Anyone who speaks in my accent grew up primed for destructions. It comes as common to us as the knowledge to snarl during pain, so we try not to mourn. Each of us got swaddled at the base of exploding, headless mountains—chopped down first for the coal, then for the highways, and now out of tradition—and all we knew of homes was they were meant to change.
I changed too. The question I field the most from any number of bitch or son thereof is, “What happened to you? What happened to you?” I don’t imagine they’re looking for advice. The truth is nothing happened. I was born up a holler-head, ran wild a spell, and I always sung when I could. I never known my father, which, all things considered, is not as uncommon as a three-nutted horse. I heard once that he wound up as a commercial fisherman in Maine, which is high on my list of places I don’t care about.
My mother got her tongue cut out by tongue doctors when I was twelve, babbled around for a year and a half, and then bid us adieu. At least, I assume it was adieu—without her tongue, it was hard for her to say much at all except for one long vowel sound. It’s sad, but I heard sadder.
Learning guitar taught me a new way of fighting. Me and the Salyer boys would go snort a line or two, then they’d holler at me until I sang. I sang old songs—the type of weepy ballad that is to East Kentucky what the National Anthem is to war. When I played on street corners in front of strangers, everyone acted kindly, but I figured that was mostly surprise at hearing a young boy sing old songs.
So I sang their “Methodist Pie,” their “Good Ol’ Mountain Dew,” or their “Diamond Joe” and all the while shuck and grin. I meant it as spoiling for a fight, but I didn’t know what kind yet. Then one night when I was singing a gospel tune to some friends in my backyard, Oliver Penny, who’d just done three tabs of acid, misheard “Come now, Jesus, break this wall” as “Come now, Jesus, take this waltz.” As soon as Oliver could remember which way was inside, he fetched us a piece of paper where we scribbled our first song, “I Can Outdance Jesus.”
We liked it so much that the next Sunday my buddies and I went to The Episcopal Church to sing it for the people leaving the sermon. As the Church folk filed out, I hit a few high strings and waited as they gathered around. Finally, I had enough of a crowd where I could begin.
The song has a slow build: “I was in a nightclub in Jerusalem, in 22 AD,” I sing. “The band started playing, and on the dance floor, it was just Jesus and me.” The me in the song wins the dance contest with God’s eldest, and just as he receives his thorny dancing crown, the chorus begins:
I can outdance Jesus
So won’t you dance with me?
You can’t shimmy, and you can’t shake
With your feet nailed to a tree.
I can outdance Jesus.
O babe, I’m on a roll.
He might be the king of the Jews,
But I’m the king of soul.
Oliver Penny got spooked at singing blasphemy within earshot of the lord, but the way I figure it, I’m Christlier than most people.
There was a slight pause before the heckling. I thought they were going to swarm me, but I still had another verse. So I sang it, but before I belted out three lines, someone beamed me in the forehead with a shoe.
It didn’t hurt, but made a loud pop, and the surprise more than the smack made me stop singing. It shut the crowd up too.
I didn’t know what to do, but I had an audience. Because the man was already on my mind, and I hadn’t written a second song, I strummed the first few heavy chords and sang “O What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” No one reacted, so I segued straight into “Angel Band.” Now they laughed like that was the joke song.
‘Cheer up my brother, and sit down beside me/We’ll understand better in the sweet bye and bye.’ I can’t say for certain if now’s the bye and bye, but I do understand. I’d made those folks believe. They heard my songs and took them as a declaration of pandemonium, and when I reverted back to form, they knew I’d been changed. I’d acted as baptizer and lamb all wrapped in one delicious gyro.
I’ve got no urge to sway a town to righteousness, but I can’t resist a ruckus. Once I saw how quick my songs could throw folks off balance, I knew that was one talent I couldn’t ignore. Every Saturday, it was a double nostrilful of whatever we could snag for the thirty something dollars we had when we pooled our money. Then each Sunday morning, I parked in front of the church, singing about Jesus on the dance floor. The first two weeks, they were annoyed. I was pulling last week’s salvation show, and they didn’t want to sit through it twice. Soon, however, they stopped hating me, barely noticing my song, even as I added verse after verse. They walked by me with smiles as blank and bright as light bulbs, like I was doing nothing more than wearing a sandwich board.
I tried writing new songs, secular ones this time. The next week, I wrote a song called “My Wife Ran Away With a Jew,” which explains how some son of Abraham son of a bitch pries away the poor singer’s beloved. “As he stole her away, she yelled from his car/‘He controls the media and controls my heart.’” I detailed the singer’s plans to regain her good graces. “If you come back, babe, I’ll stop eating swine/I’ll cut off my foreskin if it means that you’re mine.” I sang it in front of the Chinese restaurant where the reformer types eat, and even though some tuxedoed Chinaman shooed me away, I suspect it was for the noise and not the words.
I then decided to make children’s music. First, it was a song to help children whose parents are going through divorce called “New Mommy.” ‘The new mommy’s a lot prettier and she don’t make you clean your room/she didn’t keep you locked away for nine months in her womb.’ I followed it with an ode to the marathon masturbation sessions we used to do in middle school when we were too sick to go to class. ‘Come on, let’s have a sick day, there’s no one else around/Think of a girl and disobey God and spill your seed on the ground.’
It took Chuck Holloway, the principal’s layabout brother, to clue me in. Chuck was the only one who sought out my music. On warm days, he sat on the curb in front of me and bobbed his head to the beat. He didn’t have much sense of rhythm, but sometimes I found myself slowing the song to match how his head weaved. I didn’t know Chuck Holloway well, but he struck me as the lucky sort, the type people want to shield.
“I know what you’re after,” he said one Sunday morning. “It’s got to kill you, right?”
I tuned my D string.
“You know why folks ignore you, right?” His teeth were so ragged and his gums so bloody that he looked like he’d just eaten a bowl of Chiclets and raspberry jam. “Whatever else you are, you’re a kid without a mother. Not a word yet invented you could sing that can make us think anything other than you’re acting out.”
I hated Chuck Holloway for telling me that. They thought of me as the Collier kid, the last best reflection of Rachel Collier before she lost her health. I might as well have been her afterbirth.
For a long time after that, I thought about Tennessee. Oliver Penny asked why I wouldn’t show up on Saturday nights anymore. He missed my company, he said, and he missed my songs. Also without my seven dollars and thirty-six cents they had to go to a lesser class of drug that was at least sixty percent baking soda. Ray Lofton thought he’d pissed me off, and got midway through his apology before he decided I was stuck up and full of shit anyway, and if I wanted to be mad, I could rightly fuck myself. But I wasn’t mad; I had a strategy.
A song in itself is nothing but a three-minute bit of say-what-you-see. Look, there’s a pretty girl; Look, there’s a well-publicized injustice in Alabama; Look, there’s upcoming death. But the reaction to a song can crack marble. As I saw it, it’s only a matter of what halls do I want to shake.
It’s commonly known by thinking folks that Tennessee is a piece of shit state, barely worthy of being Georgia’s asswipe. The men smell like a hobo’s ballbag in the second week of August, and the women have that cross-eyed distracted look that God’s bestowed on redheads and the mildly retarded. The sum total of all that bullshit is Nashville, where the whole city is Christian rock and virgin country. And then there’s the Opry, which is nothing but a hillbilly minstrel show. All those be-hatted queers playing the coon so the rest of the world can laugh at us. The more I thought about it, the more I knew it was true—for me to get peace in this world, the Opry had to burn.
I stopped playing my songs on street corners. Actually, I played the beginnings of them, but as soon as soon as someone stopped to listen, I quit singing and just stared at them until they went away. Most folks crossed the street when they saw me with my guitar.
“You all right there, honey?” Chuck Holloway asked me. He called everyone honey, man or woman. “Been hearing stories about you acting all out your head.”
“Did you know that George Jones was such a miserable drunk that when his wife hid the keys to his car, he drove his lawn mower to the liquor store?” I shook my head. “What sort of state celebrates a degenerate like that?”
I tried working my way back to my circle of friends, putting my guitar and nostrils good use each Saturday, but the Opry had killed my conversation. When real slander didn’t cut it, I made stuff up. “Did you know Minnie Pearle hated Mexicans?” I said. “She calls them mud-people.”
“You’re not Mex,” Ray Lofton said. “She’s not calling you mud.”
“And Dolly Parton beat her kids,” I said. “In her memoirs, she talks about holding her daughter’s hand to the stove.”
“Right,” Oliver Penny said. “And Osama Bin Laden helped fund Hee Haw, and Elvis Presley’s the one who sold us this weak-ass dope. Why you got such a hard-on for that place anyway?”
“The music,” I said. “The people. Everything.”
“That song ‘Rocky Top’ is kind of catchy,” he said.
“You’re just trying to piss me off.”
“What about James Polk?”
I spat on the ground. “I hate that pop-country shit.”
“James K. Polk was president,” Oliver said. “I don’t know how good he was but president, you got to have some friends.”
“It’s hard to explain,” I said. But it wasn’t. I’d already explained. “I wish it wasn’t there. I want it not to exist.”
Claude Salyer swiped his uncle’s hatchback to go to Bristol to visit some girl, and he offered me a ride. “You talk about Tennessee so much,” he told me, “you may as well say it to its face.” Claude and I didn’t much like each other, which put him at odds with approximately no one, and I suspect he gave me the ride to get rid of me—he let me know up front that the ride was one way, and I could find my own way home or not—but I took it. On the ride down, Claude kept asking my plans like he was my guidance counselor.
“I want to see Nashville,” I finally said.
“Nashville?” He laughed. “It’s like five hours away. It’s another time zone.”
I blinked at him.
“You know what Tennessee is, right? A state. A big one with lots of parts to it.”
Something in the back of the seat was prodding into my spine, and I reached behind me to get it. I’d never really said my plan to anyone, not all the way. “You know my music, right? You like it?”
Claude tilted his head in a manner I decided to call a nod. “I can’t say I care for the cussing, but you got an okay voice.”
I looked out the window. His side mirror was cracked. “Sometimes I think, What if I got good? And big, you know, just singing those sweet old songs people want to hear. Can I make it?”
“No,” he said. “Nothing personal, but you’re not the first man with that idea.”
“But say I did. Like big enough to play the Opry.” I readjusted in my seat. “I just had this vision, you know, of everyone in one place, them listening, really listening to me. And I start singing my songs, the dirty ones, would they riot? Try to take the stage? Trample each other? I don’t want to jinx it, but burn stuff?”
Claude Salyer looked at me, ran his thick tongue over his corn colored teeth and started cackling. “You’re nuttier than a can of Jif,” he said. “You think a whole town’s going to commit Hari Kari because you said the F word?”
“Stranger things have happened.”
“They have not,” he said. “Here I am thinking you’re just a weirdo when it turns out you’re flat crazy.”
He dropped me off in Bristol just before sunset. “Near the bus station,” he said, but when I asked which way, he admitted he didn’t know if Bristol had a bus station. It didn’t matter. I didn’t have money for a bus yet. The people were starting to get out of work and into the streets.
I stood on the corner and tuned my guitar. A man across the street in a green jacket stared at me. Because of the color of his clothes, I thought he might be a veteran, so I sang a song about America. It was going to be hard to sing it sober, but I had no choice now.
The song had a quick bouncy rhythm, and it tries to unravel all of American history at once, starting with the Pilgrims sailing into Plymouth Rock and meeting the Indians. “We gave them smallpox, but they stole our tea, so we decided to call it even.” It goes on to include The Revolutionary War, slavery, and Manifest Destiny “We took the west from the Indians/And Texas from the Mexicans/Now they won’t take it back again/Although it would improve both nations”. It leads to the chorus, optimistic and gloating, which is how music is meant to sound:
Two cars for every house
We never eat our cats or dogs,
Can’t say the same for Laos.
With forty acres and a mule
Our women have fake plastic tits.
Take that, Istanbul.
We each of us have our own wars and our own weapons. I had my gospel, and the more I sang, the more I believed. The Opry would die with or without me—all buildings fall. But if I could get the song right then you and me could both taste the wood-smoke and smell the panic sweat. I’d live as long as recorded history, people shaking their heads in awe, saying, that kid’s a beast, that kid’s a nightmare, that right there’s a man worth regarding. And if I ever got home again, I’d tell about it.
Willie Davis is the winner of Willesden Herald International Short Story Contest (judged by Zadie Smith) and The Katherine Anne Porter Prize (judged by Amy Hempel).