I don’t remember ever meeting James Holt. It seems like he was just always there, on the edge of the circle at the Country Boy, smoking quietly and looking amiable. He was sallow-skinned, rheumy-eyed, and bald, and he moved very slowly. I put him in his mid- to late-sixties, but I came to find out later that he wasn’t much older than I am.
He worked in a transmission shop in a spare garage behind the Farm Parts store in Franklin. Shops like that hardly exist anymore –- one or two man operations using hand tools and working almost entirely on older American cars. The high-tech dealerships have sucked up almost everything else. So James was a throw-back, and I wondered sometimes how he managed to make a living.
He would go to work early, after coffee and several cigarettes at the Country Boy, and he would return late to smoke and drink more coffee. He didn’t say much while he sat with the rest of us, but in his dreamy, ruminative way he seemed to enjoy listening to what other people talked about.
One reason he was quiet was that he was sick. He had emphysema from his constant smoking and rheumatism from lying on the cold concrete all day under old transmissions. He said he had high blood pressure, and he looked so jaundiced I couldn’t help but wonder what else was wrong with him. People said he had been a pretty bad drinker when he was young, and there was nothing about him now that caused me to doubt it.
One day, the only people at the table were James and me and Wayne Heithcock, whom everybody calls Red Dog. We were passing the time quietly when James suddenly said, “Red, I think I’m gonna to write up that guitar tablature of mine and see if I can get it published.” I was surprised, but Red Dog slipped into an easy conversation with him about numbering and tunings and voicings to help advanced players learn how to pick like James.
I had known James for several years, but I knew nothing about this. I listened for a while before I had a chance to ask casually, “Have you done some playing, James?” Well, yes, in fact he had, and he and Red Dog launched into tales of their early days, beginning about 1960, in a band they called the Midnight Ramblers.
Red Dog played rhythm guitar and handled the singing and, according to him, was the sex magnet for the band. James played lead in the manner of Carl Perkins. Everybody called him “Dreamboat.” They played bars and roadhouses and union halls and AmVet clubs all over the South, and Red Dog said they could play just about anything anybody wanted to hear. At an appropriate moment, I asked Red Dog to refresh me on the interior verse of Don Gibson’s “I’ll Be A Legend In My Time,” and he rolled it out flawlessly in his rich baritone.
The Midnight Ramblers went on hiatus for a time after Charlie Louvin asked James to play with the Louvin Brothers. James accepted, with Red Dog’s blessing, and went on tour with the Louvins. He often appeared on the Opry. He didn’t get along with Charlie’s brother Ira, though– “the meanest man I ever met,” James said, in an opinion shared by many –- so James quit and came back home to Leiper’s Fork and the Ramblers.
James and Red Dog played for many more years until the music passed them by and nobody wanted to hear them anymore.
They were private about what they had done in their youth, but they told me many stories. The easy way they told them convinces me they were true.
Here is a story James told me while we were sitting alone in the Country Boy one afternoon. I relate it here as James told it, in his own idioms and accents, as best I can remember them:
“Well, they was this cat name of Bobby Keaton, steel guitar player. Lived over on Blazer Road with his daddy. Big old stocky boy, he was. They’d moved up here from Alabama so he could play. I used to go around with him ever’where, even though I was only about 16 or 17 at the time. We’d go up to Tootsie’s and all around Lower Broad, and we’d listen to the music. We’d have a big time.
“Well one night we’s in Nashville, down on Broad, and we went into this place Bobby knew, and I mean it was packed– people ever’where, band playin’ and all. But Bobby, he knowed some people settin’ there at a table and he went over to see if we could set down with them. Well, they wasn’t but one chair, so Bobby said to me, ‘Go on up there and set at the bar. I see a spare stool right toward the end there.’
“So I went up there and sat down on the stool and started to order up a Coke. But directly I start to feel this tuggin’ on my leg, and I look down and I seen this little midget holdin’ on to the side of the stool. He was so drunk he couldn’t stand up and he was tryin’ to pull himself up by the legs of the stool. Or maybe it was his stool and he’d fell off. I don’t know.
“I got the bartender’s attention and asked him for a Coke and directly that midget commenced to raisin’ hell, yellin’ and cussin’ and all. I mean he was really drunk, and he was awful mad about somethin’. But I couldn’t understand a thing he was sayin’.
“I reckon the bartender must of knowed who that midget was, ‘cause when he brought me my Coke he retched acrosst the bar and slapped the cold shit out of the little monkey. Told him to shut up.
“Well, the midget didn’t know what had happened, and he turned around and seen me settin’ there and hauled off and punched me straight in the gut, give it ever’thing he had, and liked to killed me–- doubled me over good. He was only about this high, but he had arms this big around, and I tell you that boy was strong.
“So I retched out and throwed my arms around his head and pulled him up close to me so he wouldn’t be able to hit me again. But, hell, he only come up to about my waist to begin with, and he kep’ on punchin’ me in the gut over and over.
“I was gettin’ pretty desperate by then, and I looked over at Bobby for help, but him and all them other people was just lookin’ at me and laughin’ to beat hell. And here I was settin’ with my arms around this little fart gettin’ the hell beat out of me. I didn’t know what to do.
“I didn’t feel quite right about hittin’ a midget, and besides he was a strong little fuckuh. So finally I pulled back from him a little and turned a-loose of him some way, and he fell straight in the floor and couldn’t get up. The bartender come around and grabbed him by the belt and dragged him over toward the door and told him to get the hell out, and he did.”
James paused reflectively, and then added:
“And you know, ever since that time I ain’t cared much for midgets.”
James died not long after he’d told me that story. He had a heart attack while he was sitting on his porch one fine summer afternoon.