Coming to you from Liberty, Tennessee, where the ridge runner meets the flatlander…
Early in the 21st century I thought of an idea for a record. Two performer/writers that influenced my musical path were named Willie, Willie Dixon and Willie Nelson. I thought about recording some of their songs as well as some new original ones with the name Willie in the title or lyric. The record would be called, Willbilly’s Got The Willies. I hope to record and release that record some day. I like the title.
There was another Willie who had a profound influence on me, Willie Morris. He was an American novelist, who happened to be from the south and editor of Harper’s Magazine in the late 1960s.
Writer Rick Cleveland, fellow Mississippian, on Willie Morris said, “ You spend three hours with Willie, your life is gonna change a little bit.”
Willie Morris, “I really have no choice but words.”
In May of 1987 I was living in Nashville with my first wife, Terry and my daughter, Melia, just three months old. We went to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with my close friend and songwriting collaborator, Geoff Himes.
We decided to take a cultural route down through Mississippi, often along Highway 61. Our first stop was in Tupelo to visit the birthplace of Elvis Presley. We didn’t have any trouble finding it because of numerous road signs and historical markers. The two room shotgun house was built by Elvis’ father, grandfather and uncle. We were transported back fifty years when the king was born. We sang Elvis songs and celebrated the early days of rock-n-roll.
The afternoon sun told us we had to leave to make Oxford, Mississippi before dark. Our plans had us staying in Oxford that evening and going to Rowan Oak, William Faulkner’s home the next day. As we got close to Oxford we saw a restaurant a few miles before town that looked promising. It was early, about 5 pm. We were seated in one corner of a great room that held at least a dozen tables, a big open space. We enjoyed a southern meal, washing it down with sweet tea. As we were finishing, three gentlemen were seated at the opposite corner of the room. We decided to ask them about accommodations for the evening. They made suggestions and asked if we’d like to join them for a drink and conversation. We were delighted and sat at their table. Introductions happened, and we realized that we were in the presence of some of Oxford’s creatives. Our table hosts were Ron “Ronzo” Shapiro, founder and owner of “The Hoka,” Oxford’s art theater; Larry Wells, writer-publisher, who co-founded the Yoknapatawpha Press, a southern regional small press located in Oxford, which publishes works by Southern writers; and Willie Morris.
I wore a tee shirt till it was in tatters I bought at The Hoka that night. It was colorful and cheery like “Ronzo.” The text on the shirt said, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” https://vimeo.com/2236933
We talked for a couple of hours about music, fishing and what have you. My memory tells me that Willie Morris asked many questions. He was curious and interested in what we had to say about anything. Early in our conversation, just after introductions, Willie asked a question that reverberated in my mind for years. He said, “and what university did you attend?” He asked it in a way that wasn’t different then asking someone where they were from. Everyone is from someplace, and everyone has attended a university.
After we left the restaurant, the Oxford trio asked us to accompany them to the bars to continue our conversation. Every bar we went to greeted us with a, “Hey Willie, good to see you.” He was obviously a celebrity in Oxford. Willie held Melia on his knee and said that she reminded him of Rivers Applewhite, a childhood friend who makes appearances in his novels.
It was an extraordinary evening. A southern night at its finest with good food, good drink and good conversation; a story I have told numerous times. A night to be grateful for. A kairos day. Forever changed.
The next morning we went to Rowan Oak, saw the writing on the wall, left Oxford, buzzing with a feeling of gratitude and happiness.
Next stop, Clarksdale, Mississippi, just over an hour away. In 1987 the blues museum in Clarksdale was on the second floor of the library. The museum was small in size but large in content. After going through the museum, the curator suggested we visit Muddy Waters’ cabin on Stovall Plantation. It was a sharecroppers cabin where Muddy lived the first thirty years of his life. It was a single room cabin, the roof no longer intact, gone with the wind. The cotton field behind his cabin went for as far as the eye could see. I remember getting my guitar out and playing a Muddy Waters song inside on the cabin floor.
Muddy’s cabin served as a juke joint for regional musicians back then, as well as his early recordings, which came from sessions he did with Alan Lomax in 1941-42.
I remember it occurring to me the contrast between Elvis and Muddy, the numerous signs leading the way to Elvis’ birthplace and the absence of any leading the way to Muddy’s cabin. The cabin has been restored and moved into The Delta Blues Museum. If you visit the original site today you’ll find a historical marker.
We left Clarksdale and headed to New Orleans. Melia met Ruth Brown at JazzFest and had her first gumbo. Four years later, in 1991, I began my music composition studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) because Willie Morris expected me to do so.
Please go to my website or on Spotify and listen to my latest recording, The Craig Demos. If you like what you hear please let me know. If you have the means, buy five copies from my website and pass them around in random acts of kindness.
And don’t forget to vote.