Facing the audience in stage center is the front porch of a mill house. The door is open, but the screen door is closed. There are two cane bottom chairs on the porch. Jimmy is sitting on one of them, leaning it back against the wall, with his feet propped on the porch rail. There is a mason jar with moonshine in it, under the chair. He has his hat pulled down over his eyes and he is picking a banjo.
In the distance the mill whistle blows. Jimmy stops playing when he hears it. He takes his feet down, and sits up in the chair. He reaches underneath it and takes out the jar, unscrews the top, takes a long drink, puts the top back on, places the jar back beneath the chair, then leans back and resumes his previous posture. He chuckles, then starts picking the banjo again.
Mill workers returning home from work begin to pass by, some greeting him as they do. Each time, he smiles, nods and continues to play.
Matt and Wesley approach from stage left.
MATT (annoyed): Well if ain’t his majesty himself.
WESLEY (sarcastically): Don’t mind us working folks, Mr. Shepherd. We sure don’t want to bother you while you’re so busy.
JIMMY (cheerfully): Well howdy boys. Come on and have a drink and let’s play some.
WESLEY: If you spent all day working in a goddam cotton mill like we just did, you wouldn’t be feeling like playing right now.
MATT: You keep on laying out of work like this Jimmy and they’re gonna fire your ass. It’s a wonder they ain’t done fired you already.
Jimmy takes down his feet, sits upright in the chair and leans his banjo against the wall.
JIMMY: Fire me? You reckon they would do that? Why boys, that would just break my heart.
Jimmys laughs as he hands the jar to Matt, who takes a drink from it.
WESLEY: Go on and laugh if you want to, Jimmy. But you’ll be singing a different tune when the law comes and kicks you out of this house and you ain’t got nothing to eat. They might even take that banjo of yours if you ain’t paid your bills.
Jimmy was smiling dismissively until the last sentence, which caused him to furrow his brow. Matt hands the jar to Wesley, who takes a drink.
JIMMY (seriously): Ain’t nobody taking this here banjo.
Wesley hands the jar back to Jimmy. He and Matt sit down on the porch steps.
WESLEY: I ain’t joking Jimmy. You keep this up and they gone fire you and put some other hillbilly sucker in this house.
JIMMY (dismissively): A man can’t go to work every damn day. I sent word that I was too sick to work this morning. They wouldn’t want me down there dropping dead on the floor. And I could have been catching.
MATT: Only thing wrong with you this morning was on account of too much corn liquor in your belly.
JIMMY (cheerfully): Now ain’t that a damn fool thing to say? How can a man have too much liquor in his belly. (Laughs.)
Wesley and Matt grin and shake their heads.
WESLEY: You can’t do nothing with Jimmy Shepherd.
JIMMY: You got that right! (Takes another drink)
MATT: I suppose you ain’t worked the still today neither. I reckon we’re gonna have to do that too.
JIMMY: Like I said, fellas, I been feeling too low today to do any work.
WESLEY: I see you ain’t been feeling too low to drink it up though.
MATT: Lately you been drinking more than you been selling.
JIMMY: Damn, boys. Y’all ought to go easier on me, seeing as how I’m not feeling well.
He smiles and hands the jar to Matt, who tips it to take a drink, then startles, snorts out his drink and hurriedly hands the jar back to Jimmy.
MATT (excitedly): Yonder comes the boss!
Wesley and Matt seem concerned. Jimmy does not. Jimmy caps the jar and slides it back under the chair. Mr. Tinsley approaches from stage left. He stops in front of the porch.
MR. TINSLEY: Congratulations, Jimmy.
JIMMY: What for, Mr. Tinsley?
MR. TINSLEY: I believe you have earned the distinction of being the sorriest and most unreliable employee in the history of the Leaksville Cotton Mill.
JIMMY (grinning): So I reckon that means this isn’t a good time to ask for a raise.
MR. TINSLEY (shaking his head): You are one of a kind, Jimmy Shepherd. Believe it or not, I didn’t come here to fire you, even though that’s what you deserve.
Jimmy, Matt and Wesley look at him inquisitively.
MR. TINSLEY: I’m sure y’all have heard about the Schoolfield Mill’s orchestra.
MR. TINSLEY: Well the owners don’t like Schoolfield having something that Leaksville doesn’t.
Mr. Tinsley pauses, the men keep looking at him, unsure where he’s going.
MR. TINSLEY: The owners figure that we need to start having some dances and concerts too. Might help us recruit better. (Pauses again.) But they don’t figure the lintheads here would really want an orchestra. What they like is that old-time hillbilly music like you boys play.
Jimmy starts to perk up, smiling slightly.
MR. TINSLEY: So, we want to start us up a Leaksville Cotton Mill String Band. Y’all know of any clod-kicking hicks who might be interested in that job?
JIMMY: Yeah, I might have some fellas in mind.
MR. TINSLEY: Jimmy, you ain’t worth a damn inside a cotton mill, but there’s no denying you can play the hell out of a banjo.
JIMMY: You’re telling the truth now, boss.
MR. TINSLEY: Alright then, here’s the deal. You three will get reassigned to some kind of light work. But your main job will be to be play whenever and where ever we say—to make the workers happy when we tell you to. Is it a deal?
Wesley and Matt are nodding, but Jimmy looks skeptical.
JIMMY: Seems like we’ll be needing raises then, Mr. Tinsley.
MR. TINSLEY: Don’t push your luck. Take the deal I offered, or you’re all three fired.
JIMMY: I reckon we’re gonna need to think on it some.
Wesley and Matt are looking at Jimmy, incredulous.
MR. TINSLEY: Have you lost what little sense you had? This is your lucky day. We’re offering to pay you to do what you like best, and you want to “think on it some”?
JIMMY: Whatever “light duty” you have in mind, it needs to be real light. And on days we play, we don’t do no other kind of work.
MR. TINSLEY: Fair enough.
JIMMY: And the owners of the Leaksville Cotton Mill wouldn’t want the boys in their String Band to look hicks that just fell off the turnip truck, would they? So, I reckon we’re gonna need us new suits and shoes, for when we play.
MR. TINSLEY (frustrated): We’ll take care of that.
JIMMY: Last thing—the band is me, Wesley and Matt. Nobody else unless we agree to it.
MR. TINSLEY: All right.
Jimmy stands up and reaches his hand across the porch rail, smiling.
JIMMY: You got yourself a deal, Mr. Tinsley.
Mr. Tinsley shakes his hand, but doesn’t release it immediately.
MR. TINSLEY: And I’m going to do one other thing for you boys too.
JIMMY: What’s that?
MR. TINSLEY: I’m going to let you keep running that still of yours.
The men begin to protest and deny. Mr. Tinsley is still gripping Jimmy’s hand. He raises his left hand up in the air signaling them to stop.
MR. TINSLEY: Don’t bother. I know all about your little moonshine business. For now, I’m going to keep quiet about it, as long as you don’t cross me. (Pauses.) And provided a couple of gallons of your best show up at my office once a month. Discreetly, of course.
The men nod, but don’t answer.
MR. TINSLEY: So, now. Do we have a deal?
Jimmy pumps his hand a couple of times.
MR. TINSLEY: All right boys, come on by my office in the morning and we’ll talk about your new assignments.
Mr. Tinsley begins to walk away, stage left. He stops and turns back to Jimmy.
MR. TINSLEY: One more thing, Jimmy. No more coming down and playing during dinner break. You’re distracting the workers and causing some of them to be late.
Mr. Tinsley turns and walks away, exiting stage left. Jimmy is grinning. Wesley and Matt look at each other, amazed.
MATT: Well, I’ll be doggoned.
Jimmy pulls the jar out from under the chair.
JIMMY: Let’s have a drink, boys.
Jimmy takes a drink and passes the jar to Matt.
WESLEY: How in hell did you manage that, Jimmy?
Jimmy grins widely. He picks up the banjo and begins playing.
JIMMY: You just got be smooth is all. Smooth.
Wesley and Matt shake their heads, chuckling.
Center stage, facing the audience, is a stage/bandstand. Above it is a banner that reads “Leaksville Cotton Mill Spring Dance. May 20, 1928. Featuring the Leaksville String Band.”
A bunch of men, women and children (millworkers) in their best clothes are in front of the stage. Give the appearance that there are many more outside of the audience’s view.
Mr. Tinsley enters from stage rear, onto the bandstand. The crowd quiets down and looks up at him.
MR. TINSLEY: Welcome all to the first ever Leaksville Cotton Mill Spring Dance!
The crowd seems unimpressed, indifferent to him.
MR. TINSLEY: The owners asked me to tell y’all how much they appreciate your fine work.
A VOICE FROM OFFSTAGE (shouting): Tell them to stick it up their asses!
Laughter. Mr. Tinsley looks uncomfortable, while trying to remain composed.
MR. TINSLEY: We have a special treat for y’all tonight.
DIFFERENT VOICES FROM OFFSTAGE (shouting): Better pay? Less hours?
More laughter. Mr. Tinsley tries to ignore them.
MR. TINSLEY: Thanks to the generosity of the owners, and in appreciation of all your hard work, we are pleased to present our very own (pauses for effect) Leaksville Mill String Band!
Jimmy, Wesley and Matt enter from stage rear, wearing new suits, holding their instruments, and waving to the crowd. The crowd is cheering and hooting. Jimmy is obviously drunk. Mr. Tinsley eagerly shakes their hands and waves back at the crowd, then exits stage rear.
The men check the tuning of their instruments, then Jimmy steps up the mic.
JIMMY: Well, howdy y’all! (Crowd hollers back) Like the bossman said, welcome to the Linthead Stomp! (Laughter from the crowd, Wesley and Matt look annoyed) We’re supposed to take y’all’s minds off how bad you’re getting screwed by the mill, and I reckon we can do that. So, come on! Shake off the cotton dust! It’s time for y’all rednecks, hillbillies and clodkickers to cut a rug.
Jimmy begins playing, the others join in and the crowd begins to dance. They play “Take a Drink on Me.” Costumed actors dance in the aisles with the play’s audience, whooping and hollering.
When they finish the crowd roars. Jimmy, Wesley and Matt are smiling. They play “If the River was Whiskey.”
When they finish, Jimmy pulls a flask out of his pocket, tips it toward the crowd, then takes a drink. The crowd laughs and a few men whoop and holler.
JIMMY: What do y’all want to hear next?
A MAN IN THE AUDIENCE: (hollers) Cotton Mill Blues!
The audience cheers.
JIMMY: What do you say, boys?
WESLEY (quietly): I don’t think we ought to play that one, Jimmy.
JIMMY (laughing. To the audience): What is it y’all want to hear?
Several different people call out for “Cotton Mill Blues.” The audience cheers.
Jimmy laughs, shrugs and begins playing. The others reluctantly join in. The audience is enjoying themselves immensely. Mr. Tinsley enters stage left and approaches the bandstand, glaring at the band. Wesley and Matt look concerned, Jimmy seems to be enjoying it. Mr. Tinsley walks off, exiting stage left.
When the song ends, the crowd cheers. The band starts another song and the curtain falls.
The setting is backstage after the show.
Jimmy, Wesley and Matt enter stage front, through a curtain. The audience is cheering and chanting off stage center from behind them. The men are laughing and cheerful. They set down their instruments and pass around a flask.
JIMMY (grinning): Woo-doggie. That right there is what I’m talking about. Ain’t nobody in three states can play like us, boys.
Mr. Tinsley enters from stage left, angrily.
JIMMY (cheerfully): Well how do you like that Mr. Tinsley? We lit ‘em up tonight, didn’t we? Just like you wanted.
MR. TINSLEY: Jimmy Shepherd, you’re so sorry you can’t even hold an easy job.
JIMMY: Now come on, Mr. Tinsley. That ain’t no way to talk to the leader of the Leaksville String Band.
MR. TINSLEY: The Leaksville String Band just played their last show. You’re fired. (He points at Wesley and Matt.) You two are welcome to come back to work in the weave room. (He turns to Jimmy) Jimmy, you ain’t just fired. I want you off mill property by tomorrow night. If you ain’t gone by then, I’ll have you locked up.
Jimmy just grins, and takes another drink.
MR. TINSLEY: You mind what I said, Jimmy Shepherd. I will see you behind bars if you ain’t out of here by this time tomorrow.
Mr. Tinsley marches off, exiting stage left.
WESLEY: Dammit Jimmy. Now look what you done gone and done. You screw the pooch every damn time. We was on Easy Street.
JIMMY: Oh hell, boys. This here is the break we needed. It’s time for us to blow this joint anyhow. We don’t belong here in the middle of nowhere.
MATT: Wesley’s right, Jimmy. We had it made. Now what are we gonna do?
JIMMY: What are we gonna do? What we oughta done a long time ago! We’re going to New York City!