The smell of nicotine and methamphetamine was in his clothing. Or maybe it was road tar and cleaning products. His brown hair fell in uncombed clumps over his shoulders, like rodent pelts. His battered old Gibson guitar was tuned to the key of some grotto deep beneath these Appalachian hills. “My name is Rip Smith,” he said. “Please turn off yer cellyular telephones. This song is ‘These Strings Tear My Fingers.’ ”
Gene leaned forward on his seat, as he did when listening intently. The folding chair creaked under his weight. He was a heavy man, although that was not what killed him. But he must have had extraordinary balance, as for all of our years together, 24, I’d never once seen him break a delicate piece of furniture, or stumble when carrying a box of old record albums, no matter how big the box.
Smith leaned into the audience, about 30 people in an old wooden church, leaned deep into the song, singing roughly, playing the guitar roughly yet elegantly. A minute into the song, a guitar string snapped. Smith seemed to not notice, or did not care, and continued to play. Two minutes in, he began attacking the guitar furiously, his hand hammering the body for percussion, fingers pulling at the strings. Notes piling on notes, spiraling upward and echoing in the rafters before Smith backed off and looked up, hair falling across his face, and finished the words. “These strings are growing tighter, winding tighter, ’round your soul.”
He stopped and stared at the floor. The song was done. I heard people applauding, some wildly. Gene exhaled loudly and I saw him sit up straighter, running his palms along the tops of his wrinkled linen trouser legs, wiping the sweat from his hands. “Oh my God,” I realized I had just muttered. Rip Smith was the real deal. A genuine hillbilly troubadour treasure.
Smith brushed the hair from his eyes and announced, “This un’s called ‘Your Cold Gray Eyes.’ ” It was slower, but just as raw. I heard words about angels’ wings and ghostly stones and saints reaching heavenward. His guitar was not amplified, and he didn’t have a microphone, but he needed neither. He already played so loudly, and sang so loudly. Smith was staring at the floor, the long fingers of his left hand scuttling up and down the guitar neck like a spider, his right hand an impressionist’s blur. I saw now that the dirty-blond guitar body was streaked with blood. The strings had indeed torn his fingers.
“Yes, yes!” the guy next to me hollered as Smith finished, his head again turned toward the ceiling. The guy next to me was young, perhaps a graduate student at one of the colleges that were many gravel-road miles from here, and a century away from here in other ways, judging by his artfully scruffy facial hair, and clothing that smelled of dope. They traveled in groups with their mates, like primates. Women who made their own jewelry and wore loose clothing, with their hair hanging down to their asses. But mostly there were the guys in their 40s with less-artful, scruffy facial hair, some who pilgrimaged on their own into these hills to see Rip Smith, or arrived by the car load, murmuring and gesturing in their tight little groups.
Smith looked down at the floor again, his left hand idly fiddling with one of the tuning pegs on his guitar. “Here’s another one,” he said, and began slowly stomping the beat on the wood floor. And then strumming slowly, in a moody, minor key, then faster and louder, then roaring:
Evelyn, a modified dog
viewed the quivering fringe of a special doily
draped across the piano, with some surprise
As Smith finished this odd song, I looked at Gene, and I knew what he was thinking. “Genius,” he whispered, and slipped his tiny notebook out of the pocket of his corduroy jacket to write a few lines in his secret, tiny print. I’d looked at his notebooks. It was like reading the instruction manual for a North Korean-manufactured radio.
After an hour, it was over. Smith and his guitar slipped off the back of the stage. The small group filed out the church door, most choosing to hang around, buttoning their coats against the chill December air. Our breath hung in front of our faces for a moment, like an idea with nowhere to go, then disappeared. They all wanted to talk about what they’d just heard, and smoke cigarettes, drink some of the beers that had been sitting in coolers in their cars, and wait to see if Smith was gone for good.
He was not. Gene and I were standing in the church yard waiting for whatever might happen next when someone next to me – I hadn’t even noticed him walk up – said, “Kin ah have wunna those beers?” I jumped, and turned. It was Smith. He smiled at me and pointed at the cooler sitting on the grass in front of a couple of older guys with goatees. One was even wearing a beret. If they had been snapping their fingers, I would have thought someone was making a film about Beatniks. “Yeah, yeah,” one of the Beatniks said, scooping up the cooler and quickly stepping over to Smith. Everyone else on the lawn started to creep closer. Someone handed Smith a bottle of beer. He set his guitar case on the ground, twisted off the cap, took a long, long drink, nodded, and drank again, this time emptying the bottle. He had a white bandage, stained red on one edge, wrapped around the middle finger of his right hand.
The Beatnik took the empty and handed Smith another beer. “Great show. I mean, really great. I saw you playing at the Hillbilly Holler last year. I have some records, can you sign them?” He handed Smith a half-dozen record albums. They looked in great shape. Real collectors items.
Smith carefully set the beer on a flat, bare spot on the grass. “Okey doke,” he said, examining the first album. “Playin’ Possum. I never got a dime for it.”
“I can’t believe you actually wrote a whole album of possum songs.”
“Yeah, well, ya know…,” Smith said, pausing as he searched for the right spot to sign the album cover, “….Ya know, when that’s all ya et when ya was growin’ up, you’d a know a lot ’bout possums, too.”
I wondered, is this guy an act?
Gene and I stepped back a bit as people began to crowd around. Smith signed albums, posters from shows 30 years ago, labels on empty beer bottles, 45 rpm singles – “Is that ‘High School Inconsequential?’ Yeah, I remember that ’un. True story, ya know.” He wasn’t particularly tall, but looked strong, like he was built all out of ropes. I remember the muscles in his neck. No wonder he could sing so loudly.
We waited in the chilly gloom for our turn, as the church custodian turned off the lights – the cross over the door was outlined in blue neon – and locked the doors. Now we were shades of silver in the moonlight. I could see some kind of animal, like a big dog, sniffing around in the shadows at the far end of the parking area, by a trash pile. After a half an hour, the idle chatter waned, the cold began to set in around the bone, admirers drifted away in the darkness to the cars, and Gene and I were left standing with Smith. “I’m Corrine Betts, and this is my partner, Gene Chance, from the American Roots Mission,” I said. “I spoke to your brother about recording your music.” We shook hands; Smith’s grip was powerful. But not in the way that some guys will show off. More like, in the way some guys get when they’re splitting logs at 6 in the morning. “I thought that might be you folks,” he said. “Ya didn’t have anything for me to sign. Except mebbe a check.” He laughed. A rough, hoarse, smoker’s laugh.
“We’ll have that for you tomorrow.”
“Five thousand bucks might not be a lot to ya folks, but to a feller like me, ah’d sell my soul fer it.”
“No, it’s a lot of money to us,” Gene said. “ARM is all about supporting artists like you. Helping to make sure non-commercial, rural American culture survives in the 21st Century. You’ll retain the rights to all of your music. We just want to help get the word out. Help you survive as an artist.”
Smith nodded, and picked up his guitar case. “I gotta get back up the mountain,” he said, tipping his head toward the dark woods brooding over our shoulders. “If ya got that map my brother sent ya, I suppose I’ll be seein’ ya tomarry.”
We watched him drive off in a mud-drenched, ’70s-era Chevy pickup truck with a couple of missing quarterpanels, splashing through puddles, the gravel crunching beneath its wheels, empty beer bottles rolling and bouncing across the truck bed as he turned. I saw a shadow flash by the truck, like some kind of devil sprinting alongside, and it became a hound leaping into the back of the truck. Probably the thing I’d seen foraging by the trash pile. “He’s got a Christmas tree tied to the roof there,” Gene said. “That’s kinda sweet.”
We picked up Smith’s empties and drove to our hotel.
We didn’t know much about the people who lived in these hills. Most of them seemed poor, but pretty regular. You could make a career out of pumping gas in a town like this. The little lobby at our hotel had a dozen oil paintings hanging on the walls, with price tags: $35.99, $55.99. Gene was looking them over as I checked us in. Landscapes, probably inspired by the mountain vistas in the area. The perspectives seemed off, the brush techniques uneducated, to the point that realism was impressionism. “I think this was the artist’s Tree Period,” I whispered to Gene. He nodded. “I have half a mind to buy that,” he said, pointing to one with three blocky-looking deer, or perhaps they were spry pigs, with white glowing eyes, walking through a small glen surrounded by trees. I agreed with him. “You do have half a mind.”
The woman who checked us in, a marvelous caricature of a redhead, had been listening. “No one’s looked at those in years,” she said, blowing cigarette smoke in my face. “Thirty-two fifty-four for the room. Third one that way, No. 3. It’s got the Magic Fingers. You got quarters?”
I remember falling asleep to a gentle tree branch tapping on the roof, and awakening to the rumble of a distant chainsaw. Gene was already up and about, drinking coffee and fiddling with his cell phone. “No signal up here,” he grumped. “No wonder people disappear and are never heard from again.”
I remember, he did say that….
With certain landscapes, you can always feel a chill. It’s as though the sun can’t reach deep enough into the trees and the mossed-over, rotting folds of the earth. This was a land that courted beauty and despair in the same breath. That was how I felt as Gene and I followed the map sent to us by Rip Smith’s brother. Up the mountain, up switchback gravel roads, embraced by an exhilarating, silent gloom. Huge black birds swooped silently, solitarily, from branch to branch of fir trees, pines and birch. And then, an unexpected gate made of leaning wood posts and different wires. Baling wire, barbed wire, chicken wire. A grinning, jug-eared kid in a stained Virginia Tech University jacket pushed the gate open. The road-kill hairstyle seemed popular on this mountain. “If that kid pulls out a banjo, I’m turning around,” Gene said.
“He’s waitin’ for you up thar,” the kid said, waving his arm toward the road. I didn’t see an up thar, but Gene drove on ahead, and in about 50 yards we came around another bend and there was a wood building tucked amid the trees.
“There’s his truck,” Gene said as we pulled up behind the scarred Chevy. The Christmas tree was still tied to the roof. Smith was standing in a yard crowded with stacks of graying lumber and roof shingles, ruins of old washing machines, an overturned bass boat, other unidentifiable debris and a half-dozen mutt hounds barking and whirling about his feet like road dust. “Shaddaup!” They did.
“Welcome to the Clampett Compound,” Gene muttered. He rolled down his window as Smith walked over to the car, flicking the remains of a cigarette into the mud. He was wearing a brown trucker’s cap with JOCYE’S AUTO SERVICE printed on the front – I suspected the name had been misspelled – an unbuttoned blue flannel shirt and a black Johnny Cash T-shirt beneath it. The photo of Cash was the famous image where he’s snarling in anger and flipping the bird at a TV cameraman during the taping of his concert at San Quentin prison.
The smell of wood fires was in the brisk morning air. “Hey, folks,” Smith said, resting his hands on the door and peering into the car. He looked right at me. I remember the startling ice blue of his eyes, like Paul Newman, a detail I hadn’t seen in the dark last night. “Hallo, Corrine.” He looked at Gene. “Hallo, Big Man.” Smith pointed up the road, which jogged behind the building and was quickly lost in the trees. “Kinda warm fer this time o yar, ain’t it? If ya got equipment, might be best tuh head on up this way here. I got muh studio up thar.” He turned away from the window and lightly hopped onto the front fender of the car, legs dangling, waving his arm toward the trees. Gene did as he was told.
And Gene was right. This was a compound. We were still heading uphill, although less so than the drive in, but the trees remained tall and thick, except where they had been cleared for a building. This felt like civilization clinging by its fingernails. That if whoever lived here were to just leave, just disappear, it wouldn’t take long for the wilderness to reclaim its place. “Dining room, kitchen, kinda like a community center,” Smith said, pointing to a low, big building. A huge set of moose antlers hung over the front door, a satellite dish, half-filled with snow, was on the roof. “Y’all are stayin’ there,” he said, waving at a small, tin-roofed cabin with boarded windows. I could see other buildings around it, maybe a big garage, although the trees made it difficult to pick out detail. “Vegetables,” Smith shouted, nodding toward a cleared area of tilled earth. Three old yellow school buses huddled at the edge of the garden, sunk to their axles in the dirt. Each one’s engine compartment appeared to have been converted into a fireplace, with a steel-tube chimney, as high as the buses’ roofs and held steady by thin steel cables, set up where the radiator might have once been. A thin trail of wood smoke spiraled up from each. Someone lived in those buses? We moved on. Behind a tree, I saw a bearded man in a blue parka leaning on spade planted in a pile of dirt alongside a hole. He was staring at a dog lying at his feet. I didn’t point it out to Gene. He always cried when dogs died.
Pine cones in the road crunched beneath the car’s tires. Then, trees again, and a knoll that was striking in the disparity from its surroundings: Tidy hedges, carefully trimmed decorative trees, tall rhododendrons, low azalea, timber-shorn terraces, paths and what looked like life-size white stone pigeons scattered on the slope. Past a cinder-block building shrouded in winter-browned vines. At the top of the hill, another low wood building. Smith hopped off the fender and pointed. “Pull ’er up in front, thar.”
We would record Smith’s songs in this small, long studio over the next three days. This would be an easy one, Gene had said as he set up his microphones with his usual anal precision, duct-taping the cables to the floor so that we wouldn’t stumble over them. Just a man and his guitar, stomping on the wood floor. A half-dozen guitar cases lined one wall, as well as cases that, by their shapes, I imagined were a banjo, a fiddle and a mandolin. A fireplace, with fire, two old chairs and a couch, a door ajar, which I saw led to a small bathroom. Three plastic buckets overflowed with empty beer bottles. Animal heads stared down from the walls: mostly deer, with startled expressions on their faces, as though they couldn’t believe they’d just been shot. A bear, a weird, weasel-looking thing. The room smelled of man. The roof, with its exposed beams, met at the peak at uneven angles, with a row of windows, functioning like skylights, running the length of the building. One wall was almost entirely heavy wood shelves, lined with record albums, including bound collections of 78 rpms. At the far end of the room was a long writing table with a couple of notebooks, empty glasses, unlabeled whiskey bottles and stereo equipment, including a turntable and big, homemade speakers with cabinets of heavy pine, all of it facing windows and a door that led to a small porch overlooking the garden. The garden was the last place I saw Gene. I remember looking out those windows and thinking, “This feels like the still beauty of an old cemetery….
“Big Man, wanna whiskey?” Smith asked Gene, picking up the bottle on the table. “I need a coupla shots to loosen up the chops.”
“Gene?” I said. “It’s 10 in the morning.” He waved me off as Smith poured Gene a nice, big glass. Gene wasn’t a drinker. He just wanted to feel like a part of the scene. Like when we were doing the field recording of the old bluesman, Posthole Williams, and they started rolling marijuana cigarettes and half a dozen of them sat up half the night, smoking and laughing, Gene was right with them, smoking and laughing. I went to bed.
“Why didn’t you ask me if I wanted a shot?” I teased Smith.
“Waal, OK, ye want one?”
“No thanks,” I said. “What’s that strange rodent thing on the wall?”
“Mountain weasel. Crazy dang things. One got this here finger.” Smith held up his bandaged right hand, the strumming hand. It was the finger he’d torn on his guitar strings last night.
While Gene finished setting up, Smith asked about his check and I told him it was packed away in my suitcase, could I give it to him tomorrow? He seemed OK with that, and I picked up a small recorder and sat down with Smith next to the fire. “Field Interview, Rip Smith,” I said into the microphone, watching the level on the needle. It was good. I started off where I generally did: “Your given name is Ripley? Rip, what are your influences?”
“Waaaaal, I guess we’ll start with Hank,” he said, staring at the floor. Now he seemed nervous. Out of his element, I guess. He set the whiskey glass on the floor and held his hands in his lap, massaging his palms with a thumb, pulling at his long fingers, rubbing the backs of his hands.
“Daddy used a sing me them songs. I reckon I know every a one he’d a ever done. Daddy loved music. He’d a come back from town with a buncha old records and we’d just play ’em over an over an over. The Crockett Kentucky Mountaineers wuz a one a my fervrites. Jez one fella and his five boys, playin’ fiddle an’ bones an’ banjo as lovely as angels. Ever hearda ‘Little Rabbit?’ ”
“On the old Crown Records?”
“Yep. I larned them guitar chords when I wuz 9 years of age.” Smith poured himself another whiskey. “I got me an ol’ Shepherd Brothers record….”
“Those are hard to find!”
“Yeah, well this one’s ‘Bound Steel Blues.’ Real backwoods. Some ol’ lady give me it. She wuz just gonna toss it in the trash.” I saw Gene was finished setting up, and was now listening intently. He’d kill for a copy of that record. “Gid Tanner an’ his Skillet Lickers, Uncle Dave Macon an’ His Fruit Jar Drinkers, Red Patterson’s Piedmont Log Rollers, the Virginia Possum Tamers. Thet was actually Paul Miles an’ His Red Fox Chasers, playin’ under a diffrun’ name. Charlie Poole with the North Carolina Ramblers. Ol’ Charlie, he went out and got hisself a big contract to do sum movie music, and cely-brated by drinkin’ for 13 straight weeks, and thet kilt him. Who cain’t respect thet? I liked a lot of them black guys, too. Peetie Wheatstraw, and that lil’ high falsetto thing that he done. He got hisself kilt in a car crash. I guess that wuz purdy common. Ira Louvin went the same way.”
“Is your father still alive?”
Smith took another long sip of whiskey. Gene came over and re-filled Smith’s glass, and his own.
“Ya ever hearda Spade Cooley?” Smith was still staring at the floor.
“It wuz like thet. Ol’ Spade got drunk and stomped his wife ta death and spent the rest a his time in jail. It wuz like that with Daddy. I was 16 years of age. Thet’s when I started writin’ my own songs, cuz no one’s wuz dark enough fer me. Not rough ’nuff. I gotta be true to my music, I’m one disturbed feller.”
I used that as the opening to question Smith about private aspects of his life. He wasn’t as forthcoming. I guess music, more than whiskey, loosened him up. He was 60 years old, although you could have told me he was 10 years younger. He said he had 10 tattoos, all of women’s heads: I could see one on each of his biceps, women with Loretta Lynn hairstyles peeking out from beneath his rolled-up sleeves. His family had lived on this mountain for 80 years. I asked how many of them called the compound home. “Mebbe 30, 35. Coupla brothers an’ sisters an’ cousins, an’ their spouses, an’ some chillin’.”
“One a muh sisters is expectin’ one, mebbe today. Ah got three muhself. All home schooled. We make mosta whut we need right up here. Grow vegetables. Meat’s walkin’ all over this mountain. Our likker.”
Gene began coughing loudly. He’d just taken a big swing. “You folks know what you’re doing there.”
“Oh, sumtimes we gotta git into town. Gasoline, oil. Truck parts. Pay sum bills. Bullets. We all hunt. I got me a lil’ taxidermy hobby to tend to.”
Gene pointed to the biggest head on the wall, a well-antlered moose. “Did you shoot him?”
“Ah, well, no. I hit ’im with muh truck.”
Gene laughed. His face was red from the whiskey. I asked about the cinder-block building at the bottom of the hill.
“That’s the meth lab. Ask another question.” I couldn’t tell if that was a joke. I didn’t think so, so I asked about the garden outside the window. “It’s beautiful.”
“Thank ya. Ah tend it.”
“What are those little statues? The birds?”
“Angels. I make ’em outta cement.”
“Is that a cemetery? Is something buried beneath those angels?”
Smith sighed, and finally looked up from the floor. “Dawgs, mostly.”
“You’re a dog man, aren’t you?”
“I trust muh dawgs. Damn things die too soon. Ya know, if dawgs lived long enuff, they’d be talkin’ an’ readin’.”
Gene pointed to his microphones. He wanted to start recording. I shut off my tape recorder. Talking dogs seemed like a good place to end the field interview. “I think it might be interesting to pick up the sound of that fire,” Gene said, sliding one of the microphones and its stand closer to the fireplace. “Maybe give the whole session a campfire feel.”
“Let me git ya a pine log, then,” Smith said. “That’ll pop real good.” He pointed out the window. “Gonna rain soon, and hard. That’s always good fer my music.”
Gene took over. I wrote down the names of the songs, when and where they’d been written, if Smith remembered. He refused to say much about what any of them meant. Except for the third song he played, “Your Cold Gray Eyes,” and when I asked about it he said it was about death. “When folks die, they git cold, gray eyes. Ever walk in a cemetery, and look at them statues? Them cement saints an’ stuff? They all got cold gray eyes.”
We recorded 19 songs that first session. That’s astounding. Smith did a second take on a few of them, but he was usually happy with the first one – “I mean, it’s raw, folks” – and quickly moved on. His energy was fierce. Between each song, he rooted through his guitars in search of the right sound. Chimes tinkled, he shook gourds that rattled, he stomped the floor. He knew which floor boards to hit for different effects.
“Hey Corrine,” Smith said between a couple of songs. “Whaddya call a deer with no eyes?”
“Ah have no i-deer. Ha!”
At some point, I told Smith “I’m going to have that whiskey now,” poured myself a nice glass, and stepped out onto the porch. They ignored me, Smith was howling a song about “Holy shit, what was I thinkin’, I spent the weekend drinkin’ and went over the cliff drivin’ a lime-green Lincoln.” It was starting to drizzle. The rain made the bark of the trees stand out darker, the grass seemed greener, and even the browns and yellows of dead leaves looked livelier. In the spaces between the pines and firs, and through the bare branches of the deciduous trees, I could see more houses than I’d at first suspected, with unruly piles of split wood and oblong propane tanks with peeling paint. And behind what Smith had called the community center, four or maybe five huge barrels, like three 55-gallon drums welded into one, mounted on truck tires, smoke whirling from short chimneys mounted on the side of each. They were smoking a lot of meat.
And I remember how the angels in the garden sparkled, as though they were glass.
I was getting damp, and went inside by the fire. Gene was asking Smith to play the song from last night about the dog and the doily.
“That one’s not mine,” Smith said.
“Really? What was it?”
“ ‘Evelyn, A Modified Dog.’ It’s Zappa.”
Gene could tell you that that Curley Weaver, Fred McMullen and Buddy Moss toured in the 1930s as the Georgia Browns. Or bluesman Barbecue Bob’s real name was Robert Hicks, he played 12-string acoustic guitar and he died in 1931 after recording 55 titles, all of which Gene had heard on the original fragile, cracking records. But he didn’t know Frank Zappa.
Despite the rain, Smith rode the fender of the car down the road, pointing us to our cabin. Small, moss-covered and a little saggy. Like a cabin in one of those cheesy Thomas Kinkade fantasy paintings, except a poorer section of the woods. Smith, carrying one of our suitcases, led us inside. The porch groaned when Gene stepped onto it, but most porches did. We shook ourselves like wet dogs as a woman scooted in the door after us, carrying two big paper shopping bags under one arm and awkwardly holding an umbrella over her head with the other. “Hey baby,” Smith said. “This is Desdemona. Mrs. Smith.”
“Hey babies,” she said. Desdemona set the bags on the small kitchen table and dropped her umbrella next to it. She was a pretty little thing, younger than he. Ten years younger, I guessed. “This is dinner. I’d invite ya to eat with us, but we have a big family gathering tonight. And we figgered you’d be tired.”
Smith was rooting around one of the bags. “Looky this, Big Man,” he said, pulling a bottle from one of the bags. “Desi left ya some whiskey.”
“Oh, you shouldn’t have,” I said, and I meant it.
Smith shrugged and slipped it back into the bag. “Y’all kin sleep in, and meet me at the studio late in the morning. I got some chores, but we kin get in a good day.” He paused. “Y’all may not want to go hikin’, on account of the rain and the mud.”
“And the bar,” Desdemona said. She looked at Smith. “Terrance says he seen a bar last night by the grainery.”
“A bar?” I said.
“Bar,” Smith repeated. “B.E.A.R. Bar.”
“I ain’t worried about no bar,” Gene said. That was the whiskey talking.
The Smiths left, and the rain exploded. It threw itself against the windows, raked the tin roof. I looked out the window. From the light cast onto the road outside, I saw fingers of water rushing and bumping along the gravel road. I worried about the birds. “I’ll make dinner,” Gene said, noisily removing the casserole plates from the bags. I found a couple of plates and silverware in the tiny kitchen. “Smoked pork,” he exclaimed. “Cabbage. Fried potatoes. Whiskey. It’s a man’s dream dinner.”
“It’ll be man’s nightmare air if you’re trying to breathe in here tonight.”
We sipped whiskey by the fire and listened to the rain outside. Every 10 or 15 minutes, a tree branch cracked like a shotgun being fired down the road. Maybe someone was shooting out there. “Spooky,” I said. “That song, ‘Your Cold Dead Eyes,’ that gives me the creeps, too.”
“It’s a good song.”
“It’s written from the perspective of a dead person.”
“That’s been done before. Lots of times. These are good, authentic songs. Now, I’m not so sure Mr. Smith is as authentic as his songs.”
“What’s that mean?”
Gene heaved himself off the couch and fished around in the pile of wood next to the fireplace. “There could be a raccoon in here,” he mumbled, then uncovered a piece that he found suitable. To me, they all looked like they’d burn. “He’s too contrived. He’s playing a role, Rip Smith, hillbilly singer.”
I disagreed. “His hair hasn’t seen a comb since he got married.”
“Those sideburns are too well-tended.”
“Hillbillies have razors. Maybe his wife cleans him up. It wouldn’t be the first time a woman had to hose off her man. Beneath that crust, he’s a handsome old buzzard.”
I think Gene took that as a challenge. Or maybe it was the whiskey speaking up again. But I will say, listening to the rain on a tin roof is romantic.
In the middle of the night, I thought I heard a woman screaming. It might have been a dream. I’d had that dream in the past. In the morning, I had forgotten it. As I forgot most of my dreams.
Desdemona had left us a note at the studio. “Coffee in the thermos, donuts in the bag. Rip will be here by noon, I promise. Desi.” Gene spent the morning picking through Rip’s records. I stood on the porch, drinking coffee, watching the morning mist lingering in the trees. The rain had washed away most of the snow. It remained only where the trees had protected it, or where it had been piled high. Then, through the tree branches, I saw people emerging from one of the larger buildings. A lot of people, winding their way down the hillside, like a procession, before slowly diffusing among the buildings. Maybe a hundred people, I thought.
And then thought nothing of it for a while.
A few minutes later, I heard Smith’s truck coming up the path. The wheels spun on the gravel, the fenders rattled, and the Chevy careened around the bend into view, throwing water from the mud holes. The Christmas tree was still tied to the roof. “Ah’m ready ta go!” he bellowed, slamming the truck door and jogging into the studio, straight to the whiskey bottle. “Big Man?” he said, waving the bottle.
Gene shook his head no. “Corrine?” I declined.
Two shots later, and after I’d told him I’d forgotten his check in our cabin, Smith was strapping on his 1930 Prairie State archtop guitar, with two “f” holes in the dark mahogany body. He was all business. Maybe a little irritated that I’d forgotten his money again. That guitar was loud. We recorded 21 songs, unheard of, with Smith taking only a handful of breaks for whiskey, which he drank very slowly. His chatter was all business, focused entirely on the music. My notes included songs with titles like “Heads Will Roll,” a rumba called “Simple Sister,” “Stop Your Cryin’ (I’m Hungry),” “Moanin’ at the Moon,” “(Kill the) Taxman,” “Alcohol Will Ease That Pain,” “Unhinged on the Fringe” and “Oh, I Thought It Was You (But It Was Only My Dog Backin’ in the Door).” He performed his entire Hellbillies on Ice: Appalachian Murder Ballads album, from start to finish. He did Patsy Cline’s “Three Cigarettes,” with a little spoken-word introduction: “This is a song not by Rip Smith, as are many of the songs in the world. And all of the songs you’ll hear on the fuckin’ ray-deo.”
Gene, wearing a set of bulky headphones, didn’t look up from the needles on the volume levels. “I’m afraid that last part won’t make the cut,” he said.
At about 5 o’clock, Smith announced we were done. “I’ll have Desi fix you up some supper,” he said, carefully settling a well-worn 1938 Martin D-45 into its felt-lined case. “Looks like we all tied up agin fer the night, so I’ll ketch ya in the mornin’.” And he scampered off, taking the whiskey bottle with him.
“A different Rip,” I said.
“A different Rip,” Gene agreed. “That Martin is worth more than my car. Where does he get this stuff?”
Living on the fringe of civilization didn’t mean a man had to give up on living. During a break in the first day’s recording, Smith had said if living a life of substance meant he would never see an episode of American Idol, he’d take that trade. These people worked hard, coaxing a living from the side of a mountain, raising their kids, growing things, gathering mushrooms, leaving be the ones that would kill them. At night they played music, played cards, drank. And they ate well on these pork sausages – “smoked with apple wood,” Desi’s note said – roasted potatoes, grilled leaks, whole grain bread and a dish of olive oil with two slices of lemon, capers, anchovies, red pepper flakes, fresh chopped parsley and three crushed garlic cloves. “Bagna cauda,” Gene said. “It’s simmered a bit, to infuse the olive oil. Maybe a little melted butter in there, too. Dip your bread in it.”
“I wish they grew grapes here, so they could make wine.”
“Wrong climate,” Gene said. “Right climate for distilling whiskey.” He filled my glass. Long pause… it was raining again. We could hear it on the tin roof.
“Rip’s lying to us,” I said.
“I told you that last night.”
“No you didn’t. He’s lying about how many people live here. It’s not three dozen, or whatever he said. I saw at least a hundred.”
“I’ve been watching what goes on around here. You can see a lot of that mountainside from the studio. No one’s coming or going. There’re only three or four vehicles on this whole property. Including the tractor. They’re distilling whiskey, and that probably is a meth lab. They’re probably growing marijuana in some clearings in the woods, too. This is some kind of hillbilly cult.”
Gene reached for another sausage. “I’ll bet this meat isn’t FDA approved.”
“Are you listening to his songs?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, I’m watching my levels, and moving around microphones, and keeping his whiskey glass full, so I’m not, like, focused on it.”
“I’m taking notes.” Gene had his notebook, I had mine, stashed in one of the pockets of my photographer’s vest. “His song ‘Heads Will Roll,’ that’s about a gang of thugs riding around in golf carts at Pebble Beach, using machetes to lop the heads off of golfers.”
“Who hasn’t wanted to do that?”
I flipped to the next page. “ ‘Simple Sister,’ listen to this: ‘Keep it in the family, sis is getting’ randy, that’s why God made brandy.’ How about ‘Unhinged on the Fringe?’ That’s about a half-dozen delivery guys who agree to one afternoon pick up all of the teenage girls on their routs and drive them to the coast for a methamphetamine-fueled beach party.”
“So? Do you think Johnny Cash really shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die?”
“But it’s all so anti-social. It’s a disturbed mind. Incest. Murder. Patricide. Weird taxidermy experiments that talk. Feeding an old girlfriend to his dog. That’s in there. It’s called ‘Katie Kibble.’”
“He’s just trying to be outrageous. That mountain weasel, I’ve seen that kind of thing before. It’s a taxidermist’s trick. You make it out of a deer’s butt.”
“The body count in his song catalog is like the D-Day invasion. He’s good with images, like the one where the kids are shooting a .22 at the neon Mobile Pegasus sign.”
“But that one song does haunt. The weird songs catch your attention. It’s the beautiful ones that linger….”
“ ‘Your Stone Cold Eyes.’ It’s the melody. He’s afraid of God, he fears death. He believes in ghosts. That’s what that song tells me.”
We fell asleep listening to the rain. The last thing I remember saying to Gene that night was, “Do we know if Johnny Cash had an alibi for every unsolved shooting in Reno?” I don’t know if he heard me. Sometime in the middle of the night, I thought the wind was picking up. After listening for a while, I recognized it as the moan of a pump organ, very far away.
Smith picked us up in the morning, me sitting between the two men on the truck’s big bench seat. I handed Smith his check. “Five thousand bucks,” he said, tucking it into his coat pocket. “This’ll pay for Bobby’s braces.” He looked at me and winked. “Bobby’s muh big breedin’ bull.” I then turned to Gene, telling him I knew he had bought that ridiculous painting from the hotel lobby the other night because I’d spotted it in the back seat of his car. “It’s a genuine artifact!” he said, his voice rising in mock defensiveness. We both knew he had wanted it because it was just plain inexplicable.
Desi was finishing setting up a breakfast spread when we arrived. Coffee. We picked around at the bread. That jam was home-made, some kind of mountain berry. We talked about how Smith’s studio had once been a hog house. The sun would shine through the long windows at the peak of the roof and warm the hogs every morning, and they’d be herded out to the pen, where the garden was now. Maybe that’s why the plants were so beautiful. Pig shit. Smith described the wooden rack that had been out there as well. When he was a little kid, he’d watch the men push the pigs into it, and it would hold them still until the men could shoot the pigs in the head. “They didn’t wanna go in that thang,” he said. “They knew whut wuz comin’. ”
As Desi was leaving, I pulled her aside, thanking her for taking such good care of us. “And really for taking such good care of your husband. He really is a great American artist.”
“Yes, I’ve polished and preserved him, like a historic rockin’ chair,” she said. I liked Desi. She had a sense of humor. “He’s a good man. He’s good for me. We’re right fer each other. It ain’t easy growin’ up in the hills. It ain’t easy keepin’ a family together.” She put her coat on, and walked to the door. “Believe me, I know. My daddy died in prison.”
I nodded. Good Lord, her father had died in prison as well? No wonder these two people had been drawn to each other. “We’ll take good care of Rip,” I said. “He deserves to be heard.”
Gene was still setting up. I was finishing my coffee on the balcony when I saw the new angel in the garden. I knew it hadn’t been there yesterday, because I had been looking at that bench next to it, and there wasn’t anything there. Now here was one of the concrete angels, and the dirt around it was new and dark. It was sad, I guessed one of his dogs had died. I was wrong, of course, and that’s coming a little too late for Gene. But I didn’t ask Smith about it, because we were getting so much out of him now, and you know how men are about their dogs.
Smith’s mood was all business again, as he tuned a warm-sounding Martin guitar. “How much is true in your songs?” I asked.
“Eh?” He had his head cocked to one side, the side of his face nearly flat against the upraised guitar as he flicked a finger at one of the strings. “Ninety-eight percent.”
Smith set the guitar back in the case at his feet and looked up at me, smiling. “Waaaaal, I hed to change a few names, y’know. Ta pertect tha innocent.” He looked over at Gene. “All plugged in, Big Man?”
That session we recorded 30 songs. I was listening intently now, standing on the porch a lot, drinking coffee. Smith must have written a lot of those songs while sitting on this porch. I started matching the lyrics with what I could see, or imagined I could see. Muddy roads. Moss on stones. Rusted cars. Kids throwing dirt clods at each other. The cement angels. “Tall weeds, bent like grandma’s back….” He did a jug solo in the middle of that one, it was creepy. “Ravens darkening a dead tree branch….” “These hogs taste like they was raised on corn likker….” Trees that murder people, then pass them from limb to limb, deeper into the woods, where their bodies will never be found. A groom runs off with a woman from the wedding party, and she turns out to also be his sister. They both knew that, but we didn’t know it until the end of the song. Smith likes the taboo stuff. And a song that seemed to be a recipe for cannibalism. Sorry, I didn’t write that one down, although I believe a vinegar and chipotle powder marinade was involved.
But I suppose my notebook has been flung into the woods somewhere, I so suppose it doesn’t matter….
The air was getting chilly. I could see my breath. The smell of wood smoke hung heavy in the air. When we were done, Smith quickly packed his guitars and drove us back to our cabin. Gene gestured at the Christmas tree, still tied to the truck, as he got out. “Want me to help you get that down?”
Smith smiled. “Nope. Thet’s fer drivin’ inta town. Ain’t no cop gonna pull over a guy bringin’ a Christmas tree home ta his family.”
And again, he couldn’t stay, not even to chat over a glass of whiskey. The men were going to show some of their boys how to butcher a hog. The women were going to make quilts with their girls.
“What if one of the girls wants to butcher a hog?” I said.
Smith shook his head, ‘Nooooooooo. No, no. That’s not done here. Maybe in New York City.”
Desi opened the door halfway and quietly called inside to Smith. “We gotta git up the hill.” She really didn’t look inside, just straight ahead, kind of sad. In profile, she and her husband both had a bit of a rawboned look in the face. High cheek bones, sharply defined jaw lines, ice-blue eyes. It’s an Appalachian thing, I supposed. “Did your sister have the baby?” I asked. Maybe I was feeling a little desperate for some kind of relationship with these people. “It come two nights ago,” Smith said, buttoning his jacket. Desi backed out the door, back onto the porch. Odd, I remember thinking. What woman doesn’t want to talk about babies?
“It’s snowin’ now, bad night comin’,” Smith said. “Good thing that far’s nice ’n warm. Ah’ll be by ta git ya in tha mornun.” And he slipped out the door.
Gene and I unwrapped the night’s meal, still warm in its foil and pottery nests. A whole roasted chicken – “It smells like apple smoke,” Gene said, sniffing at the bird – leeks and mashed potatoes. We sat in front of the fire and piled the food on our plates. There was nothing else to do. I felt like a rabbit in a hutch.
“They don’t bury their dogs in that garden,” I said. “The first morning we drove up to the studio, I saw a man burying a dog back in the trees.”
Gene poured us two nice glasses of whiskey. “What’s in the garden? He said dogs.”
“I hate to think….” But I did.
We talked about Smith’s songs from the afternoon session. I had a second glass of whiskey. Gene had a third. In the midst of those drinks, we decided to hike up the road to the studio. I think we both felt like kicking the pen till we’d knocked the chicken wire loose.
It was cold, and neither one of us had scarves to protect our throats. I wonder now if that would have made a difference? Winter was setting upon us now. A gloom winter, the clouds obscuring all stars. Light snow swooped down from above and rushed at our faces. It was collecting already on the sides of trees, and next to weeds alongside the road. I had to watch where I was walking, lest I step into one of the holes filled with half-frozen water. Just as we saw the studio up ahead, Gene gently set his hand on my shoulder to stop me. He put a finger to his lips and lifted one of the ear flaps from his goofy winter hat. I pushed my stocking cap away from one side of my head and listened.
I heard fiddles, and guitars, and people singing. I nodded, and we crept up the road. Now I was to the edge of the garden. The studio loomed over us, and behind it, I heard the crackling of a big bonfire, and then I could see flame, and embers spiraling into the storm-gray sky, and shadows cast on one of the studio walls. I pointed into the garden. “I want to see that new grave,” I whispered. Gene nodded and, hunched over, kept walking warily toward the fire, sneaking up on them as best a big man could.
Voices soared, words speaking of eternal life, strings carrying them far into the crisp darkness. The hillbilly enclave was a cathedral, the light from the bonfire illuminating the undersides of the trees, shaping them like the arches within a church. And then I heard nothing. The music had stopped, and I was lying on the ground alongside the angel, and the small, pitiful hole that I had begun to scratch into the dirt, as though I might reveal what had been buried there. A newborn, I had suspected, although now I would never know. The snow was arcing into the garden in graceful sheets, and through my cold, gray eyes I could see Smith kneeling over Gene. I suppose he had done to me moments before what he had just now done to Gene, garroting us both with that guitar string wrapped tightly around each bare, bloodied fist. It would be easy for these people to drive Gene’s car beyond anyone’s reach, to rust and sink into the earth in some lightless gully. We would disappear as well, perhaps passed deep into the woods by the murderous trees, limb over limb, deeper and deeper, until we would never be seen again.
And then, the music resumed. Who speaks for the dead? Who speaks for ghosts? Music, I suppose. Soon, perhaps, Gene and I would become part of a beautiful song.