Liner Notes From Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions
Philadelphia, Mississippi - Hometown
In Philadelphia, the old train depot is located at the bottom of what is known as Depot Hill. For many years, it was just another train stop along the way in central Mississippi for the Gulf Mobile and Ohio train line. It was nothing glamorous, simply a shipping or dropping off place for wood, freight, mail, cotton, grain and during its heyday, passengers.
The origination of the depot dates back to 1904, though, by the end of the 20th century, it was abandoned; nothing but a tomb inhabitated by bats, spiders and rats. No more business, no more passengers, no more hobos. Gone was its glory. Today, the depot lives again. I've loved the place and have gone there alone countless times to either write, think or do some serious daydreaming.
I drove myself to the depot on the night of August 29, 2005 for another round of pondering. I listened to the local radio station WHOC as I traveled only to learn that 200 miles to the south, Hurricane Katrina was beginning to destroy the Gulf Coast. When I arrived at the depot and stepped out of my car, I felt the truth of the news. The air in Dixie that evening was threatening. It was thick like cane syrup, way beyond the usual hot, humid fare of summer. Even though the storm was 200 miles in the distance, I felt its wrath. The trees around me were rocking. The mighty ones and the saplings alike, all bowing in deference, some seemingly begging for mercy. Lightning was popping in all directions, to the north in Kosciusko, to the south in Hattiesburg, to the east and west. The rain had yet to make an appearance, however just like the train, I knew that it was bound to eventually come.
I walked around to the platform and found it void of feeling that evening. It then came to my mind to step down onto the tracks and so I did. I stood on the railroad in the midst of the Mississippi darkness and began to sing and dance. I put on a show with the wind and the lightning. Then I heard the sound of the train coming northbound from Meridian. I knew its whistle. It was the same panther-like squall that hit me square in the heart just as it always did when I was a kid living five miles up the track from the very spot where I was standing. I loved the sounds of those trains that passed behind our house. They seemed to call out to me as they tore through the woods. My dream was to jump on and ride to Nashville.
As the train approached, I stepped off of the rail bed, however, I stood as close to the tracks as my courage would let me. I wanted to see how close I could stand to the passing train without caving in. I counted thirteen cars go by and then closed my eyes. As the remainder of that train rattled past my nose, my entire life seemed to flash before my eyes. Just the postcards from the depths of my soul, pictographs of truth appeared. There they were: love, regret, whiskey, cheating, pills, salvation, redemption, divorce, failure, success, rhinestone suits, Cadillacs, Fender telecasters, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, the Grand Ole Opry, Folsom Prison, heartaches, Connie Smith, Ira Hayes, my Mama, my Daddy, my sister, the Staple Singers, Jesus Christ, the summer of 1964, Johnny Cash, Luther Perkins, the Fabulous Superlatives, every lie I've ever told, a glimpse of judgment day, a chain-smoking monkey at the Dixie gas station at the Alabama-Florida line, the looks on people's faces at the snake handling service at the Louisiana Pentecostal Church that I played, Travis Tritt, my mandolin, Merle Haggard's phone number, Mother Maybelle Carter's guitar, Thomas B. Allen's paintings, teal rhinestones, Les Leverett's photographs, standing in the middle of Little Big Horn, the spray of roses, corn, cotton and squash on top of Johnny Cash's casket, the wilderness of Judea, the way the sun makes things look during the late afternoon in southern California, the gospel harmony of the Singing Rambos, all of the honky tonks I've ever played, Old Pearl Valley Baptist Church, the sound of Ralph Mooney's steel guitar, the times I've been in jail, getting sober, Clarence White, Nudie, Manuel, Jaime, lavender rhinestones, laying down in the seat of Hank Williams' powder blue Cadillac where he died, Bill Monroe's mandolin, standing at the top of the Empire State Building then waking up at the bottom of the world, every mile I've ever traveled on a hillbilly bus, Lankershim Blvd., fuchsia rhinestones, pieces of myself that slipped away, getting baptized, holding hands with Connie as we helplessly watched Johnny Cash's house burn to the ground, Merle Travis' ashes, Roger Miller, magnolia trees, the gun that murdered Stringbean, Buck Owens, Rome, and then the very spirit of God almighty ....
And then it was gone, no warning, no caboose. When it left, that train took with it the lightning and the wind, leaving me alone in the middle of a still, graveyard-like silence. It was surreal.
Every place I've ever been, most everything I'd ever done and seen seemed to have been ripped from inside of me and hauled off on a northbound, backwoods Mississippi ghost train. I stood there empty, mindless, a blank page. I heard my Mother's words from long ago, "When you find yourself, if in the middle of nowhere, go back to Jerusalem and stand. Wait on divine guidance. It's the only guidance worth having."
As the song says, "Somewhere between 8:06, just past the 12:09," I heard distant sounds from the Promised Land. It was unmistakably country music. The Old Testament version, the kind that tells the sincere story from life's other side, lived through, real or imagined. Connie Smith refers to it as "the cry of the heart." It occurred to me that it's been a while since I've been to the microphone. Since the last time, I've had a lot of laugh and cry about. As I walked back into the southern darkness, I knew that it was time to write some songs and it was long past time to play some hard-hitting country music.
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