Authors: Alex Bledsoe
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To Tuatha Dea:
Danny, Rebecca, Tesea, Brandon, Kathy, Chris,
Nikki, and Adamâ
as close to the Tufa as you're likely to get on this earth
Special thanks to the two newest honorary Tufas,
Jon Mayhall of the Spook House Saints
Henry Harrison and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame
and, as always, Valette, Jake, Charlie, and Amelia.
When they lay my body in the green, green grass I will whisper quiet secrets to the animals that pass about the times I swore I was never coming back, but I lied.
February 3, 1958
The small airplane, a Piper Comanche, soared above the Cumberland Plateau and approached the Appalachian Mountains. The moon was full and cast its glow on the clouds and snowy landscape below, but the three passengers did not notice. They were cold and cramped in the small passenger cabin but elated from adrenaline and anticipation.
The youngest of them was Guy Berry, in one of the two bucket seats. He was only seventeen, a lanky, bespectacled kid from Texas, so he was totally unused to this sort of weather. He drew his knees up to his chin and wrapped his coat around them.
The oldest was P. J. “Large Sarge” Sargent. In his forties, he was one of those irrepressible types who smiled no matter what. He looked on the other two as little brothers, offering advice and surreptitious sips from his flask when no one else was looking. They in turn adored him like a favorite uncle.
The biggest by far was Byron Harley. Billed as the “Hillbilly Hercules,” he had to fold his six-foot-four frame into the plane almost like a contortionist. He wasn't tall and skinny, but thickly muscled from a childhood of hard manual labor. He sat on the bench seat along the back cabin wall, with his long legs stretched out straight before him. His heels reached the far end, and he had to keep his head bent forward because of the contour of the wall behind him. This accommodated both his height and the brace that supported his left leg. It was a miserable position for five minutes, let alone for an hour, but it was still better than the alternative.
He'd been hurt in a motorcycle accident while working as a courier during his stint in the army, and his choices were to wear the brace or lose the slowly withering leg entirely. It gave him almost constant pain and discomfort, but most of the time didn't dampen his friendly personality. And for those times it didÂ â¦ well, he had his own hidden flask. And while the alcohol helped his leg, it did the opposite for his temperament.
But he was sober now, and delighted to be on the plane, which would accomplish in an hour what their old, broken-down tour bus would need almost a day to achieve. They would be in Knoxville soon, checked into a warm motel, where they could sleep in beds, eat freshly cooked food, and wash their sweaty stage clothes.
These were, in fact, at that moment, the three most popular musicians in the country. Their songs were known by everyone sixteen and under, and by many older than that. They had appeared on national television, and in the movies, lip-synching their hits to the screams of studio audiences. And now their joint winter tour, in this new genre called “rock and roll,” played to sellout houses across the Southeast.
“Did you guys meet that old banjo player that opened the show?” Guy said. The boy had had two small regional hits in Texas before his third single, “Bonnie Jo,” skyrocketed him to stardom.
“What about him?” Byron asked.
“He had six fingers on each hand. And they worked! I ain't never seen nothing like it!”
Large Sarge nodded. He coasted on a single novelty record, “That's What I Think,” but understood exactly how lucky he was, and how to maximize his time in the spotlight. He knew that by this time next year, he'd be back at his old radio station spinning platters, and that was okay. He appreciated the ride while it lasted. “His name was Rockhouse Hicks,” Sarge said. “Used to play with Bill Monroe, I think.”
“Hell, everybody in these parts used to play with Monroe,” Byron said. Byron had the most substantial career of the three, with a half-dozen hits for himself, and three songs he'd written for others on the charts as well. In his last movie,
Riot in P.S. 105,
he'd even been given a few lines of dialogue, and there was talk he might be up for bigger parts in the near future. “He finds 'em, trains 'em up, and then off they go. I hear he's a mean SOB.”
“Well, if he trained this fella, he did a great job,” Guy said. He shook his head and repeated, “I've never heard anything like it.”
“Well, that's 'cause he's a Tufa,” Large Sarge said.
“What's that?” Guy asked.
“Nobody knows for sure. They got black hair like Indians, but you saw himâhe don't really look like one. A lot of 'em look like they could be part Negro, too, but they swear they're not.” He gestured toward the window. “They live up in these mountains somewhere, and don't come out very often, but when they do, it seems like every last one of 'em is a great musician.”
“They all play banjo?”
“Naw, they play all sorts of things. And they know damn near every song you can think of. But you can't get much out of 'em otherwise.” He took a drink from his own flask and offered it to Guy, who politely shook his head. He continued, “Some folks say they were here when the first white folks came over from Europe. Hell, some stories say they were here when the first Indians arrived.”
“What do they say?” Byron asked.
Sarge laughed. “They don't say shit.”
“So they ain't Indians,” Guy said.
“Nope. Nobody knows what they are. But if you're around one, watch yourself. They're sneaky, like Gypsies.”
“Somebody's pulling your leg,” Byron said. He slapped his injured leg. “And believe me, I know about leg-pulling.”
“Maybe. But you didn't hear that ol' boy play tonight, did you?”
“Naw, I was restin' my leg in the dressing room,” Byron said. It sounded like an excuse for partying, or meeting a girl, but it was the literal truthâhis leg needed all the rest he could get before a show, because he performed like his injury didn't matter at all. Oftentimes it meant flinging his leg about like a dancer might, except that the extra weight of the brace was even harder on its already weak muscles. But the crowd loved it, and he couldn't imagine not doing it; the screams of the girls alone made the pain worthwhile. Right now it throbbed with a dull regular beat, 4/4 time, which was the rhythm he'd used for most of his hit songs.
“Man, the sound in that place tonight was awful,” Guy said. “I hate playing in gymnasiums.”
“One time I had to go into this gym, and they didn't have a stage or nothing,” Sarge said. “They just had bleachers on both sides, and they sold all the seats. Then they made the whites sit on one side, and the coloreds on the other. So I had to set up in the middle and try to play to both of 'em. Everybody was too nervous to be the first one to start dancing. It wasn't until right before the end that a few people came down from each side, but they stayed in little clots, making sure they got nowhere near each other. Man, I tell you what, we need to stop screwing up our kids with our problems, you know that?”
“I had something worse happen,” Guy said with a grin. “It was my first band in high school, the Furious Ones. We had this guitar player named Pete who thought he was hot shit on toast. He liked to sneak Dexedrine from his cousin who was narcoleptic, and toss one down before the show. Usually it didn't do muchâhe was pretty wild anyway, and this actually kind of calmed him downâbut I think he took more'n usual on this night. So he was bouncing off the damn ceiling.
“Anyway, he had this super-long cord for his electric guitar, and he liked to dance all around. So on this night, he got his feet all tangled up, but he was too into his music to realize it. He jumped way up in the air, like he always did, and usually he came down with his feet spread apart. But this time he couldn't, and he landed flat on his back. His guitar flew headfirst into his amplifier, and it made this god-awful shriek that I swear probably messed up my hearing to this day. The drummer jumped over and unplugged his guitar, and we looked up to see everybody starin' at us. Then the announcer's voice came over the PA: âLet's give a big thank-you to Guy and the Furies.'”
They all laughed. Byron took a swig from Sarge's flask; then Sarge said, “What about you, Byron? You got to have a story, too.”
“Hey!” Guy cried. “Did you see that?”
“What?” Large Sarge asked.
“Outside the window. Something flew past.”
Sarge leaned over and looked. He saw the plane's wing, the moonlight on the clouds, and the stars in the cold air. “I don't see anything.”
“Maybe it was a bird,” Byron said.
“At night?” Guy protested. “And it was
“Owls are pretty big,” Byron suggested.
“Do they fly this high?” Guy asked.
Before anyone could respond, the plane suddenly lurched and threw them first against the right cabin wall, then the ceiling. Guy screamed, his voice high pitched and panicked. Large Sarge, who'd been in the marines in World War II, reacted calmly and tried to find a handhold. Byron, who'd been in the army but never saw combat, was blinded by pain as his limp leg wrenched in its socket.