Monday, January 19, 2009


Mammaw was a strong, hard-working country woman who just happened to live in a town. A tiny town at that, with graveled streets and no house numbers, where everybody knew each other and the people they were related to for generations back.

She raised glorious flowers, including dinner-plate dahlias and wonderful roses. She was also a musician, a gifted mandolin player, who once played along with Ira and Charlie Louvin and their band on her front porch.

She and all her nine brothers and sisters had played one instrument or another, mostly homemade---a washtub bass, a rub-board, several jugs of different sizes and pitch, but hers was a REAL mandolin, with a lovely golden-tan melon-shell, like a medieval minstrel’s lute. I don’t remember where it came from, or how on Earth they afforded the thing, but she and the brothers who played guitar and the sisters with “harps”---I never asked if they were like auto-harps, or mouth-harps (harmonicas)---all learned by themselves, and none of them could actually read music, save for the “shape” notes in the hymnbook.

They played for barn dances, reunions, parties, barn-raisings, barbecues, and any other gatherings of celebration. Electricity had not come to the countryside of her childhood yet, so occasionally someone would call up their house on the telephone, and who-all was at home would get together and play the folks a tune over the party line.

The Louvins were on the same tour as Aunt Lo’s BIL one Summer, and they all stopped on their way from one show-date to another. He’d told them all what a good cook his Sister-in-Law was (meaning Mammaw) and she gave the dozen or so men a good country noon dinner, with me helping in the kitchen. Then they all gathered on the porch and in the frontyard shade, and started to play and sing.

She was in Heaven with all those famous people at HER table and on HER porch making their music that we had heard only on the Grand Ole Opry. The uncle had also mentioned that she “played,” so they invited her to join in, and she did, those knobby old garden-tough fingers holding that little worn-thin teardrop pick and dancing along the strings to Redwing and several of their own recordings.

I remember the heat and the music, how it felt to stand in the middle of all that harmony and wangawang and thump and wail and thrill of sound---I could FEEL in my chest the throb of the tall bass, like an enormous fiddle stood on a stick. I’d been in the kitchen when they set up, and hadn’t seen them unpack, so I had the absurd notion that the deep curves in the sides were so that he could carry it. And now that picture of him, waddling along with that huge bass like dancing with a giant woman, obscuring his vision and tripping his feet---it makes me smile every time at the image and at the silliness of my childish assumption.

I remember how all the neighbors started to gather in their own yards and up and down the street, whispering at first, then as recognition and amazement of this so foreign a thing---familiar, but not of that place---set down on their doorsteps dawned, a lot of singing along and applause. Mammaw never forgot that special time of joining together with fellow musicians, sending those beautiful notes up into the bright heat of the Summer afternoon.

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