Two Men and a Museum
The last thing I need on this trip is another accusation of kidnapping. Last Fourth of July, while stuck in traffic on our way to Aunt Mel’s barbeque, Major freaked out and accused me of taking the “wrong feller” hostage. One second, we were discussing our favorite flavors of ice cream, the next he was biting my arm.
Today is the first time we’ve spent together alone since. Thus far, Major has kept his cool.
“Neyland?” He says the name of my father, his son. “Where we goin’, Neyland?”
“Nah, Major—not Neyland.” I thump my chest. “I’m Sterchi—your grandson. We’re going to that museum up in Bristol. The one in the old hat factory where you recorded ‘em hits back in the day. Don’t you remember cutting the ribbon at the grand opening last summer? How hot it was?” I feel stupid for asking him this, rude. I watch for signs of paranoia, watch him stare out the truck window at the decommissioned train cars rusting like carrion by the old L&N Station off Henley Street.
“Oh right,” Major says. “That’s right.” He grasps at smoke in his head. His temple throbs as he grapples for recall of the museum, the ribbon cutting. It’s been five years since Major started forgetting enough simple shit that my dad made him go see a doctor, five years since the initial Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Seeing him struggle gooses my spine like a sharp winter wind. According to Dr. Adhams, there’s a good chance I’ll wear the same disoriented confusion on my face someday. When that day comes, I hope they put me down like a dog.
I don’t attend church, but sometimes I talk to God. It makes me feel better to cry and speak to Him even if nothing changes. Last night, I prayed to God that today would go well. I prayed that Major would somehow remember the building he made history in. Once, before he got Alzheimer’s, Major told me how he found God in MeeMaw Roo, Jesus in the fiddle, and the Holy Spirit in Ernest Stoneman’s callused fingertips. “But the thing is,” he said. “My Trinity’s bound for changing every day. ‘Sides for God—she’s a keeper. That’s the glorious thing about religion, Sterchi. It’s all in your head.” I pondered this exchange before praying last night.
A beat later, Major breaks the silence. He says, “Neyland? Where we goin’, Neyland?” I don’t respond, don’t correct him. I keep driving, pushing forward.
As a starry-eyed boy, I used to sit on Major’s lap while he drove the tractor around his small farm in Northeast Tennessee. He’d slurp his can of beer and tell stories about the famous musicians he used to record with. I’d soak up every word he said, learn more than I could remember. Major taught me how to chop wood and bale hay; how to birth a calf and gut a deer. Two decades later, eighty-four years of wrinkles define the topography of his face. His eyes are bespectacled milk and honey, ears large and cauliflowered. When he speaks to me, it’s with a tactful politeness reserved for strangers and first acquaintances. That’s what I am: a stranger in his eyes—though I still learn from each of our visits.
My dual-striped Bronco streaks out of Knoxville and merges onto I-81 North, the highway hedged by pockets of fuzzy hills and ridgelines. A fishy musk of Bradford Pears drifts through open windows. My Bronco used to belong to Major. Does he remember that? Does he remember how emotional I got when he gifted me the keys?
I tune the radio to WDVX’s Blue Plate Special, Major’s favorite live radio broadcast, and we listen to an up-and-coming Kentuckian pick his banjo, rasping soul-jerkers through coal dusted lungs.
“What you think of this man’s music?” I ask Major.
“That noise, Neyland, I hear it.”
“Don’t his songs remind you of yourself back in the day?”
“Who?” Major asks.
“You. Back when you played music.”
“Nevermind.” I turn up the radio. Maybe I’m just wasting my time.
It’s ninety miles to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol. I keep waiting for Major to accuse me of predatory practices, but he doesn’t. Instead, he sits peacefully in the passenger seat for two hours. God bless the little blue pills Dad slipped into his oatmeal this morning.
“Look, Major,” I say. “We’re here.”
We park next to a bustling diner with checkered awnings and a hand-lettered sign advertising: Best Fried Catfish Bites in App-Uh-Latch-Uh. A soft breeze teases odors of fruit cobbler and fish grease. I watch a pickup truck pull off the road and hail an acquaintance passing by on foot. A mounted Bristol police officer smiles and waves as he rides by on horseback. Everyone waves back. This small town is all Sirs and Ma’ams. Streets are named after generals, kids after quarterbacks. Thirty-nine churches serve 19,000 residents. Though it’s a bit too stodgy and puritanical for my taste, these are Major’s people, and in that sense, it feels like home.
My grandpappy was born eighty-four years ago, a few miles south of Bristol in Piney Flats, Tennessee, on the last day of 1899. He sprouted during an era when Tennesseans still protected their livestock from panthers and wolves, and he farmed the same eight acres in Piney Flats all his life, subsiding on his own terms—until three years ago, when the severity of his Alzheimer’s induced his children to place him in a memory care facility in Knoxville. Now a nurse bathes him a few times a week with a warm sponge.
“C’mon, Major,” I say, unbuckling his seatbelt, practically lifting him out of the Bronco. “Let’s go see your shrine.”
The museum is housed in an old brick warehouse a few blocks from the heart of downtown Bristol. Large, aluminum-framed windows panel the upper half of the industrial building. I hold the heavy door open for thirty seconds to allow Major sufficient time to shuffle through. Once inside, he gawks up at the guitar-shaped lights on the ceiling. He looks small and unimpressive in his red flannel shirt and baggy jeans, squirrel-hide watch chain dangling from his plastic hip. He stops in the middle of the lobby and just stands there, a forlorn statue.
As I pay for our admission, the woman’s eyes behind the ticket counter settle on Major, glossed with pity. He’s glancing around at the glass cases of wooden instruments as if they’re haunting the lobby. Is he as lost as he appears? Although I know it’s the dementia confusing him, I like to imagine that the history of this place chills him to the bone, gives him the feels.
Major is one of the last surviving members of the Bristol Sessions: a series of recording events staged fifty-seven years during the Summer of 1927. Most astute Americana historians refer to the Sessions as the “Big Bang” of modern country music, the place where it all started, making Major a founding father.
“You good, Major?” I ask. But he’s already shuffled off into the dim lights of the first exhibit.
The museum takes visitors on a short yet informative tour of the Bristol Sessions. The average skimmer could easily pass through the museum—learning more about banjos, fiddlers, and Depression era mountain music than they’d ever dreamed possible—in less than ninety minutes, and yet after two hours, Major and I haven’t even reached the halfway point. Crawling, backtracking, staring into space, Major seems more focused than usual, and I try not to disturb him. It’s unwise to awaken a beast you can’t rock back to sleep.
For the last fifteen minutes, Major has obsessed over a framed photograph of Uncle Eck Dunford fiddling while seated in a wicker chair. Major’s breath fogs the glass, mushroomed clouds steaming and dripping. Eventually, I’m forced to lead him away by the hand.
We spend another half-hour sidetracked by “Kid’s Cove,” where children can pluck miniature instruments, sing karaoke, and watch a short, animated documentary on the history of the Bristol Sessions. One interactive exhibit in Kid’s Cove invites listeners to identify an instrument after hearing a few chords of melody. Correct answers elicit a cheering audience from the exhibit speakers. Incorrect responses earn players a horn buzz, followed by an encouraging voice urging them to “try again.” However, the exhibit’s design team obviously didn’t consider what could happen if an old-timer with Alzheimer’s falls in love with the obnoxious, incorrect buzzer, as Major does.
After twenty or so incorrect answers in a row, the exhibit finally stops encouraging him to “try again.” It shuts off with a depressing whirrr, but Major finds the breakdown hysterical. It’s been so long since I last heard him laugh, I’ve almost forgotten the sound of his barrel-chested bellow, a laugh you’d expect from a man twice his size. Major and I laugh our asses off—until a man in a collared shirt admonishes, “Please quiet down.” Immediately, the hair spikes on Major’s neck. He shouts, “You’re kinda fat to be one of Cas Walker’s lackies!”, and I cover my face with my hand.
“Umm, no sir,” the collared shirt says. “Actually I’m Ken Cambridge—the museum curator.” I recognize Ken from the museum’s grand opening last year, a supposed expert on bluegrass music. Ironically, he doesn’t recognize the legend now berating him. As I lead my grandpappy away, Major stops his fussing and stiffens his legs, then grows still. Then I hear a trickle of liquid, so soft and slow at first I think it’s in my head.
A dark cloud has ballooned from the crotch of Major’s jeans. The piss is already puddling on the floor by the time I notice. As I lead him through exhibits in search of a restroom, Major appears perfectly relaxed. Luckily, it’s a Tuesday, and the museum is mostly empty, except for a contingent of Methodists on a bus tour—most of whom have their pants pulled up to their nipples. No one seems to notice the old man urinating all over himself.
For some reason, Major decides to go totally limp once we’re in sight of the restrooms, and I’m forced to drag him the last thirty yards like a piece of driftwood. It’s an easy chore, even if I do get a little pee-damp. Major wouldn’t tip one hundred pounds on a scale if I dropped a brick in his pocket.
Inside the bathroom, there’s a boy of eight or nine washing his hands in the sink. There is no one else. He stares as we stagger in, sudsy hands working under the faucet. His eyes drop to Major’s soiled jeans, and he nods his head as though he watched it happen. I sense a connection, a benevolent purity, fizzling between Major and the boy.
“Here.” The boy dampens a handful of paper towels in the sink and offers them to Major. I reach to accept the towels, but Major knocks my arm out of the way and grabs the towels first. It’s surprising, as he’s usually wary of unfamiliar faces. The sizes of the old man and the child are strikingly congruent. Major doesn’t say anything but nods at the boy. His urine-soaked brogans screech like treadless tires as pivots on the bathroom tiles.
“Make sure to wipe it off while the pee’s still fresh,” the boy says, walking past us. “And remember to have your momma wash your jeans when you get home.” Major starts rubbing his pants with the wet paper towels.
“Thank you,” I tell the kid. He’s probably twenty years younger than me and a whole lot wiser. “Thanks a lot.” It’s all I can get off my twisted tongue, paralyzed as I am by his good will.
“Don’t thank me,” the kid says, all business, grunting as he pushes open the bathroom door. “Accidents happen all the time. Trust me…I know.”
The door swings shut, and it’s just Major and me again. As Major dabs his jeans with paper towels, I think about how, years from now, I probably won’t remember what the little boy said or what he looked like. Only how he made me feel.
A faint odor of urine wafts behind us as we continue our tour. No signs of Curator Ken or Little Saint Restroom. No signs of anyone, actually. The museum halls are empty. A sad song plays from hidden speakers, a fiddler mourning his beloved who’d been swept away in a flood on the Nolichucky River. I’m surrounded by the ragged faces of my pioneer ancestors framed on the walls. I hear echoes of ghosts yodeling behind me, spirits of the black-and-white photos on the walls. I feel their eyes dancing around me like a game of tag, but I cannot catch them in motion. Like Major, many of the nineteen musicians who recorded at the Sessions grew up worm-belly poor. Empty was a word they knew too well. In defiance, they filled themselves with music.
“I always had a jitter in my leg when I was younger,” Major told me once. “Till I started playin’ music, puttin’ words to songs and whatnot. After that, music’s all I ever wanted to do. And I did it every day.”
As we approach the end of our tour, Major’s neck spins around like an owl, his eyes bulbous. “Neyland? What you doin here, son?”
“We came here together,” I say. “Don’t you know I’m always with you?”
Major smiles. Then I smile. “It smells like church in here,” he says. “I feel God is right above me.” I think about the yodeling ghosts I heard earlier and wonder if Major heard them, too. When I ask him, he looks at me as though I’m clinically insane. “Of course I heard them,” he says. “Of course, of course…”
“You ever been here before?” I ask hopefully. “Inside this building, I mean?”
But he’s already wandering away, looping around a circular showroom of fiddles, facts, and photographs, until some new relic snares his attention. I follow behind him like a mother duck. We’ve been inside the museum for almost four hours now, the doors scheduled to lock soon. I gently nudge Major from behind every time he stops. Where has this energy come from? It doesn’t make sense. I remember Easter a few years ago, when a quarter mile walk around the nursing home nearly caused him to stroke out.
“By God, Neyland!” he cries suddenly, pointing at a large portrait on the wall. “I know that feller there!” The picture depicts two young, suspendered men with scraggly beards, shirt sleeves rolled up to their elbows, and hand-rolled cigarettes tucked behind their ears. One holds a guitar; the other, a clawhammer banjo. Though their faces are streaked with red dirt, their eyes sunken and hollow, they possess a vigor, a grittiness, an irrepressible swagger. The man with the guitar is Ernest “Pop” Stoneman. The banjo picker is Major.
Major’s finger wags wildly at Stoneman. “That one there, I know that feller!”
“You remember his name?” I ask.
“I damn well should, shouldn’t I? Only it keeps slippin’ away.”
“What about the other man? Do you recognize him, too?”
I cross my sweaty fingers as Major squints into the lights bouncing off the museum glass. “Nah, Neyland. I ain’t seen that man in all my days.”
Why do I torture myself this way? I start reading from the plaque below the picture to keep myself from crying. Major, unimpressed by himself, wanders down a long dark hallway towards an exit sign. Small, mounted speakers thrum old-timey banjo music recorded at the Bristol Sessions: three strings and the truth. As I approach Major from behind, I hear a hum of recognition purr deep in his chest. His compass steadies, and he no longer looks as lost inside these walls. Rather, there’s a nostalgic stasis to him, one I hardly ever see anymore. I hear something tapping on the ground and look down…
No, I realize. Major can’t pluck the strings with his old finesse. And no, he remembers neither his favorite artists nor the names of their songs. He can’t even recall his own modest legend. But every time that mountain music kicks, Major’s feet start tapping to the rhythm of his past. And by his smile, I know he remembers.