by Larry Brody
Burl Jr., computer genius turned bluesman turned farmer, just opened his very own recording studio, right in the Paradise Town Square.
“It’s my little den,” Burl Jr. told me, “where I can prove I didn’t give up on my Billboard Top 100 dream.”
We were standing in the middle of the room, a smallish space filled with microphones and lined with sound-proofing. At one end, a window looked into the control room, which was even smaller yet filled with the latest digital audio recording equipment. At the other end of the studio was a door linking Burl Jr. to his old stomping ground, Paradise Music.
“So this is all about recording yourself? Can’t you do that at home?”
“Sure. But there are times, you know, when a man’s got to get away from the house. I wanted to have a place here in town where I could hang out on my own terms. My old haunts aren’t doing it for me anymore.”
He frowned. I know Burl Jr., and I know that look. Something had happened that really bugged him. I didn’t want to push, but, well, not only do I know this kid, I love him, so I wanted to learn what had gone wrong.
“Let’s just say that after all the time I’ve spent away, Harriman’s Mountain Stream Bait & Tackle seems kind of out of it, okay?”
I shook my head. Burl Jr. let out a deep sigh.
“Back before I became a daddy, my own daddy and I fished together whenever he could grab the time. He’d send me to Harriman’s Saturday mornings for supplies. It was kind of like I grew up there. I know everybody, and they’ve all known me from before I could even walk or talk.
“But last year, before the November election, I went in and everything was different. Nobody would speak to me. Frankie Harriman’s my Godfather, but he just looked right through me when I said, ‘Howdy.’ All the boys did. They wouldn’t answer my questions. Acted like I wasn’t even at the counter when I tried to pay for a couple of buckets of worms.
“I couldn’t figure it out. How’d I get invisible? I whined, and then I yelled and made the kind of fuss I’m too ashamed of to even talk about, and went home empty-handed. I wanted to tell my daddy what’d happened but figured it would be better to fight my own battle. If I could just figure out what the battle was.
“A couple of days later, I came back. This time Frankie was all smiles.
“‘Hey, Junior,’ he said, ‘good to see ya. Where ya been?’
“I said, ‘Been right here. Just the day before yesterday. Don’t you remember?’
“Frankie shook his head. ”Course I’d remember,’ he said, ‘if you was here.’ He turned to the rest of the boys. ‘Any of you seen Burl Jr. in the shop recently?’
“They all shook their heads.
“‘Not for at least a month.’
“And then it hit me. When I came in before I was wearing a campaign T-shirt with a big picture of Obama on the front. And now I was wearing one that said, ‘Arkansas Razorbacks.’
“It was like all of a sudden I was hearing the song from Deliverance. Men who were near family to me had cut me like I was dead ’cause I was voting for a Black man. It was so old-fashioned. More than that, it was so wrong!
“I got as mad as I’d been frustrated before. But I held my temper and left with a lying smile. And decided to put fishing behind me and build a place where nobody could judge me…but me.”
As Burl Jr. spoke, the door connecting the studio to Paradise Music opened, and DW, its owner, peered inside. Heard what Burl Jr. was saying.
“There’s something you don’t remember,” he said.
“What’s that?” Burl Jr. said.
“Frankie Harriman is County Chairman of the Republican Party. Harriman Bait & Tackle’s not just a store, it’s party headquarters. Could be he wasn’t mad because you were voting for a Black man but because he thought you were voting for the wrong man. And throwing it in his face.”
“Why didn’t Frankie just say that?” Burl Jr. said.
DW shrugged. But an answer came to me like a jangly blues chord.
Maybe because he didn’t think he had to. Because Frankie too believed he was absolutely right, and in a place where nobody could judge him…but himself.