Bynam, North Carolina is a town that you can literally look the other way while going through and miss entirely. In the town center, what was once a general store/post office, is now a local venue for small events showcasing new southern music and arts. Food trucks with gelato, hotdogs and eastern-style BBQ are parked just outside the front door and I swear the square footage of the trucks seems to outdo that of the General Store where we were all headed. Inside it is hot as h-e-l-l. I mean juke-joint hot. Multiple fans buzz around us and little kids run from one end of the store to the other, opting in the end to head out the back door to lengthen the landing strip for their game of tag or whatever kids play at these days.
I was there to help celebrate a lover’s birthday by attending a concert by Justin Robinson and the Mary Annettes and found myself at the most unlikely spot for a dose of hip hop, string band, old time and R&B sound all smashed together. A mix of hipsters, thirty-somethings and queer folks munched on vegan burritos and at times sat perfectly still in the stifling heat waiting for Robinson’s band to play cuts from their debut, CD Bones for Tinder. Of Carolina Chocolate Drops fame, Justin Robinson was now with his own act, but with the memory of fiddler Joe Thompson’s sound and the soft echo of the holler not far behind. Justin Robinson married a man in Massachusetts b/c he couldn’t do so in North Carolina.
As many of us know the Carolina Chocolate Drops take their name from the Tennessee Chocolate Drops – another black string band that recorded in the 1930s, their most anthologized piece being the “Knox County Stomp” – like the hip hop that we know today, string bands seemed to proliferate these versions of territorial battling, each band coming out with a faster or meaner version of the original.
A woman just in front of me is sweating so profusely, I think she just might fall out. A man two rows down from me wears a t-shirt with a confederate flag on the back and something about a history lesson scribbled under it – I pay little attention to him, except for the fact that he is blocking my narrow view of the stage. A black man in the crowd catches my eye and we both crank our chins in the direction of the man with the history t-shirt and we shake our heads . . . it takes all kinds . . . bless his heart.
When the Mary Annettes finally get going, I am mesmerized. I love it . . . all of it. Sure, I remember the Chocolate Drops – who wouldn’t remember lyrics like “Cornbread and butterbeans and you across the table/ Eatin’ beans and making love as long as I am able” or the 2010 cover of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit Em Up Style.” But in this post-Amendment One state it’s been a while since we’ve all felt like a party; and some of us have been, well . . . clinically depressed. I have never been one for live concerts . . . I always get parked next to the asshole with something to prove – note the guy in the t-shirt and you get my drift. But tonight, sandwiched in on mismatched rickety chairs with southerners and uprooted folks from Cali and musicians and somebody’s grandma in the corner dancing; with Justin sweating profusely and playing full out, nonetheless, and the kids still running up the aisles and the women sweating and pulling all manner of stuff from their bras – how do southern women do that, anyway? – I am brought back to what makes this place so queer for us all. You see, we can’t walk away, even if we wanted to, and not only that but we keep coming back. We wonder off to other parts, sometimes abroad, but in our late thirties, early forties we get a feeling for home and find ourselves back on the streets which up til now have only known the imprint of a smaller version of us.
We cannot leave. We are here together in this place lovin’ the same music and sometimes the same women, hard and long and fast . . . there is something about the fierce simultaneity of it all that just stops you in your tracks. This simultaneity, this fluid mixing is mimicked in the music too, which is a blend of original and folk, so the borrowing is intentional and tunes you see in one space find themselves rebirthed in another, mocking that thing we call the post-modern, if it ever existed at all.
Somewhere in the middle of the set when the youngest kid drops from exhaustion and is passed from one adult to the other, until she lands in a stranger’s arms b/c the last one holding her just needs a break . . . and so it is me holding the sun-browned girl-child and rockin’ out just a bit when Robinson sings a version of “kissin’ and a cussin’” (a tune recycled from a Chocolate Drops cut) and as I find out later, with an opening vocal by local poet, musician and hip hop artist Shirlette Ammons (also of Shirlette and the Dynamite Brothers), who dropped her first solo CD, Twilight for Gladys Bentley in the last week of September.
What I love about small town life is that if you sit in a café and think to yourself, “damn I wish I could talk to Shirlette and find out about the new album,” low and behold, you will look up and there she is . . . seriously . . . having coffee at your local caffeine drip. In our ensuing exchange Shirlette tells me about her new work, and one of the songs in particular. She notes, “I desire songs like ‘Sexy Cerebellum’ with the use of the phrase ‘fuckable feminist’ to be embraced as a new type of love song and tunes like ‘Eatin Out’ to add to conversations about the limits of pleasure . . . All that, and I still want people to rock out and grind to this music and then Google Gladys Bentley.”
I have been thinking of Justin’s funky oldtime/hip hop smashup and Shirlette’s coining of a new way of being called the “Bentley mode.”
Bentley Mode [bent-lee mohd] noun: An existence that is black-against-blackness, peculiar-against-queerness, sexual-against-sexuality, secure-against-insecurity, and aggressively striking-against-all angles of passivity. Bentley Mode is to be hyper-Everything, even and especially in environments where values of social marginalism are shared.
“Bentley Mode” is a stunning way to think past negativity and away from what we should NOT be doing. It encourages us to just be with the music and the way it makes us feel; a “hyper-Everything” that knows no boundary and floats past the field of masculinity to something else, at once and not at all. Bentley Mode poses the hard questions too, “black against blackness,” embracing a theory of blackness that is not perceived as its own limit . . . a version of loving it and leaving it all at the same time; a visceral simultaneity.
These feelings of reciprocity without anchor, of intense longing for it all at once, brought me back to the North Cack and in this place we are artists, musicians, writers, chefs, cooks, authors and activists making and marking time together somewhere in a holler in the woods. . . when I listen to our queerhiphopfunk laced with a string band sound now and then; when I feel Robinson add that violin and viola that I put down for a soccer ball and a pair of good leather reins so long ago, I remember sneaking off to buy “shine” with my Uncle when I was not yet 9 years old.
On those trips, I spent all day in the hills, running around with people I did not know, but who were used to visitors, nonetheless. In that beautiful summer-in-Cackalacky dream, it is night and somewhere to my left a burning fire hits a pocket of sap inside a piece of wood and pops loudly. I am under a thin blanket holding onto another tiny hand sticky with watermelon now & later. Lying next to the little red-headed girl with a hyphenated name, I listen to the strings echo in the holler along with the sound of the dawgs baying, the gentle laughter of women on the porch, the cutting sounds of men’s foolishness out by the shed, and the far off report of buckshot. We half-sleep in the shadow of trees: old-growth cedar, whispering pine, red bud, ironwood, and black walnut. And I am not saying that we do not remember, that our bodies do not know, recall or feel the sting of hate all around us. I know all too well, even as her hand grows limp with sleep in my own and her breath against my cheek comes less frequently, I know how fleeting the pleasure will be; in the end, watchful and awake, I do not sleep.
A holler is described via secondary definition in the urban dictionary as a “small rising valley region between two hills or mountains; often containing a creek.” A holler holds sound like no other place on earth; reverberations through the holler are eerie and often misidentified. Was that a scream or a laugh? Is that my neighbor or an unwelcome stranger coming down the road? As a consequence, whatever happens in the holler is never private or contained for very long. Calling back and forth to one another coyotes, grey foxes and owls mock our human inability to differentiate. The very geography of this place breeds multiple contradictions, pleasure and pain. It might not make perfect sense to outsiders, but some of us still call it home.