This happened years ago. Mama was alive then, so it’s been seven or eight years. I hadn’t thought about in almost that many years, but when it came to mind the other day, I took to studying on it and how the circumstances and opportunities of life’s journey can be so fascinating.
It demonstrates how life is a puzzle waiting for pieces to be clicked into place.
Mama’s mother was born and raised in a mountain nook called Suches, where her father, the town’s postmaster and general store proprietor, amassed a bounty of land, probably paying a dollar an acre for it, if that much. The Appalachian Trail that runs more than 2,000 miles to Maine begins on the land my great-grandfather owned.
Though it is apart from my nature, I have never embellished the poor circumstances in which Mama was raised, though her grandfather had plenty. He gifted to each of many children — 14, I believe — a small farm. My grandmother received 40 acres, but it was eventually lost during the hard times preceding the Great Depression and for the rest of her life, this woman born to relative comfort lived as a renter. Until the last few years of her life, she lived in houses without indoor plumbing.
Mama and I tried, at least once a year, to go back into those mountains and visit the aunts, uncles and cousins who stayed, my favorites always being uncle Tom Berry and aunt Annie Mae. One early summer Sunday, when the leaves were at their greenest and the rivers are refreshingly cool, we went back to uncle Tom Berry’s church for a homecoming, an annual tradition of bringing families back together with morning church and a noontime covered dish dinner.
Church homecomings are always special because there’s either a memorable preacher to preside or entertaining music. That day, a bluegrass trio of young men in their 20s performed. Immediately, I was captivated. Their harmonies were pure and clear, their instrument playing truly talented and the original songs mostly written by the lead singer, Caleb, were incredible.
I was blown away.
Now, here, it is probably necessary for me to insert that I am mostly tone deaf, thanks to those years spent in racing, but here is the odd revelation — I cannot hear pitch to hit it, but I can often hear when people miss pitch. It’s an oddity but true. That’s all to explain that somehow I knew those guys were pure magic. There amidst the Appalachian mountains, I was convinced that I had found bluegrass music’s next legendary group.
I bought their homemade CD then called Karen Peck, my best friend and a Southern gospel artist who has had more than 15 No. 1 records and been nominated for three Grammys. Karen does a homecoming event every year where she invites some of her best known friends to perform for a two-day event.
“You have to invite these guys to perform,” I said.
She hears this all the time, but not from me. She replied, “In all the years I have known you, you have never pitched anyone. I trust you so I’m going to do it.”
The guys performed, the crowd went nuts, jumping to their feet for a whooping standing ovation. A big-time record producer as well as a manager were in the audience and signed them immediately. Bam. Just like that. Those mountain boys went from a Sunday morning performance in a little country church to a Nashville recording studio. They became the “next big thing.”
After a few years of growing fame and travel demands putting stress on their family lives, they broke up, admirably choosing the ones they loved over their music.
But the moral of this story remains — opportunity and success can find you, regardless of how well hidden you may be.
Even in the hollows of the Appalachian mountains.