The last 24 hours have been filled with stories, and there’s a reason for that. We are in Jonesborough, the oldest town in Tennessee and the home of the National Storytelling Festival. For the last 41 years, the best storytellers in the country and beyond gather here one weekend in October for the listening pleasure of about 6 or 7,000 people descending on this town of 3,000.
We were two of them. We got into the festivities last night at a blue grass music concert headlined by Tim O’Brien, who is an astonishing musician, filled with good stories about his Irish background and growing up in West Virginia. The group that opened for him was Nora Jane Struthers and her band, The Party Line. That girl had a great country sound – I even bought her CD.
However, like so many moments on this trip, all was not as you would suppose. People are full of surprises, like Nora Jane, who admitted to a former life as an English teacher in Brooklyn and who grew up in New Jersey. (And her literary parents gave her a middle name in honor of Jane Austen.) Could have fooled me! So the constant moral of our story involves setting aside preconceptions about the South and about what makes one Southern.
(And – in case you New Yorkers are looking for a good time – Nora Jane and The Party Line will be at Joe’s Pub on October 16th. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I wouldn’t be back by then.)
We were clearly in the heart of an intense NPR crowd, and yes, they do come with Southern accents.
It’s their openness that is so striking. It was the easiest thing in the world to strike up a conversation with the man in front of me before the concert started. He was sorry to hear that we hadn’t been able to get into the Andrew Johnson home earlier that day. Then, he casually mentioned that his great-grandfather was the doctor who attended Johnson on his deathbed. Also that two of his great-uncles had been governors of Tennessee and one became a senator. He was so charming and so enthusiastic about New York, too. BTW, we haven’t met one single person who hasn’t said they love New York. So set that negative expectation aside. My guy who turned out to be Tennessee royalty goes there often to visit his nephew, who lives in Brooklyn and works for Google.
So on to the storytellers today. We rookies were able to sit with lots of devotees and listen to some of the most amazing “tellers.” If you ever – and I mean ever – get a chance to listen to Donald Davis, grab it. Of course those of you who are also NPR types may already know him and Kevin Kling, Bil Lepp, Tim Lowry, Antonio Rocha or Charlie Chin. What a treat and a phenomenal introduction to an incredible art form.
The icing on the cake? A very lovely little town that has had the wisdom to preserve its past and celebrate its history.
It was a great day, and also the end to this part of our trip. We are off to Las Vegas tomorrow, so it will be a whole different kind of adventure.
Will be in touch when I have something to share from the desert!