It has happened. I have been called the s word.
For the past ten years or so, my wife and I and Jimmy, the cat, have been living half the year in the South and half in the North.
Yes, it is a privilege, to be able to choose. I confess: I like a privilege.
Yes, if everybody did it, the globe would be thrown off-balance twice a year.
As if it’s ever in balance.
When I run this down for people, they usually look like they have gotten the logic of it. Yet you would be surprised how many of them ask:
“So…how do you decide which time where?”
Here is how I want to answer:
“My mama did not raise an idiot child.”
Here is how I do answer:
“The truth is, though one of us springs from the North and the other two (Jimmy and me) from the South, we find ourselves oddly in harmony on this count:
“We don’t admire to swelter, and we don’t admire to freeze.”
Each of us, in our time, has sweltered. Each of us has frozen. Each of us has given each extremity time to sink in. (When Jimmy first woke up to a snowdrift, he thought it was a fais-dodo—he’s from Louisiana—until he sank in. I am not saying we had to dig him out. He has his pride, and deserves it—for one thing, he is a great road cat. But we got the door open right quick when we saw him out there churning.)
And strictly speaking, a snowbird is a Canadian who escapes a big chunk of the Canadian winter by beelining to Florida in a big recvee. We pay taxes and fight weeds and get roofs fixed in Louisiana and in Massachusetts. Both.
And what song do you think the great Chet Atkins won the country instrumental performance Grammy for in 1972?
Chet didn’t sing on that one. I’m glad. I don’t like those lyrics. “Spread your tiny wings and fly away”? It’s not as dismissive as “May the bird of paradise fly up your nose,” but if anything, it’s more condescending.
But does Chet ever pick “Snowbird”? Yes, he does.
Among the many GOAT (greatest-of-all-time) candidates I am proud to have known (baseball catcher, baseball writer, movie critic, animated-character voice, radio monologuist, horror novelist, humorist, football team, Saturday Night Live graduate, presidential brother, road cat), the one with the strongest claim to be Olympian in his category was Chet: greatest country (or leave off the “country”) guitar player of all time.
Also the funniest one. He dressed almost like a businessman, which contributed to the comicality of what he would sometimes do with the line—you know the line, from “Streets of Laredo”:
“I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy.”
That line has always cried out for independent framing. Chet would be noodling along in the inimitable yet almost universally imitated style that he worked out for himself as a boy way back in the hills of East Tennessee, and then he would sing:
I see by your outfit that you are a cowboy.
You see by my outfit that I am a cowboy too.
We see by our outfits that we are both cowboys.
So buy you an outfit and be a cowboy too.
He would also pick and sing a song he and Billy Edd Wheeler wrote, “I Still Write Your Name in the Snow,” which is probably the only heartbreak song that rhymes inkling and tinkling, and which Chet would round off like this:
“Sonofagun I’m tired of living this way hot-a-mighty damn.”
Hey, I knew Chet. Tell me I’m some kind of half-timer? Kiss my tiny tail feathers and bug off. Hell, I knew Billy Edd Wheeler.
Oh, I forgot to mention what really puts a button on this column:
You know Chet invented his picking technique—playing the bass with his thumb and the rest with two or three other fingers. “I’m still learning to play,” he said when he was already GOAT-recognized. “I never stopped trying to learn. I never stopped trying to get the mediocrity out of my playing, and the predictability. I gradually learned to play while I was making a living at it. I was original, starting out—my style sounded like two bad guitar players.”
Well, here you go: Chet would play “Yankee Doodle” and “Dixie” simultaneously. Check it out on YouTube.
I aspire to write like that.