Saturday, January 17, 2015

Saluting and thanking Miss Dixie, songwriter, journalist, wife of Tom T., damn fine woman

“Tim, you are one of us. It’s OK,” she would say. Or words to that effect on the occasion when I would call or visit Fox Hollow.
It was a great compliment to be considered “one of us” by Dixie Hall, Miss Dixie, the fantastic songwriting wife of songwriting genius and soft artistic soul Tom T. Hall.

It has been awhile since I saw Miss Dixie, who was 80 when her long battle with a brain tumor ended Friday.
I knew she was ill and often wanted to call the house to, if nothing else, offer reassuring words to Tom T., a guy I love as a musician, artist and as a human being.

I was advised against that, as there was no joy out there in Fox Hollow and the man who sang of “Old dogs, children and watermelon wine” and so many greater tales was having enough trouble without having to deal with a run-out-of-the-newspaper-business journalist …
Although he has on many time asked me to join him for Old Farts Movie Days. Ralph Emery, Tom T. Hall, Bobby Bare (I think) and others go to the matinees to see movies their wives didn’t want to see.  “We like action movies,” Tom T. would tell me.

By the way, I am always flattered when Tom T. tells me I am a part of his collection of “Old Farts.” 
Kinda the equivalent of Miss Dixie’s referring to me as “one of us.”

Show people, artistic people, good people, guys who like watermelon wine, banjo pick “The Beverly Hillbillies” or dress in black…. Those were the ones she was talking about. Including an old newspaperman.
A lot of them are gone now.

So’s Miss Dixie. Probably trying to organize a bluegrass band in the after-life. Uncle Josh. Earl. Lester, Monroe … get ready, cause this lady loves to make bluegrass music. Hell, Hartford, get your fiddle prepped.... 
My first adventure with her was long, long ago. Tom T. – who I admire more than most people – had pretty much retired, as country music fans were beginning the transition from loving songs of near-literary substance to loving songs about pickup tracks, pretty butts, barbecue stains on white t-shirts and beer.

Not that Tom T. doesn’t like beer. He also likes bourbon in the glass and grass, you know.
Anyway, years ago Miss Dixie ran an animal rescue shelter down in Franklin. I can’t remember the name of it now. And it really doesn’t matter. Was it “Animal Land?” Doesn’t matter.

She was as much an advocate for the lost and discarded four-legged friends back then as say Emmylou Harris has become recently. Dixie gave up her soapbox years ago.
But back then, when there was a good newspaper in Nashville, I wrote a regular column called Real Life for the Nashville Banner.  

I was state editor for many years there, charged with overseeing the collection of news from outside Nashville as well as state government and U.S. government coverage.  After that period, I became features/entertainment editor to give that department a little more news edge.
But during all my 10 years at the old Banner, I wrote that column that appeared on the local front for many years before transitioning over to the Lifestyles front.

The premise was simple: Everybody has a story, we’re more alike than different, we share the same hopes, dreams and fears, no matter our religion, skin tone or preference when it came to life and distilled spirits (threw that one in for Tom T.)   
Basically, I’d wander around the city and the Midstate and just drop in on people, sit with them, get them to share their stories with me so I could share them with readers.

But I didn’t just drop in on Miss Dixie. Back then she was still running that animal shelter and she and her friends made jams and preserves to sell to help support the shelter. She also had an annual Christmas at Fox Hollow “open house,” where people could make contributions to tour the comfortable home on the side of a hill in Northern Williamson County, a home  dressed up in its holiday finery.
I decided a column about Miss Dixie and her animal shelter fund-raisers was something I wanted to do, so I called her house – back then you could actually call country stars at their homes without going through handlers – and asked if I could come out.

It was my first trip out there. I’ve been several times since. Most of what I remember, for after all I am an “Old Fart” and hence have the privilege of not remembering things clearly, was that when I drove up the hill to the house, Tom T. Hall – one of my wordsmith heroes – was driving a tractor, tilling the soil. Well, actually I think he was cutting the grass (he likes grass, remember?)
He had one of his dogs on his lap, presumably helping him steer. 

I finished the long uphill drive and pulled up behind the wonderful home – not an estate, but a home, a place where good people live – where they lived.
The shed where she made her jams and preserves was across the parking area from the house. In her later years, she and Tom T. used this space for their bluegrass music adventures. They both wrote fine bluegrass songs and encouraged other bluegrass performers to come there and record.  Being a bluegrass performer seldom equals being wealthy. So if bluegrass performers were out there recording, they also had a place to stay.

Courtesy of Miss Dixie and Tom T. 
Some of those musicians were/are friends I’ve made over the years and they always bragged on the generosity of Fox Hollow.

In any case, I spent most of a day with Miss Dixie back then, stopping for awhile to visit with Tom T. when he finished his tractor driving for the day and prepared to settle in for a nap.
Tom T. is known for writing some of the greatest songs in country music history.  He also is known as a guy who likes to go to bed early and get his rest so many years after experiencing the midnight, after-show bitter cold of places like Des Moines, Iowa, while he was a touring troubadour.

Apparently I made a decent impression, for years later, when I was working at a much-lesser newspaper (that still sort of exists) and in charge of entertainment coverage, I went with my entertainment writer Peter Cooper to help cover the funeral of June Carter Cash.
June, it should be noted if you don’t know already, was the daughter of Dixie’s all-time favorite woman, Mother Maybelle Carter, the guitar-slinging matriarch of country music.  As I walked into the church narthex to go inside the sanctuary and cover the funeral.  I saw Tom T. and Dixie standing against the wall.

I went over to re-introduce myself, as I’m basically nobody, but she stopped me in mid-sentence.  “Tim, you’re one of us. I know you.”
It was the same service at which I had to choose between greeting Robert Duvall (“hey, consigliere, how ya doin’?”) or Billy Joe Shaver.

Billy Joe has told me frequently in years since that I made the wrong choice by picking him, but I had to remind him that even though I spoke with him, I eventually shook hands with Duvall, who I still mentally associate with a bloody horse’s head in the bed of a Hollywood big shot. If you’re not a Godfather fan, you don’t get that. But that’s OK.
This is so much rambling here as memories flood back.  Miss Dixie and I only crossed paths a few times in the years since, but she always reminded me “you’re one of us” – which made me feel special, especially since the dues to join the rest of them was simply to be a bit artistic and have some soul.

Years later, she convinced Tom T. to take me down to the barn where he did his oil painting and he and I didn’t talk much about music. Mainly brush strokes.
Dixie also became one of those people I’d call when someone in the music business died. If she didn’t know the person well, she knew who and where I should call for information.

This is not really a portrait of “Miss Dixie,” but rather a sort of rambling lamentation, reflections of the few times I was around this generous woman (and her brilliant husband of 46 years).
The last time I guess I had a long conversation with her came in March of 2012, when Earl Scruggs died She had been a great friend of Earl’s and of his late wife, Louise. (Louise, by the way spent most of one day helping me track down Bob Dylan … “If anybody can get him, I can,” she said, when I said I wanted to get his reflections on the day that Johnny Cash died.) I loved Louise, too.

I never heard from Dylan.  But Louise kept calling me to tell me she was on the hunt.
Anyway, this isn’t a story about that day. It is a story about now, the first day after “Miss Dixie” finally succumbed to her long battle with a mortal enemy within her.

When I heard she had died, I knew that it was a precious release from pain and agony for her. But I also knew that this particular bright spot along my 40-year-long and well-rutted road as a journalist was gone.
I hadn’t bothered her or Tom T. in recent months. That was on the advice of Peter Cooper, who became one of their truly close friends.

But I thought about it, about them and about her often.
“Tim, you’re one of us,” she would say.

That simple phrase is enough to make a washed-up Old Fart feel pretty special.

Rest in Peace, Miss Dixie. You were one of us.   


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