Friday, October 1, 2010


BIG FISH is a movie about a man whose father tells tall tales. The man, played by Billy Crudup (pre-break-up with Mary Louise, back when we liked him) is plagued by his father's stories. The man, now grown, doesn't know what is true and what is not. His wife, played by the then-unknown French actress Marion Cotillard, wants to have a baby. But the man can't move into his role as an adult until he comes to terms with who his father is. When I saw this movie I related to the man's feelings, only for me, it is my mother who is the teller of tall tales.

When I was growing up, Mama told her stories in letters, on the phone, and in songs. She wasn't around a lot so I guess she figured she had to be larger than life long-distance. That, and she was a writer of country songs, a largely narrative tradition. It's clear to anyone who listens that when it comes to country music, tall tales are like milk and eggs: a staple. From Patsy Cline to Carrie Underwood, if you look closely at the lyrics I'm willing to bet there's a story there; one that's been stretched and polished and made, well, larger than life.

And people need stories. We use them to help us cope with the world. Stories are how we create meaning, how we answer questions both personal and eternal. They tell us we are not alone, and how we live, and occasionally, why. And last but not least, they unify us. So the stories my mother fed me kept me connected to her, as if she had been there to make me breakfast every day. It was the way she left her mark on me. And let it not go unsaid, my Mama makes the best biscuits, with the stamp of her bent fingers punched into each one.

It's a funny thing though. At the end of BIG FISH, the man discovers his father
wasn't quite as full of it as he'd thought. Sure, he'd maybe bragged about a fish
he never caught. But it turned out he really had run away with the circus. He really had saved a whole town once. He really had wooed his sweetheart with an ocean of Daffodils. It's a fairy tale in true Tim Burton fashion. There's even a giant.

But life is no fairy tale. I was skeptical when I got an email from my Mama recently. The email said she'd gotten a call from a fellow at N. Carolina State University who wanted to interview her about a music festival she and my father put on in 1973 just after the "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" album was recorded. I've heard all about this festival. It's a legend in our family. And I know it happened, but it was far from a success. My parents lost all their money and ended up divorced. And here was my Mama telling me she had assembled a festival of the greatest Bluegreass musicians ever, although she hadn't known it at the time. Mama sent me a copy of the schedule (courtesy of UNC Chapel Hill). I read it over. Now, I know enough about Bluegrass to realize it is a list of the best of the best. Wouldn't you know it? Some tall tales turn out to be true, even if they don't start out that way.

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