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Thinking Out Loud

The Green Frog Cafe

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 03, 2017

The Green Frog Cafe

"Old men with beer guts and dominoes lying about their lives while they played," sings the Guy Clark song, "Desperados Waiting for a Train." Every time I hear it, I remember my grandfather and our hometown's version of "The Green Frog Cafe" from Clark's song.

The air inside was thick with the smoke of cigarettes and cheap cigars and the heavy smell of bacon grease and coffee as thick as creosote. Playing in the corner was an old Wurlitzer jukebox with a permanent skip in Hank Williams' "Jambalaya." The brown-and-white striped tin awning that hung out over the windows contrasted with the faded grey of its clapboard siding. There was no business sign. Those who came in knew it was a cafe. It was the sort of place I suppose that doesn't exist anymore. And it stood fifty years ago approximately where the driveway into the HEB grocery store now stands in Lufkin, Texas.

It was the sort of place you'd never take a child. Except my sainted grandfather did.

We would walk in, sit at a table and order coffee for him, and a Yoo-hoo and buttered toast for me. I liked the waitresses because they always called us "Honey" and "Sugar" and smiled and smelled nice. Coming to the cafe was a special treat for me because they had genuine factory-made Concord grape jelly in little sealed plastic packets on the tables. I was a country boy, and all I ever got at home was homemade strawberry and blackberry jams, Mayhaw jelly and fig preserves. I felt deprived not getting the factory stuff at home.

My grandfather came by the cafe most days on the way home after finishing his rural mail route. If I wasn't in school, I got to go with him on his route. We stopped at nearly every country store along the way for a soda-water and gossip.

Goolie's country store was always the first stop on Route 3. My grandmother made fun of Goolie's family saying they were so country that they ate "taters, maters and nanner puddin'" which sounded good to me and was probably the menu many nights at our house, too. I liked Goolie okay, but I liked his daughter, Wanda, a lot more. She was my first girlfriend. Second grade. Which means that we held hands during the hygiene and civil defense films at school.

Anyway, back to the Green Frog. We'd sit and talk, my grandfather and me, about serious things. My grandfather never talked down to me. But he also didn't talk to me the same way he talked to the men at the other tables. I noticed that. It was on visits like these that my grandfather would line up musicians to get together to play. He was a natural musician. Fiddle, guitar, accordion, piano. He never met an instrument he couldn't master in a rainy afternoon. He sang a nice tenor he called Irish, though he was a Scot. With a name like Bonnie Corley Fenley, you can't fool anyone about where you came from.

One of these musical events stands out from all the others. One very ordinary weekday afternoon, we pulled up to a frame house on the outskirts of town. Other cars and trucks were pulling up about the same time. We parked my grandfather's old pickup truck on a long sandy drive. Behind the house was a small frame outbuilding off the side of a carport. It was so decrepit it looked like it should have fallen down years ago. But inside, I swear, was heaven: a room full of guitar players, fiddlers, and accordion players, all warming up. Laughing. Joking. My grandfather had a fiddle case under one arm, a guitar case in one hand, and an accordion case in the other. A weathered piano that looked and sounded like it had survived the great Galveston hurricane leaned against a wall.

I have played in a lot of bands. Good bands. Jazz, blues, R&B, rock, and country. And I've attended some great concerts headlined by everybody from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, to Chicago, to George Harrison, to the Band of Heathen. But I have never experienced music that could compete with what happened in that shack.

There wasn't a sheet of music in the room. Music just poured out of these guys and their instruments like they were breathing. The music flowed from one to the other, back and forth, like communication, but deeper somehow. They changed keys as though they shared a single mind, maybe a single heart, beating out music. They'd laugh trying to catch each other not paying attention, but they couldn't. I suspect that every band I've ever played in, I was just trying to recapture the joy of that experience.

At the time I didn't know it, but I was getting my first lesson in the subtle reaches of Trinitarian Christian theology. Or maybe it was my first lesson in reality. And perhaps it takes a whole life to unwrap what we are accidentally taught as children.

What I felt there in that shack was that somehow the best thing in the whole wide world is a roomful of people making music together, playing off each other, respecting each other, loving what they were doing and what they were making together, enjoying the music that flowed among them, that came out of them and entered into one another and freely flowed to anyone listening. And that, my friends, is what the heady doctrine of the Trinity is trying to say in human languages far less eloquent than what was spoken by the guitars and fiddles of the denizens of the Green Frog Cafe.

High-flying Greek terms like perichoresis have been drafted into Christian theology to describe the subtle interplay of divine being originating in the one person of the triune God and returned to another, first penetrating, then merging, blending without confusion, like streams of sparkling water or rivers of rich hot blood, giving life and love to all that is. But for me, it will always be the music that says it best without resorting to words.

Anyone who has ever had the privilege to improvise with other musicians will know what I mean. But I do wish you could have heard those old guys from the Green Frog Cafe who played us into the presence of the mystery of the world in a buddy's derelict shack on a very ordinary afternoon.

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