Why Doc Stevens and Big Dave Drink Gravy from their Thermoses instead of Hot Stew

Wednesday, January 26, 2011 10:13 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas

Tondeleo: I am not a hunter. I am an eater, but not a hunter. I don’t want to know where my food comes from or how it died. I don’t want to think about whether or not it was frightened when it died. I simply like to eat it.

Doc and Big Dave were telling hunting stories back in November and this one stood out to me:

When Doc and Big Dave go hunting, Marilyn makes each of them a sandwich and a thermos full of gravy to take into the woods with them to quench their thirst and to keep them warm.

I asked about why they didn’t take tea or coffee, and they both looked at me as like I was daft.

Big Dave said, “It makes you have to water the lemon tree too much.”

I said I didn’t see where that would be a problem, out on0 deer stand the woods.

Doc said that when you’re crammed up into a deer stand, you don’t want to be climbing up and down from it to go water the bushes – and it would scare the deer away. Soup or stew is better in the thermos than coffee or tea.

Big Dave said that a man wouldn’t drink hot tea, anyway.

Apparently Marilyn USED to make soup or stew for their thermoses. One day when they were hunting with Thurman Goodlett, he was drinking stew out of his thermos and got choked on a piece of meat.

It was only Doc, Big Dave and Thurman out there in the woods, and neither Doc not Big Dave were willing to do the “Hind Lick maneuver” to save Thurman. Doc decided that this was definitely the time to call on the Good Lord to save Thurman, if God didn’t rather have him in Heaven just yet. Big Dave agreed.

Doc and Big Dave laid their hands on Thurman and called out to the Lord to save him if He would. Doc said he even spoke in tongues just in case that would give their prayers a boost.

Fortunately, Thurman was so scared – or touched by the Lord -  that he was able to swallow the meat with little or no damage to his throat. Doc said he was real sure it was the Lord that saved Thurman. Thurman’s eyes had rolled back into his head and his face was getting blue. But then, suddenly there was a gulping sound, and Thurman was swallowing and breathing. “Had to be the Lord,” said Doc. “I was speakin’ in tongues out there.”

Since that day, Marilyn doesn’t put soup in their thermoses. Instead she fills them with red eye gravy so they can be warm and comfortable when they are out in the deer stand.

Of course, I don’t know what red eye gravy is, so Marilyn explains that it is made from meat drippings and a cup or two of coffee, some salt and flour until it is just thick enough to be like drinking hot warm silk.

I am not certain that it is better for a person than stew is, but Doc and Dave are settled on “no more stew or soup” when they go hunting.

Big Dave said, “I don’t care WHO it is what’s choking. I am not doing the hind lick maneuver.

Doc: Me, neither. I’ll pray for ‘em and ask the Lord to save ‘em. Or, He can call ‘em home. I ain’t doin’ none of that other stuff. I ain’t no doctor.

Doc Stevens and Big Dave–A little more on the music they play– and Mountain Music, not Bluegrass.

Saturday, January 15, 2011 8:49 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas

Tondeleo: This is a continuation on Doc and Big Dave talking about how they do NOT play bluegrass, and that not all rural Americans even LIKE bluegrass.

Doc: Tondy, like we been sayin’, not all mountain people plays bluegrass or even likes it as much as city people does.

Some of the places we playimage at when we was growin’ up and where we plays now when we go back down home, don’t allow no bluegrass, no country western and no electric guitars. Some songs ain’t got no instruments. Just sung. Some of the work songs and the sad songs is just sung straight from the heart. I do that sometimes.

This ain’t music for sellin.’ It’s gospel spirituals, work songs, coal minin’ songs and such. But up here, we play more songs what people want to hear. And we ain’t about goin’ out an’ showin’ our shame.

Big Dave: Yeah, we play what we got to play here, and we still draw the line ourselves on what we play. Old country, blues roots, Gospel and things like that. But we don’t do no new country western or bluegrass. Of course, we ain’t no GOOD at bluegrass! We don’t play it! (laughs)

Me and Doc, we like electric guitars and our friends do, because we like to be able to play loud and we like the tone that you get on a tube amp. We like a little distortion, but even that is the music we grew up playin’ with our friends and neighbors. You can play a acoustic guitar into a mike like they do at a lot of the festivals and places we play, but it just sounds like a louder acoustic guitar, which is what they want.

Doc: We like overdrive, Tondy! But we also grew up with fiddles, and I like fiddles if played right, and banjo’s and such. I like a mandolin ok. A banjo with bad tone don’t set well with me. If a banjo aint played right, it sounds like a bunch of bees stingin’ me in the ears.

But a lot of folks down home and in a lot of places ain’t got no electric, so they gotta play music without it. I take my ‘coustic guitar and dobro when I go down there, unless I know I’m goin’ where there is ‘lectric.

Doc Stevens Marilyn Big Dave 6Marilyn: I like playin’ harp. That runs in our family for back to my great grand dad and Doc thinks my great great grand dad. I like a dulcimer, too. Doc has one that he strung with guitar strings and plays with a bottleneck slide sometimes.

Another thing what runs deep is dancin.’ My aunt does flatfoot and cloggin’ but I can’t do none of that. I can yodel, and always could, but she cain’t yodel!!! Uncle Doc can yodel, but he don’t do it too much. 

Doc: A lot of the mountain roots music and blues roots is about the same thing. Bein’ broke. Havin’ a mean boss or bad landlord what don’t understand. Bein’ sick. Bein’ cheated on. Your loved one dyin’. Some is about just bein’ sick of this earthly life and wantin’ to just go ahead and go to Heaven. All the songs is about the basic thing about bein’ human and what goes on in your heart in hard times.

A lot of the sound comes from church where it gets blended, black and white folks, singin’ the same songs, and we pick up a little bit from each other, but we don’t copy no one. Most of us, at least my people is Pentecostal, too. Pentecostal folks whether white or black usually got a heart for music and have a bunch of good musicians and singers.

Tondeleo: Isn’t any music that’s made with banjo’s and mandolins by definition, “bluegrass?”

Big Dave: No. There’s differences. Bluegrass is more modern, like for city people that maybe came from the country and were missing home, and bluegrass was a way to sell that sound. I don’t know. I like Dawg Music, which has then same instruments, but isn’t bluegrass and ain’t quite country. David Grisman does it.

Doc: Well, as I see it, mountain music, roots music is more about bein’ music to dance to, more about a steady beat. That’s what we do in everything we do, keep a good beat. Mountain music uses more open tunings, which blues roots does, too. Both uses Open G a lot.

I grew up listenin’ on the radio and on the records when Daddy  could get them, and sometimes live to the Carter Family, the Mainer's, the Stoneman's, the Delmore's and the Blue Sky Boys,the Carter Brothers and folks like them.

I spent some time with Donna Stoneman and know her to be a good Christian and nice person. Her sister Ronnie was on Hee Haw. But all them people ain’t bluegrass. Mountain music and roots, I call it. We like that ok, heck we grew up on it. But we also needed to get away from it when we got out of there and done some travellin’ and didn’t want to be hillbillies.

Big Dave. He’s right, Tondy.

Marilyn: We live in the country and we ain’t got much money, but we ain’t hillbillies.

Doc Stevens, Big Dave on the Music They Play: Why they don’t like Bluegrass, and other observations.

Friday, January 14, 2011 9:38 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas

Tondeleo: As you know, I initially expected rural Americans, especially those from the southern Appalachian region, to all play bluegrass music, ad to only like bluegrass. That is why I was surprised when I first began meeting Doc, Big Dave and their friends, because not only do they not play bluegrass music, but they seem to have an aversion to it.

I have learnt these past few years that some of the aversion is shame. Shame for the poverty they grew up in, shame for being thought of as hillbillies, and shame for the memories that some of the bluegrass music evoked. I had never thought of these factors.

I always thought of bluegrass as happy, simple music that hearkened back to a simpler more honest and good time in simpler and more wholesome environments. But for many people who lived in those times and places the memories are anything but good.

Doc: See, Tondy, to a office boy what has never beenBig Dave & Doc Stevens Gig1a down to where we lived, it seems good and happy. Or if someone been away a while. But if you lived there and were dirt poor, and your daddy was a drunk, and your older brothers was drunks, and your grand daddy was a drunk and your uncles was drunks, you ain’t got to many good memories in the first place. ‘Bout nothin.’

You remember fightin’ and hollerin’ and women bein’ hit and ‘bused an’ getting’ your own butt whipped for doin’ nothin’ or for standin’ up to the old man when he was drunk and hittin’ your mama. And they was always bluegrass music bein’ played in the background.

Big Dave: Yeah, and when you go to town people look down on you for how you talk and how you dress and you don’t have any money to buy anything. You get ashamed of what you are and your family and everything you got. when people look at you and spit, and then cuss you, callin’ you a dumb hillbilly, you’re not going to do anything to make them think that even more.

Doc: We was poor, and we worked with other poor whites, poor blacks… anyone what wasn’t getting’ paid good or treated right. With all that pain built up, we needed to get it out, and we played music and sang about it. We wasn’t thinkin’ what KIND of music it was. We just sang what we was feelin’ and about what we was goin’ through.

Some of it was songs we learnt off the radio what was singin’ about how we felt. Some was songs from other people what talked about how we felt. Some was church songs, about the Lord or askin’ the Lord to get us through a hard time.

Some was about how good it felt to be in love. Some was about bein’ cheated on or bein’ brokenhearted. It was all kinds of music. Some Kitty Wells, some Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Bob Wills, Hank Snow and we listened to Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Blake, John Lee HooBig Dave & Doc Stevensker. I always liked John Lee Hooker real good.

Big Dave: I like John Lee Hooker real good, too.

Doc: So we played a bit of this, a bit of that. The whites and the blacks, they called themselves coloureds back then, all sang about the same things. Havin’ no money, mean bosses, mean women, cheatin’ women, whiskey, fallin’ in love. Tondy, all people feels them things.

We didn’t never put a name on what we played. Only when I come up north did they call it a name. It was just music what poor people knowed and sang.

Up here, in the 90’s they said what we played was blues. But not real blues, they said it had other names. We said it was “downhome” music. I still call it that.

Big Dave: They call some of it “country roots blues.” We play some of that, on acoustic. I heard that it is called Piedmont Blues, especially what Doc plays when he is playin’ alone at the house. That’s acoustic and they use the thumb for the bass line and the pointy finger for the chords or notes.

But most places if we are playin’ indoors, we use electric guitars and play old blues music that most people like. We play it because we know how and because we like it and they like it too. Blacks and whites. 

Doc: I heard that one before, Big Dave. Piedmont.A man in DC called it that. That is how whites and blacks played guitar down home. It’s how you play when you just sit down and start playin.

I don’t play that way out in public too much ‘cause I think it might sound too much like a poor man. But I do that on my ‘lectric guitars what gots bass strings. Nobody notices it, but it gives me that bass line and the rhythm guitar line and a little lead. When the guitar is set right, that is the best way to play if you come from down where we do.

Big Dave: But Doc is the onliest one I know with the bass set up like he has. It sounds real good, and it gives me somethin’ to play lead over. Makes a full sound.Big Dave & Doc Stevens Gig8

Doc: When we play Gospel music, it’s the same way. Old downhome songs from when we was kids. We ain’t do nothing new. We do a lot from the Gales…

Big Dave: Their real name is The Sensational Nightingales. I only learned that a few years ago, Doc.

Doc:  We do Gales’ songs. Spirituals. Sister Rosetta Tharpe – Marilyn sings her stuff a lot. Just stuff we grew up on. People like it the first time they hear it, and the old folks love it ‘cause ain’t nobody do it anymore, but us. They see us and still think, “Look at those dumb white hillbillies, but when we start playin’ and the Spirit starts movin’ they are clappin’ and singin’ and stompin’!

Doc Stevens and Big Dave on the Odd Mix of Music That Many Rural Americans Play: Country, Bluegrass, Blues, Roots, R & B and more. And Drink Houses.

Saturday, January 8, 2011 9:12 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas

Tondeleo: One thing that fascinated me when I first began working around real American rural musicians is that they did not all play bluegrass music. That is the stereotype that we hold of them: blowing on moonshine jugs, playing banjo’s, mandolins, jaw harps, violins and guitars.

When I met Doc and his friends several years ago, they described what they played as “downhome country blues roots.” It is a mix of country, blues and a fair bit of early rock and roll. I was curious as to how this fit in with the stereotype that we have of these people playing nothing but bluegrass.

Following is an interview I had with Doc and Big Dave a couple of years ago.Big Dave & Doc Stevens Gig6

Doc: Why don’t we play bluegrass? Well, we ain’t got no banjo’s or violins or mandolins first off, Tondy. We got guitars, I got a bass and we got amps. Bluegrass don’t like basses and amps and electric guitars. But we do.

My family was tryin’ to get away from all that when we was comin’ up. People called us hillbillies and my Grand dad said we needed to quit lookin’ and talkin’ like hillbillies or we ain’t never gonna have anything or amount to nothin.’

Big Dave: I don’t like bluegrass. Ain’t nobody told me to. It just reminds me of my old man. He listened to bluegrass all the time. If it wasn’t his friends comin’ by and playin’ it at the house, it was on the radio. It got bad memories for me. It gets on my nerves.

Tondeleo: Bluegrass gets on your nerves? I thought all rural Americans thrived on bluegrass!

Big Dave: Well, you thought wrong, little buddy.

Doc: We don’t play bluegrass. I never learned it. When I was comin’ up I learned from my grand dad and uncles, and their friends. Some was white and some was black. We all learned each other’s songs. But he steered us away from bluegrass.

I been to places where all they play is bluegrass, and I can be playin’ along, and some office boy what took “bluegrass lessons” will watch me a few minutes and then tell me that I am not playin’ “bluegrass chords.” Bluegrass chords? What’s that? I never learnt no bluegrass chords. I ain’t never took lessons.

I learned a lot of what I play from being in the drink houses. That was whites and blacks and mixed people. Just poor people what had problems and still wanted to sing. Mostly they ain’t know what they was playin’ as far as chords go. They just figured out what sounded good.

I ain’t know the names of all the chords. I know more than some people does, as for the names, but not all of them.I just play what I seen other people play an’ I have some what I figured out, and I slide ‘em up and down the neck to make different ones. That’s what mostly I seen comin’ up.

We’d take our guitars and go to the drink house and eat and talk and play music.

Tondeleo: Drink houses. What are drink houses?

Doc: A drink house is what they have a lot of down south, in North Carolina especially. If they ain't a bar in the area where you can go down for a drink or play some music, a person might just open their house up as a drink house.

You can’t just go and hang out in a bar all night if you ain’t drinkin’ and if you’re dirty from work, they ain’t like that too much neither. A drink house is where poor folks go to hang out and talk and drink and relax.

It's just a person’s house, and they might have they livin’ room or back room with a little bar in it, and a few beers in the ‘frigerator, and maybe a few bottles of liquor in the cabinet. You give 'em a couple of bucks and they give you a shot of whiskey or a beer. Maybe even a dollar might get you a sip, if all you got is a dollar. You can just hang out there and talk of play music or whatever you want, as long as you're not causing any trouble.

Big Dave & Doc Stevens Gig3People in the neighborhood'll come by. Some will pull up in their car and come in just for a drink and leave. Others hang out there all day or evening.It’s a place to hang out, to talk, meet people and swap songs and learn a little by watchin’ what the other guy is doin’ and listenin’ to how he is playin’ and then do it yourself. You can learn a lot that way.

Sometimes they got a radio on, and you can learn some songs that way. That’s where some of the songs we play come from. That and old records we found here and there.

Big Dave: Yeah. I used to go to drink houses when I was in western North Carolina. It was just a cheap place to go and waste some time, and eat a sandwich and play music.

Some of 'ems open just some days or some evenin's and others is open day or night, seven days a week. Some's got a poker game in the back room or out on the picnic table in the back yard in the summer.

Some got a room fixed up where you can play music inside, with a little stage area over in the corner.

Some sell drugs, some don't. Some sell about anything a person could want, if they know you or you is family to a friend of theirs.

I never went for that. I just went for a sandwich, some music and some place to go before going back to my room to sleep.

Doc: You ain’t got to be a drunk or druggie to go to drink houses. I went for the food and music mostly and people what don’t have any money or good clothes got to be able to go someplace, too after work. Where else are we gonna go?

And that’s where we learnt to play and where we learnt the songs we sing. A bit of everything. Hank Williams, Webb Pierce and all them from my grand dad and uncles and they’s friends, and then John Lee Hooker, BB King, Albert King and a bunch of others from the drink houses.

Big Dave 6Really, you got to know all of it so you can make a few dollars. We play some places where it is mostly white people and they want that country music what they call roots. So we play it. Some people think we only play country.

Some places we play is like we are the only white folks there. We play blues; John Lee Hooker, Artie White and BB King and all those kinds of songs there. They ain’t never hear us play country.

Sometimes we play where it is mixed and we do mixed music there. A bit of blues, a bit of country. Whatever they want. We play Gospel too, Tondy! We learnt that at church. But also at drink houses and from family. Most poor folks go to church some time in their life, because life is hard and they need help from the Lord. I need help from the Lord.

And me and Marilyn like singin’ and playin’ Gospel music. It reaches down deep inside you.

Tondeleo: I know, I’ve heard you do that, and I quite like it, I do…

Doc: We like that Gospel, Tondy. Not the new stuff. The old stuff. When a man is poor and can’t deal with his problems, he can turn to drinkin’ and drugs, or he can turn to the Lord. I been turnin’ to the Lord when I get down in the mully grubs, and sometimes I can just pick up my guitar and sing a while and I feel all better. We play Gospel around the house a lot. A whole lot.

Selling Things to Get Through the Winter–Good-bye Guitars!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011 8:44 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas

Tondeleo: I was just talking with Doc about how he and Marilyn are getting through the winter, with all the cold weather. He told me that kerosene is very costly right now, but his income is very low. I asked him what they are doing to cope, when there’s no work.

DSCN0351Doc: When you're down and hurtin' for money, you can sell things, I done that. Done it recently to get me through the winter. I been sellin’ some of my tools. Been sellin’ some of my car parts for old cars and hot rods. But I still been needin’ money. So now I sold last week my 1950’s Kay electric arch top guitar.

I have had that guitar for many a year and I love it. It has that vibe what only comes from an old guitar what has a story to tell. I have taken it all over the South and it has done me a good job. But now I got to pay for heat and the light bill and all that. Work has slowed down and people ain’t got no money to pay me for what I done for them.

I sold a coupla guitars and some other things sittin'Kay1 around the house. I give to a guy over to Bryans Road who put them on that ebay to sell 'em to whoever would give the most money for 'em and you figure whoever will give the most money for 'em will like 'em as good as I do.

A boy all the way up to Ohio, name Jacob bought my Kay guitar what I done had for years, but it was time for it to go. I loved that guitar, but I had some bills to pay, and was comin' up short. I know I am gonna miss that guitar, but guess what? That boy sent a e-letter to the dude up to Bryans Road what sold it for me an’ said that he been lookin’ for a old guitar like that for a long time to play bottleneck blues and fingerstyle on it! That’s the same as me. But I bet he’s better ‘n me ‘cause he is young and prolly a lot smarter n’ me an’ I think he’ll do it all right. That guitar done me right, I tell you.

Tondeleo: But Doc, couldn’t you have pawned them? At least then you’d get your money to get you through the winter, and then you could redeem them out of the pawn shop when warm weather gets here…

Doc: I'd rather sell 'em outright than to pawn 'em. Pawnshop might give you fifty or a hundred bucks for it, then you got to go back an' pay 'em just the interest on that hundred bucks, what may be 20 bucks a pop, an' you might have 300 bucks tied up in interest on a hundred dollars. Now as long as you're payin' that kind of interest, you ain't gonna be able to get the money together to get that guitar back. It's better to just sell it outright for what you can and then find someone else what needs money and buy one from them. I don't like pawn shops too much.

Tondeleo: You seem to have a lot of tools. And I know that you’re not as devoted to your tools as you are to your guitars. How about pawning them, or selling them?

Kay3Doc: When you're sellin' you're tools, you're cuttin' your own throat. Cause you need your tools to make money, and you cain't make money without 'em. But you gotta keep the lights on and you hafta eat. But when you pawn your guitar, it hurts. That thing is your friend. It's like puttin' your friend in jail. Better to sell it than to pawn it. Cause; you could make your payments every month and then still lose it after all that money - Pay a couple hundred bucks in interest, and still wind up losing it, for a hundred bucks. It’s better to sell it to someone what’ll like it like you do and give it a good home. That’s what I done with it, Tondy.