I met the notorious Hippie Jack, up close and personal, a few weeks ago, while on a motorcycle ride through the “twisties” of Tennessee State Highway 85 across the Cumberland Plateau. A road much similar to “The Dragon,” but without the traffic and over abundance of testosterone. This initial, unexpected encounter, along with two more planned visits of late, opened my eyes to the world of the discarded, the world of the undeserving, and the world of more than a forgotten few, not that far from home. Hippie Jack’s life’s mission, as I’ve come to understand through him and the numerous lives he’s touched along the way, is to preserve the pure essence of Americana’s roots, first through black and white photography, and now through music, tossed with a heaping dose of nonjudgmental generosity.
But, I digress. My story begins, wheels down at the base of Cub Mountain along a wide place in the road. Stopping to do what middle age men most frequently in the great outdoors after riding two hours non-stop, my cohorts and I zipped quick as a mud colored, late model SUV rolled into sight and stopped dead square in the middle of the road, aka highway. Watching the passenger window roll down from off to the side, I listened as the driver I couldn’t see from my vantage point, launched into a twenty-minute off the wall spirited conversation with my friends, vaguely reminding me of Cheech and Chong’s movie, Up In Smoke. Finally, I heard him introduce himself, while rolling down the back passenger window to specifically address me. “Name’s Hippie, you on your way up the mountain or coming down?” “Down,” I said, joining the conversation first hand, while walking up to the front passenger window. “Name fits you to a tee.” Giving him the once over, I noticed a scraggly beard, a tattered straw hat and a dangling earring hanging from his left ear. “You pal, sound like you’ve smoked one blunt too many. Why else would you stop in the middle of the road and talk to complete strangers? You any relation to Lily Tomlin?”
“You really think I resemble that remark?” Hippie countered, fumbling absentmindedly in his console, then his floor, and finally his sun visor for something identifying, unbeknownst to me. Passing me his business card, while sporting a cheesy grin, I broke out in a deep throttled belly laugh, realizing I was talking to the one and only, Hippie Jack, a legend in his own mind I’d heard about for years, but never had the privilege to meet. “You heard of me?” he asked.
“I have,” I said confidently, “Your reputation proceeds you by a mile.” Sharing as much as I knew to those who cared to listen, “In these parts, Jamming at Hippie Jack’s, Americana Music Festival every Memorial Day weekend, draws thousands of people from across the country and beyond. It’s a non-profit venue that requires multitudes of sponsors just to pull it off. And year after year, this man sitting here somehow makes it happen.”
Somewhat impressed that I had indeed heard of him and his festival, Hippie hemmed and hawed about me making fun of his Up In Smoke mentality, before offering the three of us free tickets to the event, as long as we rode the bikes. His reasoning, because parking gets tight at times, motorcycles take up lot’s less room. Guess that makes sense, in his somewhat demented mind. Not so much in mine, since it is a camping out kind of festival and I don’t do camp. LOL.
Now that he’d shared his Bona Fides, Hippie, still sitting in the middle of the road, aka highway, proceeded to share his abbreviated life story, a rags to notoriety saga for another day, that culminated with him spending many a night in his VW bus in some of the finest parking lots in the country. His quest to capture Americana in black and white took him across the U.S. and beyond, introducing him not only to the sights, but the sounds of America’s Heartland. Along with his saint of a wife, Mississippi, they preserved much of America in pictures, many of which proudly hang in the Smithsonian today.
With our conversation coming to a close, I learned his destination that day was to see about “his people,” as he fondly called them, good people and some not so good, who had the misfortune of falling between the cracks throughout isolated mountain communities you’ve never heard of…Twinton, Hanging Limb, and Cravenstown. Communities that thrived two generations ago when coal was king. Now, barely even the remnants remain, but for the hardy few souls that have deep seated roots there or the forlorn who promptly left when they were old enough and yet still managed to return to a place once called home. It was in that moment, seeing the twinkle in his eye, that I wanted to know more about ‘his people.’
Over the last two weeks, I’ve discovered first hand Hippie’s passion to be there for “his folks,” through thick and thin. There was the infamous ice storm a few years back when he made the trip up Cub Mountain in his old farm truck, the roads covered in ice two inches thick, loaded with food and kerosene, delivering much needed supplies to the forgotten who’d been without food or heat for days. Sure, emergency workers had come by, as told to me first hand, in their shiny four-wheel drive trucks, telling people there was food and shelter at a school 14 miles away, but no one offered to take them there.
I met a man just yesterday, whose life story I’d wish on no one. Yet, he was all smiles, even having just returned from a biopsy and a diagnosis of stage III lung cancer. Seems Hippie and a host of others started interceding on his behalf through various media outlets and personal contacts to help him get the treatment needed to address this terrible disease. In his initial diagnosis, because he had no insurance, he was basically sent home to die. In truth, everyone needs someone, even if they’re labeled forgotten, don’t they?
I’ve learned about the Hippie Bus, yes it’s a Hippie School Bus, plastered with peace symbols, flower power and all, that makes it way up to the mountain communities at various times throughout the year, doling out fresh fruits and vegetables, smoked pork shoulders, treats, toys and clothes to those in dire straits. Supplies donated by various merchants and benefactors across Tennessee who believe in Hippie’s cause, and more times than not, have his back for what ever the pressing need happens to be at the time.
Hippie Jack and Mississippi live simply and want for nothing, but to be known as Preservationists of Americana in works and deed. Hippie says, “The most important money you can have, is the money you don’t need.” Chew on that for a moment, will ya? “The most important money you can have is the money you don’t need.” How good a quote is that, even if does come from one who’s been labeled by the elite as an old, has been hippie who’s smoked one blunt too many?
Across this great country of ours, there are Twinton’s, Cravenstown’s, and Hanging Limb’s in just about everybody’s community, just waiting for someone to share the money they don’t need or the influence they do have in making someone’s life a little better. To me, serving unselfishly like Hippie Jack makes each of us a little preservationist in our own right.
Who’s got your back, Hippie Jack? I’m guessing quite a few do, sir, that’s for sure.
Learn more of Hippie Jack and his preservation of Americana through music here: https://jamminathippiejacks.com/