When asked about his upcoming performance at the Imperial Theatre, Augusta musician Larry Jon Wilson found himself unable to answer simply and succinctly.
Instead, he talked about the theaters that once populated Broad Street. He mentioned ticket prices and talent shows. He provided analysis of each establishment's relative strengths and weaknesses. He recalled specific afternoons. There's no reason, in Wilson's world, to answer a question, when telling stories offers so much more.
Whether on stage, guitar in hand, or sipping coffee on a warm spring morning, Wilson is a compulsive storyteller. It's something he's grown very proficient at over the years. He understands the rhythms of a well-told tale, the dynamics of action and insight.
It's the reason, he says, he found himself giving up what he calls "the company car life" at 34 to pursue a music career. It's the reason why today, more than 30 years after giving up a suit in favor of a guitar, he continues to write and record and, most importantly, perform.
"It's the most important thing," he said. "It's the reason I do this. I have things I feel like I need to say."
Those things, sometimes personal, sometimes poetic, have garnered Wilson the reputation of being a songwriter's songwriter. He has counted among his friends and fans legends such as Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newberry and Waylon Jennings.
He's been touted, perhaps unfairly, as an influential member of the outlaw country movement that gripped Nashville, Tenn., in the mid-1970s, and he spent many years quietly performing for faithful fans unconcerned that, until last year, he hadn't recorded a new album since 1980. He's as contradictory as the characters that populate his songs. He loves to perform but does little to promote appearances, and despite his storytelling acumen, offers only a fortunate few access into his private life.
"It's true," he said. "I'm no introvert but I am private. I like to say I find myself, quite often, alone in bad company."
Wilson is very much a man with memories -- memories of friends lost and found, of growing up in the segregated South, of an Augusta that once was. Turning from his coffee, he looked out onto Broad Street and watched traffic pass. He spoke of the old Richmond Hotel and the night Elvis Presley spent there. He spoke of trying, unsuccessfully, to organize a small-scale bus boycott. He spoke of living in Nashville, in Florida and in a house next to the old James Brown estate on Walton Way.
Memories, he explained, are the reason he agreed to perform at the Imperial.
"It's because of the theater itself," he said. "Charles (Scavullo, the executive director at the Imperial Theatre) called me and told me this thing was for the theater. It was an automatic. I mean, I have so many memories of that place, of performing there and going there when I was young. I remember going to see Shane there as a teenager and waiting for my brother in the alley."
Memories, for Wilson, are not a way of living in the past. He has no interest in that. Instead, they offer him perspective, a way of understanding that the more things change, the more they remain the same.
"Yes, things change," he said. "Things change but people, people remain the same. And what I've found is that people are, when you get down to it, pretty good. And that's not just here. It's everywhere. Trafalgar Square. Knob Hill. Everywhere. And for me, that means I can have a pretty good time no matter where I am."
Wilson said all those things -- the memories and contradictions, the faith in humanity and his hometown pride, fuel his music. He said as a result, performance is as personal as it is public.
"That's inevitable," he said. "I mean if it wasn't, why would I do it? Performance, for me, is the act of looking over a life that is now coming up on its last act. So I'm always going to take the opportunity to get on a stage and just do what I do for a while. And if people want to come and want to listen, well, that just makes it a whole lot better."
Wilson peers into his cup and gives it a swirl. Looking up, he speaks again.
"It's reflection that always gets me started," he said. "Reflection and then construction. That for me is the enterprise of writing. But I digress."
Stopping to consider what he has just said, Wilson -- singer, storyteller and raconteur -- breaks into a big smile.
"Alert the media," he said. "Larry Jon digresses."