The first time I went to Jerry Brown Pottery I was trying to make it from Alabama to Mississippi before nightfall. I hate road tripping at night because you can’t see anything, so what’s the point. Plus, you know, Mississippi is so scary and all. I don’t even know how I knew to go to there. It was 2003. This was before smart phones and Yelp and Foursquare and everyone ruining everything by telling all their secrets all over the Internet.
It was 5PM and Brown’s Pottery in Hamilton, Alabama closes at 5PM. But we’d only just finished visiting with Barbara Denton and her husband at Natural Bridge. We didn’t expect to stay so long but we also didn’t expect that Barbara would look just like my friend’s mother, who had passed away 15 years earlier. Or that she would tell us all about her sons who were in the National Guard and had just shipped out to Iraq or Afghanistan, and her granny who would watch tornadoes from her front porch rather than hiding in the cellar like everyone else. Anyway, Brown’s Pottery was closing NOW and we were still 30 miles away. So we called. You know, on the telephone. And they told us that they’d wait and to come on.
Jerry Brown was a 9th generation potter. He dug his own clay and used his mule to mix it. He has pieces in the Smithsonian, has been honored by the National Endowment for the Arts, and has a letter from President H.W. Bush thanking him for maintaining traditional folk art in Alabama. His showroom was located on a small, unlit, country road, housed in a windowless trailer across from the mule’s red barn. He produced a bunch of different collector pieces – rooster teapots, frogs, angels, and face jugs, for which he is best known. His workshop was attached and we poked around a little before leaving.
There were so many things I had never seen before. Like those clay jugs with ugly faces on them, that mule that mixed clay, and birdhouses make out of gourds. He had rows and rows of them. Quite common, I’d come to learn, but new to me at the time. Like when I had seen a bottle tree for the first time during a trip through Mississippi. Wow, right?
And then there was Jerry Brown himself. He didn’t look like what I thought a potter would look like. He looked more like a farmer or…a logger, which is what he had worked as for 20 years. Trucker hat, work boots, collared shirt, jeans, slicked back silvery hair. When you think of all those words that are bandied about these days – authentic, maker, hand crafted, artisan – it’s a shame because, sorry hipsters, Jerry Brown was the real deal. Literally (old-school definition).
I don’t remember if we bought anything that night but what I do remember is when we asked where to eat dinner they told us to go to a place around the bend called Patricia’s. Patricia’s was one of those typical southern restaurants – packed to the gills at 6PM, fluorescent lighting, plastic tablecloths, heaps of perfectly fried catfish and hush puppies, and the kind of salad that comes topped with cheddar cheese and ranch dressing. My friend had what she considers to this day to be the best steak in the world. They wouldn’t tell us what was in the secret marinade but it had something to do with garlic, ginger, soy sauce and some other stuff.
By the time we left it was pitch black. We had been trying to get to Mississippi all day but we were still in the middle of nowhere in Alabama and the dude on the radio was singing something about how “I’ll never get where I’m going.”
We went back to see Jerry in 2004. This time, he got on the potter’s wheel and showed us how he makes his chickens. I bought two face jugs, an angel, and a face-shaped egg separator (the whites come out thru its nose).
I don’t actually have a good story about Jerry Brown per se. It’s always been more about other things that swirled up around the visits. One visit happened because my life had changed, and the other one changed my life.
The night before that second visit I met a guy at Mexican restaurant. He and his friend were going fishing the next day and I think they asked us to come along but we declined. I can’t say why he made such an impression on us, on me, but the Lady Antebellum “Dancin’ Away With My Heart” always reminds me of that night. We talked for a while inside the restaurant and some more outside. As we said goodbye and walked to our car he turned with arms wide open and yelled across the parking lot (in the cutest southern drawl), “You can have me!”
I saw Jerry Brown once more after that, a few years later at the Kentuck Festival in Northport. I don’t think he remembered me but I didn’t expect that he would.
A few weeks ago I made a list of places I needed to get back to in Alabama, one of which was Jerry Brown Pottery in Hamilton. I hadn’t been there since 2004 and was long overdue for a return trip. Also, I had never been to Jerry’s annual Arts Festival so figured I’d do that as well.
A few days later Jerry Brown died.