Bluegrass Friday Nights at The Lake Toxaway Community Center
Leon Shelton’s church funeral didn’t hold a candle to the real proper send off he received at the Lake Toxaway Community Center last Friday night.
For mountain folk in western North Carolina, nothing brings your soul closer to heaven, living or dead, than live bluegrass music.
And on Friday, Leon Shelton soared heavenward smiling.
I expect Leon met up with some familiar faces when he walked up to his Mansion in the Sky. Last year was hard on this aging Community since in addition to Leon, some other familiar smiling faces were missing, I noticed, leaving wide lonesome gaps in the patchwork.
Tiny, a Navy veteran and his darling wife Mary Ellen weren’t there to tell me more stories of their mutual military careers, how they met in a bar in the South Pacific, and that she fell for a younger man.
Tiny's White Squirrel Sculpture, one of four we own
Tiny wasn’t there to lure me out to his car to buy his hand painted resin sculptures of the rare white squirrel that lives in that neck of the woods. I have about four of them now.
He went first I heard, and she very soon after.
And Joe Byers’ wife Mary, an authentically sweet woman whose eyes sparkled with love and innocence, and whose voice now entertains the angels, went on last year too, leaving Joe standing alone, but strong, strumming his guitar on stage just plain missing their gospel duets together.
The Lamplighters promotional picture, Joe and Mary in the middle
For decades based out of the Lake Toxaway Community, Joe and Mary and some talented relatives toured the southlands as The Lamplighters, a popular bluegrass gospel band.
I heard a tinge of longing in Joe’s voice when he allowed that Leon now was “gonna get to see my Mary.”
They were so much the fabric of the place, I thought I would see them all there every time I visited, never occurred to me they’d be gone.
Fridays are when this venerable community of characters meet up, eat up, listen up and graciously greet outsiders and newcomers like long lost cousins.
Let’s just put it this way: My dad, PapaJohn, will accept “a hug around the neck” from these folk but outright growls and straight-arms any public affection from the "country club set."
It’s a matter of what’s real and what isn’t for him. Always has been.
The Center a'hoppin on Friday night. It's a multi-purpose gathering place and disaster shelter
MamaLo and PapaJohn count Friday nights at the Community Center as their weekly foray out into the world for social, nutritional and entertainment needs.
MamaLo has long ago quit actually cooking food and defiantly, against all universal Grandma Rules, simply warms things up in the microwave. Her days of cooking meals from scratch are long gone.
She’s over it.
Got a problem with that?
So any chance to eat out and eat good home cooked vittles provokes a Pavlovian drool response in the both of them.
Supper at the Center on Friday nights is hand-made by pink-cheeked apron clad volunteers and served cafeteria style on those paper plates with compartments.
You can flat-out taste the love.
PapaJohn demands lock-step precision in his approach to the evening. He
annoyingly obsesses on insists on arriving a full half an hour early to be first in line to buy his dinner ticket and fling down pillows on the chairs in the front row of the stage area to claim them for later.
When the music starts.
This works out great since MamaLo gets to flit like a hummingbird from one conversation to another in the supper line snaking back through the place and out the door on some nights. She gets all the skinny on who is fighting, who is making up, who has cancer, who is dallying outside of their marriage, whose kids are coming and going for visits, how many people have been washed over the Falls and killed of late.
All the juicy stuff.
MamaLo, in this way, “tops off” her very real need for verbal interaction.
At 89, PapaJohn is not inclined to talk much anymore.
Little no-nonsense white-haired Rose supervises the ticket table and the cash box with eye brows clenched and mouth pursed with stern authority. No ticket, no supper. (But everybody knows that in hard times, Rose would be the first one to quietly set a tray of food in front of you no charge. That’s the way it’s done, no question, no hesitation, no judgment.)
It’s deep down adorable when Rose’s stern boss face softens and she shoots saucy flirty glances to her balding bespectacled suspender sporting fiancé, Alan. Don’t you dare tease her about it though!
Supper on Leon’s night was a ketchup-splashed tight square of meatloaf paired with little boiled potato globes and green string beans dotted with bacon bits. Dessert was your choice of carrot cake, chocolate cake, apple pie all washed down with sweet tea or lemonade in styro cups.
No alcohol allowed.
After supper, I sat outside in the “smoking lounge” (an open air gazebo overlooking the ball field) with musician (And unofficial Mayor of Rosman, North Carolina) Clarence and singer Doug.
I heard enough risqué jokes from Doug to last a lifetime. With punch lines like “For thirty thousand dollars I’d take everything off except my earrings…”
I ate a bug I was laughing so hard.
Clarence. a Christian man, just smiled, finished his cigarette, and high tailed it out of there blushing.
Clarence, Guitar Man & the Unofficial Mayor of Rosman, N.C.
I looked for sweet dancing DeeDee rolling around in her wheelchair full of hugs and smiles, but her dad had surgery so she didn’t make it this Friday night. Carl, who usually runs the stage, had a death in his family and was among the absent. The Beautiful Couple were there preparing to glide on the dance floor like they have every summer and fall for years. But he didn’t look well. His oxygen tank was still hanging in a satchel at his side.
I think he’ll be seeing Leon soon.
Musicians from all over are invited to jam
We took our seats once the tuning up began. Leon’s little wife, Miss Wanda, came up on the stage and bravely, with no words, accepted a plaque from Joe Byers in Leon's memory. Folks took the microphone and shyly told stories on Leon, but mostly recalled what a regular gem this hardworking family man was.
Then, accepting his mountain inheritance, Leon’s son, Jason was pushed front and center to rip into his banjo version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown in honor of his father.
Young men and women with guitars, fiddles, mandolins and banjos joined the elders on stage in wave of sound that plucked at my DNA like a cellular memory. Clogging gals and buck dancing gents clacked and clattered onto the dance floor and set to keeping time with mountain foot percussion.
As much as I worried that Friday nights at the Lake Toxaway Community Center might be approaching that Brigadoon-like culture fade becoming just a smoky memory extinct from this ridiculous frenetic world, Jason’s quick smile and genius banjo playing confirmed that it will go on…
Leon, I am sure, saw to that.
Hey there Tiny and Mary Ellen! Mizz Mary! Got some sweet tea for me?