Play It Again, Boys!

Buried deep in my album is a photograph from the hot summer of 1979, of the boys playing music on a flatbed trailer. We appear to be laying down some pretty hot licks, going for the big $100 purse in the band contest on the Oxford square. Old John Bradley is thumping the stand-up bass; Mr. Cragin Knox frails the banjo. Randy Cross, staring off into the flaw- less summer sky, is on rhythm guitar; the immortal L. W. Thomas is playing lead; and I am sawing on the fiddle.

Our faces are solemn masks, the de rigueur expression of the old-time string band. WOOR Radio is flashing us out over the airwaves; the shirt- sleeved judges lean on their elbows; and in the foreground Mr. Jack Cofield himself is snapping our picture as if we were very big dogs indeed. It is a satisfying image, for it fails to mention that we were not big dogs at all but mere dabblers in the music trade. Moreover, it omits the dubious harmonies we sent aloft that day to the old arched windows of city hall.

And to look at it you would never guess, any more than the “bored judges” or the listeners scattered on the green, that our faces-so cool, so self-possessed-are in fact rigid with fear, and in our hearts a secret voice bargains with God to only let us live through this set and we would never, never, never play in public again.

What, then, were we doing there? It was a question we often asked our-selves when the pressure, largely self-induced, was on. It was not really all that bad, playing music-we had our good days, even a triumph now and then. But there was always the suspicion that sooner or later the People Out Front would rise up in their scorn and drive us from the stage. hey never did, of course, and we lurked on the fringes of the business for years.

We were known by picturesque names-The Waterford Road, The Eighth of January, The Horse Stealers. Friends came and went: Uncle Frank Childrey and his Gibson mandolin; Gathal Runnells, a great fiddler; young Les Kerr and Mike Burduck, a fine bass player. We played all around, turning up like rented palms at parties and banquets and wedding receptions, even at wine-and-cheese affairs where our repertoire nearly always clashed with the decor. We worked the Watermelon Festivals in Water Valley, the Faulkner Conferences in Oxford, and Ole Miss pep rallies.

And always there were the taverns: Abbey’s Irish Rose, Cajun Fred’s, The Warehouse; all gone now but lively enough places once upon a time. In the taverns we met all the usual roadhouse foolishness. People grabbed at our microphones and spilled beer on our instruments. Combatants arrived at our feet in a spray of broken glass. It was a rare show that we didn’t get 10 requests for “Rocky Top,” a song we all hated and couldn’t play very well anyway.

But in our travels, we knew also the good bright sun, the faces of friends, pretty girls dancing, free drinks, and the smell of barbecue in the air. It was a colorful pastime, and there was nothing quite like walking into a job with an instrument case and having the public mistake you for a musician.

We fooled them for a long time, though we never amounted to much more than a bunch of boys playing music on a flatbed truck. We had none of the professional apparatus, like matching shirts or our own sound equipment, and our showmanship was… elemental, you might say (“Now it’s time for the boys to innerduce themselves,” L. W. would announce, “and we would turn and nod and shake hands with each other, and sometimes the People would get it and sometimes they wouldn’t.)

Yet in time we gained, to our everlasting astonishment, a following. Not just our girlfriends and cronies, understand, but people we never knew before. To the Ole Miss students we were a novelty beyond words, to the older folks perhaps the half-remembered voice of a simpler time. And in spite of our fears none of them ever seemed to care if we were very slick or not, if we broke strings or forgot the words. All they wanted was a joyful noise, and we could give them that. Through the old songs, we touched something solid and authentic in the heart that all of them could recognize, even if they didn’t know why.

And for ourselves – when we were rolling along and hanging on to the steady thumping of the bass, we were in high cotton indeed. So in the end it was worth it, and if we had to ask what we were doing up there, we need look no further than the music for an answer. We would do it all again, I think. And when the house lights came on for the last time, and the boys closed their cases and went away into the world, they took with them a long memory, and the old songs – to be broken out in the parlor now and then, or suddenly remembered in the ruin of night. And in my album the boys are captured forever, having a bad day but trying to do their best just the same.

We won the $100, by the way-not for being top band in the contest, but for being the only one to sign up. “That’s show biz,” as the feller said. –Howard Bahr

Noon in Oxford

When the courthouse clock struck the first toll of the noon hour, the complexion of the village changed. Shopkeepers and clerks hurried their over-the-counter trade so as not to be late for mealtime; little old ladies in their shawls and bonnets scurried home along side streets to their salads and tea-cakes; doctors and lawyers put aside the healing of the sick and matters at the bar to congregate in the public inn for a plate of the noon-day fare; farmers found a shadier side of the square and rested under tall oak trees while they took their dinner of canned meat and yellow wedges of cheese. It was a time for idle chit-chat, political forum, witty repartee, and peaceful rumination with a temperance and protocol like no other time of day.    –L.W. Thomas
Written for the menu of The Warehouse Restaurant, 1984

Uncle L.W.

Larry Wayne Thomas breezed into my life on a random wind, and we sailed together happily for many wonderful years.

We first met in April, 1976. I was a freshman at Ole Miss, where L.W. was teaching English. My roommate, a dissolute mental lightweight who went on to serve two spectacularly disgraceful terms in the Mississippi legislature, was his student. He paid me to write his term paper for L.W.’s class. Not only did I write it, but I was prevailed upon to deliver it to his teacher’s office at the last minute. L.W., a handsome young man in a tiny office in Bondurant, received the paper and my lame excuse about the roommate being called home due to a family emergency with undisguised ill-humor. The paper got an “A”, the roommate passed the class with a “C” and I walked away with thirty bucks. When I finally got around to telling L.W. this over twenty years later, he said, “I knew that idiot couldn’t have written a paper that good, but I couldn’t prove he didn’t.”

We came to know each other well during the intervening years, seeing one another around town, mostly at watering holes such as the Rose, the Gin or Ireland’s, among many mutual friends such as George Kehoe, Jere and Joe Allen and his future bride, Jean Tatum. L.W. began working at the Warehouse about that time while I bounced from one ill-fated restaurant to another. After the failure of Audie Michael’s, I found myself unemployed. Shortly after that, L.W. came to my apartment and offered me a job at the Warehouse. I don’t know whose idea it was, his, Frank Odom’s or Don Carlisle’s, but of course I took the job and for years he and I worked shoulder to shoulder in Oxford’s best-known and most respected dining establishment.

L.W. was my boss, the primary liaison between the kitchen and the floor, a job that’s bound to make anyone a nervous wreck, and L.W. was no exception; busy nights reduced him to fussing and fretting to no end. My job, as I saw it, was to keep the kitchen working smoothly, which involved a minimum amount of interference from management. L.W. and I had our disagreements (most notably over his insisting on adding bell peppers to a shrimp boil), but after the last tables were served, everything was rosy. Outside the kitchen doors, with his droll wit and unfailing good humor, L.W. was the most congenial, amiable restaurant host possible. He knew everybody and everybody knew him, and (for the most part) their knowledge of one another was infused with warmth and life. L.W. and I usually traveled in different circles, but we would often bend elbows together; he was smart, funny, a joy to be around, and I basked in his company. I began to call him Uncle L., a sobriquet some of our friends adapted as well, to his wry amusement.

The morning after the Warehouse burned, February 16, 1983 we met one another on the northeast corner of the Square and walked east on Jackson Avenue. We barely spoke until we got to the smoking ruins of Country Village. We stood there for a moment, and L.W. gave voice to what was running through both of our minds: “It didn’t start in our kitchen.”

We both moved away after that; me to Florida, L.W. to Colorado. I returned to Oxford after four years and re-entered Ole Miss, but I got L.W.’s address from a mutual friend and wrote to him, saying how much I missed him and half-jokingly urging him to move back. Well, he did, and though I have a feeling that he was just as miserable in Colorado as I was in Florida and my plea was just added incentive, he later told me on more than one occasion that my letter made him so homesick he just had to return.

It wasn’t long afterwards that I moved from Oxford again. To my everlasting regret, I missed his wedding to Jean, and as fate would have it, I never saw my Uncle L. again. How I wish I could write him another letter and tell him to come back to us.

Photo by Kent Moorhead
Photo by Kent Moorhead