Cover Story: The Dancing Outlaw makes a run for the West Virginia border
Jesco White needs to go home.
His sister, Mamie, is tired and her feet hurt. She's partied for three days and three nights. Her feet have swollen into small watermelons.
"I don't know what the fuck it is," Mamie says in a raspy voice, propping up her legs for inspection. "They ain't never got this big."
But Jesco is the Dancing Outlaw — the star of a cult documentary by the same name. He has made many new friends this weekend. Damn it if his older sister is going to stop him from having a little fun.
"You can never have a sad moment around me," he declares. "Everybody who gets around me and my sister leaves with a heart full of joy and a mind full of laughter."
For now, Mamie is stuck with Jesco in Macon. But, with the help of five young men (myself included) and a Freightliner cargo van, they'll leave tomorrow morning for their trailers in the hills of Boone County, W.Va. First, Jesco must finish some business ... the kind of business he swore he'd never do again ... that business known as show business.
In 1990, a filmmaker named Jacob Young stumbled upon Jesco while hunting for D. Ray White, Jesco's father. D. Ray was a gifted clogger — so good he supposedly could mimic masters like the late Gregory Hines on sight. He seemed a perfect subject for The Different Drummer, a series Young produced for West Virginia Public Television about the unsung geniuses and charismatic madmen of Appalachian country.
But Young came looking for Jesco's daddy a little too late. D. Ray had been gunned down four years earlier, while protecting his younger son, Dorsey, from a drunken assailant. His legacy might have died with him had his oldest son, Jesco, not started dancing himself, in his daddy's shoes no less. So Young turned the camera on Jesco and the legend of the The Dancing Outlaw was born.
The movie is less about Appalachian dancing traditions than it is about Jesco's penchant for boozing, burglary and butane
huffing. The audience meets Jesco after a lengthy montage of Boone County squalor, its trailer homes and salvage yards. With a boom box clutched to his ear, Jesco hoofs over a rickety suspension bridge. The camera follows him to a trailer and enters his Elvis room, which Jesco claims saved his life from certain doom. He speaks openly to the camera about his life and its sorrows. He tearfully recollects a father who rejected him, then blithely mentions threatening his wife, Norma Jean, with a butcher knife for cooking sloppy eggs.
Though viewers may initially snicker at Jesco — or even recoil in horror — they can't help but like him. He's the real country deal, with a guileless manner in front of the camera and an act so unpolished that it's not quite folk art. It's hard not to sympathize with a sweet, intriguing oddball who holds out an unlikely hope for a future without violence and tragedy.
"You never know," he says just before the credits roll. "I might have a whole new life next time you see me."
For a while, he did. The documentary stirred a buzz on the public TV circuit. It won an American Film Institute Award and an Emmy. Tom Arnold invited Jesco on "Roseanne" for a cameo, which led to a sequel documentary, Jesco goes to Hollywood. The Kentucky Headhunters wrote him a tribute song called "Jessico." And promoters began to pay him $1,000 or more to travel across the country and dance the way his daddy taught him.
Then, things began to unravel. "I'm blessed with a gift, and it's almost killed me," Jesco tells me over the phone before his trip to Macon. His family, he grouses, grew jealous of his overnight success. An arsonist torched his trailer and destroyed an Elvis collection he estimates worth $50,000. He began to suspect that people — from the Kentucky Headhunters to his managers to Young — were making more money off his name than he made himself.
Jesco quit show business — he can't exactly remember when. He stopped accepting invitations to dance and hunkered down in Boone County. He isolated himself in a new trailer and spent his days watching deer graze in his front yard. The only family he kept in contact with were Mamie and Norma Jean, now a diabetic living in a nursing home.
Then, last Mother's Day, Jesco got a call from "Dirty Johnny" Harrison. Harrison promotes Bragg Jam, a one-day summer music festival in Macon. It honors two young musicians, the brothers Brax and Tate Bragg, who died in a car wreck while on tour four years ago. This year, Harrison expanded the festival to celebrate Macon and its Southern rock heritage. He booked more bands and more venues. And, a longtime fan of The Dancing Outlaw, he hunted down Jesco.
"I get scared to death when someone mentions a show," Jesco says. But he accepted Harrison's invitation. Maybe the Bragg boys' deaths touched him. Maybe it was the 1,000-plus bucks he'd be paid to sing and dance for 15 minutes at four Macon venues. His 47th birthday was coming up and he could use the money.
In July, Harrison dispatched two guys from Macon to pick up Jesco and Mamie, and asked a friend named Chad Evans to organize a group to get them back to West Virginia after the festival.
Jesco has just finished his first set of the evening, at the Shamrock, Macon's warehouse-sized Irish pub. He stands in the courtyard, starkly cast in overhead lights, surrounded mostly by men in Polo shirts who shout drunken adoration into his ear. One curly-haired admirer places a hand on Jesco's shoulder and pledges he and his friends will serve as his entourage. Jesco responds with a stanza from an Elvis song.
His Elvis costume hugs his body, and his fingers curl around a White Russian. A giant gold and ruby sequined eagle perches on his slight gut as if it were hatching an egg. Faded prison tattoos peak out of his cuffs like curious spiders.
I introduce myself as the reporter who spoke with him earlier this week. He says he thinks he remembers me.
Mamie's nearby, hawking Jesco merchandise — $5 apiece for Jesco buttons, autographed Polaroid photos and picture postcards. She's grown plumper since her brief appearance in The Dancing Outlaw. At 50, she looks more like her mother did in the movie than like the young rapscallion who gunned a truck engine and screamed, "I'm the meanest one and the biggest one — only the strong survive."
Now, she's netting a prospective customer. "It's five bucks. No money, no funny," she barks. What cash she makes she stuffs into a Ziploc bag, which she tucks back behind her bra.
My moment with Jesco is fleeting. His drivers spirit him and Mamie away in an SUV with tinted windows. From club to club they race, barely keeping ahead of the groupies who follow him to his next destination.
Jesco enters each club from the front and doesn't leave Mamie's shadow until his drivers pull him onto the stage. Stone-faced at first, he loosens as each audience cheers him on. They holler drunken coyote calls after every song and roar with laughter at his dirty jokes. No one seems to mind the quality of his performance or notice that his backing band, led by members of a Macon troupe called the Town Squares, struggles to find the rhythm to which he's tap dancing. Jesco sings only half the lyrics to any given song, and half those lyrics are from different songs altogether.
But the audience, from debutantes in tight red dresses to tattooed bikers, is enamored by the strange hillbilly. It's hard to tell whether the spectacle of watching the famous outlaw dance or his otherworldly aura excites the crowd. Either way, their hoots and hollers drive him to dance harder, sing louder and whirl his left arm in big circles like Elvis used to do. The King is flowing through his veins on a rush of vodka, Kahlúa and milk.
As his drivers try to tug him out the door of a bar called Riverfront Blues, Jesco emotes to the crowd: "I never in my life met people so good as you people down here."
The next morning, I volunteer to pick up Jesco and Mamie from their motel room. A pile of cheap luggage sits in the open doorway. Jesco and Mamie sit on the bed, looking up expectantly.
"We rocked four venues last night," Jesco says when I reintroduce myself. I tell him he looked good on stage. He cocks a weak, open smile. His bottom teeth look like a row of corn kernels bit in half to expose a yellowy core. He offers his hand and I grip it, only to release my fingers at the first touch of his limp grip. Sapphire eyes from the movie have dulled to gray and hide behind sallow lids. I offer to carry some luggage.
Jesco packs lightly. His Elvis costume is stuffed into a black garbage bag splitting at the seams. His daddy's tap shoes are crammed on top of his clothes, hairspray and toothpaste in a camouflage handbag. Safety pins do the work for a broken zipper. The sunglasses he had the day his daddy died lay neatly folded in the mouth of one shoe.
As we pull into Chad's driveway, Mamie asks, "Is that what we are riding in back to West Virginia?" An imposing recreation vehicle sits before us. No, I tell her. That's what we're riding in, I say, pointing to the white, 2003 Freightliner Sprinter 2500 SHC van Chad hired to make the trip back. They gasp fawningly; I tell them the real reason to gasp is on the inside.
The van is nicknamed "The Mobile Showroom" for good reason. Its passenger seats and cargo dividers have been ripped out. The floor is lined with slip-proof carpeting, the steel walls with red curtains and the seams along the roof with soft blue and white lighting. And, to make the trek to West Virginia more comfortable, Doug has thrown in a plush couch and three art-deco swivel chairs.
While Mamie talks about her aching feet and her grandkids, Jesco hides behind his sunglasses. "We rocked four venues last night," he again declares. He seems unsure of the five strangers who will drive him home — until he understands we only want to drink beer and have fun. Once the beer caps twist off and the van shifts to drive, he relaxes.
The sun's setting by the time we zigzag across the state line into Chattanooga. We are carrying Jesco back to the home he both loves and hates. He alternately describes Boone County as a "beautiful" place — where deer graze peacefully across his lawn — and his "prison" — filled with the lies of wicked people and bitter memories of the violent deaths.
Our living-room-on-wheels masks the highway as we party. The thought of a horrendous wreck flickers through my mind; it's quickly washed away with a swig of beer. The nine cases we bought Saturday cycle through our system with rude efficiency, yet never seem to reach our bloodstream. We pee on the side of the road like 2-year-olds.
Mamie is riding in the front passenger seat, her swollen feet on the dashboard. Jesco barely moves from the couch. His Kool cigarettes smolder into ash, which he rubs into his jeans as it falls off the cherry.
He chinks a quarter against his empty beer bottle and says he'd sure like another Bud Light. We oblige. He drains nearly three cases that way. He paws endlessly through his handbag because he swears he has some cocaine. I swig more beer and pretend I didn't hear that.
Halfway to West Virginia, it becomes clear that he does not know our names. But he keeps us laughing with his jokes; we laugh hardest at the ones we don't understand. He tells us he got kicked out of the circus for using a jackhammer to have sex with an elephant. He tells us his gut is really a catfish waiting to be born.
"Roseanne turned me into a dinosaur. When I left Hollywood, I left earthquakes behind."
I ask him how his TV cameo affected his celebrity. It's as if he doesn't hear me.
"They claim California's supposed to sink in the sea. And the moon will turn to blood — human blood, and the mountains will melt," he continues. "The only body that will be saved is older people that is Christians and little young babies just born. The rest will be cremated. Goddamn, it's scary."
Then, he tells me how he wants to sell cigar boxes full of ashes of everybody he's killed and cremated. He repeats this nightmarish vision every so often until I almost believe it.
Jesco talks as if stuck in a holding pattern, repeating himself until he segues into an entirely unrelated matter. Certain images — elephants, the devil, catfish, Charles Manson, the ocean — reappear like untamed apparitions. The punch line of an earlier joke might migrate into the text of a story about prostitutes. "It's like his life is on a 10-minute loop," Chad says.
Requests for clarification go unfilled; eventually we learn to laugh wildly at everything we hear because what we hear is so fantastically bizarre.
Sometimes questions do get through. He responds spitefully to questions about his family. They want nothing to do with me, he says, and he claims to feel the same toward them.
Even his mother? How is she? His face lightens as he winces. "She's holding out all right, I guess."
What about his brother, Dorsey?
Dorsey shot himself, Jesco says. He was drinking with friends when he put a gun he thought unloaded to his head. He jokingly dared his friends to stop him, then blew his brains out. Jesco came home that night to find a note telling him to go to his mother's house. When he arrived, he saw Dorsey's body in the living room. He lay in a paper coffin painted to look like wood.
Death comes up a lot when you talk to Jesco. His father's friend, the man who gave Jesco his late daddy's tap shoes, got drunk and shot himself in his own kitchen. His niece got stoned with friends, then died in a car wreck. His old guitar player, Wattie Green, died in Florida. Jesco doesn't even mention his three other sisters, all of whom are long dead from gunshot wounds or car wrecks.
"Mamie," he says, "get me the knife."
Finally, Jesco has found the cocaine he thought he'd lost. It's shoved into the bottom of a plastic water bottle. He has badgered me for hours about it, telling me how much he wants to take a bump with me. I tell him I'm not interested.
"It's just like drinking a whole lot of coffee at once," he explains.
Jesco drives Mamie's pocketknife into the belly of the bottle and saws around its circumference. He pulls out a clump of clear plastic Baggies twisted around a small, white nucleus. I ask him several times to wait until he's not in the van. He hands me the knife instead, which I fold and tuck under my leg. He carefully shreds the bags open and taps a chalky lump onto a newspaper. It sits there like a pile of misplaced kidney stones.
Jesco pulls a thick red straw from an Arby's cup and holds it to one nostril. Leaning into his lap, he makes the clumps disappear. His head tilts upward as he sucks at the van's stale air and falls into the couch. His eyes bore remotely into mine. I feel the butt of the knife pressing into the underside of my thigh.
We continue to drink.
It must be near 3 a.m. when the van starts shaking. The Kentucky roads are so bumpy that it's as if we're driving over a patch of turtles. My beers grow warm and swallow like bile. Jesco's face twists into drunken blue knots as he cackles at the stories he tells, and the meanings that are perceptible to his mind only. At the other end of the van, I huddle, along with Chad and two other guys, Kevin and Carmine.
We take a bathroom break inside West Virginia. Kevin returns to the van, to find Jesco sitting on the couch, his face showing silent grief. What's the matter? Kevin asks. Jesco answers that he's sad because he's thinking about his daddy. He claims he wants to kill himself and complains his Bud Light is empty. Kevin opens him a fresh beer. Jesco lights up with thanks.
I try to sleep, but the West Virginia roads shudder me out of my swivel chair. Jesco is leaning forward with one hand clasped against his face like some bedraggled penitent. Our twin beams light the road in front and illuminate the forest around us.
Mamie wakes and directs Doug's driving. The small town of Madison gives way to middle-class homes with trim lawns and Range Rovers in their driveways. We pass a floodlit factory, over some train tracks and up a mountainside. The two-lane road shrinks into one, thanks to a washout a week before. We creep past the traffic cones and orange machinery, and dive into the blackened dales of Boone County. Mobile homes sit in rows along the lane.
Mamie tells Doug to turn right. The van lurches from the pavement into a short gully forged by a trickling creek and finds a gravel path on the other side. Knotty branches bid us welcome by scraping across the roof.
Mamie's trailer is set back among the stout, old trees. We unload Jesco's luggage onto a trampoline next to her home and say our farewells. Mamie hugs me, and I notice how soft she is.
Jesco holds me tenderly and thanks us for the good times. He tells us to hurry back, and he'll get us some prostitutes.