Andy Griffith fanatic like me, this is the scene you want re-enacted at your funeral service. And you just hope the funeral congregation all says, “Not a lick!” in perfect unison.

I’ve seen this episode a hundred thousand times. Maybe more. I can quote the dialogue by heart, right along with the TV. Which drives my wife bat-dookie crazy.

She always says, “Why do you watch that show if you know every word?”

I usually wave her off and continue helping Andy remember his lines.

A few years ago, I had an exclusive one-on-one interview with Betty Lynn, the actress who played Thelma Lou. She’s in her mid-nineties now. I rented a car and drove eleven hours north to Mount Airy, North Carolina. I booked the cheapest hotel I could…

PAXTON—I am driving through the north end of Walton County on the way to Birmingham. The sun is setting. The rural parts are covered in tall grass, old trees, and mobile homes.

I live in this county, just south of here. When I was a young man, I once got a part-time job helping an elderly man who was from Paxton. He needed help around his house. He paid twenty bucks for three hours of labor every weekend.

It was decent money until he asked me to clean his garage. His garage was a giant abyss of ancient junk. I told him that I would need some help before I would agree to clean it. So he told me to pray for some.

Paxton is the highest town in Florida. It sits 318 feet above sea level, right on the Alabama line. The highest point in Florida is a couple minutes away. The place is a perfect example of Northwestern Floridian culture. You have Baptists coming out your ears,

and Methodists, and Tongue-Talkers. You see cardboard signs on highway shoulders advertising “free puppies.” A middle-aged man on his porch counting cars.

There are 797 residents in Paxton, unless Sister So-And-So has her baby tonight, then it will be 798.

And do you know what I like about Paxton best? The little country school. They just don’t make them like Paxton School anymore. The school has been here since 1939. In its entire 81-year history a little over 2,000 students have graduated from it. Total. That’s how small we’re talking.

It’s a thirteen-year school. Kids start in kindergarten and attend until they’re seniors. And they are unbeatable, too. The agricultural program churns out prize-winning hogs. The boys and girls basketball program doesn’t just win games, they win seasons, and have players who make it to the WNBA. And don’t even get Paxton started on its baseball.

God, these guys are great.…

DEAR SEAN:

I was appalled to read in one of your articles that you recommended hugging people in spite of the coronavirus scare...

Your words are usually positive, but those words endangered lives, and I’m disappointed in you. Do you really think you’re smarter than all the doctors out there? People could get sick and die because of something flippant you wrote even if you were just trying to be cute. You need to think about what you pen from now on.

Regards,
NERVOUS-NELLIE-OLESON

DEAR NELLIE:

Before I say anything, I think it’s important to slow down and breathe. The last thing we need is for you to hyperventilate. That would not be cute.

While you’re breathing, I’ll tell you about my visit to the nursing home the other day.

When I arrived at the assisted living facility, I half expected residents to be gathered around a television, like a lot of frightened people are doing. It seems like wherever you go the news channels are blaring in airports, restaurants, taverns, gas-pumps, funeral homes, Jesuit

monasteries, etc.

But these old people were not watching TV. They were playing cards. There was light music playing in the background, I think it was Jimmy Dorsey. The song was gentle. People in the living room were chilled out, and I was a little jealous.

Granted, most of these folks are on powerful medication. Some are taking so many blood thinners that one nick from an electric razor would kill them in only seconds. But that’s not my point. What I’m getting at is that these people are not freaking out about the coronavirus. Meanwhile, everyone in the outside world is.

I asked a nurse why things were so mellow here. She said, “Well, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve unplugged all our televisions. They can watch TV in their rooms if they want, but not in the main rooms.”

This was a unanimous…

MONROEVILLE—We’ve just left town and it’s getting late. My wife and I are on a desolate Alabama highway between Monroe County and the rest of the world. We haven’t passed a single car. We are on the umteenth day of the book tour. Everyone in their right mind is already in bed.

Except us.

We are traveling late because it’s easier to travel at night sometimes. My wife is driving, listening to an audiobook on headphones. I am in the passenger seat, drifting in and out of sleep.

I just finished making a speech in Monroeville, telling stories. I’ve been making a lot of speeches over the last few weeks. Right now, I am sick of hearing my own voice.

Occasionally, I feel like a fool with all this storytelling business. After all, no child grows up saying “I want to be a storyteller.” Because it’s not even a real job. How did this happen? Frankly, I’m not sure.

I’m getting hungry. So my wife pulls over for me to fix something to eat from

the cooler. I open the back door and shove the hanging clothes out of the way. The cooler is filled with multiple tubs of pimento cheese.

Earlier tonight, I received three tubs of pimento cheese as gifts from different kindhearted people in Monroeville. One tub came from Miss Lisa, one tub came from Miss Barbara, and one special recipe came from Miss Beth. If gifts like that don't humble you, nothing will.

So I’m standing on an empty highway shoulder, slathering pimento cheese on bread, listening for cars. Whenever I stand outside our vehicle I always listen carefully for passing cars because nighttime drivers are crazy. They don’t watch where they’re going and achieve speeds upwards of 94 miles per hour. They don’t mind amputating your side mirror.

But tonight there is no sound. No vehicle noise. No lights. No nothing. Just silence. There is…

FAIRHOPE—I am at a mass hugging. There is a roomful of people trapped in this bookstore. They have formed a single file line to let me vandalize their books with my sloppy signature. And I have hugged maybe two hundred folks at this book signing.

Nobody gets away without a hug.

I don’t even ask permission to hug people anymore. I just put my arms around them and squeeze. My wife and I have traveled to half the U.S. doing my little one-man show, and do you know what I’ve discovered? Ninety-nine point nine-nine-nine-nine-nine percent of all people like hugs. Multiplied times pi.

Though, every now and then you do run into a real life Ebenezer Scrooge who still uses corncobs instead of Charmin. Like tonight. One woman in line says, “I don’t hug. I’m Presbyterian. No thank you.”

This gal came to the wrong clam bake. I was raised Southern Baptist. And even though Presbyterians know how to read better than we do, in a hug-off, we Baptists win every time.

In fact, the only time a Southern Baptist can lose at competition-style hugging is when he goes to Sand Mountain, Alabama, and attends a Church of God. Those people are crazy.

So I hugged this woman anyway. At first, our hug was about as emotionally gratifying as televised golf, but after I held her a few seconds she loosened up and started laughing. Then she actually squeezed me and it was another victory.

Baptists 1; Presbyterians 0.

Look, I don’t want to come off sounding like a touchy-feely weirdo straight out of Woodstock, but I am big on hugs. I do not want to live in a world where hugs are not a thing.

Lately, I’ve been traveling around the Southeast, and lots of people have been extremely weird about hugging because of the coronavirus headlines. But if you ask me this is when we need hugs the…

OXFORD—I was initially nervous about being on Mississippi Public Radio, but my wife kept reminding me that I have the perfect face for radio. So here we are.

Thacker Mountain Radio Hour is a live variety show with music, singing, literature, fun, and Arnie the Magic Chicken who can tell your fortune by lifting his tail feathers and dropping “chicken magic” onto giant bingo cards.

No, I’m only kidding about Arnie the Chicken. Though I wish I weren’t because even a chicken could do a better job on the radio than I can.

Tonight I am in a “time slot.” This is an industry term. A time slot is basically the same as being interrogated by military intelligence personnel while on the air. You speak only when spoken to, give direct answers, and if you talk longer than allotted the stagehands drag you into the alleyway where you are assaulted by a gang of fortune-telling chickens and their ringleader, Arnie.

I am reminded often that I must be BRIEF on the air.

But the thing is, I am never brief, I am the opposite of brief. I am boxer shorts.

During sound check the stage manager with the clipboard is walking me through how things will go. She is extremely clear about this long winded business. She says, “When I hold up three fingers, you’d better be wrapping up, or else.”

“Or else what?” I ask.

“See that red smear on the floor? That was last week’s speaker, he went sixty seconds over.”

Anyway, what I like about Oxford is the relaxed vibe. It’s like many college towns. Ninety percent of the people on the sidewalks are young, energetic, and have no joint pain. These are known as students. The rest of the town population looks like the cast of the 1985 movie “Cocoon.” These are college faculty members.

Rumor has it that most University of Mississippi faculty members looked…

I did a book signing a few nights ago in Mississippi. There, I met a kid who gave me a hug so hard that he almost broke my ribs.

He was maybe seventeen. His name was Robert. He was slightly bald, and bone thin. He asked me to sign his book. Then, without saying another word, he handed me a folded note and disappeared.

This morning, I am reading his letter:

“Sean, I’m mad at the world. I can’t relate to my friends anymore, they’re all into dumb things in life, and I’m just not like them. Maybe it’s because I almost died three separate times from my cancer, and now that I’ve got a clean bill of health I’m not into all that shallow [bad word] that my friends are into.

“My dad left my mom when I was sick and he didn’t want to deal with me anymore, and I know I should be happy because I’m cancer free for now, but I'm so mad. Help.”

Robert, first off: We in this world all owe you an

apology. Let me be the first to offer mine. People can be blind sometimes, and I’m no exception. Humans do some bizarre things. Drive-thru liquor stores are only one example.

We can be unkind, hateful, uncaring, selfish, rude, and impulsive. Humans will let you down. But please don’t get too upset at us.

Sure, I know you feel like you’re an outsider, and that nobody understands you. And you’re right. Partially. But you’re also wrong. Because this world is full of outsiders. I’m one of them. And there are billions more of us.

But yes. For the most part you’re right about us all. This world is a mess. We’re self-important, self-promotional, self-interested, self-congratulatory, and self-aggrandizing, and some people are lactose intolerant.

And don’t even get us started on money. Nobody ever comes out and admits it, but we are all…

GREENWOOD—It’s late. There is no moon out tonight. We are driving across the barren Mississippi Delta. And it’s creepy.

We are on the sixth day of the book tour. So far we have covered—this is only a rough estimate—800 bazillion miles. My wife is road weary, maybe even a little delirious. To entertain herself she has taken to teasing me. For instance, when I fell asleep in the passenger seat she shouted, “FLAT TIRE! HELP! A FLAT TIRE!”

I woke up screaming. She laughed until she almost wrecked the vehicle. Medical professionals had to restart my heart with a defibrillator.

The Delta can be lonesome and scary at night. Our vehicle shoots across four million acres of empty, flat, loose dirt and floodplain, and it feels like being on the moon. There are no lights around. No stars. No trees. Only dark Delta.

We see a shape on the horizon. Maybe it’s a tree. Please God let it be a tree. Nope. False alarm. It’s only a tractor. Or it could be Satan.

Earlier this evening

I did a book signing in the charming town of Greenwood. I played a few songs on my guitar, signed some books, hugged necks. Then we rushed out the door to the next town.

But before we left, I met Mary Carol, who is a mainstay in Greenwood. She’s a slight woman with a friendly smile and a gracious accent that reminds you of Greek Revival mansions. She offered to take me to visit Robert Johnson’s grave.

I got very excited. “THEE Robert Johnson?” I said.

“Who?” my wife asked. “The guy who owns the hotel chain?”

It’s amazing how many people don’t know who Robert Johnson is. But the truth is, everybody knows his music. Sort of. If you’ve ever sat in a beer joint and listened to a bar band play “Brown Sugar” loud enough to loosen your fillings, you’ve heard Robert…

MERIDIAN—It’s overcast and gloomy today. I’m walking the hometown streets of Jimmie Rodgers and I feel his memory here.

When you cross the bridge in Meridian, you see the muddy trainyards crowded with tired boxcars, flatcars, and exhaust rising from diesel locomotives. And you know this is the junction town where the Grandfather of Country Music was born at the turn of the century.

There is some debate on the subject of Jimmie’s home place. An old woman I once knew swore that Jimmie’s kinfolk were from Geiger, Alabama. Another friend of mine says Bristol, Tennessee.

I can’t shed any new light on the matter. All I can say is: When you visit Meridian, do not mention either of these theories or they will drag you behind the Methodist church and shoot you.

I like Rodgers’ music so much that I often play it at my shows, I even yodel a little and sound like a bloodhound with bronchitis. Afterward, young people usually ask, “Who wrote that weird yodeling song?”

“Jimmie Rodgers,” I’ll say.

“That’s nifty. Does he have

a YouTube channel?”

You have to worry about America’s youth.

My appreciation for Jimmie Rodgers began at a church rummage sale when I was eleven. There was an old man named Brother Gary who sat behind a card table, selling several old guitars.

He was smoking a cigarette, wearing a pocket T-shirt. Gary was a Baptist deacon who openly smoked unfiltered Camels on church property without shame. It was a different world back then.

I was browsing Gary’s guitar collection when one instrument in particular caught my eye. On the back of this guitar was the word “THANKS,” painted in giant letters.

I asked about it. Gary said, “My wife painted that, because I always liked Jimmie Rodgers, he had the same thing painted on his guitar.”

“Who’s Jimmie Rodgers?” I asked.

The old man looked insulted. He yanked the guitar…