We’re in a motel room in Savannah, Tennessee.
Comfort Inn, Room 107.
Wayne Jerrolds, who did short stint in Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, is playing fiddle.
Elvis is here, too.
He’s missing a leg, though.
One-legged Elvis does not want our sympathy.
He’s happy to be alive.
Born Aug. 30, 1918, to Nev and Rosa Hendon 18 miles north of here in Saltillo, Tenn., Elvis was the fifth of nine children.
“I was the middle man,” he likes to say.
Elvis likes to tell stories. He told us one about the time he accompanied his brother on an excursion up the Tennessee River in a house boat, past Paducah, Ky.
Along the way, they dug for mussels.
It was something.
Elvis had a pet pig, a pig named Oscar.
Oscar took the trek up the swollen Tennessee, too. He traveled in a cage, on a small boat attached to the main vessel. Each night they tied up on the banks of the Tennessee. They didn’t travel by night. And Elvis took Oscar out to forage.
Oscar eventually grew to be 200 pounds. And then he was slaughtered .
Elvis is alive and living in York Harbor, Maine, across the river from Portsmouth, N.H. He joined the Army Air Corps during World War II, and eventually was transferred to Presque Isle, Mine.
There he met Elida Mae Giggie. Elvis and Elida Mae Reed were married on Aug. 20, 1943.
Elvis returns to Savannah once a year. He used to drive, back when he was all there.
He ain’t all there no more.
We met Elvis quite by happenstance. We were leaving the Hardin County Public Library (have I mentioned how much I love libraries?) on Thursday, after getting the car checked out by James Justice. Actually, we had left the library already, but Becky went back in to wash out the pot from the previous night’s pierogies-in-cream-sauce repast.
While I waited for her in the lobby, my eyes fell upon an exhibit on the wall, behind glass, highlighting traditional music in Hardin County. The focal point of the exhibit was a local named Wayne Jerrolds, who had donated instruments and notes.
Suitably inspired, we set out in search of this Wayne Jerrolds. The brief biography in the exhibit taught us Jerrolds had played with Bill Monroe. We looked up his address, did a Mapquest search, then drove to about where we assumed his home to be.
As usual, I started pussy-footing around. I mean, who the hell was I to accost a man of Wayne Jerrolds’ pedigree.
Becky insisted on a follow-through, but I was afraid. What am I afraid of? I don’t know, but to hazard a guess: Everything. I hate the idea of someone hating the idea of me bugging them. We finally stopped and asked a man, who was building some kind of addition onto his house, and he informed us Wayne Jerrolds was downtown playing music in a motel.
On a random Thursday afternoon in October.
In 15 minutes, by dint of a small amount of effort and a whole lot of fate, we were in room 107 of the Comfort Inn on Pickwick, listening to Wayne Jerrolds fiddle whilst sitting on a luggage table next to the TV. Grady “Cowboy” Lewis (88) and Emmett Garner accompanied Jerrolds on guitar.
A World War II veteran, Cowboy Lewis had served as emcee of the Hardin County Bluegrass Festival for a decade. He was a retired electrician who had worked in the service department at Sears. His wife’s name is Inez “Grannie” Lewis.
It was Elvis’ and Elida’s room. Wayne and the boys had come by as a favor to Elvis, whose mobility has been curtailed by his disability.
It felt a little odd, being in a motel room with a bunch of strangers, particularly as we had come down on them like lightning out of a clear blue sky. But they were gracious to a fault, particularly Elvis.
For some reason, likely because their manners precluded such a move, they hadn’t told us to mind our own business. And they made us feel at home in their home away from home.
Elvis sat in his wheelchair, exuding hospitality.
“I’d get up and dance,” he tells Becky, “but I think you understand why I don’t.”
Oct. 17, 2003
It appeared our remarkable run of provocative interactions would be snapped. We went to the library in Jackson, looking for information that might lead us to something concerning the late John Lee (Sonny Boy No. 1) Williamson.
We found Shannon Street, and little else. Couldn’t pinpoint the precise location Sonny Boy dispatched his bluebird to in order to deliver that letter to Lacey Belle. Carl Perkins has a civic center named for him here; Sonny Boy don’t seem to have shit, veneration-wise.
We left town, returned to Interstate (40) for the first time in over a week, and drove east. We saw a billboard touting, in the flash of passing letters, Patsy Cline’s crash site. We got off at Exit 126 and set off to see what we might see. We missed a turn. Saw lots of rusting wrecks and splendid fall color on a sleepy country road. We backtracked, returned to 40, and headed east once more.
We left the freeway again in advance of promised delay, ate smushed, chocolate-covered cherries and drank red wine. We got drunk.
I then drove to Nashville on the back roads, following route 705 through the bucolic Tennessee countryside. We stopped at an Eckerd’s on the outskirts of town, to see about one-hour film processing. We were too late. It was after 7, and the film department knocked off at 7.
Becky went in to use the restroom.
A young black man who said he was homeless approached. He held out a shaky left hand and asked for a dime. Name is Dan, he said.
I handed him a dollar. Becky returned, Dan asked Becky for a dollar, too. Then he disappeared. I went to the car to grab the tape recorder, and Becky went into Eckerd’s and returned with a giant can of Miller Lite.
I was perplexed. She hates beer, or at least claims to. Except she sometimes makes allowances for emergencies. She said the beer was for Dan. But Dan was gone.
We traipsed around the corner looking for him, but he had vanished. We were trying to maintain the streak, to slip one past Keltner at third, but maybe we were pressing.
We pushed farther into Nashville, found ourselves on Lower Broadway (though we had no idea yet we were on fabled Lower Broadway), near the Gaylord Center. We parked on Broadway, stumbled into Ernest Tubb’s record store. The late Mr. Tubb opened the store in 1947. It moved to its present location in 1951.
The collection of country music therein was so overwhelming that I lost all bearings. I wouldn’t know where to start if I felt free to spend the money necessary to fortify my traditional country CD collection.
Ernest Tubb, of course. Hank Snow. Carl Smith. Lefty Frizzell. More. And more. Much more. It was hopeless. Each individual section is stocked with a bewildering array of selections. Makes me think the little I know of the genre is so little as to be negligible.
But we walked the aisles. Soon we’d learn things.
We saw a photo of Elvis (Presley) at the Louisiana Hayride, 1958. In the left corner of the shot is the head of a young man, probably 17, snapping a photograph of Elvis. The head belongs to Guy Goleman, who now sports a mop of white hair circling his benign face. He’s 65, works weekends at the store and lives in Cookeville, halfway between Nashville and Knoxville.
(I didn’t know this at the time, at least I don’t remember, but Guy and his wife, the former Carol Mangham, faithfully attended Louisiana Hayride performances at the Shreveport Memorial Municipal Auditorium. Carol attended for the first time in 1955, when she was 14, and got to pose with Elvis. The duo documented their experiences with their Kodak Brownie camera, and you can check out some of their fascinating collection here. I didn’t see the 1958 Elvis shot, but there’s one of Johnny Cash from 1958 where Guy Goleman is snapping a photo in the lower right corner.)
Guy grew up in Caspiana, La., in the outskirts of Shreveport. Says he was smitten by Hank Williams and more, and started to write his own music. In 1966, he sold one to Hank Jr. called “Wrong-Doin’ Man.” I asked how much he got for the song.
He said $1,500. At least he thinks it was $1,500.
This Nashville dodge, he thought, was a cinch.
In 1986, two decades later, he enjoyed minor success with his tune, “I’ve Been in Nashville 20 Years and No One Knows My Name.”
Suddenly, the streak was alive. It is uncontrollable. It has taken on a demanding, wearying life of his own. Before long we were joined by King David McGaha, a besotted country boy from the Smoky Mountains who had relocated to Lower Broadway. He’s not sure how long ago he came here.
King David, a skinny monarch with sallow cheeks and ruddy nose, says it don’t pay to make moonshine no more.
“Them boys grows marijuana now,” he said. “That’s where the money is.”
King David has not been affected by multiculturalism. He’ll never be accused of political correctness.
He likes to tell retrograde jokes about black men and watermelons. He says the Titans ought to paint the football green with white stripes, because “then them boys would never fumble it.”
“Ever see one drop a watermelon?” he said.
We looked at our shoes and tried not to blush.
The King’s unscheduled arrival further crippled the fledgling interview with Guy, who was amicable and more than willing. The situation was exacerbated when some meddlesome customer came to the counter, his mind set on making a purchase.
Guy Goleman has two kids in a Christian rock band. They had a mock country group, called the Cactus Brothers, who appeared in a George Strait movie, “Pure Country.” Had a couple videos on MTV. Their daddy sold a song to Hank Williams Jr. before he turned 30. Success, the commercial variety, ain’t easy to latch onto in Music City.
Just ask Mike Slusser. You can find him any night on Lower Broadway, playing his Bluett mandolin with case open to catch passing dollar bills. Mike, if anything, is more affable than Guy Goleman.
Coming: Mike Slusser, the mandolin man of Lower Broadway