Tallassee, Alabama—what a night. I’m in a tiny town. An ancient theater. I am standing where Hank Williams stood. I’m about to sing and tell stories to an audience.
I’m clutching a penny so hard it leaves a mark on my palm. The penny bears the birthdate of my late father upon it.
It was in this room that The Drifter himself once performed to a full house, singing through a tin-can microphone.
The Mount Vernon Theater hasn’t changed much since Hank. It is your all-American brick building. A ticket booth, folding seats, stage, velvet curtains.
I’m a kid in an opry house. What a night.
Anyway, one reason I’m here is to record the fiftieth episode of our podcast show.
Fifty episodes might not sound like much of an achievement—and it’s not, really. But if you’re me, it’s a big deal.
Nobody expected much out of me when I was a kid. Take, for example, the day my father taught me to ride a bicycle. He jogged beside my bike, holding my seat for balance, cheering, “You can do it!”
Then he released me. I rolled forward. I wobbled. I fell. I tumbled. I bled. My mother gave me ice cream for supper.
I wanted to please my father so badly. I wanted to pedal a bicycle, then shout, “LOOK DADDY! I DIDN’T FALL!” But all I could do was skin my knees, and look like a clown doing it.
Years after he died, I found a penny with his birthdate. It reminded me of the man who once loved me enough to jog beside my bike, even though I inevitably disappointed him.
But right now I’m not disappointed about a thing.
I can see the audience through the curtains. And I am overcome. I’m clutching this penny tight. What a cotton-picking night.
The Goat Hill String Band plays foot-stomping melodies. A man in overalls, jumps from his chair. The music gets to him. The man starts moving his body in rhythm. Someone in the back row hollers, “YEEE HAAW!” while the fiddle player saws his violin in two.
Yee haw? Where am I?
This is big fun. A real old-fashioned barn dance.
We started this little broadcasted show one year ago. It all began one night when a buddy of mine heard my idea, then said: “Give it a shot, man. What do you have to lose?”
It was crazy. And juvenile. We bought mics and recording equipment from a classified ad in the newspaper for fifty-seven bucks. Our first shows were god-awful—come to think of it, some of our recent shows are, too.
But that’s not the point here.
The point is: this past year we’ve been having fun. Real fun. My wife and I have driven the entire Southeast. We’ve put over one hundred thousand miles on our vehicle, and slept in cheap motels—everywhere from Jacksonville to Raleigh. And she’s been with me through it all.
We’ve recorded this small show at theaters, breweries, fairgrounds, city halls, Methodist churches, potlucks, poundcake contests, courthouses, college auditoriums, fellowship halls, ballrooms, city halls, school gymnasiums.
And I’m going to be perfectly honest: I have no idea what I’m doing.
I guess that’s why I’m clutching this stupid penny. Because I don’t deserve to be here. I should probably be hanging drywall, throwing a newspaper, or digging a ditch.
But if you can believe it—Lord knows I can’t—we have listeners in Idaho, Kansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Michigan, Oregon, California, Texas, Nevada, Virginia, and even the godless epicenter of my one-and-only panic attack in history, New York City.
Earlier this week, a woman from Shanghai, China, emailed me. She is originally from Opelika.
“My husband and I listen to the show each week…” she wrote. “And I just wanted to teach you to say, ‘War Eagle!’ in Mandarin. Here it is: ‘War @#$%^ Eagle, BABY!’”
A man in Winnipeg, wrote:
“…I was born and raised in South Alabama. I miss home, brother… My uncle died last week, and I couldn’t get back for the funeral. Thanks for helping me feel at home in a foreign world for a few minutes each week, brother…”
And I don’t even know where Winnipeg is.
So this probably wasn’t what you wanted to read today. And I don’t blame you. In fact, I don’t even know why I’m writing this.
Then again, maybe what you just read was actually written for a man I once knew. A man who loved Hank Williams. A man whose birthdate is on a penny I’m holding. No matter how old I get, I’d still like to make that man proud.
What a night.
Look, Daddy. I didn’t fall.