Truck Stop Heaven

Time never leaves anything alone -- take it from a natural-born road dog.

This appeared in the Oxford American - March/April 2001

It is with whole-heart-conviction that I tell you that the best cup of black coffee ever served in the Southern states was at the Red Hot Truck Stop in Meridian, Mississippi. This wasn't your ordinary cup of interstate steam. It reminded me of what Brother Howard Finster had said about dipping snuff. He said, "After I take a dip, it gets real quiet and then things come to me that normally wouldn't." A cup of coffee from the Red Hot had that same kind of power; it caused you to drive differently. If I were headed up North, words and melodies began to dance around in my head as though leaked from God's pen and onto me in a twangy kind of way. If I were headed South, the coffee revealed things to me about Hattiesburg and New Orleans that even the natural light of day tends to overshadow.

The Red Hot itself was one of the last great truck stops in America. It didn't take a backseat to anything Route 66 had to offer. It was the Southern edge personified; a gathering place for all sorts of ramblers. A café society of good ol' boys in affordable cowboy shirts and the kind of good ol' girls who'd fetch you out of jail even though they had called the law six hours earlier to come lock you up. At the Red Hot, I met people like Trigger Thrash, Wirehead, Fats Domino, Percy Sledge's valet, Hank Jr.'s crew, Mama Rabbit, and Elly the Pinball Queen. It was an atmosphere where the lines on Merle Haggard's face didn't have to be explained, Hank Williams' words could be taken to heart, and the waitresses had a way of knowing your life story the minute you opened the door.

I turned my memories of the Red Hot into a song called "Truckstop" that George Jones and Emmylou Harris sang on my album The Pilgrim.

A waitress named Shirley
Poured him some coffee, and she said
"Hello stranger, where're you going?
I see the dust of where you've been
Seems like the fire of trouble
Claims you like next of kin......"

The tune's kind of a pistol-whipped version of a Carter Family memory. The sort of song that only Earl Scruggs can properly play on the guitar. It only lasts one minute and twenty-seven seconds, and then it's gone.

So is the Red Hot. I didn't see it coming. At the end of a twenty-eight-year tour, I pulled into the Red Hot a year ago and found it boarded up and left for dead. The coolest sign in Meridian had been unplugged. There I was, the owl-eyed driver of a tired Cadillac, badly in need of fuel, coffee, and conversation. I found myself sitting in a graveyard of silence. I felt betrayed, lonesome, and hurt. Then I got mad. The longer I sat there, the madder I got. I got mad at time itself because it never leaves anything alone. I got mad at myself for always being gone, and then I cussed the road for taking one too many things away from me. A dark angel laughed in my face and said, "You know the deal. If you never leave, you're never missed."

The lines from Johnny Cash's "Big River" flashed through my mind:

When I left it was rainin'
So nobody saw me cry
Big river why's she doin' me this way.

I disappeared into the black Mississippi night, driving my black car, wearing a black hat and black gloves and a black coat, thinking black thoughts about black coffee and that never-ending stream of blacktop called the road.

The road is a hooker, sickly and tired
The road is a place, that I once admired
The road is a place, where I thought I belonged
The road lost its meaning between the lines of a song.

By Marty Stuart

Return To Articles Return To Home Page