In a little barn at the end of Timbermill Road, the world becomes a very good place on Friday nights. It’s cold outside- there’s a chance of freezing rain- but inside the room is the kind of warmth that defies a mid- winter cold snap. The room bears none of the decorations which have come to symbolize “Christmas” in our contemporary society. No Christmas tree, no dangling strings of Christmas lights, no mistletoe as far as I can tell. Instead, you can recognize that it’s Christmastime in this particular segment of the South by the array of festive holiday sweaters adorning the womenfolk and a very tall man wearing a Santa hat and white shoes with heel taps.
The place is called Brown’s Ole Opry. Located in the small town of McCleansville, a 15 minute drive but a lifetime away from our home in downtown Greensboro, Brown’s Ole Opry is found at the end of a small side road flanked by tobacco barns and modular homes.
We are greeted by smiles and hellos from several dozen “regulars”. Tonight my co-worker and good friend, Dick Franks, is playing guitar on stage with a group of pick- up musicians, as is his monthly gig. Dick is one of those people with a keen mind, quick wit and an eternally youthful outlook that makes him seem younger than most people half his age, which I won’t repeat on account that he’s my boss. When he sees us walking in, Dick gives us a quick nod without missing a beat. I see another of my co-workers, Pat Robinson, here to support Dick, as well. Pat is perched on the bench seat lining the wall on the other side of the room. When she spots me, she hollers, above the din of guitar, banjo and fiddle, “Well, there’s Su-san!” Pat is one of the few people I know who is louder than me, a surprising statistic considering the fact that she is barely 5 feet tall with feet the size of a ten year old. Tonight, Pat has her sassy on and I comment on the serious biker’s jacket that covers her petite frame.
The band sounds really good- there’ s maybe 6 or 8 musicians- in fine form, jamming on-stage. Mounted to the rafters above their heads is a large framed American flag and a series of large, mismatched photographs standing guard over the assembly. The photographs, I learn, are the now deceased brothers and sisters of the proprietor, Mr. Brown, who at 94 years old is seated in his usual seat on the back row. From this vantage point he can enjoy the comings and goings of his lively guests by either shaking your hand or giving the ladies a peck on the cheek as they walk by.
When I ask Mr. Brown how many years he has been doing this, his answer is simply, “a long, long time.” Some of the other folks tell me this has been going on for more than 40 years. Used to be, this venue operated both Friday and Saturday nights, where numerous bands would set up both inside the barn and out buildings, where musicians spilled out onto the grassy knoll with a view to a large pond in back. These days, it’s just a Friday night venue. I could joke how one night a week is all these folks (most of them a certain age) could handle but that would be a flat out lie. The truth is that most any of them have more energy than you or me.
Over the course of coming here, 3-4 times since last summer, I’ve learned the names and the faces of a few of the “regulars”. There is a spirited redhead, a lady named Diane who has been kind enough to try to teach me to “flat foot”, a dance my mama used to do. I will admit “flat-footing” didn’t look like much of a dance when I watched mama doing it, but seems much more difficult when I am the one trying to do it. If feet could get tongue-tied, that’s what happens to me; I shuffle my feet a few beats before I think too hard, trip up and have to start over again. I love it that nobody here cares whether or not I can dance very well. One of the ladies pats me on the hand and says, “Honey, at least you are having a good time!” Diane moves across the floor effortlessly, all smooth and easy. She is a favorite dance partner with the menfolk and I love watching her interact with them, smiling, animated and attentive.
Pat and I strike up a conversation with a smartly- dressed lady wearing a leopard- skin top, long gold necklace and an expensive pair of shoes she says she bought from Arthur’s Shoe Store here in Greensboro. After we make our introductions, the lady- whose name is Tiny- explains, almost apologetically, that she used to be “tiny” but now she is not. Tiny says she likes shopping for nice shoes and clothes since her husband died several years back. Now, she says, she simply buys whatever she wants. We also admire her large beautiful ring, which she says is a fake. Her beautiful “real” jewelry, she says, was stolen a while back when she was out-of-town by a contractor working on her house.
Since my contact at the Greensboro News & Record had just spoke with me earlier that day to say she would be featuring one of my Christmas stories in the newspaper the following week, I shamelessly inquire with Tiny if she reads the local newspaper. Tiny explained that she reads the Obituary Section every day to see if her former boyfriend had crossed the river.
Something tells me that she’s hoping his ship will sail sooner than later…
There’s a man Perry and I call “Happy Feet” whose dance moves most closely resemble the little penguin of the same name. Happy Feet flaps his arms and stomps his feet, jumps straight up and then over and generally commands the show. Most people would have a heart attack just attempting these moves.
Pat, in her biker jacket, has attracted the attention of another of the “regulars’ in the crowd. When she returns from a waltz, she tells me that he dances somewhere or another almost every night of the week. I imagine this man is somewhere in his seventh decade, but he smiles as he says plainly, “I feel sixteen.”
I don’t know it at the time but Perry is planning to ask me to dance. His plans are thwarted, however by a rival in the group. Vernon is in his 80’s but he beats Perry to the punch and wheels me out on the floor and instructs me how to follow him three beats to the measure. I step on his foot a few times but he doesn’t seem to mind. We laugh and talk and before you know it, I forget to care at all about what my feet are doing. It’s all about having a good time here on Friday nights at Brown’s Ole Opry.