The Musician

He shuffles into a sitting room, using a walker. He tunes his bass guitar by ear. His joints are knobby, he has no feeling in his left hand. It doesn't stop him.

Opelika, Alabama—this is an old home. The kind of house with frilly curtains, decorative plates, and linoleum floors.

Eighty-seven-year-old Billie Joe Porter sits in a recliner. He’s wearing suspenders, and jeans. His hair is powdered-sugar.

He speaks in the old rural tongue—you’d be hard pressed to understand him if you weren’t paying attention. He ends sentences with, “yessir.”

I wish folks still talked like that.

“Was born in Elmore County, yessir,” says Billie Joe. “My brother showed me how to play guitar when I’s juss a little cuss.”

When Billie Joe learned to play, he was recovering from an accident. His daddy had been cutting a pine tree. It fell on young Billie Joe, crushed his shoulder, and cracked his head like an egg shell.

His brother taught him four chords. Billie Joe took to the instrument like a fly to a brown apple.

“Could tear up a guitar,” he says. “Yessir.”

The truth is, Billie Joe was one of the faceless blue-collar Alabamians. Tall, lanky, with hands like hams, and a work ethic that didn’t quit.

He married at eighteen. He worked in a cotton mill. He worked for the city. He worked hard hours.

After work, he would tear up guitars, fiddles, upright basses, and lap steels in joints across the South.

He might look like your average elderly man, but he is more than that. He is American music during its heyday.

He is field parties, square dances, livestock auctions, birthdays, honky tonks, beer joints, dance halls, county fairs. He is old-time radio.

“I even played with Hank Williams,” Bille Joe says. “At the old Montgomery Jamboree, yessir.”

During the jamboree, Hank told Billie Joe’s band to start calling out songs. So Billie Joe asked him to sing “Move it on Over.”

Hank looked back at Billie Joe and grinned. “You know my song?” said a surprised Hank.

This particular memory makes Billie Joe cry.

Billie Joe’s wife suggests he play a few.

He shuffles into a sitting room, using a walker. He tunes his bass guitar by ear. His joints are knobby, he has no feeling in his left hand. It doesn’t stop him.

“Can’t play like I used to,” he says.

Even so, we play music together. He sings old songs the way they were meant to be. His voice is the history of my people, wrapped up in twang. This is as close to heaven as I will get without laying in a pinewood box.

He sings “Room Full of Roses,” and, “I Saw the Light,” and, “I Can’t Help it if I’m Still in Love With You.”

He remembers every honky tonk lyric, and even though his pipes are aged, Billie Joe sings with sincerity.

“Aw, I ain’t no good,” he says. “Should’a seen me long time ago, yessir.”

When our time is done, we leave through the kitchen. His wife sends us home with banana bread and hugs.

“Come visit me anytime,” Billie Joe says. “Ain’t got much going on no more. I enjoyed it.”

I enjoyed it, too, Billie Joe. As a matter of fact, this was one of the better days of my life.

Yes sir.


  1. Patricia - June 4, 2017 1:21 pm

    What a wonderful moment.
    Thankyou, as always, for sharing.

  2. Laura Young - June 4, 2017 1:45 pm

    Enjoyed and smiled with this one. Daddy’s been dead a long time and Mother uses a walker to get around her house a little bit, but this reminded me of the days when they used to square dance. Though with my folks club they used recorded music, there would be a caller to call the dance. Way back before that, my granddaddy used to play the fiddle for the dances in a barn somewhere. There used to be a square dance jamboree every year at the Coliseum in Montgomery. There were Square Dance clubs that met every week and all the women wore square dance dresses with huge full skirts that were held out by undergarments made for that. Mother made all her rick rack covered brightly colored dresses and made many for her friends (she was a talented seamstress). That annual jamboree had folks coming from all over the country (mostly the south) and different clubs wore dresses all alike. The guys had shirts to match the dresses and when you saw the twirling dresses as they danced it was beautiful. In my mind I can see Billie Joe playing for some of these dances. I saw the video of you and Billie Joe playing together- did my heart good.

    • Sandi - June 4, 2017 8:42 pm

      Hi Laura, please tell us readers where you saw the video of Sean and Billie Joe playing their guitars together. Was it on YouTube?

    • Jon Dragonfly - June 5, 2017 2:36 pm

      If the video is on-line, please give us the link to it.

  3. Rolfe Hunt - June 4, 2017 2:38 pm

    One of Sean’s best. Been such places. Know the songs and people who sing them. Time marches on. Thanks for the memories.

  4. Sam Hunneman - June 4, 2017 3:05 pm

    Oh man… Billie Joe would’ve gotten a kick out of Goldie Doughty who could also play most anything with strings. She used to come into my aunt’s store, grab a plastic uke, and the two of’em would sing The Old Oaken Bucket. When, at the age of older-than-dirt, she decided to give concerts… rented the Island Hall and charged $1 a head… she’d forgotten a lot of the lyrics, but she was game. She’d play opening chords, chorus chords, closing cords and sing until the words failed, then announce, “Well, that’s all I know o’that one!” Thanks for the memories, and thanks for giving Billie Joe some well-deserved attention.

  5. Mark Bishop - June 4, 2017 4:43 pm

    Yes sir. I haven’t heard that accent in a long time. I hope you made recordings.

  6. Marty from Alabama - June 4, 2017 7:28 pm

    Love the old folks that are the heart and soul of the south. Makes me proud to be from The South!

  7. Shirley Strickland - June 4, 2017 8:38 pm

    This brought back many memories. I loved, loved, loved this one. Thank God for your talent. What a gift you share with us.

  8. Kathleen - June 4, 2017 11:34 pm

    ❤️ This story, and every song mentioned in this story reminds me of the music I grew up on. Hank could Sing, and I’am sure Billie Joe sit right up there with him??????

  9. Starla - June 5, 2017 4:31 am

    every article of yours I read they either make me me laugh or cry. About 50/50. Each one is a delight. Thank you for helping keep most of us grounded.

  10. Michael Bishop - June 5, 2017 1:56 pm

    Tried to leave a comment yesterday on a recent tribute piece of yours, but when I hit Submit, it didn’t take. Today I’ll just say, “Dang,” with a deeply admiring twang.

  11. Jack Quanstrum - June 6, 2017 1:23 am

    Wonderful story! I love old timers and stories about them. In 1950s and 19 60s My grandfather told me stories of himself and other Old Timers as he called them then during those years. I loved them then and I love them now. I am edging into that Old Timer age group, but a story like this makes me feel like I am seven years old again. Thank you Sean for letting me drink from the fountain of youth today.

  12. Kathi Harper Hill - June 6, 2017 3:28 pm

    Reminds me of my grandfather (born 1895). He began a lot of sentences with, “Well, sir-”
    Miss him still!

  13. Dianne - July 28, 2017 12:58 pm

    Look so forward to your column every morning, a like love and light in this dark world.

  14. Ben smith - July 28, 2017 1:19 pm

    Sometimes are just awesome. That’s a fact.

  15. Roger - July 28, 2017 1:19 pm

    I absolutely love all of your writing and videos. It takes me to back to my younger days. The world was different then and was a better place. I have been gone from Alabama for 41 years now and miss it terribly. Your writings make me homesick but I love them and anxiously wait for the next one. Thank you Sean.

  16. Melodie - July 28, 2017 2:37 pm

    Just came across ‘The Musician,’ yessir. Enjoyed the memory, as usual. I, too, was a musician, for 20 yrs. Not long, really. I remember when I decided to move on, take on a different life, to the Paradise of Kauai, Hawaii, and to be with my family who moved from the South to live there, later on, after another 20 yrs., moving back to the mainland to live out their days. I’m the only one left, now. I can still hear my mama say, ‘I bet you’ll never sing for your supper again,’ yessir. (or, ma’am) ♥

  17. Laurie Gray - July 28, 2017 5:02 pm

    Sean, thank you. Thank you for writing about the stuff that makes life worth living. You and your subjects are as real and familiar to me as if you were sitting right here in my living room. Though I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting you, we are old friends, you, Billie Joe, and me. Through your stories, we have traveled together, laughed and cried, and sat around a wobbly kitchen table eating homemade pie. You are a friend to your readers. You pack us up and carry us along with you on the finest adventures real life has to offer. God bless you, and thanks, again.

  18. Steve - July 28, 2017 6:24 pm

    Sure reminds me of daddy. Gone a long time. Played fiddle and guitar. Called square dances. Strawberry Plains Tennessee, yessir!


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