April 20, 2017
Introduction to Jim Biedenharn’s River City Ebb & Flow: Dr. Jas. O’Phelan’s Stories from the Wicker Basket under this Fragile Balloon
Memory can be a bit tricky sometimes, but I figure it was the summer of 1986 when I first met Jim Biedenharn. For certain it was after March of that year; that’s when my dad died, and I always wished they had met. That’s one of the ways certain friends stand out in my mind—the ones who I wished had met Dad.
Jim was working in the accounting office of the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Nashville. I had just joined the staff as the hotel credit manager. Having worked my way through college in the motel business, I found that my bachelor’s degree in English opened less doors than my experience in the lodging industry. Thus at 26 I found myself stuck in a career not of my choosing. I have no idea how Jim wound up working in that dour, windowless office, but that’s where we met.
While we were outwardly quite different, we recognized something in each other. Actually, the better phrasing is “we recognized each other,” as if we had known each other well in a previous time. Whether or not it intellectually makes sense, that phrase is accurate. We also became friends immediately.
Finding a spot to share an after work beer or two (or three) became a favorite way to end the day as it allowed the rush hour traffic to die down a bit before we headed home. At least, that’s the way we described it. Often we would simply drive our cars to the top level of the parking garage, sit on one of the hoods and share a quart of Budweiser. This vantage point offered a magnificent view of the Nashville cityscape as well as the sprawling suburban areas in the distance. We would swap tales of life or single out an object within site and discuss the possibilities. In this way we discovered a shared ability to detect energies from previous eras, visually and spiritually. Yeah, it sounds weird, but we prefer “eccentric.”
Another favorite haunt was the Hermitage Hotel across the street, which was a well-preserved 19th century landmark with a charming and relaxing piano bar. The hotel was also reputed to be frequented by some of Music City’s celebrity elite, but the only “star” we ever encountered was Minnesota Fats, the aging pool hustler. He was gruff and disinterested in us personally yet cordially accepted the drink we bought him.
Sometimes we hiked a few blocks in our dress shoes, ties flapping in the wind, to a Tex-Mex pub where we would buy a “bucket of beer”—six Bud longnecks stuffed into an ice-filled tin bucket. The walk from the Hyatt brought us past many historical buildings, including the famed Ryman Auditorium, which for thirty-one years had been home to the Grand Ole Opry.
As a student of history, I had a scholarly knowledge of the historical Nashville, yet Jim—a native of Mississippi—had the capacity to spout out details of places and events which had eluded my studied mind. For instance, I knew the history of the Opry; Jim knew that the Ryman was named for Thomas Ryman, a 19th Century Nashville businessman who owned several saloons and a fleet of riverboats. I would later learn that Jim possessed a unique perspective on both saloons and riverboats.
That’s the way many of our conversations traveled—my structured study illustrated by Jim’s intuitive knowledge and natural gift for storytelling. Thus, as we walked past the Ryman Auditorium on our way for a few cold ones, I saw the former Grand Ole Opry and felt the spiritual energy of Hank Williams and Roy Acuff while Jim experienced a tabernacle from the 1890s with a balcony funded by the United Confederate Veterans. As our friendship grew, we began to share perceptions intuitively, which is quite remarkable if you think about it.
One cold January day in 1987 my friend Jim told me he was giving two-week’s notice to the Hyatt and taking a position as a door captain a few miles from downtown at the luxurious Opryland Hotel. He had held similar positions at high-class hotels in New York City and other places. The money was good and the work was honest. Besides, he was tired of playing a suit-and-tie corporate office game was that was leading to nowhere. He also said that I should come with him. He could guarantee me a job as a valet parker, which would quickly lead to a lucrative position as a doorman. Already desperate to escape a career into which I was quickly sinking beyond the point of no return, I accepted the offer.
I never expected to remain a doorman long. I wanted to write. Soon after I took the job I was accepted into the master’s program of the English department at nearby Middle Tennessee State University. It was a winding path, but eventually I would find my way. Jim would stay a little longer at Opryland but would soon continue his own academic studies, ultimately receiving graduate degrees from Vanderbilt University in Nashville and Drew University in New Jersey. He had received “the call,” and he answered. Jim would finish out his working years serving as an ordained Methodist minister. And, not coincidentally, we each set beer aside permanently in order to successfully traverse our respective paths.
From the moment he learned of my literary aspirations, Jim saw me as a writer, period. He believed in me. And likewise I saw him as a literary light, regardless of whatever occupation he chose. Along these lines, Jim once offered a profound comment during one of our after work beer-sipping conversations—and it has popped into my mind at several crucial moments in my pursuit of ‘success’ as a writer. I was grumbling about the frustrations of getting my writing published. Jim listened until I paused, and then casually said, “Well Phil, you just might come to find out that, whether or not you are ever published, you are becoming a fine work of art yourself. Maybe that’s what you should aim toward. Being a piece of art. The rest will sort itself out.” Such wisdom cannot be bought.
Some twenty-five years after that conversation, I asked Jim to send some of his stories to me at Canopic Publishing. He was still working as a minister at the time and used the pseudonym Dr. Jas. O’Phelan to avoid any unnecessary conflict with the flock. As I read through the writings, I found myself trying to figure out if the stories were intended as memoir or fiction. Then I realized that as a writer he is combining pieces of his life with his visionary abilities. The time and place are simply provided by context. With that realization in place, I quit worrying about trying to classify the stories. Was the Ryman a tabernacle built by Confederate veterans or was it the Grand Ole Opry? The answer is yes. Are the tales of Dr. Jas. O’Phelan memoir or are they fiction? The answer is yes. And in both cases, more.
Jim Biedenharn writes in a distinctly Southern voice, a rarity in 21st century literature. Yet the reader will find neither a glorification nor a condemnation of the historical South. The author’s theological awareness does not allow him to be stuck in such follies of humankind. For the characters that live in River City Ebb & Flow: Dr. Jas. O’Phelan’s Stories from the Wicker Basket under this Fragile Balloon, human follies are only pertinent in context of redemption—or to the possibilities thereof.
In many ways his little collection of stories just may identify Jim Biedenharn as the last genuine voice of Southern Literature. Grandiose? Maybe. But the proof is in the writing.