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JACK WEATHERLY — On the road with Jim Dees as the mountain comes to Livingston

JACK WEATHERLY

Jim Dees is sporting his regulation Hawaiian shirt, with a black undershirt to ward off the night chill and mist, as he prepares to hold forth as host of the Thacker Mountain Radio Hour.

He sits on the first row as he reads over his notes and chats with the night’s literary and musical guests.

The house band, The Yalobushwhackers, tunes up on the stage of the room above the Briar Patch, a stylish cocktail lounge in the “town” of Livingston, as one of the sites of  the half-dozen or so road shows for Thacker Mountain.

Usually the upper room serves as a worship center.

Stands for wine and beer and barbecue were set up on the balcony but before air time, Dees announces audience members are not to bring drinks and food inside. You sense that it wasn’t his idea. It was a compromise struck when the plan to hold the show down by The Lake at Livingston, was called off because of the weather.

The house band kicks things off with the theme song, a satirical ditty with mock revivalist overtones: “Put your hands on the radio. Do you feel it?”

Dees has honed his dry wit as host for 19 of the show’s 22 years. In the early days, the show had plenty of rough edges, but it has become a smooth operation.

Jim Dees revs up the audience at Livingston. Photo by Jack Weatherly

Dees says the show turned the corner about 10 years ago when a board of directors was set up, and the show got more professional but with no pressure from the directors.

It has been given the Governor’s Award for Broadcast Excellence and a citation of merit from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.

And its audience has expanded beyond the state. It can be heard at 7 p.m. Saturdays on Mississippi Public Broadcasting and two hours later on Alabama Public Radio, which signed up in September 2018. The show has live-streamed for a couple of years on Facebook.

Dees feigns low personal expectations. Asked what he is writing these days, he says essays, what his agent assures him is the worst-selling category of creative writing.

Fine, Jim says, perfect.

After the Livingston show, I told him I had read his book “The Statue and the Fury” and he

quietly exclaimed: “You’re the one!” in a faux eureka.

The book, published in 2016, was about 1997, the year of the effort to create – and equally important find a place for – a statue of legendary Oxonian William Faulkner and how that sort of thing happened in a small Mississippi town with a Nobel Prize winner as one of its own.

After a stint at the Oxford Eagle, starting as a 40-year-old cub reporter, after being laid off as a federal worker, he landed the job that he seems made for.

Friend and neighbor Lyn Roberts, manager of Square Books and its satellite stores in Oxford, books the writers.

“Jim was always a good talker,” Roberts said.

On this night, the literary guest was Matthew Guinn, whose novel, “The Resurrectionist,” was a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 2014 and who now teaches at Belhaven University in Jackson.

Dees says Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” was the gold standard for such shows: with music, commentary, Keillor’s famed Lake Wobegon tales, and skits.

For Dees, it’s music, quips, jokes and bits. The music this night was provided by T.B. Ledford and his musical daughters playing and singing bluegrass and soul singer Damien Wash.

Dees asked Guinn – who is working on his next book, “The Skinning Shed,” from which the author read – about a previous project that he shelved.

Seems that effort offended an editor because Guinn, as a white man, had no license to invade the soul of a black person, and a woman no less.

Wonder what that editor thinks about William Styron’s 1967 novel, “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” which drew a staunch libertarian defense and praise from James Baldwin, the acclaimed late African-American novelist and essayist, as a ground-breaking novel that shed understanding on the black experience.

Dees dismissed the “snooty” editor, who, he guessed, probably couldn’t find Mississippi with a map.

That’s as about as political as “Thacker” gets.

And all the better, says Dees.

“Politics is thankless,” the radio host said in an interview several days after the show.

There were a couple of hosts of the show before Dees, but then Dees, right there in plain sight, was discovered.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else in that role.

“Jim is still a good talker,” Roberts said.

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1016.

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About Jack Weatherly