Author: Sargent, Geoff

Hello Possums…

This week I’m just about all wrote out. I’m in the midst yet again of what I call “grant writing hell” and have been oh so slowly, excruciatingly, painfully plodding along writing yet another grant. I’m behind schedule, which means I’m not getting much sleep and getting crankier and spacier than normal…and bloody well missed yet another campout….very cranky indeed. One of the things that helps keep me going though is streaming bluegrass off the net. The music provides just the right amount of background noise to help keep awake and just the right amount of distraction to keep me from burning out. Every now and then I hear something I like and can see who is performing, which I have to admit has the annoying effect of sending me off to iTunes or the performer’s web site. I’m a little surprised at how much writing I actually do get done between the hours of midnight and 5 AM…given my general inability to mentally focus. Maybe the sleep deprivation is actually necessary to help me to filter out all of the random thoughts that keep intruding.

At any rate……since I’ve still got a lot of words to crank out over the next 36 hours….I’m going to take a little latitude and re-post a column from about a year ago….when I was writing a different bloody grant that caused me to bloody miss Plymouth.

Grant writing is always difficult for me…do a literature search on the next topic, download the papers, read them, write my paragraph or two or four, insert the references and start over. Once a section is finished I have to reread it, find the duplicated parts, make some transitional paragraphs, and then move on to the next section. Some folks just seem to have the words fall out of their fingers…..I have to pull my words out with a pair of pliers, then I usually chop up my finger tips a bit for good measure. Writing can be hard.

So what do I do for a break……write my monthly welcome column of course. Writing the column by comparison is actually fun…I get to call on a different vocabulary, not as dry as my grant vocabulary, and I even get to make up new words sometimes….like “jamphoria”…or at least try to use them in unexpected ways. Grant writing is just about the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, a good grant writer has a certain talent to communicate complex ideas without putting the reader immediately to sleep and part of that talent means you really don’t want to throw any unexpected curve balls that might fake the reader out, tempting the end result of “Not Recommended For Funding”. Not a good thing that.

Anyway, a couple of years ago I was visiting my parents in North Carolina right around Christmas. Since it was an extended trip I had my ax with me, and my bud Batso the wonder dog. My folks and one of my brothers live in a small town called Andrews, just west of the Smoky Mountain National Park which is about as far out in the countryside as you can get on the east coast….their closest Walmart and major grocery store is a solid 20 minute drive down the highway in Murphy…which is on most maps.

I usually think of this part of the state as deep in bluegrass music country, but actually it’s probably more like deep in “old time” music country. When I was growing up we often heard stories about small, isolated communities in the area that were “discovered” when the Blue Ridge Parkway was being built around the time of the (first) Great Depression. Part of the folklore was that the people in those communities were performing music almost exactly like the original Scots/Irish settlers. I don’t know how accurate this history is, but I rather like it and it fits well with the surroundings. In this part of the world just about everyone takes off work for opening day of deer season, turkey season, and trout season. It doesn’t matter what your line of work is, it’s just a fact of life that a certain number of shops close, construction on houses stops, and don’t count on the plumber showing up or getting your road graded. And unlike in Atlanta, folks here will make eye contact and wave when you drive down the road, they’ll stop raking the leaves and have a conversation when you walk by, they tool around in trucks with dogs in the front seat and guns in the rack, go to high school football games on Friday nights and church on Sundays. There are a couple of dulcimer luthiers nearby, the John C Campbell Folk School is just down the road, and then there is Clay’s Corner in the town of Brasstown where every New Year’s eve is celebrated with the annual possum drop.

Brasstown is even smaller than Andrews, located further back in the hills, and like a lot of very small rural mountain communities, it’s situated at a crossroads landmarked by the only stop signs for miles in any direction. It has a couple of crafts shops that I’ve never seen open, a filling station/grocery store, maybe a dozen or so houses…with a creek running though it, surrounded by farms, luscious green fields, overgrown rail fences, and the North Carolina mountains. Somewhere in town you’ll probably see a grader parked behind one of the shops or a backhoe on a trailer with the hitch propped on an old stump.

While the annual New Year’s possum drop is an anti-tradition, making fun of the various big city descending balls, countdowns, and fireworks, it gets its fair share of unwanted attention. Turns out they really did have a live local possum that they lowered in a cage down the flagpole, at least until PETA discovered the event. But the resourceful folks around Clay’s Corner now make do with a frozen road kill possum carefully selected from a large number of contestants. The North Carolina two-lane blacktops have a healthy inventory of skunk, snake, squirrel, rabbit, and possum road kill to choose from, so a few days before New Years folks start entering their contestants. The judging committee decides on which contestant is the best specimen representing the species and then the least mangled possum gets posed and frozen in preparation for the New Year’s celebration. I suspect this is a serious undertaking with much discussion and can imagine that the final decision weighs heavily on the judges. I have to wonder, though, whether PETA’s intervention on the original possum drop ironically increases the incidence of Clay county marsupial-cide during the latter half of December.

Clay’s Corner is actually the filling station/grocery store located on one corner of the intersection in Brasstown and is where the local weekly bluegrass jam happens….in the backroom where they have the video rental section. Most of the regulars get there early and set up on folding chairs at one end of the room next to the sink and mops; the musicians are set up at the other end and arranged along one wall and the middle of the floor. There’s not a lot of space left between the audience and musicians, which means latecomers might have to sit in the spam isle next to the air filters and oil.

This jam is clearly a local’s jam and a real family affair. Folks walk around talking while babies crawl on the carpet underneath the musicians’ chairs. There’s some quiet conversation going on and a few folks greeted me when I came in. But this jam was more like a living room jam or some private jams that I’ve been to and way more relaxed than the hyper-competitive pub jams. Even so, when I visited Clay’s Corner I had been playing only a few months and wasn’t much inclined to make this my first jam experience, so I just sat and took it in. Like the private jams I’ve been to since, there was a good mix of musicians of all different levels and kinds……strangely the only thing missing that evening was a banjo player. It really didn’t matter much what was called, most were blue grass songs, but many I didn’t recognize…maybe in this part of the nation there is a different play list that folks go by…..and the listeners quietly appreciated what was played with some occasional light applause and encouraging comments spoken just a little l
Posted:  10/17/2010

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