Between two people there lies the past. Not the shared memories, but the things that defined them that defy common experience. The past is a rich and scary place, offering up insights into people that exist beyond articulation... both the ghosts of what were and the sweetness that is the true germ of all longing.
And when you live in the wind, where you forge the depths quickly, much gets taken on faith. Or it's glossed over because people live on the run and don't want to look back. The bridge that binds the truths is often understood without understanding on the existential plane, let alone the empiric one.
So bring me a 40 year old man with a voice that is the essence of the mud at the bottom of the Mississippi River, the deep tones of a 100 year old Magnolia tree creaking at the crease from which the branches grow, the gravelly sound of a dirt road gone mud -- and suggest that the gaps fill in by osmosis.
Especially a smart 40 year old man steeped in tradition who is just slightly askew from the star-making processes. Yeah, bring it on -- my colorist needs more reasons to dye me.
Somewhere down a blue line, or rather several jagged blue lines zagging into each other like an EKG gone mad, lies the Mississippi of Jeff Bates. It is a place of marked contrasts -- sweeping fields that seem to yearn for something more, perhaps people's dreams to fill the voids that spring up above them, and major trees that reach as broad as they do high, sweeping up everything within reach and promising to take even more in.
This Mississippi balances what many would consider abject poverty with the stiff-lipped unmoving stoicism that is survival not even considered, merely a matter of fact. The land of there-are-no-options, so-we-persevere. And like a precariously balanced Thanksgiving dinner plate, wobbling on a knee extended from a stuffing-spewing chair, it somehow exults in the conflicting reality.
That would be the easy way to look at it. But not through the eyes of Jeff Bates, an old school country singer who evokes Conway Twitty's direct eroticism, Waylon Jennings' don't-back-down dignity, Johnny Paycheck's dug-in working class rowdiness, Merle Haggard's blue collar poetry and Johnny Cash's elevation of the common man.
Looking at Bates' Mississippi, it's every turn that turned into a collision, every house that a pretty girl ever lived in, every place someone he knows once worked. It is a vital place, where every tree, every driveway, every market is joined into a larger truth of life. It is the web of living, of being… and especially of the kind of love that is only forged from getting by when that's the largest commodity one has to live on.For Jeff Bates' people were poor.
Honorable in the way people who can't buy their way out of it must be. Decent to the core, and embracing people's entire selves without the cherry-picking that mars many people's worldviews -- denying them the gift of the rich pageant that is humanity.
With an ages old magnolia spreading its branches like welcoming arms, the few rooms that housed a Mama and a Daddy and eventually 11 children -- in waves, but still that's a lot of wear and tear in any configuration -- it's obvious this buckled frame building is a dwelling of love. No doubt dysfunction, as well, packed full of kids who're too smart, not quick enough, quiet, boisterous, curious, shy, sly… and parents raised with old school philosophies tempered with kindness and pride and a commitment to giving each other everything they had.
Bunker Hill is not a worldly place. It is sprawling fields, some cultivated, some littered with brush and trees and cut up by the occasional wire fence, strung to make sense of the farflung undulations that is the ground that makes up the great state of Mississippi.
Popped up there is a three room house -- a big front room and two bedrooms; the big room cut up some more to create a kitchen and a bathroom and a closet. It is a place that now belongs to one of the older boys… and his family.
The front porch, where a young dark-headed boy who looked like the baby Elvis would sit and sing old gospel songs with his Pentecostal preacher's daughter mother while waiting for his father to come in from the fields, has been covered over, closed in like the world getting smaller through the wonders of development. But you can still feel the music and the waiting and the love that three people, who to the rest of the world had fallen through the cracks, shared.
See, these are the truths most people miss. And they miss 'em - -even if they somehow manage to turn themselves around enough how many different times to somehow get lost and end up in what was the Bates' front yard. The only trickier negotiation would be the phases of the hearts that beat within this family: strong hearts that believe in the sanctity of life, even in the face of how hard it can be.
And these people know hard. A sharecropper with that many mouths to feed. A gorgeous woman aged by the needs of that many children, but made even more beautiful by the love within her soul. It glows behind them, a light that is unseen by the people who don't understand the things in life that really matter -- the things that imbue Jeff Bates with everything that makes him stand out, things that go unspoken like breathing. From the road, it ain't much. The front of the house still up on blocks.
Won't betray the magic that exists in the cracks in the floorboards, the windows that have plastic to keep out the viciousness of the wind. It is a husk of something far more wonderful than the bigger houses that also sit out amongst the rolling land that wrinkles the topography and casts the grass like gray/green nets of fertility.
If these walls could talk… is a notion that makes me smile. They could describe the smell of chicken frying, cakes cooling, biscuits baking. They could tell tales of thick corrective glasses and Vitalis hair oil and double knit pants, young'uns clean and pressed and ready to go to school looking unlike any of the "in" kids.
But also stories of a wisdom that illuminates a dignity that runs through the veins and a compassion that makes lives more potent. When a chubby 14-year old could take no more as a poor-kid-expected-to-take it, and in finally standing up for himself, getting a suspension that more than illustrated the canyon of the class system; it was a knowing father who decreed, "You've probably learned enough anyway" -- and set a manchild on the doorstep of adulthood without the histrionics of popularity contests, trivial school functions and the disposability of values that're rooted in money that most teenagers pass through on their way to maturity.
It was a liberation out of humiliation, a stand from necessity and a reaching out that came without explanation. When Jeff Bates got his walking papers, he also got -- at his strong, silent father's behest -- an invitation into the grown-up world. He walked through the door, knowing his Daddy had his back and his Mama would always be there to pick up the pieces.
If he was shy, a dreamer, unlike the rest of the family -- He only got his full redneck stripes by the hardwon effort of tearing down an engine in a quest for his father's respect, not some deep burning thrill to get out the wrenches and the screwdrivers -- they loved him as he was. They loved and protected and fussed over and dared and challenged. They gave him roots and wings -- and they prodded him when necessary.
If his mother was acutely aware of the gap, and wished to protect her adopted child from the judgment of other people -- a judgment based on arbitrary truths and not the beauty of her son's soul -- she was fierce in her love. She demanded, sitting on that porch on all those nights, "Sing out, boy! Sing like you mean it…" and she meant it. She knew the difference, and she wouldn't settle.
A preacher's daughter knows the difference, you see, about heaven and Hell, redemption, salvation and damnation . Mrs. Bates made sure her children knew what God's love was all about. She taught them tolerance and perseverance. She gave them a sense of belonging in a world that could've cared less or bothered to notice. To her, these children -- but especially the one who arrived with double pneumonia, needing to be brought back to health -- were her reason for being. And Barbara Bates intended to be with a white hot reason that would smelt steel, split atoms and turn away naysayers.
Still, small towns and rural areas are places of uneasy truces. You must get along, because the space is limited. But there is the implied line of "more than" and "less than;" the silent jockeying for position on the social hierarchy. It can consume one's life, one's soul, one's piece of mind. Or one can just secede from that game of social Pacman -- and turn inward, glorying in the amazement of the lives that've been gathered through grace and circumstance.
Besides when your house is something the kids can play under, there ain't much use in airs. Not that having airs would've interested the Bateses, they had far more important things to do: mold young character, give their children a sense that the world was out there to take on. That whatever they found would make them rich, would define who they were -- even if they never stepped back to consider what any of it meant.
Lives lived on the margin, you see, do not afford much opportunity for introspection. You merely sign on and start living. You steep in the moments, you build on what's there. Then you celebrate the things that come your way, wait for the setbacks to pass while working like Hell to get through it.
On this particular day, there in that white wood frame house -- that had been improved upon considerably -- there was a surprise in the near back bedroom. Peaking in through a window, a fawn -- still spotted, nursing from a bottle -- on wobbly legs, skittered about. Its Momma had been hit by a car, so Jeff's brother'd brought it home to save it from certain death.
It was a moment straight out of Marjorie Rawlings. The Yearling in a back Mmississippi bedroom, as naive and sacred as anything one would find in church. Untouched by anything mortal man might consider important, that little deer sucked hard on the bottle, knowing that nourishment would come if it would just hang on…
It reminded me of my own Grandmother on my mother's side. A conscientious objector in the realm of organized religion, walking through the woods off Community Drive - where Grandpa was an estate manager for some of the wealthiest families in Cleveland -- "WHY do I HAVE to go to some marble building to see God?" she would bellow, feet crushing twigs and leaves beneath her muddy rubber boots. "Look around, little girl, look… around… If God isn't here, he sure isn't there. If God got to pick, where do you think he'd rather be?"
On this afternoon, looking for fried chicken and mashed potatoes to bring with us, Jeff Bates' very best friend behind the wheel, it is no question. God has no interest in fancy or grand or uppity or the latest designer or biggest houses. God doesn't have much interest in small minds, petty spirits or icy hearts… He loves them and he wants them to open up to something warmer, something more, but he makes his home where he feels the most welcome.
For God, what could be holier than the fields a young not-quite would fill up with dreams, a stream he would sail his desires down, a Mama who would brush the hair back from his eyes while he sang and a Father who would stand up for him, even as he'd dress him down over dumb mistakes. It is in this kind of reality that character is forged… which isn't an unfaltering diamond hard thing.
No, even out of something like this, stumbles are part of the package. But the core remains solid. No matter what happens, there is always this truth to come back to… this love to wrap oneself up in when the night is cold and desolate and the doubts are bigger than the Manhattan skyline.
As the roads twist, rise and fall on their way to places that mean nothing to me, but everything to my companion of the day, the world opens up. It is a place of indignity, burning moments of shame and thrills both. It is every person who snubbed or looked down their nose, every girl who ever said yes, every mystery that needed untying, every stigma that required discarding, every truth that held up and every myth that eventually burned off like the morning mist.
This Mississippi is all soul, no waiting. A hard place in many ways, but abandoned enough that anything could be possible. You could dream what you wanted, because they were just dreams. If you decided to stay, the life you got was the life you'd been raised on. If you wandered off, seeking something, everyone looked yearningly after you -- wondering what you'd find, hoping you'd share it if you did, and knowing if it didn't work, you'd be back safe amongst'em.
It takes a certain hunger to leave a place like that, a place that is fundamentally hungry. But when you have that kind of love, those kinds of images burned inside you, you can go knowing that you're taking it with you wherever you end up. That is comforting in ways that defy words.
On Rainbow Man, Jeff Bates' debut, there is a song called "My Mississippi," which celebrates the facts more than the feelings. Perhaps between the words much should be understood. Maybe I'm thick, but as the bleached gray tar falls beneath the tires, it makes me smile -- because there's a truth even deeper than the voice of the bass-singing growler: home is buried deep within us all.
If we will see it for what it is, even when it is someone else's, there is comfort to be had. Open your eyes, see what is beneath what is there -- and you can sprout wings and soar in any moment. For every place, every second, every person is the same fundamentally, we just get so lost in the facts and places we miss the far richer, more potent universal truths.
This night will be a homecoming concert of sorts. For all the people who had more… at least in terms of possessions… they will have to come to terms that one of the less than found a way to make --and more importantly -- leave a mark. Whether he ever becomes Entertainer of the Year or not, Jeff Bates found a way to make music, to write down the truths of his life, to offer insight, to sow some of the understanding that the people where he came from blew by without thinking.
To people who may never leave Laurel, Mississippi, Jeff Bates is a dispatch from the other side. He has seen what they all dreamed of, things they couldn't even imagine -- many of these people who never ever left the county, let alone the state. His blue moon has turned gold, maybe platinum. He is swinging on a brass ring that could set the merry-go-round free, the painted horses running happy and wild and free beyond rules or fears or limitations -- and he, they all know in the deepest places, was one of them In a two-dimensional world, even one that is as achingly lovely in its sparseness as that part of Mississippi, the notion that dreams can come true may well be the most narcotic thing of all. What could make you believe in possibilities of living more than seeing one of your own get their shot? And see them actually bring it home? The songs on the radio, the appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, the acclaim in The New York Times, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly ? To have all that, then to turn around and share it so generously with all the people back where he comes from?
And when Jeff Bates the hillbilly singer stood onstage, bathed in the warm golden glow of that spotlight, he didn't turn up his nose, say he told them so or extend a middle finger. No, having been raised in a world of love and loving people for what they are, he talked about how his dream was their dream -- their collective dream. So for him, the beauty was letting them share in these moments.
In that moment, Cleveland, Ohio and Bunker Hill, Mississippi weren't so very different. Rock & roll and country music were just the same. Prep schools and hard knocks had parity. The rush and the languid pace both had their place, a rhythm that was life fully inhabited. In that shared understood truth, there were no gaps, no distance, no difference. Mississippi is not only the home of great writers and better singers, it is a place where dreams can spread out under strong branches, the sweet smell of grass, the hope for small things and the moments where just enough is more than plenty. If you start there, anything is possible.
Look -- or listen -- to what that state gave Jeff Bates. Sure there was a strong family, a deep belief in God and a sense of wanting more. But the soybeans, the untamed animals, the lost nights and everything that is life in the slow sleepy South was a pretty great place to start -- and it creates a deeper truth that anyone worth their heart should be able to get their arms around. Or else if the truth is just too impossibly endless, exhaust themselves trying.