The George Jones Museum in Nashville

I grew up around country music. My father, an amazing fiddle and steel guitar player, loved all of the old greats and was always playing their records, covering their songs, or both.  I grew up listening to Merle Haggard, George Jones, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and the list goes on and on.

So, as a writer, I was excited when I recently got a chance to go to Nashville for a travel story. This was a media tour and the list of stops included the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Ryman Auditorium, the Grand Ole Opry, the Johnny Cash Museum, the George Jones Museum, and many others.  

My father has been gone for more than thirty years, but moving through those hallowed halls of Nashville and hearing the music he loved brought back so many memories and emotions. Nashville is a big city and growing by leaps and bounds. Some 85 new people move there every day and yet, it still has a warm, welcoming, friendly feel to it. 

As I mentioned, one of our stops was the George Jones Museum.

It opened about a year and a half ago and nearly everything inside came from the personal collection of George’s wife, Nancy. I had hoped to meet her and was disappointed that she wasn’t there. Someone suggested I check back the next day, but given our busy schedule that seemed impossible.

However, the next day I got some unexpected free time and immediately headed right back down to the George Jones Museum just to see…

Nancy Jones wasn’t there when I arrived, but came in just a few minutes later. When I asked if I could speak with her, she immediately came out of a back office, listened as I told her who I was, then graciously walked me over to a table to sit down and talk. I asked about the museum's extensive collection.

Nancy Jones

Nancy Jones

“I started that 32 years ago," she said, "and I used to laugh at George because he’d say, ‘Why do you do that? Nobody cares about that stuff.’” She paused, then went on to say, ”He never realized that he was a legend or an icon, you know? I told him I was going to put it in a museum one day and he’d say, ‘Well, go ahead, nobody’s going to come.’”

Over the years she saved everything she could get her hands on including every item any fan gave or sent to her husband, as well as every gift and card he ever gave to her.

When George Jones was dying she told him she would work to create the museum and continue developing the line of White Lightning Whiskey and Moonshine they’d both been working on at the time.

She created more than a museum, it’s an entertainment center. It includes the museum, a restaurant, a tasting center where visitors can try and buy the whiskey and moonshine, and a rooftop bar.

Nancy, who’s credited with helping George finally stop drinking, said they decided to produce the whiskey and moonshine because as George once said, “Alcohol controlled me all my life, now I’m going to control 'it'".”

His legendary devotion to the bottle is well-documented throughout the museum. In one area, there’s a John Deere tractor that tells the story of how years ago George was so drunk his brother-in-law took away his car keys. George simply went out, got on the tractor, and drove for an hour and a half to get to the liquor store.

There are also photos and stories recounting how he got his “No Show” nickname because of the many shows he missed – thanks to alcohol. As the story goes, it was Nancy who later made him go back and do all those concerts he missed – for free. She’s been working with writers and producers about a story on his life. The title of the movie will be “No Show Jones.”

She's proud of the museum and how it’s all come together.  There are displays and exhibits highlighting the history and stories most people already know about George, but she also shares a few things people didn't know about him.     

"He played the fiddle, and people didn’t know that. He’d only play it when he was in Louisiana. He played it like Cajun country. He’d always grab the fiddle and play, and then Jimmy C. Newman taught him a little about how to speak Cajun. He'd sing on that stage and they would go absolutely wild. The Cajuns loved George Jones.”

Nancy created the museum so his many fans would have a place to come and celebrate his memory and his music. While I was there, she introduced me to a father and son who had just arrived from Hanover, Germany.

Mathias Ronsch (on the left) and his father Manfred (on the right).

Mathias Ronsch (on the left) and his father Manfred (on the right).

“I started out with country music way back in ’63,” Manfred Ronsch recalled. “And in the mid-60’s I discovered a new voice and it was George Jones. From that day on I collected all of his records.”

He saw Jones in concert three times, His son, Mathias, also became a fan.

“Since I was a little boy, country music is all I’ve ever known,” Mathias explained. “I can remember there was always this steel guitar, and this slow heartbreaking music, especially with George Jones.”

They both agreed that when George sang about life struggles, hard times, and loss, you knew he’d lived it.

“When George sang, I believed him,” said Mathias. “I believed he knew what he’s talking about.

When Jones died in 2013 and they heard there was going to be a final “No Show” concert to honor him, they both flew to Nashville to see it.

In Germany, they explained, it’s difficult to get information or updates on country music or what’s going on in Nashville. They began corresponding with the museum staff about their plans to come and see the museum and possibly meet Nancy. For Manfred, it was very meaningful to meet the woman who helped George give up drinking and turn his life around.

“I’m 69 years old and this is so emotional. I loved that man so much and I love this little lady that helped turn his life in the right direction. (Meeting her) was amazing, amazing, amazing!”

Mathias said they were struck by the many photos and personal items on display throughout the museum.

“In Germany, there are no radio shows or TV shows, no newspapers with pictures about George or about country music. So, this is really special for us just to see personal pictures and personal belongings we’ve never seen before.”

Thanks to Nancy, George Jones won't be forgotten. 

The George Jones Museum is located at 128 2nd Avenue North, Nashville, TN    

The George Jones Museum is located at 128 2nd Avenue North, Nashville, TN


Remembering Pearl Harbor

Years ago while working at a TV station in Lynchburg, Virginia, I had the privilege of doing a story on James Hazelwood. Hazelwood was a retired Navy Seal who served in World War II, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War. Although he served his country for 32 years and was awarded two Purple Hearts, he rarely talked about his military service. He didn’t want to be singled out as a “hero” for doing something he considered his duty.

It took some work to get him to talk for the TV piece, but he eventually agreed, and we became friends. After I left Virginia, we wrote letters, talked on the phone, and I even visited him (and his wife Della) at their home in Campbell County. I still have some of the Pearl Harbor books he sent me as gifts.  Hazelwood, who died in June of 2004, was a Pearl Harbor survivor.

Years after his death, I came across a folder containing his letters and transcripts of some of our conversations. Today, on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I remember my friend James Hazelwood.

James Hazelwood 1918 - 2004

James Hazelwood 1918 - 2004

He was 24 years old and had just arrived in Hawaii in December of 1941. He was off-duty and on his way to the pool for an early Sunday morning swim when the surprise attack began.

“The bomb hit the USS Arizona and I was on a pier about 500 yards away,” he recalled.

He was immediately put to work. Wearing only his swim trucks, he joined several others on a small boat and they began pulling bodies from the water. Thick black oil leaking from the ships covered everything, making the job extremely difficult.  

“We used a boat hook and started picking bodies out of the water,” he said.

As they worked, they kept their heads half-cocked toward the sky, listening for the sound of Japanese planes they thought might return at any minute to attack again.

It turned out the only place big enough to hold the many men they kept pulling from the water was the same swimming pool Hazelwood had been heading for earlier that morning. He and the others drained the pool and began stacking the bodies.

“Many of these people had no identification of any sort," he remembered. "They were sleeping when the attack happened and had no dog tags or wallets or clothing. Nothing except their skivvy drawers. And they were covered in black oil."

The hope was that someone from each of the ships would be able to identify the victims later.

Some were eventually identified, others were not. Hazelwood recalled that as they pulled bodies from the water, they also retrieved numerous body parts.  

“Later on they had bits and pieces of 18 different people. Not enough to make one person, but there were parts from 18 different people,” he said.

The remains of those 18 unknowns were buried together.

“They used a bulldozer, wrapped them up in canvas and buried them on a place called Red Hill.”

In the years and decades that followed, Hazelwood noticed he never saw much written in the Pearl Harbor history books about how they had to use that swimming pool as a temporary morgue.  It was a disturbing memory that remained very vivid for him.

He later went on to serve with the Navy’s elite Underwater Demolition Teams doing classified work in a variety of places like Vietnam. He took the details of whatever work he did on behalf of his country to his grave. He didn’t talk about Vietnam and he would have preferred not to talk about Pearl Harbor.

“It was very difficult for me,” he said. “It’s very difficult for me to think about.”

And yet, he knew there were lessons to be learned from what happened all those years ago. He said the possibility of being attacked at home was very real and we must be watchful, wary, and always prepared. We talked about that in our last transcribed conversation from September of 2003.

“Be alert,” he said. “Be alert and be on guard. Remember Pearl Harbor? It can happen. It happened at the World Trade Center, did it not?”

On this day – December 7th - I honor James Hazelwood, those who served with him, and those who made the ultimate sacrifice. And I remember Pearl Harbor. 

       2304 Americans were killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor - December 7th, 1941 


Ava Gardner Museum

I spotted the sign on previous trips along I-95 in North Carolina before, but never had time to stop until today. I wanted to see what the “Ava Gardner Museum” in tiny Smithfield, North Carolina was all about.

Ava Gardner Museum at 325 E. Market St. in Smithfield, NC

Ava Gardner Museum at 325 E. Market St. in Smithfield, NC

As it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised. Full of dresses and movie costumes from the 1940’s and 1950’s, posters and paintings, jewelry and other memorabilia – the museum showcases the life of legendary actress and North Carolina native Ava Gardner. Ava was a star during Hollywood’s heyday and the museum highlights the glamour and aura of that era.

Visitor Jan Vach of Savannah, Georgia was leaving as I arrived. “I used to watch her movies when I was growing up as a little girl,” she explained. “She was beautiful and very glamorous. There was only one Ava Gardner. I guess the closest to her would be someone like Elizabeth Taylor, in my mind.”

I paid the $8.00 admission fee, went inside, and watched the nearly 20 minute film that tells Ava’s story. She was born on Christmas Eve in 1922 in a small farmhouse in Grabtown, North Carolina. Grabtown was a tiny tenant farm community about eight miles up the road and Ava’s father was one of those tenant farmers. The woman who would later capture hearts with her stunning beauty was the youngest of six children and grew up in a home with no indoor plumbing. They say, in the film, that while the Gardners were poor, they were a close, loving, tight-knit family. 

At 17, Ava graduated from a secretarial course at a local Christian college. Her future – until she eventually got married – was all set.

But then, in a twist of fate, she went to visit one of her sisters in New York. The sister’s photographer husband took a photo of Ava and set it in his shop window. 

The face that launched an MGM career

The face that launched an MGM career

The year was 1940, the film “Gone with the Wind” had just been released, and Ava - with her big picture hat - bore a slight resemblance to Scarlett O’Hara. In life, timing is everything. Someone from MGM – the great movie studio of the time – saw her picture and the rest (skipping ahead here) is history.

Ava went on to Hollywood, starred in movies, and met and married some of the biggest celebrities of the time. Her husbands included actor Andy Rooney, charismatic bandleader and clarinet great Artie Shaw, and singer Frank Sinatra. She also had a long on again, off again relationship with Howard Hughes.

In movies, she co-starred alongside some of Hollywood’s greatest leading men like Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart and others. 

And she had a strong friendship with Ernest Hemingway. She would star in three films based on his books. She led an amazing, storybook life.

And yet, despite the stardom, the actress who grew up dreaming of a family of her own never had any children. And love, in the end, never lasted. Throughout her later years, she told friends and family that Frank Sinatra was the one great love of her life. He, apparently, told others the same about her. However, for whatever reason, they couldn’t live together. Someone said they clashed because they were “too much alike.”

Ava left Hollywood after her marriage to Sinatra ended and moved to Spain where she lived for years, immersing herself in a culture known for its zest for life. She also continued to take on select movie roles. Later, she moved to London where she lived a quiet, often lonely life. In 1990, she died of pneumonia. She was 67.

She was buried in Smithfield in a cemetery not too far from the museum. Among the many flowers at her funeral was an arrangement with a card that read simply, “With my love, Frances.”

“It was a very charming story,” notes Vach recapping the tour of the museum. “But also a sad life, too, seeking love and never finding it. It was fleeting. And she didn’t have children and it seemed like she loved family life, so it was sad. Despite the fact she said, “I had a wonderful life.”

Ava Gardner is buried not far from her mother and father. 


Potter's Wax Museum

I love St. Augustine, Florida! Founded in 1565 by Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez, it’s charming and picturesque, with a European feel to it. The city is full of unique historical structures, beautiful beaches, and some quirky attractions, as well. Potter's Wax Museum ranks as one of my favorites. 

I passed it on my way out of town during my first visit and decided, on a whim, to stop and check it out.

I walked in expecting to see a number of celebrity wax figures and wasn't disappointed. There’s Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, characters from several popular movies, and many more.

But what I found most surprising were the historical figures on display.  

George Potter created the museum in 1949 with wax figures he brought from London. Now, if you think about that for a minute, what type of wax figures would have been reflective of that era?

Perhaps figures from World War II? At the museum, you'll see Winston Churchill, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, General George Patton, and even Adolf Hitler.

The figures are eerily realistic, in part, because of their hair and eyes.

“The hair is all human and put in strand by strand,” explains Assistant Manager Linda Manz. “And the eyes are the same eyes used in a human being if you lose your eye. So, what the artist did was color shape and size them according to every character.”

Several times I felt like some of those eyes were following me around the room. Seriously.

Other figures include Albert Einstein, Louis Pasteur, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, all of the Civil War Generals, King Henry VIII, a group of American Presidents and their wives, Al Capone, and many, many more. Thanks to a recent renovation of the museum, there are now more than 150 – old and new – wax figures on display.

It’s an interesting way to bring history to life, up close and personal.

I asked Linda if any celebrities had been in to see their figures. She said that Johnny Depp has been in a time or two and thinks his Captain Jack Sparrow figure is a pretty good likeness. Not bad for a seal of approval.

The Search for the Perfect Shrimp & Grits

If you’re heading to Charleston, South Carolina, be prepared to eat extremely well. The city is filled with restaurants offering a wide variety of unique, southern-style seafood entrees. And one thing you'll have to try while you’re there is shrimp & grits. It’s kind of the official dish.

So, when I arrived in Charleston, “shrimp & grits” was definitely on my list.

I asked someone who calls Charleston home, “Where’s the best place to go for shrimp & grits?’

“Hmmm,” she said. “With so many amazing local restaurants, you can pretty much go anywhere that serves it and you’ll be fine.”

Okay, I thought, I’ll just find a local place that looks good and stop. 

I chose a restaurant on the road leading to Folly Beach. 

I walked in, looked around and asked, “Do you have shrimp & grits?”

“Of course!”

“Is it good?”

“Oh yeah.”

I looked past the hostess into the kitchen where I saw the cook moving around quickly, stirring one entree, and transferring another to a platter. He looked up, caught my eye, and smiled.

Okay, I’m in. I took a seat and sat down.

When my meal arrived a short time later, I looked up at the server, just a little puzzled.

“Is this how everyone makes shrimp & grits?”

“Pretty much.  Every place is a little different, but yeah, this is how most people make them.”

I looked down at a big plate of white grits with shrimp doused in brown gravy. There were round hush puppies on the side. My first thought was, “This isn’t what it looks like on the internet.”


Most photos show a sauce that’s more of a coral, pinkish-orange color.  Minus the hush puppies.

The food was okay, but not really what I expected.

I mentioned the dish to a Charleston native later.

“Brown gravy?  I’ve never had shrimp & grits with brown gravy!”

I've since had others say that some places do make it that way.

A day or so later, I stopped at another restaurant to try “shrimp & grits.”  The restaurant had the name “Charleston” in it, so I figured I was in good shape.

The server brought a plate of somewhat soupy shrimp & grits with eggs and a biscuit on the side. And while it might seem logical to serve eggs with grits, I'd just never heard about the “shrimp & grits” and egg combo. Apparently there are many different ways to prepare the dish.


Later, I asked several Charleston locals about it.

The first one asked, “They gave you eggs with it?  Really?”

The second one commented, “I’ve never had eggs served with shrimp & grits.”

And the third one offered, “You should try another restaurant.”

One recommended “82 Queen” in downtown Charleston, another mentioned “Page’s Okra Grill” in Mount Pleasant.

I chose “Page’s Okra Grill.” On the day I arrived, I pulled in to find the place absolutely packed. And this on a day it was pouring down rain. I wasn’t in the mood to fight the crowd, especially with the bad weather, but the rows and rows of cars seemed like a good sign.

I went in and was told I’d have to wait for a seat, unless I wanted to sit at the counter. I headed toward the back.

At the counter, I ordered “shrimp & grits” and waited in anticipation, even as a part of me tried not to get too excited. I struck up a conversation with a local couple to my right who assured me I was definitely in the right place. It didn’t take long to prove them right.

The waitress brought out a bowl of the most beautiful shrimp & grits I've ever seen. The sauce was the perfect color and consistency, with just the right amount of shrimp. And the grits were cooked up in two lightly fried “cakes” in the shape of Texas toast. 

Shrimp and Grits - Page's Okra Grill in Mount Pleasant.jpg

I took the first bite and thought, "I'm in heaven." A wave of other food cliches flew through my mind, chief among them, "This is to die for." I'm not one of those people who goes crazy over food, but I admit, this was pure, unadulterated bliss. 

On the way out, I saw a sign in front of the restaurant that I didn’t see earlier. It read, “Southern Living’s #1 Shrimp & Grits.”

Ahhhhh. They’re absolutely right!

Carolina Beach's Chris Helms

I love it when I meet people who shine in the spot they’ve chosen. Chris Helms is one of those people.

I had the pleasure of meeting him while doing a story on Wilmington, North Carolina for Motorhome Magazine. Helms is Park Superintendent at the Carolina Beach State Park.

I dropped by that morning, introduced myself, and he graciously took time to explain some of the park’s special features such as a Marina, wooded lots for campers, and fishing in water that’s a mixture of both salt and freshwater, due to the blending of the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Fear River.  And then, he mentioned the flytraps.

Carolina Beach State Park Superintendent Chris Helms

Carolina Beach State Park Superintendent Chris Helms


“Yep, Venus Flytraps?”


“Uh huh, you know like you saw in the movie ‘The Little Shop of Horrors?’ But, they’re much, much smaller, about the size of a kidney bean.  Wilmington, North Carolina is the only place in world those plants grow naturally.”

No way. “And where would I find one of those?”

“On the Flytrap Trail, of course. Would you like to see one?”

“Oh yeah…”

So, Helms and I got in our separate vehicles (my car, his truck) and I followed him off into the woods.  Keep in mind, I showed up unannounced that morning and this busy guy that I tracked down at the Marina, dropped what he was doing to show me the flytraps.  And he was just as excited to share them as I was to see them.

We arrived at a wooded area, parked, got out, and he started off down a path where I didn’t see a path, stopping here and there, then suddenly, “Here’s some!”

He pointed to the ground and as I leaned in I saw these brilliant, green little flytraps with the tiny ridges they use to clamp shut when a spider or an insect ventures where it shouldn’t.

Venus Flytrap 

Venus Flytrap 

“The individual trap has trigger hairs,” he explained. “It will be open, the insect gets in there, and it hits three of the trigger hairs and closes.  The main reason for that is so water droplets and other things don’t trigger it to close without the plant getting any benefit.”

As I took pictures, changing lenses to get closer shots, he went on to point out that they only grow within a 70 mile radius of Wilmington. There used to be a lot more in residential sections all over the city, but many of those areas have been paved over for developments, strip malls, etc.

He bent down to show me how one of the little plants open.

“Careful,” I said. “Will it pinch you with the ridges?”

“Nah,” he replied. “I think I can get away before it grabs me.” 

Ha...ha. Very funny.

“Even Charles Darwin was impressed by these plants,” he added. “Early on, when the plant was discovered, it was taken to Darwin and he said it was surely one of the most unique plants in the world”

Now, people actually travel for miles to take these weekend Ranger-led hikes here to see those amazing little plants. Helms drew my attention to the fact that there were no signs posted marking the location of the plants.  

“People will actually poach these plants. The guided hikes really are the best way to see them.”

While still at the park, thanks to Helms, I also learned about controlled burns in these heavily wooded areas, and how and why they use them. Helms also explained a little about some of the trees here such as the Longleaf Pine and how the sap or resin and the tar it produced is the reason people from North Carolina are called Tarheels.

There is something refreshing – and definitely rewarding – about spending time with a person who clearly loves what he does and takes so much pride (and joy) in sharing it. 

Amazing People

The best part of freelance writing has to be the amazing people you meet along the way. Some might play a small part in a bigger story you’re working on, others deserve a story all their own if you can find the right editor and publication.  

Sandy Mermelstein - Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida

While working on a travel story in St. Petersburg, Florida, I had the pleasure of meeting Sandy Mermelstein at the Florida Holocaust Museum.  I’d been to both the Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., so when I found out there was a Holocaust Museum in Florida, I had to include it in my story.

Sandy has the title of Tour Director, but her parents actually founded the Florida Holocaust Museum. And while the Museum’s main goal is to remind us of the horrors of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany’s mass extermination of 6 million Jews, as well as other minority groups, it does much more than that. It takes the lessons from one of the most brutal times in world history, and uses it to address a problem very prevalent in our society today – that of bullying.

Florida Holocaust Museum

Florida Holocaust Museum

Mermelstein uses several different methods, including the use of sock puppets, to teach children to embrace differences. The simple, yet visual approach, features a green-eyed puppet interacting with a brown-eyed puppet.  She believes we should encourage children to stand-up for others, when others are singled out for the things that make them different.

“What we talk about when we talk to student groups and to teachers is the importance of being an upstander. We all see things in our daily lives that we remain silent about and we encourage people to speak out, even if it involves something as simple as jokes at another’s expense.” 

There’s a longer, more valuable story regarding those efforts and I’ll look for the opportunity to write it. 

If you’ve ever visited Louisville and not made it to Cave Hill Cemetery – you’ve missed out! It’s one of the city’s most spectacular attractions and many people don’t even know it exists.  

Lee Squires - Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky

Superintendent Lee Squires has spent the past forty years turning this Victorian-era rural cemetery into one of the finest arboretums in the county.  He’s a warm and wonderful character who also deserves his own story. He can’t pass a tree or a plot or a monument without sharing some historical anecdote. On a short tour by car through a small portion of the winding sixteen miles of tree line, he pointed out a massive 160 year old Gingko Tree, the burial site of KFC Founder Colonel Harland Sanders, and the Palace of Versailles-inspired Satterwhite “Temple of Love” Memorial, and more. 

“That’s the plot President Zachary Taylor picked out for himself, but then changed his mind when they refused to change the name of the cemetery.”  (Taylor is buried at the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery about six miles up the road.) 

Squires has supervised every change or addition to the landscape over the past four decades and his love for the cemetery shines through when he tells you about it. To appreciate his incredible legacy, however, you really have to visit Cave Hill.    

Country Music Great Charley Pride

Last year, while working on a story on Darius Rucker, I needed people to interview regarding Rucker’s successful transition from lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish to that of a Country Music solo artist. The year before his song, “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It” had become the first song by an African American to reach the top 20 charts since Charley Pride had done it many years ago.  My son suggested, “Why not try to interview Charley Pride?” 

Okay, why not?  I called his office in Texas, got his manager, and within minutes was talking to Country Music Legend Charley Pride!  Very, very cool. 

He was awesome, too – so kind and so gracious. He took a tremendous amount of time with me, answering my questions even though he knew I was doing a story on another artist. I learned that Charley Pride, who has been recording and touring for more than 40 years, has a mind-blowing memory, pays attention to astrological signs (he knew Darius Rucker was a “Taurus the Bull”), and maintains a very busy schedule that takes him all over the country and all over the world playing to packed houses. What a charming man. 

I am fortunate to be able to say – the list goes on and on.  For now, however, I have other stories to write.  And quite likely, more amazing people to meet along the way.