Rain is falling in Tallapoosa.
It has been falling for three days.
Back up the road at the Williams house, Audrey must be ecstatic. She loves nothing more than to sit on the screened-in porch and listen to the rain as it drowns out the monotonous hum of traffic passing by on 78 Highway.
But we weren’t going back to the house just yet. As we made our way off the Shealy spread, we ran into Evan Saxon, another one of Anthony’s buddies. Evan was on his way to Johnny Devere’s place over in Alabama, so we decided to tag along.
Somewhere between Fruithurst and Borden Springs, in a one-man no-man’s land carved out of the eastern fringe of the Talladega National Forest, Johnny Devere lives in a ramshackle trailer tucked beneath the wing of an unfinished barn.
Johnny Devere calls himself a hermit, and I guess he should know. He certainly looks the part. I’d heard quite a bit about Johnny already, and the prospect of a visit sent a jolt through me. I am fascinated by stubborn individuals who succeed, for better or worse, in living their lives beyond reach of the stifling tentacles of the corporate octopus.
Johnny’s place had come up in our chat with Terry. Anthony had taken his cousin out there not that long ago. Johnny had discovered an old hive full of ornery black bees wedged into a dilapidated building on the property, and this excited Terry’s sensibilities. Swarming in and around the hive were about 100,000 of the nastiest, most aggressive bees Terry had ever encountered. More than one of them found their way inside his protective headgear. He got stung 35 or 40 times before he walked away.
But that’s another story.
Soon we were back in Alabama, heading north on County Road 49. After about 10 miles, we veered left onto County Road 55, aka Rabbit Town Road. In another minute we were pulling into the dirt driveway that curled its way to Johnny’s trailer, which sat in a small clearing with the barn and not much else.
Johnny didn’t look overjoyed to see us. He had the gaunt, weary countenance of a Confederate general. Or maybe it was just the Army fatigues and slouch hat that made me think of Jeb Stuart.
He eyed me, the stranger in his midst, with suspicion. Things would get better, though. Evan rolled a joint, and Anthony passed out beers. It didn’t take Johnny long to loosen up and become at least indifferent to my intrusion.
Evan often brings his harmonicas along on the trip in an effort to tempt Johnny into playing harp again. Johnny reliably turns him down. At 65, he says he doesn’t have the wind anymore. Too many cigarettes, he says.
“Life don’t bother Johnny,” is the way Anthony described his world view Saturday night when we were sipping Wild Turkey and paging through scrapbooks filled with photographs he’d taken over the years. I was intrigued by the shots of his youthful musician friends, who looked like a couple of cosmic cowboys from western Georgia.
Back then, Johnny and his partner, the equally carefree Harl Baggett, traveled the south in the latter’s 1968 Dodge Dart. They hit the road with a case of bulk oil in the trunk and no particular itinerary. They wandered for months and played dirt-floor honky tonks and juke joints from the Alabama hills to the Mississippi Delta.
Harl and Johnny are kindred spirits. They started playing together when Johnny was 15 or 16. They don’t see much of each other these days, but their travels together are alive in the memories of their friends.
Neither wanted much in the way of material comfort. Neither seemed to care what anyone else thought.
“I’ve envied Harl and Johnny all my life,” Evan would say later, “because they did exactly what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it. Johnny would quit a job go to the woods and live for months, and we’d bring him a sack of potatoes or something. He’d kill a groundhog, a rabbit, or a squirrel, whatever it took to get by. Then when he came out of the woods, they would hire him back. Johnny was good at everything he tried. Still is.
“He was a salesman par excellence. He could talk a dog off of his hair.”
“The best music I ever heard in my life was when Johnny and Harl both got their harmonicas out, and one played melody and one played harmony. It was the only time I ever heard ’em play (harmonica) together, because one was always doing something else; Harl playing the guitar and Johnny on the bass tub or harmonica. It wasn’t something they practiced. One just started playing and the other joined in. It was great.” – Evan Saxon
There is a well-worn story which epitomizes the self-reliant insouciance that courses deep in the blood of men such as Harl Baggett and Johnny Devere. If it is apocryphal in places, it rings true in spirit. One long-ago morning a friend who ran a construction crew stopped by to see if Harl wanted to make some money. He had a big job on his hands, and there was plenty of work to go around.
Harl appeared at the door, heard the offer and then retreated into his kitchen. He returned a minute or two later and said, “Nah, I’m OK. I still got two cans of beans.”
That should be a song if it’s not. Two cans of beans and no worries.
Harl Baggett is a gifted musician and songwriter. Once a friend and bandmate suggested he move to Nashville or Memphis to court wider exposure. He just shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Some people want different things.”
He wrote a song called “10 Bucks a Skin,” which is something of an homage to Johnny’s outdoor skills. Harl was a country artist who crafted baskets out of kudzu vines and sold them by the highway side, especially in the time leading up to Easter. He also made fiddles. He labored over them for months and before selling them for $30.
Johnny would kill three rattlesnakes in one afternoon and sell their skins for $10 a pop.
The sky above was a truculent mass of gray. We took cover on the barn porch as rain pounded down on the metal roof.
A bamboo thicket rose in our rear.
Empty beer cans and chickens had the run of the place.
A rooster crowed.
A bird sang a lilting melody.
Carolina wren, Johnny said matter-of-factly.
He is a throwback to a long-gone time. He has a closer relationship with nature, the old, wild, instinctive nature, than most Americans have had for two centuries. They say he imitates the call of a barred owl with such uncanny precision that he’ll have four or five owls yakking at each other in obstreperous fashion.
“The old-timers called them laughing owls,” he said.
He has worked many regular jobs over the years, but always left when routine started to make his skin twitch. He once worked at Smitty’s barbershop in Tallapoosa. Nominally, he was a shoeshine boy. Mostly he delivered white lightning.
“In those days, a lot of the barbershops had a place in the back where you could come in and take a bath,” Evan said. “Johnny Devere was a shoeshine man. They’d give him a basket back there and say, ‘go take it to so and so.’ And he’d take it over there and they’d give him a dollar. He made more money delivering liquor then he did shining shoes.”
Ah, Smitty the barber. Smitty used to cut Anthony’s hair. Until he came home one too many times with an uneven buzz.
“Ollie, he gapped it again,” Anthony’s mom Clara would holler at her husband.
Which brings to mind a memorable line delivered by Walter Brennan’s character in the film “Meet John Doe.”
“I don’t read no papers, and I don’t listen to radios, either either. I know the world’s been shaved by a drunken barber, and I don’t have to read it.”
Anthony handed out the last of the beer. Evan rolled another number. The rain continued to pelt the roof above our heads and the ground just beyond our feet. Not that anyone seemed to mind.
The insistent crow of a rooster cut through the thunder of the incessant rain. I asked Johnny how it was he came to embrace this lifestyle.
“I ain’t got no responsibility besides my dogs and my chickens,” he said. “I ain’t got nothing, I don’t want nothing. I’m richer than a lot of men. People say, ‘why you live out in the middle of nowhere?’ I’ll tell you why. I ain’t got no bills. I ain’t got no money.
“I got peace. I’m contented.”
One more thing: Here’s a bit of Harl Baggett taken from the musical reservoir of Youtube. The first song, “Ain’t No Flat Tires in Heaven,” is another tale born of their road experience. Johnny explained that when they traveled in the old Dodge Dart, Harl would pull over at service stations and ask if they had any used tires. He’d pick them up for a dollar or two and store them in the trunk with the case of oil. When they got a flat, they’d put a new tire on and throw the old one in the ditch.