Thursday, February 25, 2010

Storyteller from Iuka

Rheta Grimsley Johnson on Memphis, Arlo and Janis, Lewis Grizzard, and love.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 25, 2010 at 4:00 AM

Serve no wine before its time, and the same goes for memoirs.

Everyone may have a story but not necessarily a story that the rest of us want to hear. The good ones have perspective, emotional highs and lows, sharp writing, strange places, revealing glimpses of famous people, and humor.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson is known to many Memphians as the author of a book about Cajun Country and a biography of "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz as well as a former columnist and award-winning reporter for The Commercial Appeal.

Now she has written a memoir called Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming, which comes out next week. It's a good one.

After writing thousands of columns and driving a million miles to write about other people, she has earned memoirist's rights. We meet her ex-husband Jimmy Johnson, the creator of the comic strip "Arlo and Janis"; the late humorist Lewis Grizzard and his fans at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who hated Johnson; and an author who, by her own description, has always been harder on herself than anyone else could be.

This book probably would never have been written but for a tragedy. Enchanted Evening Barbie (the doll was on many a Christmas wish list in 1964) started out as a funny, upbeat Christmas story but took a different turn after Johnson's husband, Don Grierson, died suddenly last March. The blues came down hard, leaving her heartbroken and struggling to get out of bed.

Never one to embrace social media or modern convenience — she uses a rotary-dial telephone and burns wood in a potbellied stove — she pretty much went off the grid for several months, hunkered down in her little farm house and "Le Jardin" at the end of a dirt road in a hollow near Pickwick Lake. She was a widow with three sad dogs, six acres, a second house in Louisiana with a tangled mortgage, a publishing contract to fulfill, almost no income, and a weekly column to write.

What once seemed like an unbearable burden became instead her salvation. She forced herself to sit down at her computer and write, and after a while the words started flowing. Not maudlin, not self-pitying, but with the stab of reality and the true pulse of life, like the songs by her musical favorites Hank Williams and Lucinda Williams.

She writes about her childhood in Montgomery, Alabama, college boyfriends at Auburn, a bittersweet marriage to Johnson (she reveals that she may look like Janis but is a lot more like Arlo), the time Sonny Bono called to ask her why she hated him, and the well-paid hell of succeeding Grizzard. Be careful what you wish for.

Grizzard was a curmudgeonly, chauvinistic, and wildly popular professional Southerner. One of his books is titled Elvis Is Dead and I Don't Feel So Good Myself. Resented by Grizzard's friends at the paper and all but forced out of her gig in Atlanta, Johnson titles one of her chapters "Grizzard Is Dead and I Don't Feel So Good Myself."

"My second column was about a gay country music singer from Tupelo," she writes. "That was all it took. Letters arrived by the bushel, angry letters, most of them telling me to go back to Mississippi, do not collect $200."

It's one of the only instances of score settling in a book that, like a country song, has episodes of Momma, friendship, and violence but also leaves some things unsaid.

Her last assignment in Atlanta was writing cutlines for a photo spread on a county fair. That's cub reporter stuff. She got the message, did the job, quit, and drove to Iuka and Fishtrap Hollow. I met her there a couple of weeks ago to swap a piece of Alaskan salmon for some CDs. We ate lunch with Frank and Eddie Thomas, the brothers from Iuka who produced the bluesy four-CD set Angels on the Backroads. The Mississippi Delta has nothing on Iuka when it comes to contemporary literary and musical talent.

Don Grierson was handy with tools and built a raised bridge across the creek next to the house. As a 2008 Christmas gift, the Thomas brothers hand-stamped a brass plaque for it with his name. They screwed it onto the bridge at his memorial service, which featured all Hank Williams all the time. The acoustics are very good in a hollow, and the songs of loneliness and tears, Rheta writes, filled the spring air "so we did not have to."

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