Tears and Laughter: An Appalachian conversation

He crossed one leg over the other, balancing somewhat on the toe of his boot, so that while standing straight, Jim Malbutt still leaned a little as he stood talking. It is a common stance, I noticed, in northeast Alabama.

He said he had been raised Appalachian, on the side of a mountain in Mentone, that life there was all he knew. I couldn’t tell from his tone if he was apologizing or bragging. His voice was a deep calm, softened by a gentle twang. A storyteller it seemed, though a carving artist and painter by trade, inside his antique shop-of-sorts where he works with his son, also named Jim.

The store had once been his daddy’s, who had first bought the store in Summerville, Georgia in 1967. Then, it had been a successful plumbing hardware supply business. Now, the hand-painted sign out front reads, “Junk for Sale,” and…I guess that’s what drew me in.

The two story building and warehouse also serves as a workshop and studio where Jim creates beautifully detailed wooden sculptures from logs and sawed off chunks of wood with a chainsaw.

“I’m a Christian, you know,” said Jim, “and after I accepted Christ I quit drinking.” He shifted his position, swapping legs and leaning direction. “My folks had always been moonshiners and bootleggers. It’s just the way it was back then, it was the way people got by. But the biggest misconception they make on TV about moonshiners is that they portray them as good ole country boys who are friendly. But a true moonshiner will kill you…if he has to, because he doesn’t want to go to prison.”

“And it’s interesting,” he said, “something I’ve learned since I’ve been preaching over at the state prison down in Rome. The minimum security men, like moonshiners and thieves, they don’t care too much about listening because they know it is just a matter of time before they will be getting out. But over in maximum security, it’s different. They really seem to want to listen.”

“I was going to church myself over at Rock Bridge for a while, and then one Sunday…I thought the preaching was going pretty good. Then the preacher brought out about a three and a half foot timber rattler wanting to dance around with it. That’s just not the way I choose to worship. I haven’t been back over there.”

“Now I just sometimes go over to Sallie Howard’s. It’s the church built into a huge rock. The doors are never locked, and sometimes it feels good just to go in there and sit down a minute when there’s not anybody around. It’s real peaceful.” And then he paused, his eyes smiling more than his mouth. “You all ought to go try it if you have the chance.”

“There are all kinds of things to see around here,” he said, as he signed a painting I had bought. “You just have to prowl around a little bit to find it all. Talk to the tall blonde at Mentone Market. She can fix you up with the best barbecue around.”

The painting was an abstract of different faces with various expressions he had painted on a wooden board during a blizzard a few years back when he couldn’t get off the mountain. He signed it on the back with a black Sharpie saying, “May God Bless.”

We did find the church. The doors were unlocked, and Jim was right…it was real peaceful.

Amanda Walker is a columnist with The West Alabama Watchman, Al.com, The Thomasville Times, and The Wilcox Progressive Era. For more information, visit her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AmandaWalker.Columnist.