No, I "ain’t from around here." I’m neither a born Tennessean nor even a Southerner. I’ve been here since 1982, but I’m not trying to pass for something I’m told I’m not. I do identify with the South, but as a Judge recently observed, my “smart Yankee mouth” probably got me in a lot of trouble. I suspect that will continue.
I was born in Washington, D.C.; I grew up in the suburbs of Maryland, and then my family moved to Illinois, where I attended high school and college as an undergraduate. It wasn’t until I went to law school that I migrated to Tennessee. At the time, I’d never been in the South and was curious to see if anything of the "Old South" still existed. When you grow up in the North, at least during the time period of my youth, there were some vivid perceptions (and misperceptions) about the South. After all, our many of our views were the product of television, and the South fared poorly on mainstream television of the 1950s and 1960s (think Beverly Hillbillies). Heck, Southern accents weren’t even permitted on the mainstream television of the period.
There certainly wasn’t much of the Old South left in Memphis, where I attended law school (unless you count a guy in a bar leaving me a "You have been visited by The Knights of the Invisible Empire" card). But after graduation, I accepted a job in Jackson. Jackson looked like a lot of other small cities—we still had those "quaint" Blue Laws about liquor, and (for whatever reason) a distinction was drawn between beer and alcohol. There were beer bars where you could purchase beer, and you could drink hard liquor by purchasing "set ups" (a glass of ice along with a mixer). It made little sense, but it was quaint.
West Tennessee did offer me a chance to look for the unusual. I remember driving to Decaturville in Decatur County to represent a woman whose husband had been beating her. We were going for a restraining order, but when we got to the courthouse they told me that the judge I needed wasn’t in, and I’d have to get my restraining order signed by the General Sessions judge. In Tennessee in 1986 we still had some non-lawyer judges, and Grady F. Crawley was one. I was directed to take my client to the auto parts store around the corner from the courthouse, Crawley’s Auto Parts. I did—walked up to the counter, rang a bell, and a gentleman appeared wearing an grease-streaked apron. I explained I was in need of a judge, and he grinned and said that was him. He swore my client in right there at the counter, asked a few questions and granted my relief. I probably should have bought a re-built carburetor while I was there. I thought that was about as "Mayberry" as it gets.
I remember sitting in court in Selmer, Tennessee, awaiting a case. Deputies led a seventy-five-year-old man into court in shackles. He wore nothing but a pair of pungent, antique, denim overalls—no undershirt, no shoes, no socks. I decided to take a seat next to him, and as court was going on I asked him what he was in trouble for. It turned out he was charged with moonshining. Now, to a Yankee such as I, that screams Dixie. You don’t run into moonshiners up north—you just don’t. Even better, it was in Buford Pusser’s old county.
There aren’t many foods unique to this area. If I ask folks what’s special about West Tennessee food, they’ll speak of pulled pork barbeque or catfish. To be honest, those are pretty common. What can you get here that you can’t get elsewhere? Well, strangely enough, I think jojos are a regional delicacy (those are the potatoes, quartered lengthwise, battered, and deep fried). At least I had not seen them elsewhere in the mid-1980s. And driving through Selmer, down in McNairy County, I had my first slugburger. (Note: Slugs are not an ingredient of slugburgers.) A slugburger is a pattie that is made by adding some sort of meat extender—often soy grits, cornmeal, cereal, or even flour—to the ground beef. They are deep fried and served on a bun with the usual burger condiments. They became popular during the Depression, when meat was pricey and they remain inexpensive today. You can get these in southwest Tennessee and northern Mississippi. (Corinth, Mississippi, even has a Slugburger Festival.) I don’t think you can find them anywhere else in America.
I didn’t run across many places in Jackson that you could find nowhere else in America but there was at least one exception: Buddie’s Upstairs. It was a bar, grill, pool hall, and casino of sorts. It occupied the second floor of a building on Liberty. To get to it, you had to climb a very steep series of metal clad steps. I’m not even sure if there was a sign outside. It was the sort of place that if you needed to be there, you just knew where it would be. The running joke was that if you could make it up the stairs, you weren’t too impaired to drink more. Buddy’s was a stop on the old pool hustler’s circuit; Minnesota Fats played there, Fast Eddie Felson played there. I played there, but not as well as those guys.
It was sort of a lawyers’ bar as well. After work, members of the legal fraternity would stop in for a beer (or ten). There was a row of electronic "games of chance" lining a wall. I’m not going to say a lot about that, but they stayed busy. Assistant district attorneys looked the other way. Ultimately Buddie’s moved over to Lafayette Street, on the ground floor. But it was never the same.
I’d heard of an unusual store near Clifton, Tennessee, along the Tennessee River. I took a drive out to the Harbour-Pitts Store in Hardin County. Strange place. The store had been in continual operation since before World War I. It looked like it. An eclectic assortment of goods was strewn about on tables. There were some truly magnificent antiques in the store, but none of those were for sale; they were mostly things that had been used as the store in some of its earlier incarnations. There were tools, clothing, toys, office supplies, some food, and Lord-knows-what else. I think the place was destroyed by a tornado or by a fire, but it no longer is in operation.
Music has a way of echoing history. Could one find the Old South there? I wasn’t sure. I’ve seen John Anderson in Mississippi sangin’ (I know it’s a typo) "Swingin’." I’ve seen David Alan Coe in Paducah singing "the perfect country western song." (Yes, I know the actual title.) I’ve seen George Jones at the Ryman Auditorium. He sang "He Stopped Lovin’ Her Today," and I’m not sure it’s possible to get any more "country" than that, but is it Old South? Had I gone to see The Possum in Jackson any of the times when "No Show" Jones didn’t show up, I think that’d be closer to the legend.
So, did I find any of the "Old South?" It’s a very subjective sort of thing, but I’d like to think I found just a little sliver of it. Y’all be the judge.
Carl E. Seely is the co-owner of Seely Law & Mediation and has lived in Jackson since 1986. His wife, Linda Warren Seely, is an attorney-mediator. He was proud to put his stepchildren, Warren Edwards and Claire Spotts, through public schools in Madison County. Prior to law school, Seely was considered a pretty decent fellow.