Good Ol' Girls
Wednesday, April 22, 9 p.m.
A good ol' girl is the kind of girl that's been to Gatlinburg—with a man.
A good ol' girl over 50 has had her hysterectomy "took out."
And a good ol' girl is NOT a vegetarian.
These are just a few of the rules proudly shared by the six-member, all-female cast of Good Ol' Girls, a musical based on the works of North Carolina writers Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle, with songs by Matraca Berg and Marshall Chapman. In April 2008, a performance at Cape Fear Regional Theatre in Fayetteville was recorded; that show makes its television premiere on UNC-TV Wednesday, April 22, at 9 p.m.
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill communication studies professor Paul Ferguson adapted material by both novelists—friends since Smith taught McCorkle in a class at UNC 31 years ago—into monologues that trace the life stages of Southern women through individual stories, matched with corresponding tunes.
"I would call it redneck feminism," says Smith, whose many acclaimed books include The Devil's Dream, Fair and Tender Ladies and Oral History.
Good Ol' Girls was set in motion by the friendship between Smith and Chapman, a countrified rock 'n' roller who met Smith in Nashville back in the '70s, when Chapman was a student at Vanderbilt University and Smith's first husband, James Seay, taught English there. (Smith is now married to writer Hal Crowther.)
"[Chapman has] written a whole book about those days called Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller,' with this fabulous picture of herself passed out in her vegetable garden, nekkid, on the cover," says Smith.
Not naked, mind you—nekkid. If anyone fits the description of a good ol' girl, it's Chapman, whose roadhouse rock provides some rowdy moments in the show.
Some time in the late '90s, Chapman had a fateful conversation with Nashville songwriter Matraca Berg, perhaps best known for Deana Carter's great 1995 hit "Strawberry Wine."
Chapman asked Berg about her current reading, and Berg raved about Smith.
"If my songs could grow into novels, I wish they could grow into novels like the ones that Lee Smith writes," Berg is said to have told Chapman.
Soon after, Berg proposed creating a musical based on a new song she had co-written with Randy Scruggs called "Good Ol' Girls." Berg asked Chapman to pitch the idea to Smith.
Smith loved the idea ("If I could carry a tune, I never would have written any books at all," she says) and one Thanksgiving, she approached her friend Ferguson, who has collaborated with her on other adaptations of her work.
"She presented it to me at the Turkey Day softball game," says Ferguson. This was an hour after Chapman and Smith spoke. Any possible resistance was broken down by some Thanksgiving Day Bloody Marys.
"We literally started working on it that day," Ferguson says.
However, Smith felt that the project needed a younger perspective, so she brought in McCorkle, whose Southern-themed books include July 7th and Carolina Moon. It fell to Ferguson to do the work of synthesis and adapting.
"The biggest problem was that they're all so prolific," Ferguson says. He re-read the works of Smith and McCorkle and familiarized himself with the songs of Chapman and Berg.
A workshop version of Good Ol' Girls premiered at the first North Carolina Literary Festival at UNC's Swain Hall in 1998. It was then honed into a two-act production that hit the road in 2003.
The Cape Fear Regional Theatre version that airs on UNC-TV is nothing fancy. It's all done seamlessly on one set that consists of a front porch, some chairs and a picnic table. The show's bandleader, Mike Craver of the Red Clay Ramblers, has it right when he calls the music "plain old rock and roll," and that's a compliment—check out Gina Stewart's guitar-pounding version of Chapman's "Booze in Your Blood."
There are plenty of laughs, of course, as well as somber spots about domestic abuse and deteriorating mental health toward the end of life. Even a humorous take on a Fuquay-Varina hairdresser who'll "recreate the latest styles of 1963" can turn unexpectedly poignant.
"It's a fun show," McCorkle says. "There's a lot of laughter, but it also turns a very serious corner."