Archive for The Smoky Mountains

My Ring of Fire: Charpter 4 – Sweet Home Alabama

Posted in Alabama, America, Autobiographical, New York City, Non-Fiction, Poetry, Pop Art, Pop Culture, Punk Rock, Rock and Roll with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2010 by Paulette Powell

I used to think of myself as an East Village artist with a Punk Rock edge…But I’m Southern to the bone. And soon as I get to know you, I’m inviting you over for Sunday supper whipping up Gumbo, black-eyed peas and my usual signature side; collard greens, “Southern Hospitality.”

You might recall in Chapter 1 – Doom or Destiny, I mentioned our daughters had challenges, but together were master minds, even once attempting to charter a plane to fly to our family farm in Cullman Alabama. Cortney’s enthusiasm for our home state was contagious.

It was only natural to invite our new best friends; Charlie, Charlotte and Luke to venture down with us on our annual pilgrimage to see my parents and for Cortney to spend time at Powell’s Chapel on Powell’s Mountain.

Mr. Laurence immediately accepted my invitation, out of infatuation or curiosity, or a little of both. During our budding friendship I would reciprocate his stories with my own. Entertaining him with tales about my favorite relatives; Uncle James, my Father, another Man in Black (a Steelworker advocate) my musician-dancer-artist Mom and my part Scot-Irish, English and Cherokee Indian Grandmother, Gladys B. Renfrow and “Granddaddy” Romey Lee. Both worked as sharecroppers during The Great Depression to become land owners later in life. They lived the American Dream; their story still inspires.

I may be an expat Southerner, but my thoughts and heart are never far from Dixie. I find cultural exchanges with people I meet in the Big Apple, not only a great experience, but sharing stories, can clear up misconceptions. I’ve discovered most people have the same goals, to prosper and give their children opportunities. No matter what race, faith or nationality, this is a common bond we all share. This Mortal Coil is not a scary or lonely place; it is a rainbow of complexity and beauty!

I had began as a singer/song writer/poet in Birmingham, with my band Liz and DIck (co-founded with Matthew Faust Kimbrell, of Jim Bob and the Leisure Suits and The Ho Ho Men) before moving to the East Village to form Dark Blue. Charlie was intrigued by my songs and poems; Uncle Hollis’ Wild Cat Whisky, Cat Fishing at Midnight, The Holy Ghost, Speaking in Tongues, Snake Handling on Sand Mountain, I Got a Gun and my series entitled “My Grandmother Poems”.

Once well known music journalist Mick Brown, met up with us in Soho for dinner, floored when Charlie mentioned we recently attended a Mother’s Day dance at Betty’s Place in Aliceville, Alabama, hosted by the great backwoods Blue’s Shaman, Willie King. Mick in awe, expressed, he had yet to attend an authentic Juke Joint (a Bluesman’s version of a Roadhouse); and now envied Charlie for living one of his dreams.

At that moment a light bulb went off in my head, “Damn! My culture and I, are exotic as darkest Peru, Africa or India to these Englishmen!” That was a wake up call; I would always be an outsider to a certain Brit and Charlie was no exception. Class, bloodlines run deep; his Mother, Lady Laurence would eventually explain to me.

And Charlie was a foreigner to many of my family, someone keeping me in New York City, to raise “the blue eyed girl”. But this could not be further from the truth, love is what binds people and for anyone to object to the relationship of the Southern Bell and Englishman would sound like something from the Victorian Era, but unfortunately, it still exist.

This would be an ongoing threat and royal pain in the ass to our relationship. Charlie and I desired so badly to have family support by both sets of parents, relatives and friends…And to say all did not, would be a lie, some did, but many and I fear this is human nature, too often envy happiness and look for fault, creating a stigmatism of Forbidden Love.

We were from different countries, faiths and class, but both Caucasian! How hard do bi-racial couples have it? I suspect it must be unbearable at times and their love must always be on test mode. I have a lot of open hearted respect for these special couples and their children.

Back to; On the Road with Charlie! We would travel in the Jeep from Manhattan through the Holland Tunnel to catch I-78 across New Jersey, eventually “America Starts Here “ State of Pennsylvania, my Father’s birth place…To Virginia where we would hit the Blue Ridge Mt. Park Way, 469 miles of breathtaking scenic roadway, connecting the Shenandoah National Park to The Great Smoky Mountains!

If you have never taken a great American road trip, be sure you do before you die! You have yet to begin to know the USA until you experience cross-country, North to South or East to West. It is truly an inspirational and humbling experience. It lends a better appreciation of America. In recent years I find more and more tourists heralding from Europe, Australia and other lands from far far away, road tripping. Testifying to our stability as a country, not many unknown threats or war zones and a special country and landscape we share. God has blessed America!

The Appalachian Mountain view is simply gorgeous, not many realize they are older than the Great Rocky Mountains and once boasted a miniature strain of American Bison many moons ago. The flora and fauna is thick and the misty mornings are magical, reminding me of Arthurian mythology.

A few detours included a photo opportunity under the welcome sign of the twin Cities of Bristol, that lay on the border of VA and TENN, Stonewall Jackson’s home and museum and a few roadside venders to purchase boiled peanuts and homemade blackberry/ strawberry jam. One of my favorite stops was hiking on the Appalachian Trail, keeping our eyes open for black bears and visiting the Cherokee reservation in the Smoky Mountains. We were having a grand old time while anticipating Alabama, the heart of Dixie.

Luke was three and a half at the time and called Alabama, “Namabama” he kept asking over and over, “Are we in Namabama yet?”, “Where is Namabama, I want to see Namabama!”. It still warms my heart recalling how exuberant the kids and how happy we all were in those tender years of mutual exploration.

Finally we arrived in “Sweet Home Alabama” at my parent’s farm in Cullman. The kids were let loose; it was as Cortney described to Miss Charlotte. The foothills, big green piney wood mixed with Hemlock, Oak, Pecan, Walnut, Red Bud and Dogwood trees and where people talked with a regional twang.

Charlie finally met Grandmother, her exterior hard but her insides as mushy as a chocolate covered cherry. He took a lovely portrait of us together, only a vague resemblance but it is there. No longer would he challenge my claim of Native American bloodline, he could tell in her profile and facial features, she was of First Nation.

We visited our family cemetery where my Great Grandfather, Chester Lee Lollar was laid to rest and many other English North Country names adorn headstones along with German and Irish, baring witness to the settling of the South. Charlie cited the book “Albion’s Seed” as a great reference; he would later recommend it to my Mother’s first cousin, when we paid my Grandmother’s sister, Margret and her husband, my dear, Uncle James Baker a visit in Berry Alabama. Not far from Tuscaloosa, where I was born and where Grandmother’s parents had resided in the City Limits, Chester with wife Jane.

I’m fortunate to have known my Great Grandfather, Chester; I was 7 when he passed away. A tall thin man with high cheekbones, who owned a minor bird and was an impressive pianist. I can recall a lovely memory; when he would sit me on his lap in front of his upright piano, and put my small hands on his and play! His grandchildren, my Mother, Eleanor Faye and Doyle would follow in his footsteps and learn to play. I can pick a melody by ear, but regret I didn’t follow through with my piano lessons. Something I hope to pick it up again.

Over the valley and through the woods to Great Uncle James’s house we would go. A charismatic man with large jaws and a beautiful baritone singing voice that was as smooth as dark honey. He was deeply religious, in a good way, never self-righteous, he was sincere with his love for Jesus and the gospels. Uncle James knew the “Good Book” but he also loved literature, a country gentleman, philosopher who was gifted with a pen and paper documenting his own short stories and poems. I also credit him for my great love of poetry.

I’d not seen Uncle James in a number of years but understood from Grandmother, he had emphysema. When Charlie and I arrived, I had to choke back tears when I viewed this once vital man of my childhood so frail and on oxygen. But as soon as we came in the door, a spark was lit, before long he was entertaining my Englishman with his comical stories, reading from his journal.

I reminisced with Uncle James and Aunt Greet; how wonderful it was, as a girl when I would visit during summer vacation. What a treat when Uncle James would take me “Critter Hunting”, late at night….On his tractor, a spot light and Sparky the dog, to see what critters we could spy. Opossum, fox, raccoons, deer, while the crickets and frogs played a natural symphony of music all around.

Cousin Doyle soon joined us; playing classical music on the piano and commenting to Charlie, “I bet you didn’t know a hillbilly could play Chopin?” we all laughed as he continued to play.

Charlie was moved by our visit and decided to write it up as a column for his newspaper…When it appeared in the Telegraph of London he was taken aback, upset with the title his editor had given, he said it poked fun, but it didn’t bother me or my family, if anything it recorded one of the last times I would see my dear Uncle James Baker and besides I’m proud to be a Southerner.

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