First, the good news:
Burl Jr. is back in Paradise.
Now the not-so-good news:
He comes not as a conquering hero but to help his father.
Our messy economy has taken its toll, and even Burl Sr., Paradise County’s perpetual Farmer of the Year, is feeling the pinch.
“My dad’s going under,” Burl Jr. said to me as we kicked back in the great room of the main house of Cloud Creek Ranch.
Not that we could do all that much relaxing. Gwen the Beautiful and Tera, Burl Jr.’s wife, were dancing around just a few feet away, trying to calm 6-month-old Burl III, who’d worked himself into one of those baby snits parents know all too well.
Burl Jr. and Tera had left this neck of the woods while Tera was pregnant, going on the road to what we all hoped was fame and fortune for Paradise’s favorite young bluesman.
Their plan was to crisscross the country while Burl Jr. got discovered, but, life being life and plans being the part of life that the Universe so often seems to hold least sacred, they’d spent most of their time in a little rented house in Memphis.
Until the baby they call Strummer emerged, swinging his wrist and wailing, Tera had worked as a pre-school teacher while Burl Jr. gigged in the downtown clubs, endearing himself to fans with his raucous version of “Boom Boom Boom Boom,” and gaining a rep as “the blue-eyed John Lee Hooker.”
After the birth of their fair-haired boy, Tera took time off to do the full-time mother thing while Burl Jr. got a job at an electronics store, confining his music to weekends at a Beale Street lunch room, where he sang the sweetest, most sensitive version of “Sweet Child of Mine” ever heard.
“Things weren’t how I wanted them to be,” said Burl Jr. “But they had potential. We were working toward something, and with the baby here, that something had a whole new meaning. It wasn’t about just me.
“And then, two weeks ago, my mom called and said Dad needed help on the farm. That he couldn’t afford to pay any hands, and he sure couldn’t handle the place alone.
“I felt like I was standing with my foot caught in some railroad tracks with this big old Midnight Flyer bearing down on me. All the time, all the effort I put in, making a place for myself in the Memphis scene, and it was about to get crushed …”
Burl Jr. trailed off. Over on the recliner chair, Strummer’s voice had gone from a howl to a coo as Gwen played a tune I almost recognized on a set of baby chimes.
“How’d you know he loves ‘CC Rider’?” Burl said.
“Is that what I’m playing? All I know are these color-coded notes on the chart Tera gave me.”
“Burl made that,” Tera said. “I keep telling him he should cut a CD. ‘Baby Rockin’ the Blues.’ ”
Strummer sighed contentedly. “This baby’s not exactly rocking right now,” I said. His eyes started to close. Finished the job. He fell into a deep sleep.
“Got the idea from my dad,” Burl Jr. said. “He used to play these weird old mountain songs for me on a toy xylophone when I was a kid. Wrote ‘em all out for Mom so she could play, too, while he was out in the field.”
“Burl Sr. was a good father,” Tera said. “He told Burl’s mother not to call. But she did what she felt she had to. We were so mad for awhile —”
“And now you’re not?” I said.
“How can I be?” said Burl Jr. “More I thought about it, more I saw that wasn’t me stuck on the tracks. That was the man who gave both me and my son our name. My daddy, being barreled down at, with everything he’d ever worked for in danger of being taken away. I’m not going to pull him out? I’m not going to do everything single thing I can to help?”
“Welcome back to Paradise,” Gwen said, and somehow, even though she’s not all that big, she wrapped her arms around Burl Jr., Tera and Strummer in one big hug, and even included me.
Tera was right. Burl Sr. was a good father. And Burl Jr. is both a good father and a fine son.
If that’s not a conquering hero, what is?
Larry Brody is an author, veteran television writer and producer and creative director of Cloud Creek Institute for the Arts. He, his wife and their dogs, cats, horses and chickens live in Marion County. The other residents of the mythical town of Paradise reside in his imagination, however, and any resemblance to actual places or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Originally published January 22, 2009