My grandmother on my Dad’s side was one of five sisters, who shared only one brother born somewhere in the middle. The great grandchildren of a full blooded Native American woman, these little ones were raised with a sense of family and a sense of place. As the siblings grew up enough to choose spouses, they wished to remain close with each other even though they no longer shared the same house. Over time, they developed a tradition we called Family Supper. Once a month, the five sisters and their one brother would meet up at a pre-ordained home for a huge potluck dinner. They brought with them their children and their spouses and enough food to feed everyone twice. Sometimes the teenagers in the family brought friends or dates with them for the family to observe and give (or withhold, as the case may be) approval. When I was growing up, we never lived in the same town as my grandma, but occasionally we would make the three or four hour trek down to Hot Springs, AR for a long weekend when one of the dinners happened to be planned. Beside the excellent spread of food, and the occasional injury caused by roughhousing cousins, what I remember the most about these gatherings was how they all ended in song.
After all the pecan pie was gone, the adults rounded up the kids, settled them downstairs -- on and around the big couch, then squeezed in next to the upright piano in Mamaw’s basement. Her younger sister, my great aunt Sue, usually played, and they all took turns calling out hymn numbers for everyone to sing. The songs about heaven were the most popular. Four-part harmonies would break out and someone would call on someone else to sing a solo. The kids clapped or swayed in response as the smaller ones drifted off to sleep. Is it possible that every member of the family was musical in some way, or is my memory playing tricks on me? In fact, it seems like even those who married into the family were chosen partly for the musicality they could bring to the bunch. When the last song was over, hugs were passed and goodbyes were said until the next month’s meeting.
Of course now I live in Tennessee and I don’t get to see extended family very often, but it makes me realize just how lucky I was to be there at all when I was growing up. How lucky I was to be born into a family that loved music almost as much as they loved each other. I still love good music myself, so I go to live concerts as often as possible, usually with my husband (my favorite concert going partner) if time and money allow. And occasionally I find myself in the middle of some really great show thinking about Mamaw’s basement. Last Wednesday was one such evening, and the show I lucked into at the last minute was one such show.
I went to the Square Room in downtown Knoxville, to see Ten out of Tenn perform, and the show was truly amazing. I dare you to go to a show with ten different artists and not hear one song you connect with -- it’s got to be a hard thing to do. Harder still though, would be to attend a show featuring ten distinct talents and love them all, but I’m telling you, that’s what happened to me that night. Even though I sat by myself because our plans were so last minute that only one parent could go, I never felt alone. Part of that was the gracious atmosphere of the venue -- it’s always nice to enjoy a handmade Italian soda and a freshly baked snickerdoodle cookie while you’re jamming to great music (as opposed to arena nachos and a fountain drink) but the other part was that everyone in the audience was just as engaged as I was.We all felt like neighbors and family because our hungry hearts were being fed with tasty, well-cooked melodies.
The highlights of the show for me were a brand new (rockin’) song by Butterfly Boucher called 5,6,7,8; an inspirational loop mix by Mr. KS Rhoads; and a raucous ballad by the young Tyler James which he dedicated to his friends’ grandma sitting on the second row. Those artists were new to me, so I paid closer attention, but that doesn’t mean the performances of more familiar names like Katie Herzig and Matthew Perryman Jones were any less stellar. I’ll go ahead and admit to you that I was previously acquainted with only one song that night, but that fact did not keep me from being glued to my seat and intensely listening for an hour and a half. In fact the one time I did get up to go to the bathroom I passed a guy coming out, headed back to his seat who looked right at me with a smile that asked, “Can you believe we’re getting to hear all this greatness?”
The dessert for the evening was the encore, when everyone came back on stage for a sing along accompanied by three instruments: a trumpet, a trombone and a guitar. That’s right, we ended the show with the classic “Ring of Fire” made popular by a good ole boy from Arkansas, named Johnny, who spent most of his grown up life in Tennessee. The subject of that song is anything but happy, but the brass line is so catchy, it makes you feel like dancing the two-step, so it works well for audience participation. We all but held hands, as we sang the night to a close.
As I recall, there were no songs about heaven that night, but I left the delightful show with my heart feeling just as full as if I were a little girl again, snuggled up on Mamaw’s couch. It’s this communal feeling that continually causes me to change my schedule at the last minute, and spend the time and money necessary to support musicians who create nights like these. In a world of individuals and screens, it’s good to remember our roots and rub elbows with real people. In fact, the whole experience inspires me to love my own family better and pour into their lives beauty they might remember for years to come. Here’s hoping you’ll do the same. Farewell until next time.
P.S. If you find yourself with a free evening in the next two weeks, Ten out of Tenn will be traveling from Pennsylvania down to Georgia. Check out their website for a show near you!