September 9, 2017 10:05:07 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Take a world-class fibber, a musically-gifted storyteller and a national tale-spinner who actually grew up in Columbus, and what does one get? The sixth annual Possum Town Tales Storytelling Festival -- a weekend of unrestrained laughter, flights of imagination and renewed appreciation for the human connection.
Internationally-known performers Bil Lepp of West Virginia and the Rev. Robert B. Jones Sr. of Michigan join Virginian (and former Columbian) Jim Lavender Friday and Saturday, Sept. 22 and 23 at the Columbus Arts Council event at the Rosenzweig Arts Center.
"When you've got great storytellers, it's just one of the best times you can have," said CAC Program Manager Beverly Norris. "It's always wonderful to see the audience come out with smiles on their faces -- and with the three gentlemen we have this year, we count on lots of smiles and laughter."
For anyone unfamiliar with professional storytelling, consider a combination of stand-up comedy, insight and captivating delivery. This year's tellers are acclaimed for their humor.
Lepp and Jones are well-known to National Storytelling Festival Audiences who flock by the thousands to Jonesborough, Tennessee, every autumn. The tellers join a list of prominent performers featured in the Golden Triangle since the local festival's inception. It includes Sheila Kay Adams, Donald Davis, Carmen Agra Deedy and Kevin Kling, as well as Andy Offutt Irwin, Len Cabral and Kuniko Yamamoto, and musical tellers like Kate Campbell, Grace Pettis and the duo Anna and Elizabeth.
"The caliber of storytellers this festival has been able to get to come to this corner of Mississippi is amazing," said Rachel Coker, who lives near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and has attended Possum Town Tales. "Many of them are what you'd call 'headliners' on the national circuit."
One of those is certainly Lepp, a five-time champion of the West Virginia Liars' Contest -- and husband of a Mississippi girl from Holly Bluff. He specializes in outrageous. The veteran of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, NPR and Comedy Central is a recipient of the Storytelling World Circle of Excellence Award and multiple Parent Choice Awards.
"Bil Lepp is the Wonder Bra of storytelling," author and teller Barbara McBride Smith has said. "He takes something small and insignificant and pushes it up into something reallly big and miiighty interesting."
This king of the tall tales is described as a satisfying blend of Bob Newhart and Jeff Foxworthy, or "a cross between Dr. Seuss and ... film noir," said the Charleston Gazette.
Donna Both of Columbus knows firsthand. She's seen Lepp perform at other festivals.
"He always puts a smile on my face and belly laughter in my soul," she told The Dispatch Wednesday. "His timing is so superb as he's telling a story." Bob Wells of Duke Divinity magazine once summed it up this way: "With Lepp, the sorry, low-down lie becomes a grand and glorious creation, a verbal sculpture in which a hundred small fibs, stretches, falsehoods and prevarications are piled together, shaped and molded into one stunning, awe-inspiring cathedral of flapdoodle and bull."
Born and raised in Detroit, Jones combines elements of music, humor, fact and fiction on stage. His knowledge of the history of African American folk music from blues to spirituals goes into his engaging and powerful stories. Some are drawn from the lives and legends of blues and gospel artists he grew up listening to and learning about. He likes songs that tell stories, whether they tap into his own family history -- including a father who grew up around West Point -- or other people he knows.
"Often too, I find that the Bible provides great poetic language and imagery for songwriting and storytelling," he said in his biography at revrobertjones.com.
The ordained Baptist minister is a recipient of a "Keeping the Blues Alive" award from the national Blues Foundation. Skilled on guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle and harmonica, Jones weaves music into performances that champion the history and power of shared cultures,
Photographer James Fraher has written about Jones: "Perhaps the world's most highly educated blues musician, an ordained minister, a longtime DJ, and a living encyclopedia of blues history, the Rev. Robert Jones is comfortable among juke joint loud talkers, fancy-hatted church ladies and PhDs alike."
Along the Luxapalila
Jim Lavender, known as "Dr. Jim," is accustomed to being in front of crowds. He left Columbus at age 17 and went on to become a performer for national cartoonist Al Capp's enterprises before answering a call to the pulpit. After earning a degree from Mississippi State, a master's from Duke University and doctorate from St. Mary's Seminary and University, the man whose greatest dream was once to be ringmaster of the greatest show on earth created a unique ministry utilizing adopted animals, from camels to tigers, to teach and preach.
Now retired after 40 years in ministry, Lavender is part of the National Storytelling Network and travels the country sharing tales of his adventures, and those include mischievous memories of growing up along the Luxapalila River.
"The reason I do this is, after dealing with all kinds of problems people have and pressures of a big church, after 40 years I want to spend what time I've got left helping people laugh and relax, because it's good medicine and the world certainly needs that right now," Lavender told The Dispatch.
Tony Meinert of Columbus recommends a dose of festival "medicine." He'd never been to a storytelling festival before he and his wife, Sharon, attended their first Possum Town Tales last year.
"We're kinda rookies," he joked. "A friend let us know and we thought we'd give it a shot. I know it sounds kind of cliche, but when it comes to new experiences I try not to have preconceived ideas: We were not disappointed. It was an unexpected surprise, with a roller coaster of emotions. We'll be back this year."
How to go
Story concerts begin at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 and 23. A package ticket at $20 covers both nights, each featuring all three artists. Individual performance tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door, if available.
A pre-performance Story Cafe home-cooked dinner is offered at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 23 at the arts center for those with reservations of $15 paid by Sept. 20.
All tickets are available at columbus-arts.org or at the arts center at 501 Main St. Or call 662-328-2787 (closed Mondays). A Story Cafe menu is posted on the website.
Possum Town Tales is made possible by support from Beth and Birney Imes, Mississippi Arts Commission, The Dispatch, Visit Columbus and WCBI.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.