March 29, 2019
“The Green Frog Cafe”
“From the time that I could walk he’d take me with him to a place called the Green Frog Cafe. There were old men with beer guts playing dominoes, lying about their lives while they played,” go the lyrics of one of the late Guy Clark’s best songs, “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train.” Every time I hear it, it takes me back to my childhood with my grandfather and my hometown’s version of the Green Frog.
The air inside was thick with the smoke of cigarettes and cheap cigars and the heavy pleasant smells of bacon grease and coffee. An old Wurlitzer jukebox played in the corner, a permanent skip in Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya.” The brown and white tin awning over the windows clashed with the faded green clapboard siding. There was no business sign. Those who came in knew it was a cafe. I suppose it’s the sort of place that hardly exists anymore. But it stood fifty years ago about where the driveway of the HEB Supermarket now stands on Timberland Drive in Lufkin, Texas.
It was the sort of place you’d never take a child.
Except my sainted grandfather did.
We’d walk in, sit at a table, order coffee for him and a Yoo-hoo and buttered toast for me. I liked the waitresses because they called me “sugar” and smiled and smelled nice. Coming to the cafe was a real treat because they had genuine factory-made Concord grape jelly in little sealed plastic packets on the tables. I was a country boy. All we 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, then to the Green Frog.
We’d sit and talk about serious things. My grandfather never talked down to me. But I noticed that he also didn’t talk to me the same way he talked to the men at the other tables. Sometimes at the Green Frog he’d line up other musicians to get together to play. He was a natural musician. Fiddle, guitar, piano, accordion. He never met an instrument he couldn’t master in a rainy afternoon. He sang a nice tenor everyone called Irish, though he was a Scot. With a name like Bonnie Corley Fenley, you can’t fool anyone about your ancestry.
On one of the musical occasions he organized stands out from all the others. One very ordinary weekday afternoon, he and I pulled up to a little wood frame house on the outskirts of town. Other trucks and a couple of cars were pulling up as we arrived. We parked my grandfather’s old 47 Chevy pickup on a long sandy drive and made our way around the house to a small outbuilding off the side of a carport. The thing looked so decrepit I was afraid it wouldn’t last the afternoon, but the last time I checked it was still there.
Inside that shack, I swear, was heaven. A roomful of guitar players, fiddlers, singers, all warming up. Laughing. Joking. My grandfather has a fiddle case under one arm, a guitar case in that hand, and an accordion case in the other. A weathered piano that looked and sounded like it had survived the great Galveston hurricane of 1900 leaned against a wall.
I have played in a lot of bands. Good bands with fine musicians. Jazz. Blues. R&B. Rock. Even country. And I’ve heard concerts headlined by everybody from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to Buddy Guy to Chicago to George Harrison to Leonard Cohen to the Band of Heathen, just for starters, but I have never ever experienced music that could compete with what happened in that shack that day.
Not a sheet of music in the room, the music just poured out of these guys as if they were breathing it. Inhaling. Exhaling. The music flowed from one to another, back and forth, like communication, but deeper somehow. They changed keys like they shared a single mind, a single heart. The rhythm beat like the heartbeat of the world itself. They’d laugh trying to trip each other up, but they couldn’t. I suspect that every band I’ve ever played in, I was just trying to recapture the joy of that afternoon.
At the time I didn’t know it, but I was getting my first lesson in the most misunderstood and mistreated doctrine of the church, the doctrine of the Trinity. I was also getting a lesson in the fundamental reality of being – which comes to the same thing.
What I felt in that room of people making music together – playing off one another, respecting one another, loving what they did together, loving what they created together, enjoying music as it flowed among them and out of them and into one another and anyone who happened to listen – was like a natural revelation. It would be twenty years before I would learn that the early Christian theologians had a name for this phenomenon when they talk about the Trinity: perichoresis. The fancy Greek word just means the mutual life and love shared by the Father, Son and Spirit with one another as they play their eternal music together creating and sustaining and loving everything that exists.
Now, every time I hear a theologian abstracting the doctrine of the Trinity with fifty dollar words so that no one can understand what they are saying, and every time I hear a fellow preacher make this sublime mystery seem dry as dust, I wish I could take them to see those old men from the Green Frog Cafe playing like God Almighty.
The music says it better than any words could ever say. And anyone who has ever had the privilege of improvising with other musicians knows what I mean. But I do wish that you also could have heard my granddaddy and those other musicians who played us into the presence of the mystery in a buddy’s derelict shack one very ordinary afternoon: “On earth, like it is in heaven.”