The City Café in downtown McKenzie was located between the railroad tracks and McCadams Tractor and Implement Company. It was a special place for us for many reasons. We liked to see that “stuff” floating in the giant pickled pig’s feet jar. We loved to hear Mr. Red Melton and Jack Cantrell “go on” about the Cardinals chances to overtake the Dodgers in the National League pennant race. You could swing up on a stool at the counter or slide into the red and white “almost leather” covered seats in one of the booths. It was about as “grown-up” as an eight year old could get!
But most of all, in 1955, you could buy a hamburger there for a quarter. We were raised out at the end of Stonewall Street on collards, brown beans and polk salad. We ate black eyed peas like they were going out of style. Hominy grits and turnips were our staples. We ate fried green tomatoes before they became fashionable. We crumbled up cornbread in buttermilk for dessert.
A City Café hamburger was a genuine treat for us. As was the big juke box over by the front door. They even had “remote” devices so you could slide in a nickel right at your booth and play your favorite song…… ’Course, me and Leon and David Mark didn’t waste our nickel on the jukebox. We just listened to what everybody else was playing.
It was the time and the place where I first heard a young George Jones blasting out of those speakers. “Why, Baby, Why” was the song. I had no idea what it was about, but it was loud and fast and the guy seemed happy just to be singing to us. It quickly became my favorite song.
A couple of years later, he was singing, “No Money In This Deal”. Everyone out towards our end of town could relate to that one. We figured George must’a eaten a few stewed tomato sandwiches in his time. I was in high school when he recorded “The Race Is On”, another fast moving ditty that described “coming out in second place” in his race to win the girl. Danged if he wasn’t singing my song!
I was trying so hard to be cool and find a girl that liked baseball, western movies, could bait her own hook and wouldn’t embarrass you in the looks department when you strolled into Frank’s Dairy Bar together. We were all young and innocent and mostly just searching for a good time. George was belting out, “I’ve Got Five Dollars And It’s Saturday Night” that summer. I found myself nodding along in agreement to the words.
Charlotte Melton was my first love. For almost three months! She fell for that tall guy who moved in from Puryear. I drowned my sorry over a Root Beer float listening to George wail about “A Girl I Used To Know”. When he got down to the “I don’t talk about the nights I cry about her” verse, I thought several times, JUST SHOOT ME!
Miss Polly was cracking the whip on us to memorize “Canterbury Tales” and “Macbeth”, but I was having a lot easier time with, “Well, in North Carolina way back in the hills lived my old pappy and he had him a still; He brewed white lightening till the sun went down; Then he’d fill up a jug and he’d pass it around…..”
If Chaucer and ole Bill Shakespeare had’a written as well as George Jones could sing, I might have been an English major!
We didn’t drink white lightening mind you. And none of us came from North Carolina. But that was beside the point. The song was so upbeat and happy, you’d forget about failing the math test or getting run over at football practice or how Ruth Ann Wiley would sort’a giggle and go the other way when she saw you coming. George Jones was good for what ailed you!
When Yogi and Ricky and one other guy that I can’t remember his name got down alive after climbing the water tower….and washed most of the red and green paint off their hands…..and stumbled into Frank’s as innocent as we could look to see if anyone had noticed the colorful message we’d left for Charlotte…..the jukebox was playing George’s gut wrenching rendition of “We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds”.
It was like he knew the exact stage your life was in and he was trying to pass along a little advice before you got in over your head. Of course, George might have been singing to himself all this time. He had more ups and downs than Humpy Dumpty on a pogo stick. But, boy howdy, how he could bounce back!
He was the greatest country music singer I ever heard. And his rendition of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” just possibly could be the greatest country song ever! He recorded a number one hit in four different decades. You talk about staying power!
And his passing will not be the end. Not by a country mile! When the XM radio oldies play “Why, Baby, Why”, I can smell those hamburgers. When “White Lightening” comes on my foot goes to tapping. I remember every word to “The Race Is On”, “The Grand Tour”, “Window Up Above”…….and “A Girl I Used To Know” still makes me cry.
Thank you so much George. You entertained and enlightened us for years. I figure you’ve earned the rest.