I didn’t want to leave the festival. But the sun was setting, and it was a football night.
The first album I ever owned was the soundtrack to "Saturday Night Fever." From the first syncopated electronic beat, I was dumbstruck by three British brothers who sang falsetto love songs like angels in leisure suits at Studio 54. By the last track, this 13-year-old girl from Ocala had been transported to a disco-fueled world of lit-up emotions. I wanted to boogie down and find Barry Gibb in a summer breeze at the same time.
It was beautiful.
It’s been years since I thought of this album until this past weekend when I was at Word of South Festival, a literature and music festival in Tallahassee. You couldn’t walk a foot without running into a musician or writer or fans of both.
I sat under a big white tent of musical greatness listening to a panel talk about the influence of the Muscle Shoals music movement. Dan Hood, Donnie Fritts, Patterson Hood and John Paul White leaned from their metal stools on stage into the audience like we all were having Sunday dinner together of collard greens, a honey-baked ham and deviled eggs. They reverently shared how the iconic North Alabama place and sound shaped their own iconic musical styles.
Someone asked them what was the first album they owned. Their responses ranged from Bob Dylan to Air Supply (we forgive you, John Paul). And as much as they talked about the soul of the sound — which all agreed wasn’t so much a sound as a respect for any musician who recorded in the famous Muscle Shoals Sound Studio — they ended up in the same narrative thread – honor serendipity when a moment meets a musician. Then, let the magic happen.
Magic happened elsewhere at the festival. John T. Edge, Rick Bragg and Loudon Wrainwright, III were there, the latter bringing the crowd to a standing ovation when he recited, from memory, his father’s Life Magazine essay homage to their dog, John Henry. I mean, seriously, dogs, books and Muscle Shoals. It doesn’t get any better.
Loudon talked a lot about his dad, his sons, his mother. He read a few poignant excerpts from his memoir, proving any turn of word worth a dollar is inspired by family. Then he picked up his acoustic guitar and sang “Daughter” in a voice that belied his senior age.
When I closed my eyes, he sounded just like his son, Rufus. The crowd swayed their heads in knowing unison almost as if they were thinking the same thing.
I didn’t want to leave. But the sun was setting as most of the performances were winding down. It was a football night, too, a spring game for the Florida State Seminoles, which explains why the festival was awash in garnet and gold. Folks wanted to catch up on the game and probably grab dinner. In other words, a typical Southern night.
Eric Clapton once said that music went straight to his nervous system, making him feel 10 feet tall. For me, a day immersed in words and music made me feel at least 5 foot 6.
My family and I ended up at a local bookstore near the highway. We weren’t ready to part ways with the mood inspired by the festival. Our son, Grif, found a T.S. Eliot book, Mike picked up a paperback mystery and I placed a pile of memoir and fiction titles next to my decaf cappuccino on the table, honoring my rule to bring only one out of the store.
As we left the bookstore, the weather had turned chilly for a Florida April night. Mike and I hugged Grif goodnight since that’s what parents of adult children do even though I could have enjoyed a few more dozen hours recapping the day’s events. The wind picked up as we hopped into our cars, making the trees beside the parking lot sway back and forth in melodic rhythm, almost as if they were listening to John Paul White playing in our car.
Almost as lovely as a summer breeze.
Amy Mangan is a native Ocalan and longtime writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.