Twenty years ago this Spring, I lost the greatest friend I never met, Lewis Grizzard. Throughout the 1980’s, Lewis Grizzard was literally the voice of the Deep South as he vocalized many of the feelings and frustrations many Southerners shared about remaining proudly Southern in a growingly intolerant culture, and he made us laugh our butts off in the process.
Lewis was a journalist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who grew up in Moreland, Georgia in Coweta County, and he was a lifelong Georgia Bulldog frenzied fanatic. He contributed regular columns about life in general (mostly Southern life), and began to publish some of his most popular columns in hardback compilations. Eventually, he branched out into authoring original books about Southern life, and started giving humorous lectures on promotional tours. His writings and musings struck a familiar chord with readers from all over the country, and he was frequently introduced to audiences as a cross between Will Rogers and Mark Twain.
My first encounter with Lewis Grizzard came in 1978 when I ran across one of his columns criticizing anybody and anything connected with Nike. At the time, both my father and brother were distance runners, and Lewis wrote some really hilarious things about the absurdity of dying in the Atlanta heat and humidity on July 4 just to get a 10K t-shirt. When I first read it, I thought he was just another fat, out-of-shape, chain-smoking newspaper columnist taking potshots at fitness, and then I discovered I was wrong – he wasn’t fat. After that, I started paying attention to his column, and I got hooked.
Lewis’ disdain for the fitness craze was just one of the many facets of his overall disapproval of the yuppie lifestyle sweeping the Deep South. The Baby Boomers of the New South became his favorite targets, and he helped all of us laugh at ourselves while gently helping us reconnect with our Southern roots. For example, Lewis was raised on good Southern cooking, and his favorite dishes included beans, peas, and greens all cooked with fatback. Yet, he couldn’t find any place in downtown Atlanta that served authentic Southern cooking, which was an ironic point that didn’t escape his sharp wit. I remember him reacting with horror about Atlanta restaurants that “cook their tomatoes, but don’t cook their green beans!” After reading some of his columns about Southern cooking, you couldn’t help but embrace your instinctive craving for BBQ, collards, Brunswick Stew, peas, and cornbread.
Lewis never confused the concept of being Southern with being “redneck,” which is a distinction that has become sadly lost, I think. To Lewis, being a redneck was not a synonym for being Southern, and he took great pride in his Southern heritage. I don’t fault Jeff Foxworthy for basing his entertainment career on the premise that there are rednecks everywhere, because he’s right. There are definitely rednecks in Iowa, Michigan, Indiana, and even New Jersey. I have no problem there. But for some reason, that simple notion of Foxworthy’s has been corrupted to insinuate that being redneck is something uniquely Southern, and worthy of some kind of cultural dignity.
I totally disagree, and Lewis Grizzard helped me understand the difference.
Lewis wrote about the Confederate Flag and the Civil War in ways that were enlightening and honest, but not offensive, at least not to most people. There are some people determined to be outraged about something no matter what, and Lewis loved to reserve his sharpest barbs just for them. He wrote that his great-great grandfather Beauregard Grizzard was “in charge of keeping the Yankees out of Miami Beach during the Civil War,” and look how badly that turned out. He also wrote that after meeting many Yankees throughout his life, he was convinced that “we could have whipped the Yankees with cornstalks during the Civil War.” The only problem, according to Lewis, was that we couldn’t get them to fight that way.
As you might have guessed, Lewis also wrote a lot about Yankees. I mean A LOT about Yankees, and all of it was hysterical. He once wrote that there were probably people out all over the country celebrating that their job had just relocated them to Atlanta, but he promised NOBODY was out in Atlanta celebrating that they’d just been relocated to New Jersey. He advised Yankees that “you can move here and live here. You can take our jobs and our women. You can even attend our churches and schools. But whatever you do, DON’T tell us how you used to do it in Cleveland, because Delta is ready when you are.” He also went to great lengths to explain the subtle nuances of Southern pronunciation, and became famous for his clarification of the difference between “naked” and “nekkid.” “Naked” means you don’t have any clothes on. “Nekkid” means you don’t have any clothes on, and you’re up to something.
Lewis wrote about football (especially Southern college football), and he wrote about religion (“Do you know why Baptists don’t make love standing up? Because somebody might think they were dancing”). Through his columns, books, and speaking engagements, he introduced us to such lovable characters as Weyman C. Wannamaker, Jr. (a great American), and Kathy Sue Loudermilk. He also introduced us to the friends and family who shaped him and raised him, and all of us knew plenty of people just like them. All of us were a lot like Lewis Grizzard, for that matter, and he made us feel okay with that.
Lewis had three ex-wives (he said he simply referred to them all as “plaintiff”), and a black lab named Catfish, who preceded him in death. Lewis was born with a defective heart, and endured three successful heart surgeries in ten years before succumbing to complications from the fourth one in 1994. My mother-in-law was one of his biggest fans, and she sent him a get well card in 1993 after his third surgery. He actually wrote back, and she hung that framed reply in a cherished place on her kitchen wall until her own death in 2002.