A steady stream of mostly white customers filtered through our conversation. Herrin pointed out capos to a young man looking for that “clip thing”; he took a call from someone wondering if you could play A-minor on a mouth harp; he knew his regular customers by their strings. When I’d read the biographies, Parsons’s personal and musical origins had seemed as solid as the books in my hands. But listening to Herrin talk, I wasn’t so sure. Most of what I’d read could be sourced, it seemed, to Herrin’s conversations with anyone in Waycross who might have known Parsons. So much of what I’d read as fact could be traced to personal memory, often decades removed. And that’s its own kind of mythology.
Billy Ray Herrin’s store is named for the Parsons song. Though the lyrics say, “In South Carolina / there are many tall pines,” Herrin heard Waycross. His evidence was that tall pines, once widespread, grew near the original site of Parsons’s childhood home. A small pine stand does rise above the street where Parsons grew up, but by the 1950s, the old-growth forest had been gone for several generations. The song also recalls climbing a tall oak tree, and while Waycross children climbed Georgia’s champion live oak in town, live oak grows throughout the southeastern coastal plain.5
The song “Hickory Wind” deals in piney woods nostalgia. It longs for the wind as it would have swelled and whooshed through an unbroken forest, surf-like in its rhythms. I doubt many suburban twentieth-century audiences had heard that sound, nor the higher-pitched breeze through wiregrass, a tufted prairie species suited to the shade and soil of silty pine barrens. For generations, small farmers thrived in this ecosystem, cutting pine to build only what they needed for houses and barns, grazing animals in the open wiregrass range below. Bird calls pierced their woods, as did the lowing of a family milk cow and the plain, raw shape note singing that wafted from Primitive Baptist churches.
By 1891, the sound of the forest had changed. In a letter to a local newspaper, a sawmill worker notes the new music: “the hum of machinery at the mill . . . the shrill glad whistle of the locomotive.” The writer’s optimism echoes that of the New South boosters of his time. Men like journalist Henry W Grady of Atlanta saw in Georgia’s forest the key to the South’s postwar economic resurgence. Many pinelanders also believed in the boundless potential of the countryside. Local willingness to cut timber partnered with outside capital, and, soon, South Georgia’s sawmills were processing almost two million board feet of lumber every day. Overproduction of timber glutted the market, and many longtime forest dwellers who cleared their small tracts earned little for it. By the turn of the century, most mills were abandoned, the longleaf forest devastated. The disappearance of pine canopy meant the disappearance of wiregrass, the end of subsistence farming, the loss of biodiversity. In this newly industrialized economy, fewer and fewer people owned more and more land. Many sawmillers and turpentine speculators failed to turn profits, but all businessmen trying to extract wealth from the South Georgia forests exploited Black laborers, forced in one way or another to work pine belt operations.6
Timber remains one of South Georgia’s most highly valued agricultural products. Many folks in Waycross find work building manufactured homes from pine. Pine plantations still operate along Highway 82, and poorer families bale and sell pine straw—fallen needles used for mulch—from their homes. New South boosters once promised broad prosperity in return for resource exploitation, but in South Georgia, high poverty rates and few industrial opportunities continue to define the region more than a century later.7
I could see why Herrin wanted “Hickory Wind” to be about Waycross. That’s how good songs can work, as containers where we pour our stories. The day I came to Waycross, the store was filled with young white musicians in their teens and early twenties, all Waycross born, all in bands, all obsessed with Gram Parsons. The country rock icon seemed to give them a different idea of who they could be, of what was possible for a boy from Waycross. They chattered about the harmonies they’d hit the night before while covering The Band. They wanted me to hear their gigs. They thought any writer doing a story on Parsons could make them famous.
I’d started to doubt the Gram Parsons myth. I knew his life was marked by privileges these boys did not have. But as Billy Ray drove me to the Gram Parsons sites, followed by two carloads of young drummers and guitar players, past roadhouses that serve fried alligator and churches that urge us to seek shelter in His Precious Blood, I could still feel its narcotic lull.