Lee Jones finds oneness with the region through music.
Lee Jones wishes he were a good enough bluegrass musician to make the money he does writing and consulting about poker. That would be way more fun.
From the little stage at the Jack of the Wood in Asheville, I see them – down front, listening. They have the look of somebody who has heard a tune that sounds familiar but can’t place it.
I know the look. I'm two generations removed from the mountains, an Appalachian sansei born in the shadow of the White House. But my grandparents built a vacation home in their birth community in Ashe County, North Carolina; there I absorbed the culture and history that shaped them before they left for the big city. I learned "June Apple" on the guitar and caught crawdads in the creek. My great-aunt Clara told me about the early 1900s when the first car showed up; why, all the kids had to get a ride.
But those were all too brief summer visits. I had a real-life "Wonder Years" childhood in a Maryland bedroom community. Yet when college time came, I chose Duke (admittedly a cultural hybrid; it’s sometimes called the University of New Jersey at Durham).
Then I was gone for 30 years. Northern Virginia, California and overseas.
But the mountains called. When time permitted, I'd return to fish in the creek and be where people remembered my grandparents. Wayne Henderson told me stories: his grandmother walking over the hill to work on my great-grandfather's farm. The Perkins family, descendants of the slaves who'd taken their master’s name – my grandmother's name – in the early 1800s and then settled over in Rugby, Va. after the Emancipation.
The visits and the stories resonated like they’d been strummed on Wayne’s guitar.
The phrase "cosmic possum" first ambled past in Sharyn McCrumb’s book, "The Songcatcher." Borrowing from poet Jane Hicks, McCrumb wrote, "It's the child who was born to the first generation out of the holler or off the ridge. Grew up in touch with those generations who settled these mountains." Sitting in my California home, I re-read that passage. Suddenly I was part of a community that I didn't even know existed; Jane Hicks had already named us. I kept that piece of myself alive, no matter where my travels took me. A framed montage of USGS maps of Ashe County hung on the wall of my home office.
Then when our overseas adventure ended, my wife said, "How about Asheville?" Multiple sushi bars and a regional airport. But also a place where kids flock so they can play bluegrass and old-time music.
On Thursday nights, the kids – and I – are down at Jack of the Wood. We play many "modern" bluegrass songs, but my great-grandparents would recognize "Old Joe Clark." Playing bass at the back of the stage, I am indeed a cosmic possum come home to roost. Great-aunt Clara, who was born and lived virtually all of her life in that Ashe County farmhouse, would have been tickled to know I’d made it back. "They law," she would have said, "all those places he went and then he ended up right down there in Buncombe County."
So that’s why I recognize 'em, sitting down in front; I used to be them. People wanting to recapture their roots before the memories become indistinct. I'm particularly pleased to play for those folks.