Mama Tried

By  |  June 1, 2017
Mama Louise Hudson of the H&H Restaurant in Macon Mama Louise Hudson of the H&H Restaurant in Macon

From John T. Edge’s “Local Fare” column, Issue 34 (July/August 2000)


 

In April 1969 a scraggly bunch of hippies made their way north from Jacksonville, Florida, to the central Georgia town of Macon, a quiet citadel of redbrick churches, fading antebellum mansions, and row after row of mill houses. They came at the behest of music promoter Phil Walden, who had made a name for himself—and for Macon—managing black soul artists like Otis Redding. Still reeling from the death of Redding a little more than a year before, Walden was in search of the next big thing. And he wanted this band in his town, under his watchful eye, far out of harm’s way. “When they come to Macon,” Walden told a reporter, “all they can do is eat fried chicken and make good music.”

By the time the Allman Brothers Band hit town, the Summer of Love was already two years past. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were dead. Watts was in ashes. Nixon was in the White House. The Chicago Seven had been indicted. And yet Macon was still asleep.

“The revolution came late to Macon,” says Newton Collier, who once played horns for Redding’s band. “It took the Allman Brothers coming to town to shake things up.” The interracial troupe of six were a sight to see on the streets of town: hair cascading down their backs or mushrooming skyward; faces obscured by bushy muttonchops and droopy mustaches; love beads and bear claws around their necks; bell-bottom jeans riding low on their hips.

“Nobody in Macon had long hair then,” the Allman Brothers roadie Red Dog Campbell recalls. “When we moved into a house down on College Street, all of us would be sitting out on the porch, and traffic would line up both ways just so people could take a look at the hippies. People would be jerking their heads all around, breaking their necks just to look at us, yelling things at us. We had to look out after each other. Back then, if you saw one of us, you saw three or four. . . .

“One of the only places we really felt at home was down at Mama Louise’s lit­tle restaurant. At the H&H, they didn’t care if we were white or black or purple. Mama didn’t say anything if we were trippin’ our asses off. Now she might tell me to come in the back door instead of the front when I was messed up, but really she just fed us fried chicken and loved us.”

 

The late ’60s was, of course, a heady time to be a rock ’n’ roller. Free love. Communal living. Cheap dope. A feeling of camaraderie that came with being part of the counterculture. But for all their swagger and bravado, for all the talk of drugs ingested and women seduced, the boys in the band were just that: boys, overgrown teenagers far from home, far from their mamas, set loose in a strange town. Of the original six, none were natives. Duane Allman and his younger brother, Gregg, were born in Tennessee; Dickey Betts and Butch Trucks in Florida; Jaimoe Johnson in Mississippi; and Berry Oakley in Illinois.

For the most part, the band stuck close to their self-styled “Hippie Crash Pad” that summer. Just a short walk down the street was Rose Hill Cemetery, a ram­bling antebellum graveyard of Italianate terraces dotted with marble statuary, carved into the bluffs of the Ocmulgee River. The cemetery proved to be a sanc­tuary for the band, a place to gather in the early morning hours and drink Ripple, smoke pot, maybe play a little acoustic guitar. Here, in the moonlit shadows of listing tombstones and spreading magnolias, the band com­posed the blues-rock songs that would make them famous. And before three years passed, Duane Allman and Berry Oakley would be interred here, side by side, each the victim of a motorcycle crash. In the years that followed, the time spent at Rose Hill would take on an eerie significance.

A few blocks in the opposite direc­tion, in the midst of the black business district, was the headquarters of Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records. One block west, on Forsyth Street, was the H&H. “It was the place to go for soul food in Macon,” recalls Walden. “It was, how should I say this, economical. And when I brought the band to town, that was the place they were sent when they were hungry.”

The H, as regulars called it, wasn’t much to look at. “Back then it was in an old gas station,” Campbell tells me. “The front room was something like a radiator shop. In the back, Mama had set up a couple of tables and a counter with four or five stools. There was a big old floor fan to cool things off and a jukebox full of Clarence Carter and Wilson Pickett songs. That was about it, but man, it was a beautiful place to be, just beautiful.”

Mama Louise did more than feed and nurture a ragtag group of musicians, says the keyboard player Chuck Leavell. “She felt the spirit of the time. Blacks and whites were working together, playing music together. It was almost like a religion. And Louise’s cooking was a sort of soul food sacrament.”

Years before, while still living in Daytona Beach, Florida, Gregg Allman had made visits to a similar restaurant part of his pre-performance ritual.

“It was just what you’d expect, an aqua green, one-story building with red, white, and blue signs in the windows, with a screen door that wouldn’ t quite shut and a big fan on the ceiling,” former bandmate Tommy Tucker told a reporter back in 1973. “We’d always order about six or eight barbeque sandwiches. Gregg thought that eating this soul food would give his voice an extra edge. It was sort of like a superstition with him. If he didn’t eat soul food, he wouldn’t have himself together that night.”

 

This spring I went back to Macon in search of the ghosts of the Allman Brothers and the scents of Mama Louise’s good home cooking. I was on familiar ground. I had attended grammar school a couple of blocks from the College Street flophouse that the band first called home. I remember standing on the playground, my fingers hooked in a chain-link fence, watching the parade of hippies that always seemed to be shuffling by. I remember the motorcycles that roared by late in the afternoon, trailing a plume of patchouli and petroleum.

In the company of my father, I ate meatloaf and fried okra, ropy collard greens and candied yams at the newer H&H, the one on the ground floor of a stolid bunker of a building, just across the street from the original location. The upstairs was home to the local bricklay­ers union; next door was a beauty shop. In my mind’s eye, I can see Mama Louise bustling about the orange and yellow dining room, her soft brown face framed by a puff of coarse black hair. I remem­ber the sadness in her eyes, that devilish sidelong smile she flashed when you said something that tickled her. I remember the incessant boom of the jukebox, the rattle of the speakers as the first few chords of my favorite Allman Brothers song, “Statesboro Blues,” filled the room. To this day, the bright taste of her sweet potato pie still dances on the tip of my tongue.

I found her where I left her: at the stove, an oversized, misshapen serving spoon in one hand, a thick china platter in the other. “You want gravy on that rice, honey?” she asks a stoop-shouldered man perched at the counter.

“Yeah, Mama, gravy, a whole bunch of it,” comes the reply. She drenches the rice, hands the plate over to a waitress, and turns to dish up the next order.

 

Louise Hudson was nearly forty when she met Gregg and the rest of the band. Born in Youngstown, Ohio, she moved south with her parents to Warrenton, Georgia, when she was just six weeks old. Her father farmed on shares, picking cotton when the crop came in, doing odd jobs during lay-by time. By the age of ten, Hudson was cooking for the family, her bare feet planted on a wooden peach crate so that she could reach the fire, stirring pots of black-eyed peas and butter beans, baking skillets of coarse white cornbread and tins of gooey pecan pie. Life was hard. Choices were few. She was married by the age of twenty and separated soon after.

In 1952 she set out for Macon with Lucy, the first of her four children. “My job was waiting tables and cooking down on Broadway for a man named McClinton,” Hudson tells me, seated for a moment at one of the tables that dot the linoleum-floored room. “He had a place called Good Eats Café. It was a soul food spot same as mine now.” By 1959 she moved up the street to the B&L Snack Shop, where she further honed her skills.

In 1968 Hudson and her first cousin, Inez Hill, opened the cafe that still bears their initials. “Those were crazy times,” she says. “That was back during the time when they were trying to integrate. There were all these longhaired boys hanging out down at Phil Walden’s place. Some people wanted to make a fuss about it. I didn’t pay much atten­tion until one afternoon a whole bunch of them came in together. They acted like they were afraid or something. Two of them—it was Berry and Dickey—finally came up to the counter. Dickey told him, said, ‘Ask the lady for some­thing to eat.’ Berry looked at him like he was crazy, and they went back outside. I was watching them, trying to see what they were up to. After a while they built up their nerve and came on back in. They asked me, ‘Lady, you don’t know us, but would you fix us two plates? When we get back off tour, we’ll pay you.”’

At this point in the story, Mama Louise looks up at me, then drops her head low, almost to the tabletop. “Those boys were hungry,” she says, shaking her head slowly. “Wasn’t nothing bad about them. But all I did was come out with those two plates they were asking for. I felt like I was doing something wrong, but that’s what I did. A couple of weeks later, they come back in, asking could they have something to eat. I told them yes, but it won’t be no two plates and six forks this time. All y’all is eating.”

 

The Allman Brothers struggled that first summer. “Money was real tight then,” Gregg told me. “We had about three dollars a day for food, beer, everything. By the time we had some cold drinks, well, you could just about forget it. We were all skinny back then, real skinny. I guess if it hadn’t been for Mama Louise, we might never have made it. Back then, a plate cost $1.25, and I’d dare you to finish it. She never asked us to pay when we didn’t have the money, just put it on our tab, and kept putting it on our tab, and kept putting it on our tab. She called us her boys, and we called her Mama. I’ll love her till the day I die.”

In time, the band repaid its debt. By late 1971 their new album was climbing the charts, and their shows were selling out larger and larger halls. Mama Louise soon became a Sunday night fixture at the band’s new quarters, a Tudor-style mansion north of downtown known as the Big House. Some nights she cooked; other nights it was Big Linda, Berry Oakley’s wife. When Dickey Betts mar­ried Sandy Bluesky in a ceremony that included, among other rites, the sacri­fice of a wild duck, Mama Louise was there, too.

And when the band headed to California on a leg of its summer 1972 tour, she boarded the plane with her boys. The initial plan was for her to cook at a Los Angeles press party, but she was having too much fun to think of work. “I just went around with the band,” she told a reporter back in August of that year. “We didn’t do much sightseeing. We mostly just loafed around the hotel and went to the pool and the lounge. . . . I love the Allman Brothers’ music and that sweet voice Gregg has behind it. Every album they make, they give it to me.”

On the cover of their second album, Idlewild South, the band included her in the credits: “Vittles: Louise.”

 

Today, Louise Hudson’s little restaurant is claimed as hallowed ground by the Allman faithful. The walls are covered with photos of the band: Duane on a lake bank, fishing pole in hand; Gregg and Duane, asleep on a tour bus; Dickey and Mama Louise, arm in arm. There’s even a stained glass mushroom—a nod to the band’s drug of choice—hanging in the front window. And though band member sightings are rarer these days, she still keeps in touch with her boys. “Now when they come by, they bring their families,” says Hudson. “When they do, we just close down the restaurant and have a big party.” In the pantheon of Allman Brothers Band belief, Mama Louise is now revered as a sort of saint, a kind­hearted caretaker of wayward hippie souls.

On my way out of town, I stop off for one last meal: baked ham, creamed corn, rice and gravy, and snap beans. As I work to sop the last of the gravy from my plate, I fall into conversation with a fellow in an Allman Brothers t-shirt. He is quiet, almost reverential in manner, a fellow traveler. When I ask him how he came to eat at the H&H, he begins reciting the very story Mama Louise told me just the day before. The only thing is, he embellishes the tale just a bit. The way he tells the story, Jesus fed the multitudes with a few loaves of barley bread and a string of fish. And Mama Louise fed the Allmans with a couple of drumsticks and a mess of greens.


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John T. Edge has served as an Oxford American columnist since 1998. His book The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, which Jack Hitt calls “the smartest history of race in America in a generation,” was published in May.