As told by John Santa
Now I don’t usually leave my cell phone on when I’m playin music, particularly when I’m playin some good ol Bluegrass music with the fine folks down at Brown’s Ole Opry there in McLeansville, but as luck (or fate) would have it, I did in fact leave my cell phone on that Saturday night just a few short weeks ago.
And so it was just a hair shy of eleven o’clock that cool spring night that my cell phone started to vibrate on my belt just as a bunch of us were on stage finishin up an evening of high energy, high quality pickin and grinnin. I pulled off my harmonica holder and set down the Blue Mandolin on top of the rickety upright piano and kinda eased back from my place up front and snuck out the back stage door and flipped open my phone and there was the number of the Queen of Bluegrass herself, right there on my caller ID! Well, as any self respecting Bluegrass Picker (and member of High Lonesome Strings) would do, I immediately dropped down to one knee, clicked that phone on, brought it up to my ear and said, “This here’s John Santa. How can I serve you, O Queen?”
Naw, I didn’t REALLY say that, Pammy just gets a kick out of it when I write things like that. What I really said was, “Pammy…what’s up?” and she said, “John, I got an errand I need you to run for me. You gotta get you a bunch of them pickers down there at Brown’s and high tail it to the border where North Carolina meets South Carolina right there on 85 South. Something down there I need you to pick up for me.”
Well now, I don’t like to question the Queen Of Bluegrass, but y’all gotta admit this right here is a somewhat unusual request.
“Pammy,” I said, “It’s eleven o’clock at night! Can’t this wait till tomorrow or Monday?”
I could hear Pammy take a deep breath and let it out slow, like it had been a long, frustrating night. “John,” she said in a tight voice, “Working on behalf of Governor Easley and The People Of The Great State Of North Carolina, I have just brokered a deal with the Governor of South Carolina for the return of Brent Fain!”
Well I let out a yelp and pushed my way out onto the stage, nearly tripped over Keith Carroll’s bass, avoided a fiddle bow to the eyeball from Fred Minor and reached over the neck of Greg Eldred’s guitar, grabbed the microphone he was about to sing into and shouted, “Brent’s comin home!!” and after about one full beat of silence while the sheer wonderfulness of it just sank in, the entire place erupted into cheers and clappin and all kinds of carryin on!
“We got to go get him RIGHT NOW!” I shouted. “I need some volunteers!”
Mr. Brown stood up in the back and said, “This here jam session is over! Y’all boys go git Brent and bring him back home.” And he went to work closing up and usherin people out and putting the microphones up. All us players went out back and stood by the musician’s entrance to the back stage in the cool dewy moonlight of a beautiful North Carolina night.
Greg said, “Cindi’ll kill me if I’m home late again, I’m gonna have to pass.” But Keith allowed as how he’d be up for it and good old Wayne Childress pushed his funky straw hat back on his head and cogitated for a minute and said, “Well, heck…I’m in…let’s go git Brent!” and jumped into the middle seat of my van. Keith finished pushin his bass into the back and was climbin in after it when little Blue, my half German Shepard, half Labrador Retriever looked at me, looked at the van, looked back up at me while I was fishin the car keys outa my pocket, jumped in the back, and hopped up on the seat right next to Keith and sat there with a big ol grin on her face. (Y’all know how that girl loves her some good bass playin—particularly when it’s Keith doin the thumpin! I reckon she figured she had about the best seat in the house for this here road trip we was about to embark on.)
I still had the phone pressed to my ear and I heard Pammy say, “John…. here’s the thing…. y’all HAVE to be at the border at midnight sharp, or the deal is off.” As I commenced to insist there was no way on God’s green earth we could make that, my car keys were snatched outa my hands by none other than Lucille Payne! I gawked in astonishment as she sorted through my key ring looking for the ignition key. “I expect Pammy’ll be wantin to talk to me,” she said grimly. I handed her the phone and she sorta drifted back a step or two for a bit of privacy and over the sound of the crickets chirpin and folks sayin their goodbyes and the cars crunchin away on the gravel as folks made their way home, I could hear the occasional word or two. Things like “Outa retirement ……. swore I’d never again……” and then finally, “Well. I’ll do it for you Pammy and of course for Jo and Brent…..” and she solemnly handed the phone back to me. She turned to Stanley Cobb and gave him a peck on the cheek and said, “Don’t wait up for me, and don’t worry…I know what I’m doin.” She shuffled through her purse a second and as Pammy rattled off instructions to me over the phone, I saw Lucille pull on a pair of driving gloves, and even in the moonlight I could see they were a well worn black leather, the kind with the fingers cut out. She climbed in the driver’s side, slammed the door, glanced in the back at Wayne, Blue and Keith and turned her gaze to Jeff Wiseman standing back a ways by the cement steps. “We’ll be needin a banjo, Jeff,” she said. He started to protest and she shot him a withering look and he said, “Yes m'am.” and climbed in the middle with Wayne, who let out a little cheer and slapped him on the back. Minor, my white English Setter looked at Lucille, looked up at me, looked back at the van and decided that van was just about full, so he jumped through the middle door, bounced over Jeff and popped up onto the passenger side front seat, circled twice to matt down the grass real good and, claiming that seat as his, sat his butt down.
Lucille was flexing her hands in her driving gloves, clenching her fists and then opening them again. “We’re fillin up fast,” she said to me. Her eyes were like cold steel. “If yer comin with us you better git on in here.” and she cranked up the engine and gunned the motor in a way I didn’t even know a Chrysler Mini Van could do.
I hurried around the front of the car, pushed a very outraged Minor into the well between the driver and passenger seats, set my blue overnight case with my harmonicas and extra strings in it on the floor by my feet and settled in with the Blue Mandolin on my lap. I pushed my cell phone into the speakerphone unit and turned up the volume so Pammy could hear us and we could hear her.
“Put yer seat belt on.” Lucille muttered and she stomped down on the gas pedal and my little mini van made some sorta inhuman cry the likes of which I had never heard before and will likely never hear again and in about 2.7 seconds we were at the end of Timber Mill turning onto McLeansville Road.
I scrambled for my seat belt as Wayne let out a yell and Jeff hollered, “Shenandoah Breakdown” in “A” boys!” and they started playin at an insane pace that matched the speed of the car Lucille was guiding down the moonlit blacktop. I finished snapping my seat belt on and in a minute or two I realized Lucille was maneuvering my van with the same skill and precision that Jeff was negotiating his banjo break. “Lucille,” I stammered, ”Where did you--??”
Lucille turned to face me and in that instant I saw her eyes were burning with the pure fire of someone on a mission. “Don’t ask...” she warned and turned her attention to the road again, the subject closed. I looked over my shoulder into the back just as Keith was winding up his bass break. He had no sooner finished than little Blue leaned across that back seat, looked Keith right in the eye and laid a big ol slurp of a kiss on him! He let out a yelp and started slappin that bass and laughed and laughed and laughed. I settled into my seat and suddenly felt very safe, very calm. I clipped a “D” harp into my harmonica holder, and picked up the Blue Mandolin just in time to take my break.
We had to play a little softer when it came time for Pammy to take her dobro break at us over the speakerphone, but it all worked out in the end, and when the song was over, she said, “Thanks boys! I needed that…it’s been a LONG day!” And I said, “What happened Pammy? How’d we get Brent back?” And she said, “Well you know how we told Brent to take it easy on them poor South Carolina folks, tried to tell him they aren’t as forgiving and warm hearted as us North Carolina pickers…” and we all nodded and said yeah… “Well,” she continued, “You know how Brent is…wasn’t too long before--”
And Wayne winced and said, “Ooooh…he didn’t start SINGIN down there did he??” and Pammy allowed as how yeah, that was EXACTLY what had happened and everybody kinda sadly shook their heads and looked down at their hands. “Well, you know,” Pammy said, “It wasn’t really his fault, I mean, he was missin Jo and home and I guess he just needed to let it out and well, the rest is history. He started playin, and then as if that weren’t bad enough, pretty soon after that he started singin when he was playin, and some of the local folks down there started complainin and then someone started a statewide petition and the next thing you know, Governor Easley got the call offering a deal. He called me, and I went to work.”
“Whaddid we have to trade for him?” Wayne asked.
“Wasn’t too bad,” Pammy answered, “We just have to send five pickers back to South Carolina.”
Keith let out a long low whistle of amazement. “Wow,” he said shaking his head, “Five South Carolina pickers for one North Carolina picker….. That’s tough…..”
“Yeah,” Pammy said, “But it’s not really that bad. One of ‘em was a singer from Spartanburg moved here in 2003, one a guitar player from Charleston and the other three were all banjo players, so… you know… no great loss.”
There was a second or two of uncomfortable silence in the car, just the static from the phone line and the hum of the tires as Lucille shot the van down I 85.
“Um…. no offense Jeff…” Pammy said softly over the line.
“None taken, Pammy, none taken…” Jeff sighed.
“Look,” Pammy said over the speakerphone, “Where abouts are you all now?”
“We’re still about twenty miles out Pammy,” I answered as I glanced at the glowing green numbers of the dashboard clock. “And I’m afraid we’ve only got ten minutes or so left till midnight. I don’t think we’re gonna make it!”
Lucille shot me a look and sorta made a snort of disgust, mashed down on that gas pedal once again and I was pushed into the back of my chair by the force of her acceleration. “We’ll just see about that!” she grumbled.
Now the amazing thing is, Lucille had gotten us from Brown’s to within twenty miles of the border in well under an hour by some of the fanciest drivin and car handling I had ever seen! We’d be tooling along and suddenly she’d barrel down an exit and switch off the highway and we’d be out on a back road in the middle a nowhere. “Little short cut I know,” she’d say in her defense as we all began to question the wisdom of leaving the interstate. “No police back here, you can take my word for that!”
And then we were back on I 85 and BAM! she would whip that wheel a sharp right turn, flip off the headlights and we’d be jolting our way across a field guided only by the pale blue moonlight while Wayne was trying to play his harmonica solo and I was trying to not let on how plain petrified I was! We played the whole way and never missed a beat, but I gotta admit we was all of us a little rattled at some of her off road activities. Still, her calm assurance and skillful handling of that car was a sight to see, I tell you what.
(I am feeling the need to take moment however, and speak directly to some of the young folks who might be reading this here missive today. (Listen up, Beaconwood.) My account of our travels in no way endorses the breaking (or in our case BENDING) of legal posted speed limits and other aspects of North Carolina Motor Vehicle Law(s), and the Queen wants me to stress that she does not condone those who might break said law(s). Y’all young people, lissen to yer parents, drive safe and friendly, obey the posted limits, buckle yer seat belts and fer God’s sake don’t do what I’m telling you we did!
Thank you for your patience and indulgence, and with your kind permission, I will return to the telling of my little story.)
Now we’d been getttin progressively more and more static and drop outs the further south we went, and in truth, I’m not so sure it was as much a function of bad cell phone service so much as I doubt there’s a satellite been made what could track a cell phone moving across the countryside the way we were!
(You young folks go back and read the above paragraph again.)
So through the pops and hisses, we heard the garbled and distorted voice of Pammy say “I got to get goin, but don’t worry! I pulled some strings and—“
All of a sudden we were surrounded by the swirling blue lights and blaring sirens of about a dozen North Carolina Highway Patrol cars, and that was flat astounding, cause I swear to you they just were not there a second ago! There was a loud buzz and a whine from the speakerphone and the Queen was gone and Lucille took her foot off the gas and the van began to slow as the patrol cars forced us off the road. Lucille was pounding the steering wheel with her gloved hands mumbling to herself, “We were SOoo close….SO close….”
She grudgingly pulled off to the side of the highway and hit the button on the door that brought her window down. The cops turned their sirens off and there was just the heaving and growling of all those big car engines in the night, straining to run, wanting to go fast again, wanting the speed and the rush of the air.
A sad eyed Blue gazed over at Keith and lay down with her ears pulled back and her face down on her paws, looking for all the world as disappointed and dejected as the rest of us felt. Minor let out a sigh and sunk to the floor.
Out of the blue wash of light, a Trooper was suddenly at the driver side window and he leaned in and cast a baleful eye over the occupants of my car. No one said a word, not even Wayne.
Heck, not even ME.
“Evening.” he said tersely and we all nodded and said our hushed hellos. Glancing down at her driving gloves, he said, “You must be Lucille.” I could see his silver nametag glistening in the intermittent pulses of indigo light:
Into the tense silence he drawled, “Pammy sent me.”
“You a picker?” I blurted out.
He chewed on the toothpick in the corner of his mouth a turn or two and with a little half smile he said, “I have been known to pick a mandolin upon occasion.”
He stood up straight and took the toothpick out of his mouth and tossed it into the night, looked down at Lucille and said, “Follow me. We ain’t got much time.”
And with that he was gone and we heard the engines of those patrol cars rev up and we all cheered as Wayne hollered “Sittin on Top Of The World” in “G” boys!” We cranked into that song and hit it hard, carried along by the music, the mission and the magic that is Pammy Davis! Lucille steered the car back onto the tarmac and my little van seemed to shiver with delight as she moved it rapidly through the gears and the dots of white line on the interstate started movin beneath us so fast they appeared to be one single solid stripe of gray guiding us down the highway. But as fast as we were goin, it wouldn’t be, it couldn’t be, enough.
We’d run outa time.
It was 11:59.
And then there was a wall of fog that came up outa nowhere, an unexpected bank of dense smoke and Lucille followed the defused glow of the revolving blue lights ahead of us as we sliced through the night and just as suddenly we were out and the stars were in the sky again and the road was clear in the pale moonlight and we were slowing down and the lead patrol car put on his left turn signal and we slowly followed him over the bumpy grass median and crossed over to I 85 North.
Cause we were THERE.
Up ahead, right at the border, was a line of South Carolina Highway Patrol cars blocking the way. Lucille let the van roll to a stop. Officer Monroe sidled over to us as she brought her window down again. “Just wait here a second. This won’t take but a minute,” he said and we followed his gaze up ahead as three of the NC patrol cars slowly pulled up and stopped at the borderline. The Troopers got out and opened the back doors and we saw the silhouettes of a woman and then a man carrying a guitar case scurry across the line, followed by three furtive looking shapes carrying what appeared to be banjo cases.
“Good riddance to bad apples,” Wayne muttered and there was again a second or two of uncomfortable silence in the car.
“Um…. no offense Jeff…” He apologized with a hangdog shrug at his seatmate.
“None taken, Wayne, none taken…” Jeff said with a sigh.
At the border, the patrol cars that had dropped off the South Carolina pickers pulled out and rumbled past us headed north.
Officer Monroe pointed his flashlight at us and motioned us forward and Lucille eased the van on up the road a piece. Our headlights carved out a cone of white light in the midnight dark of the night, and right over the line, there on the hood of one of them black and whites was our own Brent Fain sittin with his legs hangin over the front grill of that South Carolina State Patrol car strumming his Martin guitar and lookin for all the world like he was playin a pig pickin for some of his closest friends.
“Why’s he all hunched over like that?” Keith asked from the back of the car.
“I believe he’s got hand cuffs on.” Lucille said as she squinted into the bright light. “Yep…he’s definitely cuffed.”
She squinted again. “And I think he’s singin too.”
“How can ya tell?” Jeff asked.
“Well, one a them Troopers is pointing a can of mace at him, and the other is threatening him with a billy club and them three officers over there to the right, well, one looks like he’s trying to draw his weapon and the other two look like they’re trying to disarm him and pull him away.”
Wayne let out a long sigh.
“Yeah well…he’s singin then…that’s for sure.”
“Whaddya think he’s doin? Can ya tell?” Jeff asked.
“Judging from the crowd response, I’d say it was ‘Two Fat Guys in a Hudson Hornet.” Lucille said with a sad shake of her head. “We better get over there quick or we’ll never get him out alive.”
We were right up beside officer Monroe and he pointed over the line and said, “Just take her easy and slide across and pick him up and come on home. The hard part’s over now.” And Lucille nodded and the South Carolina patrol cars parted to make a way for her to cross, and over the line we went with Brent building up to his big finish on “Two Fat Men.”
As we approached, Lucille rolled her window up.
“Thanks.” We all said at the same time.
Minor licked her gloved right hand. She gave him a pat on the head. “We’ll get him talking and telling stories on the way home, don’t you worry puppy…ol Brent LOVES to talk. I’ll make sure he don’t sing a note all the way home.”
Minor whined a little whine.
Looking down at him she said, “I promise.”
And he licked her hand again as Jeff said, “Preciate that Lucille.” and the rest of us chimed in with our thanks.
We pulled up next to Brent and he tried to wave through the handcuffs, failed, and instead hollered out, “Howdy boys! Lucille! What brings y’all down my way?”
Wayne and Jeff were out stretching their legs with their hands in the small of their backs, working out the kinks. They glanced at each other and back at Brent. “Don’t you know?” They asked incredulously, “Pammy worked a trade for you! We come to bring you home!”
“Well I’ll be dogged!” Brent exclaimed, “I thought I was playin for the Police Retirement Fund or something! I’m goin home? For real?”
While all this is goin on I am noticing Lucille is sorta keeping her head down and back in the shadows of the car. Unfortunately, this did little to escape the notice of one of them South Carolina Troopers who skedaddled off to confront his captain where there was quite an animated conversation goin on at the moment involving a lot of gestures our way and increasingly louder voices. Blue began to growl and Minor picked up on it and I heard Wayne say “Uh oh….” in a low voice as three or four of them South Carolina boys began to head toward the car.
Lucille floored it again and the van lurched forward at an impossible rate of speed about a quarter mile deeper into South Carolina at which point she literally STOOD on the brakes and my car did a perfect one hundred and eighty degree turn. She stomped on the gas and we were careening up the highway toward the North Carolina line. The smell of burnt rubber caught up to us just as she hit the brakes and we slid to a stop right beside Wayne and Jeff.
“Time to go boys.” She said calmly as she watched the South Carolina Patrol cars up ahead fire up and begin to close ranks to block the Interstate.
The captain was looking at a piece of paper with a picture on it and pointed at my car and bellowed,
“That’s White Lightning Lucille fellers! She got a BUNCHA warrants! Get her!”
“Boys…” Lucille said with a little more edge in her voice, “Time to go.”
One a the troopers jumped at Brent but only succeeded in knocking him back towards the van. Jeff quickly assessed the situation and yelled, “Brent!” and tossed him his banjo.
Now you can say what you want about Brent Fain, but he IS a musician and like any good musician, his instinct was to catch that banjo and not let it hit the ground or die tryin!
Course, bein that it was JEFF’S banjo, the sheer weight of the thing completely knocked Brent off his feet and directly into the back seat of the van where he was flat on his back when he opened his eyes to see my English Setter standing over him.
“MINOR!” he exclaimed and Minor began to slobber a mess a kisses all over Brent’s face.
Wayne scooped up Brent’s Martin, tossed it in it’s case and hoofed it to the car as Lucille gunned the engine to get the RPM’s up. It jerked a little forward and Keith opened the back hatch and as soon as Jeff’s feet left the ground and one full second before Keith yelled, “Got him!” she popped the clutch and the mini van roared to life and shot forward like a rock from a sling shot.
Right at the closing gap of them South Carolina Patrol cars in the middle of I 85.
Brent was sittin on the floor in the well of the car huggin on Minor and telling him how much he missed him as I watched the gap between patrol cars get smaller and smaller. So small in fact, that I was sure there was no way we could possibly make it through, and then suddenly we WERE through or over or something cause Lucille eased back on the gas and we could hear some not very nice language from the South Carolina Troopers behind us and applause and cheers from the North Carolina boys in front of us and the car came to a stop and I brought my hands down from my eyes and there we were parked right beside officer Monroe who was grinning a big ol grin and nodding approvingly.
Head down, Lucille kinda peeked over at me sheepishly.
“Sorry about yer mirrors.” She said.
I glanced outside the windows, passenger side and driver.
Both mirrors were gone. Sheared off.
“Ah well, “ I stammered, “Never used em much…”
Well of course I DID use em, I used em ALL THE TIME but what are ya gonna say to someone who just made one of the most incredible road trips of all time?
Officer Monroe leaned in again and shook Brent’s hand. “Welcome home son. These folks sure did miss you.” And we all echoed that sentiment with cheers of our own and slaps on the back. Outside, the Troopers began to drive off, some loitering behind us at the border to taunt at the South Carolina officers. A little healthy rivalry is a good thing I reckon. Officer Monroe pointed with his chin up the highway. “You won’t have any trouble headin back. I’ll see to that. Congratulations to you all. This was a good night’s work.” He smiled at each of us in turn and pulled himself back up, stood there for a second and leaned back in.
“Y’all tell Pammy I appreciate what she does for the music,” he said.
“Tell her I know it.”
“I hear it”
“Every note.” “Every single note.”
He raised up, hitched his belt on his hips, looked up. “Time for me to go back I reckon.” he said and started walking towards his car.
He took a few steps and then turned and looked at Lucille.
“It was an honor to make yer acquaintance, Miz Lightning,” he said with a wry smile.
A single tear slid down Lucille’s cheek and she sad, so softly I could barely hear it:
“Right back at ya, Bill.”
She sniffled. “We miss you.”
“Oh, I’m still here,“ he said with a melancholy smile working at the corner of his mouth. “I’m in every note. Every single note.”
He opened the door of the patrol car.
“Make sure you tell Pammy what I said.”
And Lucille nodded sadly.
“Yes sir. Sure will,” she said and the tears began to flow in earnest this time.
He slammed the door of the patrol car and turned on the flashers and suddenly that fog was back, thick and moist and swirling and though I didn’t recall there was a hill in front of us, though I would swear to this very day the road there at the border was flat, he pulled away from us and started drivin up. We followed behind him but his car roared forward into the fog and it just seemed as if his lights went up that hill and up forever almost like they went into the sky and then they were gone and a few seconds later the fog broke just like last time and the moon was glowing, the stars were twinkling bright in the midnight blue sky and he was gone.
Brent fished his Martin outa it’s case and said “Sittin On Top Of The World” In “G” boys!”
And Lucille said “So Brent…how was the food in South Carolina?”
And Minor put his head in her lap and murmured in gratitude.
And THAT is the Real and True Story of how Brent Fain came to be returned to North Carolina.
JOHN SANTA is a Producer living n Chapel Hill. He is STILL seeking funding for a Bluegrass Documentary and VERY disappointed no one has called him and offered a bunch of money to make it. He likes this here story so much that he will likely include it in his forthcoming book, BLUEGRASS IS MY SECOND LANGUAGE: A Year In The Life Of A Bluegrass Musician, which should have been published by now but he got so busy with his regular work that it plumb got away from him. Things should go better now that Ed Sullivan is getting involved even though Ed really didn’t like the book all that much.
(The Queen liked the book A BUNCH though, and that’s all that matters…)
The Blue Mandolin was created by Wes Lambe, a lutheir in Durham.
He hasn’t read the book yet.