Like stepping into a favorite book

When our son was a sprout and my wife, Carol, read to him, he often pointed to the pictures and said, "I want to be in the story."

I'm sure he's not the only child ever drawn deeply to a fictionalized scene or circumstance. But for Scott, it seemed to be something more. I half expected him to go poof! one day and show up the next instant on a picture page.

I hadn't thought about that in years, but it came snapping back to mind recently as I read a new novel by Wendell Berry. Mr. Berry is a farmer in Kentucky who also happens to be (in my humble opinion) one of the best contemporary writers going. He's published novels, books of poetry, and collections of essays. His work has a profound sense of substance and place.

The book I'm reading (at my son's recommendation) is "Jayber Crow." It's the story of a man born in the early 1900s and raised by an aunt and uncle until he is (for the second time) orphaned. After years in an orphanage and then a short time studying to be a minister, he walks back home to the tiny rural town where he started life. There, he sets up shop as a barber. But that's just the beginning.

I'm not half-done with it yet, but there are chapters I'm sure I will want to read all my life. (Like Chapter 3 of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath.") In fact, when I come back to Jayber after a day or so, I find myself reading back in the book to set the scene - then reading back and back because I like it so much.

That happened most recently at the part in the novel where Jayber's friends come into his one-chair barber shop to play music. It's a gem of a scene that - maybe because I'm a very amateur guitar and banjo picker - I find deeply moving. I have known that feeling - that lovely vulnerability - of sharing one's talents. It's been too long since I've done that. I longed to be "in the story."

A few days after reading that part, I spent a weekend with my sister in North Carolina. One evening, she took us way out in the country to a place she'd been once or twice before. Five miles down Barefoot Lane, through farmland, we came to what used to be an old country store. The area out front was filled with cars and pickups. Music was spilling out the door.

The space inside was long and narrow, with wide wooden planks for walls, floor, and ceiling. The 10 old couches lined up in two rows along one wall were filled with what looked to be mostly farm folk. Lots of jeans and John Deere caps, some suspenders and overalls over stout middle-aged-and-older people.

Directly across from them, picking and singing, was a group of musicians, also mostly older guys and a few women, one of whom could have been country music pioneer Mother Maybelle Carter. One old silver microphone and a little amplifier was for whomever was singing.

They were packed together up there. I counted 12 guitars (at least), two string basses, three banjos, three mandolins, a dobro, and a fiddle. Many fine old Martin guitars. There was no real organization to it. They all took turns starting up another song.

In a back room were hot drinks, homemade cookies, and other things that people had brought. There was no charge. At one point, somebody passed around a birthday card (for whom, I have no idea), which we all signed.

This was not "folk music" or a Nashville-slick production, but genuine country songs of love and loss and redemption: "Tennessee Waltz," "Long Black Veil," "Wildwood Flower," "The Sweetest Gift," "Rocky Top." Some had religious themes, including one written by the dobro player in memory of the husband of the Maybelle Carter lookalike. At one point, a boy about 10 or 12 got up and belted out "Salty Dog."

The music continued nonstop for three hours at least. We left at 10:30, and I'm sure it went on far longer.

This was the genuine article, far different from the typically suburban feel around Raleigh/Durham - the "real" North Carolina, or what most of the state used to be like.

And then - a flash of recognition: Just as my son had wanted to be, I'd been "in the story" I loved. I'd been tucked within a very close approximation of that barbershop gathering of close friends in Berry's tale. Like Jayber Crow, I'd been blessed to join a group of country people who had come together to make music.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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