Thursday, October 29, 2009

Meeting Rheta

Rheta Grimsley Johnson has been sweetening my Sunday morning coffee for as long as the mind recollects.

Writing from her home in Fishtrap Hollow, Miss., or at various ports of call throughout the South, she finds wisdom in Williams (Hank, that is), joy in the morning, peace in a Louisiana parish. She makes me laugh. She makes me cry.

She is a graduate course in good writing.

I guess you could call me a fan. And, it's funny, whenever I finally meet those whose work I've long admired, I tend to tie my tongue. Did it to Tom Selleck in New York in 2001. Almost did it to Robinella in Michigan a few years ago.

But yesterday, when I met this Southern voice that has sweetened many Sundays, I found comfort in her genteel kindness, and managed to talk. She recognized my name from a letter I sent her after her husband Don passed away earlier this year. She was gracious. She was everything I had pictured her to be.

I don't know if you read her column or not. If you don't, you should. If it isn't carried in your local paper, you can find it online through King Features Syndicate.

She has written two books. One is a delightful biography of "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles M. Schulz. The other, "Poor Man's Provence," tells the tale of her decision to purchase a second home in Henderson, La., down in the Atchafalaya Swamp.

Among the million reasons I love to read Rheta is the fact that her words flow like a mountain stream, natural and calm. I sometimes disagree with her politics, but she often gives me points to ponder.

Later tonight I will go hear a speech she's giving for a fundraiser to promote literacy. Come Sunday, her column will be the first thing for which I'll reach after brewing a pot of JFG.

But, I will forever carry with me the crystal clear fall Wednesday afternoon that I met a favorite writer, a Southern poet, a kind woman with a gentle voice.

Much like reading her columns, meeting Rheta Grimsley Johnson warmed my heart.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Chris Newsom: 'Safe at home'

There are no words left to describe the tragedy that is the murder of Chris Newsom and Channon Christian.

Don't know how you feel about it, but I've gotten to where I can't watch the television coverage of the trial. It's too tough. It's too close.

I've been reading the daily newspaper reports. I've been hearing from friends. I think about the families quite a bit.

Yesterday, several of you called or e-mailed saying that Mr. Hugh Newsom quoted one of my pieces on Chris during his impact statement. I am humbled beyond belief to say the least.

I don't know which one he quoted, but by request I'm sharing with you the article I wrote following Chris's funeral in January 2007 and the Chris Newsom Memorial Baseball Tournament in April 2009.

Take a minute today and remember the Newsom and Christian families in your thoughts and prayers.

'Safe at home' -- originally published in the Jan. 15. 2007 Halls Shopper-News

He was a great kid with a great smile.

All you’d see, Beaver Dam Baptist Church youth pastor Scott Hood remembers, was “teeth and a hat.”

He had a sensitive heart, the kind that made him weep at the movie “The Fox and the Hound” as a child.

He was No. 14, the leadoff hitter for the Halls High School baseball team, a natural born athlete who also loved to golf, fish, ride motorcycles and have fun.

He was a true friend, the kind that those who knew him best say they’ll never forget.

And it’s for all these and a million other reasons that Halls mourns the loss of Chris Newsom.

Newsom, 23, a 2002 Halls High graduate, was killed Jan. 7, the victim of an apparent carjacking and murder along with his girlfriend, Channon Christian, 21, in East Knoxville. Family and friends gathered at Beaver Dam Baptist Church last Friday night to celebrate Chris’s life.

Friend Steven Marshall first saw the skinny kid with the super smile playing basketball in his Halls subdivision, next door to the house that Marshall’s family was building. He noticed him a couple of times and finally went to say hello.

“Then I had a friend for life,” Marshall said.

They played on the Knoxville Stars baseball team together, going all the way to the Little League World Series in New Orleans. They’d while away the hours together on Norris Lake — fishing, laughing, doing what buddies do.

“We had some wonderful times together. His friends will never forget him.”

Josh Anderson told the large crowd to look at each other, to “see how big Chris’s heart was.

“He loved everybody here. And he’s still here with us. A piece of his heart is with all of you. He’d want us to be closer. He’d want us to learn something. Something good will come out of this.”

Travis May says he considers Chris to be a brother. They’ve been friends since childhood, back when their families went to church together.

He remembered them playing in a mud puddle together, laughing and splashing one another until 5:15 p.m. rolled around — dinner time.

“(His mother) Mary came out and yelled, ‘Chris, dinner!’ She saw us about 30 yards off and a big smile came over her face. She hosed us down in the coldest water I’ve ever felt.”

Travis was there at Windy Gap Camp when Chris gave his life to Jesus Christ.

“One day I know I’m going to see him again.”

Hood recalled the biblical words from the Book of James that describe life as “a mist that appears for a little time, then vanishes.”

“Life is short. But Chris had a life with Christ. He’s not going to come through that door again. But we know where Chris is.”

A family will mourn and a community can’t help but ask why. But Chris Newsom is in a better place.

The leadoff hitter, the great kid with the great smile, is safe at home.

'What Chris Newsom will never see' -- originally published in the April 6, 2009, Shopper-News

It is tempting to say that Chris Newsom was with us last Thursday night at the Halls Community Park.

No. 14, the digits Chris wore on his back as a Halls High baseball player, were displayed in big white numerals just behind the pitcher’s mound on one of the baseball fields. Hugh Newsom threw out the first pitch to kick off the second annual Chris Newsom Memorial Tournament. Chris’s mother, Mary, and members of his family stood nearby. A dapper gentleman sporting Scottish regalia played “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes. The recipient of the Chris Newsom Memorial Scholarship, Halls High baseball player Taylor Babcock, was also present.

His memory is very much alive, but I don’t believe Chris was there. I’ll tell you why in a minute.

Halls Community Park president Todd Cook has high hopes for this special Little League baseball tournament. For starters, it’s named for Chris, a Halls native who was murdered along with his girlfriend, Channon Christian, in January 2007. Cook says he’s received calls from Powell teams, Karns teams and others wanting to participate next year. He hopes it becomes a countywide tournament.

State Sen. Tim Burchett made a special trip from Nashville to present the Newsoms with a flag flown over the state Capitol and a letter from Gov. Phil Bredesen. Zane Duncan represented his dad, U.S. Rep. John Duncan. Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “JJ” Jones showed up to pay his respects, too.

As the sky began to gray, and the wind began to blow, and the young baseball players placed their caps over their hearts, one couldn’t help but lament the tragedy of it all.

That’s why I don’t think Chris Newsom was with us last Thursday night. So many people miss him, so many people feel so much heartache, so many tears are still shed in his memory.

And, you see, friends, Chris Newsom will never see any of our grief. He is safe at home. Where he rests now, he’ll never know pain again.

For info on how to participate in or sponsor next year’s Chris Newsom Memorial Tournament, call Todd Cook at 659-4682.


Thursday, October 22, 2009

A few more words about the Rhinestone Cowboy

Further evidence that I possess an addictive personality:

After seeing Glen Campbell last Friday in North Carolina, I came home and set about trying to get my hands on everything he recorded.

This is nothing new. I am an "all or nothing at all" kind of guy, especially when it comes to music. What can I say! It soothes the soul.

Anyway, I tracked down the second volume of a CD trilogy Capitol Nashville released in the mid-1990s that chronicles Glen's years on that label. I bought the first volume the year I graduated from high school, but never followed up on the other two.

Big mistake.

Both are long out of print. The third volume now sells for anywhere from $65 to $100. But, I secured the second set -- an unopened copy -- for a whopping four bucks. It's easily my favorite Glen Campbell collection to date.

My favorite tracks are the live and rare songs and the album cuts that never became hits. One is Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind." Glen delivers a beautiful cover, one that threatens to make my top 10 list.

He probably owes his career in part to songwriter Jimmy Webb. A handful of Webb gems are here, including a nice live performance of "Didn't We" and the often maligned psychedelic "MacArthur Park." I don't care what you say. I like that song.

(Did you know that Jimmy Webb wrote "Highwayman"? Me either.)

Other rarities are covers of Porter Wagoner's "The Last Thing on my Mind" and Paul Simon's "Homeward Bound" and a stunning rendition of "Greensleeves."

The hits are here, too. "Gentle on my Mind" and "Rhinestone Cowboy" and "Houston (I'm Coming to See You)."

Wish I could find even a burned copy of Volume 3. Alas, alas. This is what happens when you don't buy something when you see it.

For once, though, I'm glad for my nutty obsessions. I don't know how you feel about it, but to me there's nothing like discovering a gem of an album by a favorite artist.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Waters of March

Did you know that in Brazil it only rains in March?

Well, neither did I.

Last night, while listening to that modern marvel that is the iPod random shuffle, I came upon a song I'd never heard, an "album cut" on a Nancy LaMott live CD. (Aside: If you want to hear a tragic story, Google Nancy LaMott.) The song is called "Waters of March" and was written by the legendary guitarist/composer Antonio Carlos Jobim.

According to Wikipedia, March is the rainy season in Rio de Janeiro. Inhabitants look forward to it because the water quenches thirst. Inhabitants fear it because it brings floods.

This is an incredible, almost Shakespearean, dichotomy. The song is poignant, but not dramatic or sentimental. I think I expected something with distinct movements and bombast, a Brazilian "MacArthur Park." Instead, it is understated, but with a downward progression, like precipitation.

Here is a piece of the English translation of the Portuguese lyrics:

A stick, a stone, it's the end of the road; it's the rest of a stump, it's a little alone; It's a sliver of glass; it is life, it's the sun; It is night, it is death; it's a trap, it's a gun.

Believe it or not, Coke used the song as a jingle in the 1980s. Art Garfunkel recorded it. So did others.

What elevates this above trivia is the notion that what brings you life also kills you.

A point to ponder, in March or any other rainy month.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Jesus on a marquee

I first noticed the Jeep 4x4 because it sported a scrolling marquee.

Didn't catch the words at first. I was startled by the driver, who appeared to be yelling.

All this happened on Henley Street downtown near the World's Fair site. I couldn't make out the driver's words, so I looked again at the marquee.

Scrolling across it in red letters were ditties like "Adultery is a sin."

It hit me that the driver was yelling into a speaker system the same stuff I sometimes hear street preachers yell on Market Square at lunch hour or on Saturday mornings at the corner of Maynardville Highway and Cunningham Road. This one, I guess, decided to take his show on the road.

I turned onto Hill Avenue, mulling this over in my mind, when I noticed a bumper sticker on a Volvo in front of me.

"Jesus would recycle," it read.

Bookends, on a Monday afternoon, driving to the school board.

Monday, October 19, 2009

To stop or to go, that is the question...

If you want to see some of the worst driving in these here 50 states, come out to Halls on any given day of the week. Set up a chair somewhere along Maynardville Highway. Be entertained.

Charlton Heston starred in a fun little film in the mid-70s called "The Omega Man." At the first of it, Heston thinks he's the only human being who has survived a nuclear attack.

He's driving around town like a bat out of hell. At one point, he makes a sharp turn and crashes his convertible into a curve.

"God," my dad, who was also watching the film, said. "That looks like somebody driving in Halls."

A few minutes ago, I was sitting in the left turn lane on Maynardville Highway at Crippen Road and watched three cars run a red light, one after the other after the other.

I know what you're thinking. We've all done it.

A police officer told me once it's probably a good idea to go on through the light if you're right under it when it is turning red. Locking up the brakes usually causes accidents -- even if it won't be your fault.

But, I've watched three, four, five, six, seven seconds go by after the light turns red. Cars speed right on through. And I always cringe.

Seems like this is more evidence of the increasing egocentric, solipsistic nature of our culture. It's all about me, baby. I don't have time to stop.

Course, then there's the other extreme. Don'tcha just love the folks who stop at green lights?

See it all, have a ball, right here in Halls, or at a neighborhood near you.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The old woman at the slot machine

CHEROKEE, N.C. -- It is half past 7 on a Friday night and the old woman is working two slot machines at once.

I spotted her while standing in line for the buffet. She needed a walker to get around. She also needed help from another woman (a daughter, perhaps?) to reach the stool in front of the one-armed bandit.

She's the type of person a writer would love to chat with, but I'm supposed to be enjoying a day off, so I just watch. I can't tell from where I'm standing, but she was feeding either Andrew Jacksons or Ben Franklins into that machine like they were going out of style. On and on it went, pulling the bar on one machine, then the other, playing the game like some people smoke.

"That's nice," a friend said. "She's probably wasting away her late husband's savings."

Harrah's Cherokee Casino is loud, cacophonous. It gets to you after awhile -- the smoke, the crowd, the flashing lights. It lacks the sophistication of Vegas. But, it's two hours away from home, and you can usually enjoy good food and a great show -- in more ways than one.

I have only been here twice. The last time, I put $10 into a machine, won $25, cashed out and went upstairs to watch USC and Ohio State play football. This time, I played on $10 for two hours, smoked a Romeo y Julieta cigar, wore my rose-colored glasses and laughed with Dean and Allison Harned.

It was fun. Besides, I was only there to see Glen Campbell.

About an hour into our wait for the buffet, we watched a man blow $100 at a time on a high-stakes video poker game. He held the cards while his wife hit the button. I have no way of knowing, but it wouldn't surprise me if he didn't lose $500 in 10 minutes.

Me? Well, I took $24 and spent it on an all-you-can-eat buffet. While the bells and whistles rang out in the casino, I chomped down on prime rib and drank as much sweet tea I could get from the helter-skelter server.

As we made our way to the ballroom, I noticed the old woman had left the slot machine at the end of the row.

I tell you what: if you ever want to people watch, go to Harrah's. It's worth more than any payoff from a gaming machine.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Rhinestone Cowboy shines

CHEROKEE, N.C. -- The Rhinestone Cowboy has still got it!

Glen Campbell, country crooner of yesteryear, played to a full ballroom at Harrah's last night. He's no spring chicken anymore, so I wondered how "Wichita Lineman" would sound from a 73 year old.

Turns out it sounded just fine.

Sporting a black shirt and a blue sports coat, and picking two different blue guitars (an electric and a 12-string), Campbell weaved his way back through the years. One by one they came, all those Jimmy Webb hits -- "Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," "Dreams of the Everyday Housewife."

Glen doesn't have his high register anymore (don't forget he was once a Beach Boy), but I thought his voice sounded stronger than it was when I saw him a decade ago. He looks like he's in great shape, plastic surgery not withstanding.

Allison Harned nearly had to restrain her husband Dean when Glen sang the theme song to the John Wayne film "True Grit." Glen, you may remember, was Duke's co-star.

"Glen Campbell represents a simpler time," Dean said. "He's one of the last links to that period."

The Harneds loved the fact that we were the youngest people in the room by at least 30 years. What can I say? Guess I never was meant for glitter, rock and roll.

Glen threw in a few surprises. He sang a nice cover of Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues." His daughter, Debbie, sang the classic "Silver Threads and Golden Needles" and father and daughter teamed up for the Johnny Cash/June Carter classic "Jackson" and "Let it Be Me," the hit Glen once had with Bobbie Gentry.

You may not know it, but Glen Campbell is a virtuoso on the guitar. He was a session player in Los Angeles before racking up all those hits. He even played guitar on Frank Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night."

Last night, he strutted his stuff on the Mason Williams instrumental "Classical Gas" and "The William Tell Overture," even playing part of the latter over his back.

It would have been perfect had the Harrah's sound crew known what they were doing. Several times, Campbell had to step away from the front monitors because of a bad sound mix. Several times he asked -- into the mic -- for the bass to be turned down.

The other damper was bad management at the casino buffet. We got in line to eat at 7, figuring that we would be finished by 8 or 8:30, then get seated in the ballroom by 9.


We waited for an hour and 15 minutes just to get a table. And it took an act of Congress to get a refill of sweet tea.

The good news is the food was delicious. Prime rib. All you can eat seafood. Yum, yum. Even if we did have to eat it fast.

Harrah's Cherokee is in the process of expanding. Here's hoping that means such mistakes are eradicated. It almost ruined my day off.

But, we were there to see the Rhinestone Cowboy, and as always, he sang as bright as a star-spangled rodeo.

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

The 'comeback' show

Well, I’d call it a “comeback” show, but — for me anyway — it’s more like limping back onto the stage.

Forgive the personal reference, but I thought I’d tell you that I’m participating in an extended concert engagement for the first time since December 1997.

For those who weren’t in Halls then, I performed a Tribute to Elvis show in the mid-1990s with musicians, singers, dancers and others who had more talent than I did. We had a big time, raised a little money for good causes and created some good memories. The Halls community was kind enough to fill the middle school auditorium for us. I give all of that credit to the others involved in the show.

The Elvis days are long gone, but I’m singing at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, in Fountain City Park with the Word Herders — fellow Shopper employees Emily Shane and Larry Van Guilder. Both have musical backgrounds.

Emily is an accomplished musician and singer. She has performed in a jazz group, opened for the Monkees’ Peter Tork and for the Fleshtones. She plays bass and rhythm guitar and continues to perform with local groups and musicians. Find out more at

Larry Van Guilder and his brother Harold performed on Cas Walker’s “Farm and Home Hour” and the “Bonnie Lou and Buster Show,” singing gospel tunes. He was a singer in two rock and roll bands, The Continentals and the Stitches of Time. These days, he listens to classic rock, bluegrass and classical music.

I already told you about my Elvis days. The rest of my musical experience includes church choirs, singing “Amanda” from time to time with local favorite Robinella and driving my relatives crazy by singing Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” when I was 16 months old.

Our selections will include classic country (Larry Gatlin, Dan Seals, Don Williams), folk music (“Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues”) and a little rock and roll (Ricky Nelson and others). Emily and Larry will also do a solo selection or two.

But, trust me, we’re not the big draw. The event is part of Art-a-palooza, a fundraiser for the Fountain City Art Center. Artists and crafters will be displaying and selling their work from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Columnist and author Jack Neely will speak at 1 p.m. Kids can have fun at the art tables. And a bunch of talented musicians will also appear, including Lynn Clapp and Broadway Swing at 11 a.m. and the all girl rock and roll band Stump, who will follow the Word Herders.

So, if you’re not doing anything Oct. 24, come on out and help a good cause. I guarantee you it will be a good time.

You can even make it home before that big Alabama game.

Monday, October 12, 2009

At least I had the weekend...

It's easy to make it through a rainy Monday when you've got such a great life.

Friday night found me on Norris Lake, eating shrimp and watching baseball. The rain ran us inside, but that was OK. The Yankees beat the Twins. Boston lost.

Listened to Marvin West, the sportswriter with no equal, tell tales. Good ones, too. Like the time John Majors kept calling his hotel room in Lexington. John was angry because Marvin found out about a coaching change and put it in the paper before the coach had told the assistant. Oops.

Marvin said Majors called him back about seven times. The next time they saw each other it was as if the incident never happened. Which is the way it should be if you think about it.

Was under the weather Saturday. So, I stayed home and rooted the Vols to victory over the Dawgs. The boys looked good. I'm thinking I need to get sick and stay home more if they keep playing like that without me.

I started Sunday, like always, reading Rheta Grimsley Johnson. Her column is a graduate course in great writing. This week's piece was about the too-short month of October. Poignant.

She's coming to town, by the way. I'll get to hear her at a lecture on Oct. 29. Can't wait.

Enjoyed breakfast at Amber with my dear friend Jaci Spicer. It was so good to see her again. And, as it always does, two hours flew by like a house at the side of the road. It was a nice treat. (In case you're wondering: two eggs, medium, sausage, biscuits and gravy, regular coffee.)

Singing practice was canceled, so I plopped down in the recliner and watched a "Gunsmoke" marathon for most of the afternoon. Doesn't get much better than that.

Last night, I headed out to Oak Ridge, to hang out with Mike and Judy Finn awhile. We have to re-create our Barley's experience now.

So, Mike put on a few Robinella bootlegs, we downed some cold ones and chatted about the songs, and the Detroit Tigers, and Napoleon's Waterloo and how the weather was. Mike and I caught a little bit of football and baseball on the tube before time to go home.

Then, to top it all off, Dean Harned called to say that Dean, his wife Allison and I are going to see Glen Campbell this Friday night in North Carolina. He's always been one of our favorite singers. After all, Glen's the Rhinestone Cowboy. He even played opposite John Wayne in "True Grit"!

So, yeah. If I can't have a pretty Monday, at least I had the weekend...

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

'It'll break your heart'

When Alexi Casilla hit the winning RBI single last night to take the Minnesota Twins to the playoffs, I thought about Bart Giamatti.

The late, great former commissioner of our national game once said that baseball is designed to break your heart. Thus it is with me and a bunch of folks in Motown this morning.

The Tigers blew the 7-game lead it held on Sept. 7 while the Twins went on a tear. As it dwindled to three games, then two, then one, then the tie -- forcing last night's play-in game -- I could feel the sickening feeling in my gut, trying to keep my hopes alive, but knowing somehow that it was over.

I'll say this, though. Yesterday's game was a classic.

The Tigers jumped out to a 3-0 lead. The Twins scored one on an error. Back and forth it went. Tie game. Free baseball, as they call it, into the 10th inning, and the 11th, and the 12th.

I talked to J.M. on the phone for the last few frames, telling him not to react too quickly, since my satellite feed is a bit behind his cable broadcast. Dustin Mynatt texted his fear that the Tigers had blown too many chances. Mike Hermann said at least he'd be in Minnesota for a playoff game.

I can't believe I'm getting ready to type this, but I hope the Yankees win -- this series anyway.

So now it's off to root for Boston, with or without Heidi Watney, and look in on the National League from time to time.

But as I turned off my TV last night, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in my gut, I remembered the Renaissance poet who knew so much about our perfect pastime, and marveled over the fact that this little boy's game can still break my heart.

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Monday, October 05, 2009

It could have been perfect

Don't guess there is much left to say about Saturday's sorry lost to Auburn.

Lethargic offense. Incomplete passes. Dumb decisions.

But, it's funny. Somehow, despite it all, I had a good time.

Maybe part of it was eating with family -- and almost eating with good friends -- at the Downtown Grill. Maybe it was the joy in finding RC Colas (in a glass bottle!) at the Mast General Store. Maybe it was the picture-perfect autumn afternoon.

Whatever the case, I had fun.

Even bought a black Outback hat with a feather in the brim. It matched my orange shirt, so I wore it to the game. Got a few compliments, too.

Making my way up to NN, the Mabe's UT football home since 1972, I shook hands with the usher, who grinned and said he was glad to see me. A bit later, we shared laughter and loss with our favorite football family, the McCrackens.

Then we lost. I shrugged. At least the Big Orange didn't give up, which it would have in previous seasons. A "never say die" attitude could be a harbinger of better things to come.

As I walked home in the chill of an early fall, my family by my side, I thought to myself, "Jake, you're one lucky guy."

The only thing that stopped it from being a super Saturday were dropped balls and dumb decisions.

It could have been perfect...

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