Setting is a drab sparsely-furnished millworker house in Leaksville. On the wall is a 1930 calendar and a poster for The North Carolina Rovers featuring Jimmy Shepherd. There is a phonograph in the corner and a guitar hanging on the wall.
Mrs. Watson is washing sitting in a rocking chair, sewing. Johnnie Watson bursts into the room, excited, holding a 78 rpm record in his hands.
JOHNNIE: It’s here! I got it! The new Rovers record!
He rushes over to the phonograph and begins taking out the record from the sleeve.
MRS. WATSON (puts down her sewing and says sternly): Johnnie Watson! Now where’d you the get money for such foolishness at that? We ain’t got enough for you to be wasting it on records!
JOHNNIE (protesting): Aw, Ma! I done saved up for it. I ain’t used nothing but the money I made my own self!
Johnnie puts the record on the phonograph and cranks it up.
MRS. WATSON (resumes her sewing): Just plain foolishness if you ask me. Young folks nowadays ain’t got no sense when it comes to money. When I was a girl…
She is interrupted by the record playing “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues.” Johnnie is beaming and dancing around as he listens. Mrs. Watson continues to sew and pretends not to be listening, but the audience can see her toe tapping and her feet beginning to move as if she’s dancing.
JOHNNIE: Ain’t it the best song you ever heard, Ma!
MRS. WATSON (indifferently): Oh, pshaw!
Johnnie cues up the record again and Mrs. Watson steals a glance, revealing that she wants to hear it again too. As the song begins to play Billy Herndon enters the room.
BILLY: What’s that noise?
JOHNNIE: Oh shut your mouth, Billy. It’s the new record from the Rovers!
BILLY (grunts): I hear that Jimmy Shepherd ain’t nothing but a total drunk now.
JOHNNIE (bows up): That just shows that you don’t know nothing! You hear that right there? (gestures to the record player) Does that sound like a total drunk to you? The Rovers are famous! They’re all millionaires!
BILLY: Just sounds like some linthead moonshiners to me.
JOHNNIE: That just proves you ain’t nothing but an ignorant hick! Go on and leave if you don’t want to hear it.
Johnnie turns his back on Billy and continues listening to the record and dancing around. Once Johnny can’t see him, Billy starts bobbing his head and weaving with the music. Mrs. Watson glances up at him, smiles, and continues her sewing, still tapping her foot to the music.
BILLY: Well, since you want me to leave, I reckon I won’t tell you what I heard about the Rovers coming to town.
Johnnie turns suddenly toward Billy, excited look on his face. Mrs. Watson looks up from her sewing, pleasantly surprised.
JOHNNIE: What? Coming here to Leaksville? When, Billy? What have you heard?
BILLY: I heard it from Joe-Bob Watkins. His mama is married to Wesley’s cousin. Joe-Bob says they’re here coming next week.
JOHNNIE: Really?! Hot dog! The North Carolina Rovers back in Leaksville! Ain’t that the best news ever, Ma?! I’m gonna go find out if it’s true!
Johnnie rushes from the room, exiting stage right.
MRS. WATSON: Is it true, Billy?
BILLY: Yep. I just heard it, but the news is running across Leaksville now like a wildfire.
MRS. WATSON: Well it’s about time the folks here had something to make ‘em happy.
BILLY: That ain’t the only news that’s spreading, Miz Watson.
Mrs. Watson looks up, apprehensively.
BILLY (grimly): More lay-offs. Another pay cut. Another stretch-out. (pauses) There’s fixing to be a vote on a strike.
Mrs. Watson resumes sewing, but her hands are trembling.
BILLY: We got to stand up to them sometimes, Miz Watson.
Mrs. Watson says nothing, continuing to sew. Billy walks over and kisses her on the top of the head.
BILLY: It’s gonna be all right.
Mrs. Watson nods. Billy puts on his hat and exits. Mrs. Watson begins to cry, softly.
The setting is Mrs. Shepherd’s millworker house in Leaksville. She has aged since we last saw her. The house is sparsely furnished, but clean. She is sweeping the floor.
WESLEY (voice offstage): Yoo hoo! Anybody home?
Mrs. Shepherd looks up, startled, then shuffles over the door and opens it. Wesley rushes in and grabs her in a hug, lifting her off the ground. Wesley is wearing the suit we last saw him in. It’s worn.
MRS. SHEPHERD (giggling): Wesley Pritchett, you rascal! Put me down! (He sets her down and kisses her on the top of the head). I’ve been expecting you boys all morning. Where’s Jimmy?
WESLEY: He’ll be along directly, I reckon. You can’t do nothing with Jimmy Shepherd.
MRS. SHEPHERD: Let me fix you a biscuit, Wesley.
WESLEY: Much obliged, Miz Shepherd.
He sits at the table and she brings over a biscuit and a glass of milk. Wesley begins eating eagerly.
MRS. SHEPHERD: When did y’all get here?
WESLEY: (eating) Just a little while ago. I come straight over. Matt’s gone to his mama’s house and Jimmy said he had to go see a man about a dog.
A concerned look comes over Mrs. Shepherd. Wesley notices.
MRS. SHEPHERD: Has it gotten worse, Wesley?
WESLEY (concerned): I don’t know about worse. It ain’t never been good. (pauses) He ain’t well, Miz Shepherd.
MRS. SHEPHERD: Lordy mercy. (pauses, looking troubled, then brightens) I’ll get him straightened out now that y’all are home. Everybody’s real excited to see you boys. It’s been so long! And to think y’all done got famous! We’re all just as proud as we can be.
Wesley smiles nervously and keeps eating.
WESLEY: How is everything here? Don’t sound good from what I heard over at the station.
MRS. SHEPHERD: Just terrible, Wesley. Just terrible. The union went out on strike after they cut pay and stretched out the hours again. But the company is bringing in scabs from out in the country and we can’t keep ‘em from crossing the picket line. There’s been a lot of trouble down there lately. (Pauses) To tell the truth though, I feel kinda sorry for them scabs too. Folks around here is just all poor and hard up these days. There ain’t no jobs no more.
WESLEY: It ain’t just here Miz Shepherd. Folks is hurtin’ all over these days.
MRS. SHEPHERD: It’s such a blessing that y’all got out of the mill. When Jimmy said he was going to New York City I thought he was crazy. But look at y’all now! (pauses) I’m going to make sure that Jimmy gives some money to the relief fund. If we can keep food on the strikers’ tables just a few more weeks, we might be able to win.
Wesley wipes his mouth and pushes back his chair.
WESLEY (uncomfortably): Jimmy ain’t got no money, Miz Shepherd. We’re all flat broke. To tell the truth, I was hoping to get my old job back.
MRS. SHEPHERD (stunned): What?? Everybody’s says y’all are all millionaires now, with all your records and such.
WESLEY: It’s true we sold a lot of records, but they didn’t give much of the money to us. (hesitates) And, to tell you the truth Miz Shepherd, Jimmy pissed away the little they did give us. He didn’t do right by me and Matt.
MRS. SHEPHERD (hurt and troubled): Oh, Lordy. That just breaks my heart.
WESLEY (reaches over and takes her hand): Miz Shepherd, Jimmy’s gonna kill hisself if he don’t stop drinking so much.
There is a commotion from outside the house. Someone hollers, “It’s Jimmy Shepherd!” and others cheer and shout.
Jimmy throws open the door and enters. He’s drunk and disheveled, wearing a worn-out suit. He looks unhealthy. Mrs. Shepherd rises to meet him. Jimmy sets a mason jar of moonshine on the table and gives her a big hug. Matt follows him into the house along with several others, including Johnnie.
JIMMY (laughing and hugging Mrs. Shepherd): Howdy, Mama! Are you glad to see me?
MRS. SHEPHERD (smiling and choking up): Oh Jimmy, my boy. Welcome home you scoundrel.
JIMMY (cheerfully): It’s good to be home! In good ole Leaksville, North Carolina!
He releases Mrs. Shepherd and she composes herself and wipes away a tear.
Matt takes off his hat.
MATT: How do, Miz Shepherd?
MRS. SHEPHERD: Tol’able, I reckon.
Matt steps to her and gives her a hug.
MRS. SHEPHERD: Well, Matt, you don’t look no worse for the wear. I wish I could say that same about Jimmy.
Jimmy grins and takes a drink from the Mason jar.
WESLEY: I hope you didn’t go get some of Sam Bugg’s rotgut. That stuff ain’t never been fit to drink.
JIMMY (takes another drink): Linthead champagne. Nothing finer.
Wesley shakes his head.
MRS. SHEPHERD (looks at the crowd that has followed Jimmy in): Did you bring the whole town of Leaksville with you Jimmy. I ain’t got enough biscuits for everybody.
Jimmy turns around as if noticing them for the first time. He smiles.
JIMMY (laughing): Seems like I picked up some cockleburs.
The crowd all crowd forward, speaking simultaneously.
PERSON ONE: Hey, Jimmy…
PERSON TWO: Mr. Shepherd!…
PERSON THREE: Jimmy….
Billy enters the room, pushing his way through the crowd, just as Johnnie presses forward and gets Jimmy’s attention. He is holding a sleeved record.
JIMMY (chuckling): Hey young man. What you got there?
JOHNNIE (thrilled): It’s the latest Rovers record, and I think it’s the best record ever! I’m your number one fan!
JIMMY (rubs Johnnie on the head): Well all right then!
JOHNNIE: Can I have your autograph please sir?
Johnnie hands a pen and the record sleeve to Jimmy, who seems embarrassed and tries to look away as if he doesn’t see him. A few of the others show the awkwardness of the situation too.
JIMMY (making eye contact with someone else in the crowd): Morris Nale! How you been. (the man grins and nods)
JOHNNIE (insistently): Please, Mr. Shepherd? May have I have your autograph?
Wesley steps up to Johnnie.
WESLEY (warmly): How ‘bout I sign it for you?
JOHNNIE (beaming): Oh, thank you Mr. Pritchett! I want all the Rovers to sign it.
Wesley signs the record as Jimmy moves away.
JOHNNIE (voice raised): Now will you sign it for me, Mr. Shepherd?
More awkward glances.
WESLEY: Young fella….
JIMMY (turns around angrily, steps toward Johnnie and interrupts): Can you make a hit record? Huh? Can you do that? Can you play banjo like me? Well, can you?
JOHNNIE (confused): Uh, no, sir.
JIMMY: There’s plenty of things I can do that you can’t do! A man can’t be expected to be able to do everything.
Wesley puts his arm around Johnnie and tries to lead him away.
JOHNNIE (confused and hurt): I didn’t mean no harm, sir. I just wanted you to sign my record.
JIMMY: Well I ain’t gonna sign it and that’s that.
Jimmy pushes his way through the crowd toward the other side of the room.
WESLEY (to a still confused Johnnie): Jimmy ain’t never learned to how to read and write. He’s a little sensitive about that.
JOHNNIE (troubled): I didn’t mean no harm. I didn’t know that.
WESLEY (smiling reassuringly): Don’t sweat it. He won’t remember it five minutes from now.
They are interrupted by a commotion at the door. It is Billy trying to push his way in.
BILLY: Give me a little room y’all. I need to speak to Jimmy Shepherd.
WESLEY: Let me go see what this is about.
JOHNNIE: That’s my cousin Billy.
Wesley didn’t hear him, as he was already pushing toward Billy, intercepting him as he reached Jimmy.
BILLY: Mr. Shepherd. I hope y’all are going to do something to help us strikers! We’re having a bad time of it here.
JIMMY (turning around): Huh? Say what?
Mrs. Shepherd has had enough.
MRS. SHEPHERD (yelling): I want every one of y’all out of my house right now!
Everyone falls silent and looks at her.
MRS. SHEPHERD: This is my house daggumit and I ain’t had a minute yet to talk to my boy that ain’t seen in over a year! Now y’all git on out and leave us be for a while!
The people start leaving, muttering apologies.
JIMMY (smiling and gesturing to the crowd): I’ll catch up with all y’all later! (he takes another drink out of the jar)
Once only Wesley and Jimmy are left in the room, Mrs. Shepherd speaks.
MRS. SHEPHERD: Jimmy, it ain’t right the way you treated that boy! You was raised better than that.
JIMMY (shrugs dismissively): What’s the deal with the strike?
MRS. SHEPHERD: The union went out a few weeks ago. The mill’s been cutting pay, stretching out hours and laying folks off.
JIMMY: How’s it goin’?
MRS. SHEPHERD: Bad. The mill is bringing in scabs to cross the picket line and they got the law busting heads if we try to stop ‘em.
JIMMY: What you reckon that fella wants us to do about it?
MRS. SHEPHERD: They’re about out of money for food for the strikers’ families. I expect he wants you to make a contribution.
JIMMY (looks concerned, then smiles): Well, I ain’t got a dime to give them. (pauses, thinking) But how ‘bout we make ‘em a record, Wesley? Does Josh Sims still have his recording studio?
WESLEY (reluctantly): Yeah, but Jimmy we ain’t got no money to pay for studio time.
JIMMY: Mr. Sims don’t know that and he’ll let us do it on credit.
WESLEY: What kind of record are you talking about?
JIMMY: I got just the record in mind. Something to give them a little inspiration.
WESLEY: I don’t believe you’ll be able to get old Josh Sims to let us use his studio on credit.
JIMMY (takes a drink): It won’t be no problem. (Grins broadly) You just got to be smooth.
The action occurs in Josh Sims’ recording studio. Josh, Jimmy, Wesley and Matt enter. The Rovers are carrying their instruments (cased).
JOSH: It’s sure an honor to have y’all cut a record here. I know it ain’t a fancy studio like you’re used to up in New York.
JIMMY (looks around): It’s just fine, Mr. Sims. Just what we need. Since you and Wesley done dialed everything in, we’re just going to go straight into it. Probably won’t need but one take.
The men start removing their instruments from the cases and tuning them up.
WESLEY (to Josh): If you’ll just keep the levels balanced like I showed you, Mr. Sims, we’ll be out of here in a flash.
JOSH: Oh, that ain’t no worry. Y’all just take all the time you need.
Josh exits. The men finish tuning and they adjust the mic stands. Josh’s voice comes from offstage, through an intercom.
VOICE OF JOSH: Lemme know when you’re ready and we’ll start rolling.
JIMMY (looks around): What do you say boys? Ready to cut a hit?
MATT: Let’s do it.
Jimmy takes a flask out of his coat pocket and takes a drink. He gestures to the others with the flask and they shake their heads.
JIMMY: Suit yourselves, boys. (Raises his voice) Let ‘er rip Mr. Sims.
VOICE OF JOSH (through the intercom, from offstage): What’s the name of the track fellas?
JIMMY: “Cotton Mill Colic.”
VOICE OF JOSH: Got it. (after a pause) The North Carolina Rovers. Cotton Mill Colic, take one.
Jimmy looks at Wesley and Matt. They nod. He begins to play and they join in. They perform “Cotton Mill Colic.”
When the song ends, the men look around at each other. Satisfied. Jimmy takes another drink.
VOICE OF JOSH: Give me a few minutes boys and I’ll play it back for you.
JIMMY (looking ill): Boys I gotta go. We ain’t gonna need no more takes. (raises voice) Mr. Sims, please cut us 300 and we’ll come get ‘em tomorrow.
VOICE OF JOSH: Yessir, will do. Umm… I reckon we need to discuss the fee.
JIMMY: That ain’t no problem Mr. Sims. We’ll settle up with you in a few days.
Matt and Wesley shuffle their feet and look uncomfortable.
JIMMY: I need to go see a man about a dog, y’all.
VOICE OF JOSH: OK, y’all. Here it is.
Cotton Mill Colic begins playing over the intercom as curtain falls.
The action occurs in Mrs. Shepherd’s house.
She is sewing and dipping snuff. Wesley enters. Mrs. Shepherd stands up anxiously.
MRS. SHEPHERD (worried): Where is Jimmy, Wesley?
WESLEY (looks tired and worried): I ain’t sure, Miz Shepherd. Some fellas said they seen him playing for nickels down by the river. Some others said he was down at Sam Bugg’s trying to get some more likker.
MRS. SHEPHERD: When he left here he was throwing up blood, Wesley.
She begins to cry.
WESLEY: Did he say where he was going?
MRS. SHEPHERD: Same as he been saying for the last week. He said he was going to California to make music for the picture shows.
Wesley shakes his head. Matt enters, hurriedly. Mrs. Shepherd and Wesley speak at the same time.
MRS. SHEPHERD: Did you find him?
WESLEY: Where is he, Matt?
Matt seems confused at first. Then answers.
MATT: What? Jimmy? Dogged if I know. Likely passed out somewheres. (sheepishly) Begging your pardon, Miz Shepherd.
Mrs. Shepherd again begins to cry softly.
MATT: He might be in jail. (Pauses, looks concerned) If he is, me and you might be joining him soon, Wesley.
WESLEY: What do you mean?
MATT: That record we cut. The mill owners done got a warrant taken out on us for “inciting a disturbance.”
Mrs. Shepherd and Wesley look incredulous.
WESLEY: A warrant for making a record? You gotta be shittin’ me.
MATT: I wish I was. And they got a court order to seize all the records and lock up anybody playing it. They done gone and shut down Josh Sims’ studio too. I feel mighty bad about that.
WESLEY: What the hell?
MATT: Seems the strikers have been playing it on the picket line. There’s been a lot of trouble down there the last few days and the law is blaming it on the record. They’re saying we’re reds and agitators.
MRS. SHEPHERD (worriedly): You boys need to get on out of town right now. I’ll find Jimmy and send him along directly.
There is a knock on the door. They look nervously at each other.
BILLY’S VOICE (from outside): It’s Billy Herndon, Miz Shepherd. I need to talk to you.
Wesley pulls the curtain aside and peeks out the window. Then he opens the door. Billy steps in, removing his hat as he does. He glances at Wesley and Matt. They all nod.
BILLY: Ma’am, I’m mighty sorry to say that they done took Mr. Shepherd to the hospital.
MRS. SHEPHERD (alarmed, gasps, puts her hand over her mouth): Lord, Jesus! Is he… Is he….all right?
BILLY: I can’t rightly say, ma’am.
Mrs. Shepherd grabs her bonnet and exits. Billy turns to leave, but Wesley stops him.
WESLEY: What happened?
BILLY (reluctantly): He was awful drunk and talking foolish. He got to throwing up real bad, then he passed out.
MATT: Oh, Lord.
BILLY (reluctantly, looks behind him to assure that Mrs. Shepherd is gone): He won’t breathing when they took him away.
WESLEY: We need to get down there.
BILLY: Sir, I’ll go with her. If y’all go down there, they’re gonna lock you up. Maybe, if you don’t mind my saying so, y’all ought to make yourselves scarce around here for a while.
MATT: He’s right, Wesley. Them company thugs will bash our heads if we give ‘em a chance.
Wesley puts his head in his hand, as if thinking hard. After a few moments he lifts his head and looks at Billy.
WESLEY: Billy, please tell Miz Shepherd we done gone over to Winston for a few days till things cool down.
WESLEY (to Billy): Jimmy is dead, ain’t he?
BILLY (reluctantly): Yessir, I think he is.
Wesley drops his head, shaking it. After a few moments, Matt speaks.
MATT: Come on, Wesley. Let’s get going.
The action occurs on the picket line. Strikers are carrying signs and shouting. Johnnie comes running up, with a record and a record player. He waves the record over his head and the strikers cheer. He starts up the record player, playing “Cotton Mill Colic.” The strikers are shouting and singing along.
Cops arrive, push through the crowd and try to take the record. Johnnie tries to keep them from it. In the struggle a cop pushes Johnnie down, grabs and breaks the record. Billy rushes up and hits the cop over the head with his sign. A brawl erupts. Billy is clubbed over the head from behind, and falls to the ground . As the fight continues, we hear sirens and see Billy being handcuffed, his head bleeding. Johnnie is screaming and kicking at the cops. One of the strikers picks him up and runs away with him.
The action occurs at the Watson house. Johnnie is in the corner, playing “Goodbye Booze” on his record player. Mrs. Watson is sewing, distractedly. Billy enters, his head bandaged. Mrs. Watson puts down her sewing and walks nervously toward him. Johnnie lifts the needle off the record and looks at Billy.
BILLY (dejectedly): It’s over.
MRS. WATSON: The strike?
BILLY: The strike, yeah. That’s over. We lost. The company wins. Same as always. But that ain’t all that’s over. Everything else is over too. The union will be busted. Our spirit is all gone. They done knocked us down, kicked us, then spit on us. Same as always. There ain’t no point in none of it now. We just have to do what they say, take what they’ll give us, lick their boots when they tell us to, and smile and say we like it.
Billy sits down and rubs his head. He glances over at Johnnie.
BILLY: And we ain’t even got the Rovers no more. That’s over too. We don’t even get to decide what kind of music we want to listen to. “You sorry ass lintheads get back to work. And we won’t allow no more of that goddamned hillbilly music y’all like neither.”
MRS. WATSON (consoling, puts her arm around Billy): Come on, Billy. Let me fix you a bite to eat. We’re tough and they ain’t starved us yet.
Billy and Mrs. Watson walk to the other side of the house. Johnnie stands up and seems to be deep in thought. He walks over to where the guitar is hanging on the wall, takes it down and straps it over his shoulder. He meekly strums a chord. Then he turns and faces the audience. With a defiant look, he strums a chord loudly and the curtain falls.