Tennessee Mountain Stories

Southern Humor

If you can’t laugh at yourself you will miss an awful lot of fun and I have always appreciated that my Plateau neighbors can in fact laugh at themselves.  Well we got to listening to some old Ray Stevens songs the other day and I remembered how much I could always relate to those songs. 

Ray Stevens.jpg

When I hear “The Mississippi Squirrel Revival” I naturally picture the little church I grew up in.  And when he tells about going on a retreat with his wife in the mountains of East Tennessee in “Smokey Mountain Rattlesnake Retreat” I can just imagine gettin’ myself into that situation.

Then there’s “Sittin’ Up with the Dead” – now by the time I came along we had become quite accustomed to entrusting our loved ones’ to the funeral home but I’ve heard again and again about folks sitting up with the dead and knowing our superstitious nature on the mountain, that song easily evokes images of my grandparents and their siblings.

I didn’t really set out today to write a tribute to the Georgia-born Stevens, however, I’m not hesitant to do so.  I love that a southern boy can look at our customs in a humorous and yet respectful manner.  Jerry Clower was from Louisiana and their rich culture is very different than the Cumberland Plateau’s yet he was another one that I can easily relate to.  Today’s comedians think they have to curse every other breath – and how is that even funny? – and they want to talk about ugly stuff that you probably shouldn’t ever listen to it but you sure don’t want to play it around your Mama or your kids.  Jerry and Ray were rarely indelicate but they’ll keep you rolling.

My stories from the mountain aren’t necessarily comical but we are often a funny people and we often recount funny stories, even from recent history.  This is a season of visiting and we’ll be laughing together I know.  I look forward to that and I hope you do too.  If you are looking for a laugh, pop into YouTube and listen again to these guys who tell stories so like our own.


One Big Family

Clarkrange Baptist Church, 1949 From Remembrances by Luther Atkinson, 1992

Clarkrange Baptist Church, 1949
From Remembrances by Luther Atkinson, 1992

This week I got a call from my Mama that Daddy was having pain in his chest and across his arms.  We headed to the ER and I started praying.  On that drive I also started reaching out to my church family and my circle of beloved Christian sisters with a familiar request, “I need some prayer support.”

It’s safe to say I may have been a little emotional not knowing what the situation would be when I got to the hospital, but thinking about these faithful prayer warriors nearly overwhelmed me with a myriad of emotions I’m hard-pressed to name.  Then the very next day I opened up my devotional and here’s what I got:

…The idea of a universal family sounds very ‘summer of love.’  The ‘flower power’ generation grasped the concept of loving humanity, but they sometimes put more faith in sex and drugs than in God.

The idea of a family in which we are all God’s children is like G.K. Chesterton’s description of Christianity.  It ‘has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and not tried.’ A true family of Christ is still possible.  It begins when we lay aside fear and hold out a hand. (The KJV Daily Devotional, Barbour 2018)

We’ve just passed our Thanksgiving Holiday and jumped right into the Christmas season so family is at the forefront of our minds.  Families can be wonderful and terrible – often at the same time.  The trouble is that families are made up of us foolish and utterly sinful human creatures.  Church families are not a whole lot different than biological families on account of the same kind of people making up both. 

Family is a persistent theme among the Tennessee Mountain Stories – and it’s both kinds of family. Sure on the mountain you are surrounded in the church-house by siblings, cousins and in-laws but there are also lots of non-relations and they are still family if you choose to love and serve them.

Group from Martha Washington Freewill Baptist Church circa 1983

Group from Martha Washington Freewill Baptist Church circa 1983

In the day when the government offered no social safety net and public services were either non-existent or too far removed to rescue an injured child or burning building, then your family and neighbors provided the necessary help.  As helpful as Social Security and fire and rescue squads are, we may have grown a little lazy relying on them to take care of others.

So this week I’m reminded that ‘a man [or me!] that hath friends much shew himself friendly’ (Proverbs 18:24) and I am encouraged to see that we still maintain some of that old-time mountain sense of community, love for our neighbors and readiness to help a friend in need!

And by the way, Daddy’s doing much better now. 

Thanksgiving 2018

Thanksgiving 2018.jpg

“Charlie, it ain’t right for a poor man to eat as much as I’ve had today.”  Preston Langford stretched his long torso and rubbed his stomach. Years ago, Preston had built a big wooden table for Emma to use on her flat rock and it had often served this growing family. He kept it in good repair and today it was filled with fried fish, boiled potatoes, sweet corn, fried apples and the last of the cantaloupe and watermelons.  

Charlie chuckled and grasped his friend’s shoulder, “Who’s poor here Preston? Look around at all these young’uns and our wives cackling like two old hens as happy as can be. I can’t see that we’re wantin’ for much.”  

These are the opening paragraphs of Plans for Emma’s Epilogue and they came to mind as I assembled today’s Thanksgiving Feast.  We had a very small crowd of only 6 this year and I’m all for keeping things simple on holidays.  Still the dishes seem to multiply!  And as you’d probably suspect, my foods are very traditional – turkey and ham, sweet potato casserole and green beans.  We had Pecan pie and pound cake.

In today’s media-driven world it’s often easy to feel like we have less than this family or that one.  And there’s always a new car or gadget the advertisers would have you believe you just have to have, and have right now.  Yet this is a day to Thank the good Lord for His many blessings and as I look at this table and think what others have faced both historically and around the world, I realize my blessings are far greater than I can count today.

Among the blessings, I’m thanking God for you faithful readers and I’m praying that your Thanksgiving Day reveals the blessings in your own lives.


Trading Knives

My knife collection - the top 2 belonged to my Grandfathers and the bottom 2 were my Great-Grandfathers’

My knife collection - the top 2 belonged to my Grandfathers and the bottom 2 were my Great-Grandfathers’

I got to thinking about pocket knives after talking with a cousin who remembered my Grandpa coming to her mother’s house and saying, “Alright boys, throw your knife up here and let’s see who’s got the best ‘un.”  They’d all pull out their pocket knives and have a big time comparing and trading.

While they’re forbidden in schools and airplanes and frowned upon in lots of other places, a knife has endless uses and can be downright indispensable in some situations. Whether it’s a Marine Corps issue K-Bar, Leatherman multi-tool or Case’s little single blade you can protect yourself, dress game or save your nails when opening mail.  From trimming strings on a shirt collar to opening a bag of horse feed if you’ve got one in your pocket you’ll be reaching for your knife as though it’s an extension of your person.


If you’ve ever gotten in the habit of carrying a knife then you feel naked without it.  In fact, I often ask my Daddy if he’s got a knife (because I need one and don’t have one in my own pocket!) and he responds, “Have I got my pants on?” He had a little hospital visit a couple of years ago and left the knife at home.  Even on the drive home he was looking for that knife.

Carrying a pocket knife used to be a rite of passage in a young man’s life – and a rite that passed pretty early.  Knives are easily lost and blades often chip so I don’t suppose many of those boys ended with their original knife.  But I have been lucky enough to get some old knives passed on to me.  I doubt they hold any real value but like so many of my treasures that I’ve shared with you, they are priceless to me.  I have the knife that my Grandpa Henry Livesay carried really all of his life that I remember, and the one he carried right up till he died and I have knives from 2 of my great-grandfathers.  These are some of my greatest treasures because I know the men carried this close to them every day.  They are well used and that makes them all the more treasured to me because they were tools for my ancestors, things they used in their daily lives.

I don’t think I fully understand the joy of trading knives – and I’m hoping some of you fine readers will comment below and truly enlighten me.  But I know it was a game to my Grandpa and his brothers, cousins and nephews.  When he called them to throw down he had no plan of boasting a fine piece of steel beyond their means, no desire to embarrass anyone and certainly no plan to cheat any of them out of a valued blade.  They were family having family fun – and I’m sure they would extend that fun well beyond their clan whenever the opportunity arose.

Changing Time

The time changed this past weekend and we are supposed to be enjoying an extra hour of sleep each night.  Instead, my body refuses to adjust and I’m just up early.  Every time the clocks have to change to accommodate Daylight Savings Time I have to adjust – well we all do, don’t we?

DST History.jpg

As I began to think of Daylight Savings Time from an historical perspective I did a little research and found that I really did not know the history at all.  “Fast Time” was implemented during World War I to save lighting fuels for the war effort.  I had thought the concept was much older and had been designed to support the Industrial Revolution.

I’m always fascinated when I see old factory buildings with their numerous tall windows that remind me they were built and used before the rows of fluorescent lighting we’re so accustomed to in commercial buildings now.  Its’ not hard to imagine the importance of sunshine during working hours in those buildings.  Often you see the big arched spaces have been filled-in either with plywood or brick as they are now more of a security concern than a necessity.

In the Tennessee mountains however factories were of little concern as the hours of sunshine shortened with the approach of winter.  The schedule on a farm is set by the sun and the weather instead of a clock.  My daddy always said a dairyman should start his milking about 4 a.m.  As I think about that rule I suspect the time was more because many modern farmers work a public job and have to finish their milking in time to get to work.  On an earlier farm with no electricity, why would you go to the barn before daylight?  Coal oil was a precious commodity that cost hard earned pennies, it would not be burned to light chores that could be just as easily accomplished in another hour. 

We always think of farm families going to bed with the chickens.  Certainly after a day of hard physical labor you’re ready for a good night’s sleep, but as I think about this lighting issue I’m betting that was a big factor too.