the true stories
My grandma was a large influence on my life. She was a special one. Anybody who knew her or who met her felt it immediately. She was from a large farming family in northeast Texas in a district called The Piney Woods. She was born in Marshall and she had my mother in Tyler nearby. She lived briefly in the oil-fields of Oklahoma with her first husband. He was a cruel man and a fool.
She picked up the nickname Bobbie during this hard time from a native Indian woman friend who also taught her how to make gumbo. She left the oilman and married my grandfather, a Swedish seaman. They set up house in Beaumont, Texas which is about seventy miles east of Houston. Cultures don't respect lines on maps and the east of Texas from Beaumont across the Sabine River and well into Louisiana is all bayou country.
There are several small towns and cities here such as Nederland, Port Arthur, Orange and Silsbee. It is a talent factory for singers, songwriters and musicians. Everyone has heard of Janis Joplin. My grandma could tell you all about her family. Some of you have heard of Ronnie Milsap if you are into country music. He's from Beaumont. If you are old enough you have heard of Edgar and Johnny Winter. They are local Beaumont boys.
Something in the water, something in the air or maybe its just the cooking. The place is musically magic. The Beaumont Enterprise newspaper has a regular feature of a daily popular song with the simple chord charts just to help you get off the ground. Everybody there except me could dance. One man from the region you may have heard of and someday you will I warrant is Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.
He was born in Louisiana and grew up in Orange, Texas. Right next door to Beaumont. He lived all over the country in his lifetime and was even a sheriff in a small New Mexican town. He lived in Bogota. He could play blues guitar and he could make fiddles talk. He fronted big bands and played solo all over the world. Any blues fanatic will know of whom I speak as will any professional musician. He is respected by the best in the business as a player and as a man.
Blues was his bread and butter, but one day a Frenchman set up a recording session with the intent of capturing the essence of the region I have been describing to you. He got a couple of Louisiana boys and Gatemouth together and they made an album called Down South In The Bayou Country. It is a work of art and none of the songs on it would Gatemouth play on tours. These were specially written just for that Frenchman's project. I think he was with Barclays House of Blues label in Europe. He was a smart man and he crossed an ocean to preserve something precious for all of us.
I first heard the album in a friend's basement. I shut my eyes and I was walking up the road to the beach cabin smelling gumbo all the way and swatting skeeters. I had to have a copy. It took me thirty years before I could lay hands on a CD. It's sitting on my shelf as I type and though I encourage you to get a copy, no you cannot borrow mine.
My grandma sold her house after my grandpa died and moved up to Vancouver to be near my mother.
She had her own apartment and more friends within a few months than I have made since 1973. She eventually got stricken with illness and it was clear she wasn't long for this world.
Along about this time it came to my notice that Gatemouth was doing a show in Vancouver at a place called The Town Pump. I got two tickets and decided that me and my grandma were going. I knew that she would love to hear a neighbor sing her back home. We both loved to smoke, joke and drink beer anyway and she had been my biggest musical fan over the years. I picked her up one foggy night.
The weather couldn't have been worse. We didn't care and my grandma was “all gussied up” big-time
I had on my best western shirt with red piping and pearl snaps. We were bad and we were nation-wide. We got to the venue and this was in the days when a man could park within a block of his destination not the quarter mile of today.
We squeezed inside the joint and scanned around for a table up front. My heart sank. There wasn't a seat in the house! A young lady brought a couple of folding chairs. I was in shock. It was like the first time I heard of “reconfirming” airline tickets. I was in a Mexican airport and they gave my damn seats away. I fixed them but that's another story for later.
When the gal came to bring our beers, I asked her to send her boss to please to talk to me. A man came and I told him that my grandma was a neighbor of Gatemouth and had traveled all the way from Beaumont to see him play. The girl was strong but she was near eighty years old and it would be a gentlemanly thing to do if he'd find her a proper table up by the little stage.
The man was a man and we soon were styling dead centre up front. Tapping toes, wiping tears, smoking like chimneys and washing it all back with ice cold beers. We were both having a time. Presently a tall man with a beard like Aristotle sidled up and sat himself down at our table. He shook my hand and that of my grandma. He said he was a Mr. Jim Bateman and that he was Gate's manager.
We ordered him a beer. He asked my grandma between Unchained Melody and Keys To The Highway if she'd like to meet Gate between sets. She said she sure would enjoy that. I said I didn't mind too much either. Jim got up and left us. He returned as Gate was un-slinging his axe and led the two of us up a steep black-painted hallway and stairs. He held on to my grandma like any boy from Texas would have.
We got to a little door and when Jim opened it there on a small table was a basket of fried zucchini strips, a dish of ketchup, a glass of water and an ashtray. Gate was sitting wiping his sweat with a handkerchief. On his knee was a beautiful little girl about five years old. She was dressed up in a spotless white dress with white socks and white patent leather shoes. Her hair had been artfully braided and she already had little pearl ear-rings.
Jim introduced us and said he'd be back later. Gate and my grandma shook hands and I shook hands with Gate. They satisfied each other that they knew the same people and places and that broke the ice in about two minutes. I just kept quiet. My grandma said to call her Bobbie and asked who the pretty little one was. Gate's famous smile lit up his face as he introduced his youngest daughter, Renee.
“You can call me Me-Me you precious little baby,” said my grandma. “Come sit with me. Let your Daddy eat, sugar.”
Renee looked at her father and then at my grandmas beckoning arms and back to her father. When he smiled and nodded she climbed aboard her Me-Me's lap. Gate started to chow down on the zucchini strips and offered me some. I chatted to him while my grandma played a counting game with the little girl.
“Wire, briar, limber, lock. Three geese in a flock. One flew north, one flew west and one flew over the cuckoo's nest.”
Renee giggled with glee and Gate and I laughed so hard we quit munching the zucchini. He offered to get my grandma any food that the kitchen had to offer. She declined politely. Now that they were friends, she intimated to him that she didn't eat that nasty “restrunt” food. I jumped on the topic and told Gate that my grandma made the best seafood gumbo west of Baton Rouge. Not a person who ever tried it would contradict that statement, in truth. The fact he hadn't had it was probably due to all the damn traveling, I added.
Renee begged for another round of Wire, briar, limber, lock while anticipating the big hug at the end of the rhyme. Gate scratched his jaw, looked at his watch and asked my grandma if she'd like a job. He said she could ride on the band bus, cook the gumbo and look after little Renee.
Renee clapped her hands and hugged my grandma. Then with a serious look she asked my grandma if she would stay with her. I was waiting for the answer and I could see it written on my grandma's face. Jim opened the door and gave the curtain call. Gate pulled out two business cards from his pocket and gave one to each of us. He said to call Jim if she wanted the job. I still carry the card in my wallet.
We followed Gate and Renee and Jim down the dark stairs and watched the second and final set. Jim bid us goodbye and took Renee to wait out the show. Gate slung on his guitar and played his very best. My grandma and I had another beer and talked about her new job prospect.
All to soon, the show ended and it was late. I ferried my grandma out to the car and began the long drive to her apartment. She passed away not too long after and looking back now, I see she was saving yet another lesson for me til the very end. There is always somebody somewhere that needs you as long as you are a useful conduit of love.
Gate is gone now as well and buried not too far from my grandma. They both had the magic. When I was in my teens my grandma passed her gumbo method to me. No weights and measurements or formula that could be written down. It was hands on and I knew that to be chosen was both an honor and a responsibility. I will, in my turn keep that chain going. It is powerful stuff. Everything good and mighty about my grandma is not gone. It's in the gumbo.
Copyright © 2015 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.