A lady in the parking lot kept waving in my direction.
Since I had never seen her before, I assumed she was greeting
someone behind me. Yet she persisted until I came into earshot.
"Tim?" she asked quizzically.
"Pardon me?" I replied.
The lady responded, "Aren't you Tim Sampson?"
I suppose she could be forgiven for mistaking me for my ranting compadre. All post-middle-aged, white, portly, bald, and bespectacled men with close-cropped white beards look alike. We've even begun to dress alike, both favoring the patterned shirts that don't require tucking in. My concern was that after several years of alternating weeks with Tim Sampson in writing this column, we had somehow merged into the same person. After all, I have never read anything of Tim's that I disagree with, and I find him a perfectly agreeable fellow. The only thing I found mildly bothersome were the number of times I found myself thinking, "Man, this guy sure does write about his gig a lot."
I guess you could say I was envious. I mean, here's Tim talking about the Stax Music Academy, with all their accolades and special trips to the White House and Europe, and such, and I'm sitting here with a one-way ticket to Palookaville. Who can stand to read about so much happiness? After reading Sampson's articles about talented young people achieving their dreams, I had to get out the Raymond Carver novellas just to cheer up and get my brain chemistry back in order. But the lady that mistook me for Sampson might also be forgiven, because we were in the parking lot of the Stax Music Academy.
I've been a late bloomer in many areas. I graduated from college when I was 45, got married for the first time at 54, and, at a time when many of my peers are entering retirement, I've entered the workforce. It wasn't so much a "want to" motivation as a "had to" situation. The rent never sleeps. So, I called Tim to ask if there was anything available at Soulsville for an aging musician with an encyclopedic brain filled with trivia about soul music. Tim told me that, just by coincidence (or not, depending on your cosmic view), he had overheard the staff discussing the need for someone to teach a songwriting course for a five-week, summer music program.
"I'm your man," I yelled into the phone, and before Tim could hang up, I was pulling into the Stax parking lot. During an initial interview with some of the staff members, I told them I had written over 250 songs. After seeing they were duly impressed I added, "But only two of them are good."
I submitted a proposed syllabus and before you could say pedagogue, I was an instructor in the craft of composing songs, right next to the very building where "Can Your Monkey Do the Dog," was written. My problem was I had never faced a classroom before, so I embraced the philosophy of "fake it until you make it." But the closer we got to the opening date, the drier my throat and the tighter my stomach became. My wife dutifully packed me a lunch and sent me off to work.
I was assigned four classes with 20 students in each. During my get-acquainted lecture in my opening moments as a teacher, I asked, "Who here has either written or attempted to write a song?" and every hand in the room went up. I wanted to say, "Damn, let me sit out there and listen to you," but I had come equipped with my greatest hit, "Call the Wrecker for My Heart," by George Jones. It was an illustration of my premise that you can write a song about anything. I lectured for a week about structure and the value of co-writing then sent each class off to compose an original song.
I don't know what I was expecting, but the result made my big toe shoot up in my boot. The level of musicianship was so high and the songwriting so sophisticated, it caused me to imagine that if I had half the talent of these students at such a young age, I could, dare I say, rule the world. After the second week of classes, I said in the regular staff meeting that the students had grown beyond my abilities to teach them. The next week consisted mainly of me observing the activities from a plastic chair with the occasional hover and rhyme suggestion. At one point, I was forced to quote Rufus Thomas and shout, "I just feel so unnecessary."
This week, the students will be in the studio recording their songs for a competition to be judged at term's end by a group of professionals, including the dynamic young man at the head of the Stax Academy, Justin Merrick. Speaking of the academy, Justin has just been nominated for a Grammy Award by the Recording Academy in a new category called Music Education.
Now I know how Tim feels when he shares his colleagues' pride in their achievements. Merrick certainly prepared and motivated the young people in my classes. If the students' recordings turn out as great as the rehearsals and the Stax Academy is able to create a new generation of songwriters and artists, well ... if you're going to dream, you may as well dream big. This could be the rebirth of Stax, or something similar, and the future for the graduates of this innovative musical program, well ... I'm starting to rant. Let's just say good things are happening at 926 East McLemore Avenue.
If my good fortune at being on the Stax campus weren't enough, I have also begun work at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, assisting in the development of guided tours. My previous attempt at being a tour guide ended badly because I talked too much, but Stax seemed to want someone who talks too much. At the city's other attractions, guided tours are assembled to last a specified amount of time. At the Stax Museum, you can stay as long as you want. Since the Stax Museum receives grants and charitable donations, they are able to offer an educational component that is more extensive than other attractions, and of course, you exit through the gift shop where the former Satellite Record Shop used to stand.
Most of all, the people have been so gracious and welcoming, they make me believe they're actually happy I'm there. This makes me happy, plus, I get to see Tim Sampson every day. I was looking for one job, and suddenly I have three, if you count what you're reading. If not, It doesn't matter because I don't know you, and if you're not a fan of soul music, I don't want to know you.
Randy Haspel writes the "Born-Again Hippies" blog.
This week it starts in earnest — the questioning. You can't escape it. It comes from your spouse, your kids, your parents — at the breakfast table, in the car, on the phone, via email: "What do you want for Christmas?" ...