Sunday clothes for a Saturday night dance
Story and photos by Janet Blackmon Morgan/The Sun News
Early evening on Saturday, Nola Johnson turns on the trouble light. She twists her wrist around the cage holding the bare bulb, slides her fingers past the orange drop cord and jiggles a switch, making sure the lamp is on.
“We’re almost ready,” she says as she glances down at her silver and gold wristwatch. It’s shortly before 6:30. “It won’t be long now.”
Johnson walks into the cinderblock building and stands at the door, serving as a one-person welcoming committee to Country Grounds. By 6:45, the small main room is buzzing with women chattering about the heat, the humidity, the way the tobacco crop looks this year, someone they know who’d just gotten out of the hospital, and the french fries waiting to be made at the snack table.
Three men with translucent cheeks and graying eyes sit clusterd around a small round table as one smokes a cigarette. Their mouths are framed by thin lines that drop off to soft sags beneath their chins, which they hold high and proud.
Betty Goff checks outside to see if all the musicians have arrived. She helps them carry their guitars in from this paved-dust patch of a parking lot in the Bayboro community off S.C. 410.
The summer heat settles in the humid air as Goff wipes her brow beneath her graying hair and says she’s never been able to stand the heat since helping her grandparents farm tobacco as a child.
She talks about doing “public work” at Carolina Assembly and how standing in one place at work puts strain on her left leg.
It’s better than tobacco farming, she says, “not as hot, anyway.”
Jerry Grainger pulls up in a blue compact car while Goff winces and squints to make out where he’ll park. He slides his thin frame out from behind the wheel. His black shirt, red roses embroidered around the shoulders, is as tight as the upholstery on his car seats. His brown leather belt is etched with the words “Country Music” with the “C” and “M” in cursive letters swirling and tangling up the “ountry” and “usic.”
He swaggers back to the open trunk and pulls out a guitar case and a black loose-leaf notebook pregnant with song lyrics.
“There he is. Here comes the star,” Goff says as she smiles and her round cheeks bulge up, causing her eyes to close. “Look at him.”
She walks to meet him with her right hand extended to take the guitar. He lets her, and the pair enters the building.
For 19 years, Country Grounds has held a Saturday night music session - no cover charge and no alcohol. It started after Earline Boyd visited Stomping Grounds, a music arena in Maggie Valley in the N.C. mountains. She and her sister Bernice Willis coined the name Country Grounds and started inviting musicians and singers to Sweet Home School near Loris. They relocated to a closed country store at Finklea Crossroads and have been in the Bayboro community for three years. She said the building’s owner let the group use it as long as they pay the utilities and keep the grass cut.
It’s kind of a social club that you don’t have to join, she said. “Just come on out and have a good time, listen to some music and dance if you want. That’s all it’s about. Some know each other and some don’t. But everybody’s just as friendly.”
“Once you come one time, you’ll keep coming back,” Johnson chimes in. “I’ve been coming for about 19 years.”
It’s the kind of crowd that won’t poke into other’s business, but are eager to tell of their own personal woes - strokes, kidney failures and bouts with hepatitis.
The chatter hushes as Grainger caresses a rhythm from his guitar and sings low and heavy into the microphone, while Carl Allen slumps on a stool with his bass, Clarance Jones stands with his back to the crowd picking his mandolin and Tracy Clemons seems to be pulling guitar riffs, rich and sweet from the humidity.
Clarence Todd shuffles toward Johnson, leans in, whispers in her ear and the pair, hand in hand, walks to the dance floor.
“That’s nice,” W.C. Wilburn says in a voice deeper than nearby Bug Swamp. “He’s her weekend boyfriend, you know.”
Todd and Johnson stay clenched on the dance floor while 71-year-old Junior King walks toward the two-foot-high stage. Since his cataract surgery a few weeks ago, King has to hold his left eye open with his finger so he can see. He grabs a microphone and in a Jack-Daniels-Whiskey-slur voice he sings “The Tennessee Waltz.”
King introduces himself as the “Carolina Troubadour.” He says he’s sung with bluegrass legends but now is drawn to Country Grounds. He had regularly hitchhiked the 20-something miles from his room at Jordan Care Center to the country crossroads. The hitching stopped when a state highway patrol trooper told him it was illegal and he’d be arrested if caught in the act. Now, he says letting his eye flop shut so he can clap, he takes a cab from the nursing home.
“I love to sing to a houseful,” the troubadour says. “I can’t sing to the walls because the walls can’t hear you. I love to sing.”
After King has walked off the stage and settled in near the back of the room, the door opens and a man walks in. “String Bean, you’re late,” Johnson says as the last song of the first set ends.
Doug Currie gives Johnson a half shake of his head as the corner of his mouth moves up to a smile.
“He can play the radio if it ain’t got too many buttons on it,” Grainger teases Currie.
About every third song, Johnson and Todd shuffle around the open concrete floor in the front of the stage while the other 21 audience members sit quietly in the auditorium-style chairs, staring at the couple. Like a reward for a job well done, Boyd cooks up a batch of french fries in a deep fryer at the snack table and stands back as men scoop them up and take them to women waiting in their seats.
The friends, neighbors and strangers from both Carolinas tap their toes to the beat as they fade into a time and place far from here. A time when conversations mattered, when screen doors were the only barrier to the outside world and windows were left open. A time when barefoot children ran to their grandparents’ house for spoiling and sometimes switching. A time when folks would put on their Sunday clothes for a Saturday night dance.