Southern Legitimacy Statement: I am a child of rural Texas. The southern part not the Western part. I was raised by an Alabama born grandmother. As such I believe bacon brings us closer to God and that corn bread is staple at the two later meals of the day. I have eaten chicken that was alive less than two hours before and drank moonshine made by family members though not at the same meal. I was named after Johnny Cash and Luther Perkins and heard Elvis in the womb at the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport Louisiana. I believe that James Lee Burke is an overlooked genius, Greg Allman was as good a blues composer as ever wrote a song, and that if a man cannot find romance with Alan Tousaint’s “Rocks in my bed” playing in the background, well brother, your future is pretty bleak in that department.
The Sounds of the South
If someone asked you to describe where you hail from, how would you do it? Would you use topography or geography to give life to the memories of home? Maybe you would describe a culture that is peculiar to that area or a cooking style that brings strangers from far and wide, just for a taste of those flavors.
If you asked me to describe what I call home, what the rest of the world calls simply ‘The South,’ I would talk to you not of the meals or of the rolling hills and deep, tepid muddy rivers. I would tell you of sounds, as it is the joyful noise, that gives that lush, steamy region south of Messer’s Mason and Dixon’s line its personality. And if you asked me then how does the South sound, I would say this:
It sounds like the rooster in the dawn calling to life another day.
It sounds like a distant rumble of thunder late on a fever-hot afternoon that teases the promise of rain like the laugh of some flippant girl you’re in love and hoping will come see you, but never does.
It sounds like a choir of crickets and bull frogs singing the dusk a lullaby that rocks it gently into the slumber of the night.
It sounds like the sizzle of pork fat hitting a hot pan and the rolling bubble of a pot full of boiling crawfish and shrimp.
It sounds like the hiss of meat when it kisses a scorching grill, the pop and sizzle of chicken swimming in hot grease and the click and metallic snap as the top is broken on another bottle of that fiery liquid lust we call Bourbon.
It sounds like the exotic patios of French in Central and Southern Louisiana.
It sounds like the rolling lit of formality in Georgia and Virginia that whispers of the upper-class British from whence it descended.
It sounds like the molasses drawl of Texas.
It sounds like crack of the rifle on the opening day of deer season and the shock of the blast of a shotgun on the first day duck season.
It’s the hiss of nylon line flying through the air and the deep thunk of a lure and weight hitting the water.
It’s the raucous joy of a cheering crowd on Friday nights in the fall.
It’s the wall of sound of a marching band on Saturday afternoon.
It’s shouts of Roll Tide, Hook’em, and the retorts of Gig Em, and Boomer Sooner.
It sounds like the rural twang of George Strait praying for Amarillo by Morning and the baritone pain of Greg Allman crying in lovelorn suffering so great that it feels like being Tied to a Whippin Post. It’s the haunted and exhausted cries Robert Johnson down at the Crossroads, tired, so tired for running from the Hellhounds that are forever just behind him.
I met her in the last summer of my youth. Still in my college apartment, I was using any excuse I could think of to avoid entering the real world and enjoy my last little bit of freedom with my friends. Unfortunately, my college girlfriend had decided that she did not want to be my graduate girlfriend preferring instead to pursue the frat president, or the captain of our modest football team over a, hopefully, soon to be employed boyfriend miles away in Atlanta or Raleigh or Dallas.
The first of a parade of weddings for former classmates was coming up. It portended to be a particularly lavish affair characterized by the trifecta of Southern Luxury: an open bar, catered meal and a country club setting. The prospect of going dateless, even with the promised festivities was not enticing. An environment rich with attractive young ladies enveloped in the cloud of a romantic ambience and lubricated with just the right portions of French Champagne and rich food would normally be the perfect setting for an unattached young man with rising prospects to find intrigue were it not for the fact that I also knew the hawk-eyed boyfriends of each of the young lady’s.
Just a few days before the wedding a former roommate mentioned that his younger sister was coming to town for a visit on the very weekend of the event. From our one meeting four years earlier when she had come to visit Arlo, her brother, on a family weekend, I remembered a young girl of 14, awkward but pretty, long limbed and gangly like a new born foal fumbling its way through learning to take its first steps. Arlo offered to ask her if she would accompany me to the wedding, an action I knew was motivated more by a desire to spend quality time with his girlfriend without babysitting his sister as opposed any hospitable feelings for me. I demurred until Arlo mentioned that said sister had been the head cheerleader and homecoming queen of their high school, at which point I reconsidered my position and agreed to accept he and his sister’s generous hospitality. In few days, he told me that she had agreed adding, for good measure, a caution that I was expected to be a gentleman always, punctuated by a reminder that he had almost had a winning record in the South Alabama golden gloves. I pleaded shock and ail that he would think that I would have intentions that were anything but virtuous about his 18-year-old recently graduated, presumably attractive sister on her first weekend away from home unchaperoned by adults.
I was to meet her on the veranda of the hotel she was staying at that weekend. She was late but that was to be expected as all Southern Belles’ time zone runs 5-10 minutes slower than the rest of the world. I was enjoying the clear spring air when I heard a voice behind me say “Hello Tim.” I turned around.
She was not awkward anymore. She was not 14 anymore.
What she was now was beautiful with a body had filled out to meet the limbs in a most aesthetically pleasing manner. She had face that was not that of a classic beauty but that was pleasing none the less, with huge, green eyes that that were like swamp quicksand that pulled you into them and dragged you under before you knew you were gone. Her hair was a nebula of soft auburn that sparkled in the sunlight like diamonds in a stream. When my heart started again, I took a deep breath and we had a glass of sweet tea in the shade overlooking the town square and reacquainted ourselves with each other before walking arm and arm the short distance to the country club.
My friend Alex was marrying the daughter of a very successful Pensacola lawyer which was convenient since he was pre-law. Daddy had rented the local country club and, at his wife’s insistence, spared no expense, as we know a daughter’s wedding is the mother of the bride’s best opportunity to show off for her friends. My dates name was Jennifer Ann because all proper Southern Girls have two names. We had a delightful afternoon and better evening. She was a lethal blend of smart and funny with just the right amount of sassiness appearing to take special pride in being the scandal of the family by enrolling at Georgia and breaking the tradition of three generations of Manley’s who had graduated from Auburn.
She was wearing Southern Girl proper attire for an afternoon wedding. This consisted of a yellow sundress that lay perfectly against and accented the luminous texture of her tan skin with a matching wide brimmed hat that drew your gaze to her face and those eyes. Once, when she was returning from the bar with another round of drinks, she stepped between me and the sun and, for just a moment, the dress, as sun dresses are wont to do, became transparent, framing her silhouette against a wall of ivy and roses. At that moment, I thought that, to paraphrase the old rake Benjamin Franklin, sun dresses are proof that God loves us men and wants to be happy.
The ceremony was mercifully brief and the reception was wonderfully long. The band played everything from Sinatra to Skynard and was surprisingly passable on most. Late evening found us sitting alone at one of the high tables the bordered the dance floor. We were all talked out, all danced out and all drank out causing a conversation lag was bordering on uncomfortable. Confronted by this situation I decided to try one of my best moves; I told her a dirty joke. Mind you, I never claimed my best moves were successful ones.
For just a moment it was quite and I thought I had made a mistake.
Then, Jenny Ann leaned slightly back and let out the most wonderful laugh. I will never forget the sound. It was one of those long, tumbling crescendos of a laugh that only Southern Girls possess, a sound that rolls on and on like the ringing of church bells on Christmas Day. When she was through, she leaned across the table and placed her face very close to mine. The smell of Chanel 5, rum and baby powder washed over me in a manner that was more intoxicating than any libation I had ingested that night. She smiled, batted those green eyes and said
“Mr. St. Clair, I do believe that I have never met a boy that takes as great a pride in making a girl blush as you do.”
This was many years ago. I am long since joyously married to my own Southern Belle and getting nearer and nearer to my own daughters betrothment. Yet there are times, when I am alone in my cozy little study, late in the calm of the blessed night, nursing a tumbler of Eagle Rare when some song we danced to that night comes through the stream and I lean back and smile a private little smile and I think about that laugh and I rejoice at the gift of the girls, of the women and of the friendships, some long and enduring, some brief and fleeting, that drift in and out of our lives and provision the sumptuousness that enriches our souls.