I recently was perusing in a used book store and I ran across a book now out of print that I have been trying to find for a while. It is called the “Country Music Book of Lists.” Several years ago I provided a list of funny happenings for the book that featured a variety of music stars. I had never seen a copy.
While reading through my list, I was reminded of an early incident that really began my interest in making people laugh.
As I was growing up in northeast Atlanta, if you were a musician who played traditional Appalachian style music your interest would eventually take you about twenty miles north to a little town called Suwanee. Now many folks know it for the Falcons. But for me and hundreds of musicians from around the south, it was known for a little yellow house with a red “barn” out behind fondly called “Everett’s.”
At that time the Everett’s home was a gathering place for all the traditional musicians.
As you arrived at the home, you would find a parking place in what once was the garden area of the yard and the would walk up to the old screen door and enter on the back porch. There was no need to knock, no one would hear you, and so you just walked right in.
As you walked through every room in the house – living room, kitchen, bedrooms – all would be filled with pickers and singers of all shapes and sizes playing along in their own little groups. This was a regular Saturday night occurrence at the Everett home that started in the early seventies.
It was there I sat at the feet of fiddler Gordon Tanner of the Skillet Lickers, whose version of “Down Yonder” sold a million copies when he recorded it at age 13, and learned that tune as well as so many other tunes. Atlanta fiddler Dallas Burrell, from whom I took formal training, was also a regular fixture there for many years.
The who’s who of musicians over the decades were staggering. Just imagine, more than a hundred musicians and listeners parading through your home every Saturday night. When I started going Mrs. Everett, a kindly countrywoman, made every one feel at home. She mainly sat by the fireplace and listened to all the great music until the early morning hours. Often times the pickin’ would not wind down to two or three in the morning. I remember her getting up from the chair and going to cook a full breakfast for the remaining pickers before they went on their way.
In the early seventies, crowds at the house got so large the barn was constructed out back with a stage to accommodate the overflow from the house. Groups would come from all over to hone their stage shows in front of the ready-made audience.
It was here that my young group, the Peachtree Pickers, would go to hone our performance skills. In the early days our ages ranged from eight to 13 years old. In the winter, groups would find a corner in the house to prepare for the stage.
At one of these early performances, after warming up I went in the bathroom to wash my hands. My eyeglasses fell right off my face into the porcelain sink and broke.
While it may not be apparent to you as you read this, without my glasses or contacts, I am blind as a bat.
The band had already left to go backstage and here I was in a state where I could not see to even know if I was putting my fingers in the rights place.
I made my way in the dark through the parking lot to the back stage area. I knew I was in the right place because the other people holding instruments had on clothes like I was wearing.
For most musicians, I imagine such a situation would not be a problem. For me however, I was master of ceremonies, so I had to be able to read the set list, remind the band of appropriate keys. Well as they say the show must go on.
As they introduced us I began a show like I had never done before. We began the show with our usual opener, “Hamilton County Breakdown” and then came my time to speak. Not being able to see what was next, while I was searching for the next song and the next key I decided to reveal the problem to the audience with a bit of comedy. I made a tremendous routine about not being able to see either where to put my capo or the set list. As the audience rolled in the floor at my antics, I continued to carry on through the show interspersing every comedy routine I ever knew.
I do not remember any of the other music we played but I have never heard so much laughter in my life than in that little red barn. I could not see their faces; I could only hear that they were enjoying what my band and I were doing.
After walking off stage that night, I knew then that entertainment is more than just playing an instrument or singing a song, it is connecting with the audience by reaching their heart. Sometimes their heart may want to laugh; sometimes it may want to cry. But if you speak to their heart no matter how well or poorly you perform, you have accomplished what you have set out to do.