A Pick-and-Sing Sort of Place

THE Music Barn in Columbus, Mississippi, is not really a barn.

It's a picking parlor at the end of a dusty gravel drive on the rough edge of a town better known for the preservation of more than 100 antebellum homes and for the historic Mississippi University for Women than for down-home country music.

The Music Barn is a square clapboard building that looks like a country church. It was a church once, before the congregation dwindled and the building turned into a honky-tonk. The honky-tonk didn't last, and the building went back to being a church for a little while. Then that congregation moved on and the building was about to fall down when Billy Wright spotted it.

Wright saw the possibilities.

He was looking for a place to play country music, purely for the love of it. But, it couldn't be a honky-tonk. He'd played in honky-tonks once upon a time, all around Mississippi, in Memphis and Nashville, but the honky-tonks separated him from his family and so he quit the honky-tonks.

That meant that he quit music, too.

No place to play. Nobody to play with. He missed his music.

Four years ago, he bought the old church and turned it into the Music Barn to give people a place to play country music and to listen to country music simply for the love of it.

There are no superstars at the Music Barn. Or maybe they're all stars.

The Cowboy Sweetheart is about 50, maybe a little older, maybe a little younger. Her gray hair was shampooed and set today for the show, you can tell, and she's wearing neat purple slacks and a pretty cotton blouse that picks up the purple here and there in its floral pattern. No sequins. No glitter. It's a housewife's outfit, right for the mall or a Sunday school social. The Sweetheart's spectacles catch the light and kind of slide down her nose. She tilts her head back to keep the lyrics in focus.

"You ain't woman enough to take my man," the Cowboy Sweetheart sings.

The fiddler grins at her and digs deeper into the tune. He's one of those fiddlers who has the music inside of him, not just in his fingers on the fiddle and the bow. He moves with the music, bends over it like a man asking a girl to dance. There's rosin powder under the bridge of the fiddle. Country fiddlers let that happen; it's almost a trademark with them.

The man hunched over the drum kit never looks up at the Cowboy Sweetheart, or the fiddler, or the guitar players. He keeps his mind on his job. He keeps the beat, steady as a well digger working through rock.

The players at the Music Barn don't have to be young and pretty and glamorous, and mostly they aren't. They don't have to be good musicians, though mostly they are. They do have to be well-behaved.

There's no smoking, or drinking, or fighting, or cussing at the Music Barn. The little snack bar offers chips, coffee, and hot dogs, but you get the feeling clabber and cornbread might be as appropriate. It's so neighborly that, once a month, there's a covered-dish dinner before the music.

"It's a place for people who want to pick and sing to come and pick and sing, and for people to come and listen to them," Wright says.

The Music Barn is furnished with folding chairs, a couple of old sofas, a few leftover pews pushed up against the walls. On one of the pews, a little girl is curled up asleep. Her brother sits next to her, watching the band, chewing gum, swinging his pointed-toe boots back and forth under the edge of the pew. He has a straw cowboy hat pushed down square on his blond head.

The man on the stage is singing "Weary Blues." He's got a watchful, brooding look and a face that could have come out of a history book, the face of a man who worked a flatboat on the Mississippi River or rode the Pony Express. His black hair is oiled and slicked back and tied in a knot so tight you can see every comb track straight down to the scalp. He's wearing a black cowboy shirt, double-breasted, the kind John Wayne wore in "Stagecoach."

He finishes his song, and there's a break to give people a chance to move around and visit, grab a hot dog, step outside for a breath of air.

The "Weary Blues" man packs up his guitar.

"See you," he says to nobody in particular, and the people in the band nod.

Outside, the singer walks out of the circle of light that surrounds the Music Barn back toward his car. You can hear his boots crunch in the gravel.

It's a sweet night, cool, about half a moon, straight up. You can hear frogs somewhere nearby, a dog farther off. The music starts up again and leaks out of the Music Barn. It's Hank Williams, still haunting the South, just like all the songs say. "I'm so lonesome I could die," somebody sings and the words hang on the darkness like an echo.

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