Born in 1970 in a tiny hamlet called Ellijay in the mountains of north Georgia, life started out for me on a very small scale. On the surface, my younger years transpired amidst typical small-town life, where the only fast-food joint was a Dairy Queen until McDonald’s came along–in my senior year of high school. Everybody knew everything about everyone where I grew up. A tight-knit community to say the least, Ellijay bundled me up in a sense of comfort and safety, and it definitely sheltered me from much of what was bad in the world. I’m thankful for that, but that shelter caused its own effects as I grew older.
Back in those days, I was a bit of a goofball and the life of the crowd when I found some capability to engage. I was largely a well-behaved kid, voted best dressed in the “Senior Superlatives” for 1988 and ended up graduating Salutatorian of Gilmer High School that same year. But I was a bit of an outsider.
That “outside” where I always engaged was church. The son of a “preachin’ daddy” and a “prayin’ mama,” my most formative years found the teenage version of me following my own call in leading small, independent Baptist congregations in worship–initially where my dad was pastor, but eventually launching out with my own ministry as a part-time evangelistic singer in the region. A single year of piano lessons in grade school led me to figure out how to play by ear, and, eventually, to sing by ear. And that’s where part of my real identity started to form. I can’t say I’ve ever been a great musician, but at a very early age I knew I wanted to be a good one.
After high school, I begrudgingly began a commuter-college experience at Kennesaw State University in north Atlanta. If I tell you I was exhausted with academics, that’s an understatement to describe that 17-year-old kid who was tired of forcing himself to excel in high school. It didn’t help that I was simultaneously not equipped and not ready to foray into a world that had to be far bigger than Ellijay. I initiated my college career to pursue an education degree because I had always just figured I’d be a teacher. But when reality met the road for that maladjusted teenager who struggled to tear himself away from his mom or the church, things got cloudy.
My grades were great during those first college days. And I made some important and life-long friendships. But I wasn’t happy. At all. When I whipped through my core college classes in a year and education classes started, I knew pretty quickly that something else was wrong. I hated those education classes. I wondered if I might be at the wrong college, so I transferred to North Georgia College in Dahlonega, Georgia, for my second year. But that didn’t help. A little on-the-job training as a middle school substitute teacher and pervasive misery in education classes started making the inevitable obvious. I was on a wrong professional path. And I had no professional “Plan B.”
Alas, I dropped out of college. With the distinct impression that teaching was not the right direction for me, I found the excuse to give myself some time to find out what else might be. I stumbled into the banking industry for the next 5 years–far longer to be away from college than I had intended and plenty of time to discern that I didn’t want to be a banker, either. But thankfully, those five years provided time to swirl in the world, meet some new horizons, flourish personally, evolve, grow up a little…to effectively almost find myself and my way in the world a little more successfully. It’s safe to say that I was no longer “sheltered.”
Those five years also fertilized my endeavors as a musician. Not as firmly rooted in the church as before (thanks not a little to some of that so-called “swirling in the world” I just mentioned), I had segued from church ministry to public performance with a few gospel music bands I helped form during those days. One band in particular got pretty popular. We made a little money from a few CD’s and performed for thousands in the northwest Georgia area.
I was finally starting to spread my wings. But I still had no college or professional direction.
And then, on a pivotal day in late 1994, a work supervisor and life-long friend pointed out what was apparently obvious, if not to me. “You’re such a good writer, Barry,” she alleged. “You know you always were in school and when we need anything written professionally here at work you’re always the first person we come to.” I took a few steps back and contemplated that random observation. And I had to confess, that supervisor was right. I finally owned that I was a good writer. Why had I never paid enough attention to that before? More importantly, how could I even make a career out of that?
I found a way.
In December of 1995, I left everything and everyone I knew in rural north Georgia behind and with confidence and a firm new sense of self and direction, I moved to downtown Atlanta to enroll in journalism school at Georgia State University. And whoa, my life changed. Suddenly, I was an enthusiastically acknowledged student and budding journalist in a growing academic environment. Scholarships and accolades started flowing in, and my writing was even published in the Atlanta Review of Journalism History–an apparent feat for an undergraduate student. I even moved to Spain for three months to study abroad for my minor in Spanish.
Indeed, I was wildly successful and happy in those last couple of years of undergraduate school. I eventually attained a B.A. in Communication (summa cum laude) from Georgia State in 1997. I was fluent in Spanish. I interned at thriving Atlanta television stations. I had seen and done things even in other parts of the world that I could never have imagined underneath the safe blanket that was Ellijay. I was convinced I was on a professional precipice and that I was equipped and ready to become the new television news celebrity for all time. I paid no attention in television production class, because I was certain that I was going to get a a great position as a television news reporter with my own photographer and editor and with easy notoriety soon on its way.
And I could not have been more wrong.
I did get a reporting job, but there was little notoriety or prestige or even ease about it at all. In 1998, I found myself living back in Ellijay with my parents and commuting to work at an off-the-map cable television news operation based in tiny Rome, Georgia, and doing my own shooting and editing. Humility became a sudden and abrupt new way of life after I had been a journalistic “golden child” at Georgia State. And that trend would continue for three years as I toiled away as a “one-man-band” beat reporter and fill-in anchor at CNWG’s 10News. Meanwhile, living in Ellijay again was having its consequences. Being back in that small town, old habits and old mentalities found a way of once again becoming the order of the day.
Many invaluable professional lessons were mine during those days. Most were far more valuable than anything I ever learned in college. I covered stories all over northwest Georgia, from any number of fires, robberies, accidents and elections to every kind of civic and government meeting you can think of. I learned about news. I learned about the audience. I learned about best practices. I loved every minute of it. After many years of being directionless and clueless professionally, I thought I had found my place.
I just wish my salary as a beginning television journalist would’ve allowed it to continue. Earning only $17,000 a year in that first job out of college, I learned a hell of a lot about more than just television news. I learned pretty quickly that I couldn’t afford television news. I was in dire financial straits. And I had to do something. Mounting living expenses and car payments and more forced me to leave the news business where I thought I had arrived and was getting such a great start. Looking back on it now, I know that I should’ve tried harder to find a way to stay in the business. It might’ve actually been easy. But being back in north Georgia was taking a toll. I was thinking smaller. The world was smaller. And I succumbed.
I left the news business and luckily landed a position in 2001 nearly doubling my salary as Public Relations Specialist and Grants Coordinator for the Gordon County Government, a beat I had covered as a television news reporter. But that was short-lived. That position was pretty quickly eliminated amidst political turmoil in the county. And that’s when the terms ‘lost’ and ‘directionless’ and ‘life-changing’ began to assume a whole other meaning for me.
I actually remained unemployed for a series of months. Indeed, the job market for television reporters/public relations directors in northwest Georgia wasn’t all that lucrative. I had a good time for that summer, and did plenty more swirling–all the while discovering that the world I was capable of swirling in was growing smaller all the time. I fell back on being bilingual and finally found a commissioned position selling furniture to Latin Americans in Dalton, Georgia, but I was terrible at it. I was flat broke. Things were getting bleak again.
In another pivotal moment such as has seemed to happen at repeated points in my life and always at just the right time, music came back into my life. But this time and for the first time, it wasn’t gospel. In 2003, I was randomly offered an opportunity to audition with the world-famous Station House Band performing live at the historic Chattanooga Choo Choo in Chattanooga, TN. The venue was a restaurant, and the role involved waiting tables while taking turns with other servers performing onstage with the band. I got the gig. And when I had only achieved limited success in the gospel music genre that I had been so passionately devoted to for so many years, pop music welcomed me with open arms. In short order, I relocated to Tennessee and began what would become nearly a decade of fairly lucrative live pop music performance. A whole new realm opened up for me in Chattanooga, including new opportunities to be seen and heard musically and more income than I had ever earned before. I quickly became a local celebrity of sorts.
Those years performing at the Chattanooga Choo Choo were great. It’s a chapter of my life that I am thankful for. But even though I loved getting to sing and emcee for a living, I knew something was missing. There was an itch I couldn’t scratch…a sense of professional worth I had truly never established for myself. I was constantly aware that when they day was done and even though I was a notable local performer, I was just a restaurant worker. And I was constantly under stress because I was getting older and I was fully aware that I couldn’t rely on my voice or my physical well-being to make a living in the restaurant business until I retired. Even the music wasn’t enough. I missed being a professional. I missed the news.
Eventually I fell into a depression over all this consideration, and alcohol became my primary passion. By 2010, the only thing I was really good at was drinking. My vocal capability was suffering, and so were my interpersonal relationships and my self-esteem. It’s no surprise that I lost my job singing at the Chattanooga Choo Choo and spiraled into an idle day-to-day existence working as a server in whatever restaurant would hire me–the very last thing I wanted to do with my life. I had no idea what to do about any of this situation. I had a 15-year-old college degree in journalism with no relevant work experience in as much time. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any way to make a living except for what I loathed–waiting tables. And it was while waiting one particular table that everything changed–again.
In the most welcomed and random encounter I’ve had since that epiphany about my writing when I was dropped out of college or even that opportunity to audition to sing at the Choo Choo all those years ago, a woman who happened to be an executive at a college I had never even heard of some 6 hours away from Chattanooga offered me the blessed chance to start all over again as I took care of her table one gracious summer night in 2013. “I don’t know you,” she acknowledged, “but in the course of this short evening I can tell, you’re so smart and are working so far beneath your capability. You need to make a big change. Find a new life for yourself. Go back to school. Get your Master’s degree,” she urged. “I can help you do it.”
She wasn’t misrepresenting what she could offer.
Only a few months passed and that is where you find me during this writing. It’s 2014, and I now live in Memphis, Tennessee and am in my second semester pursuing a Master’s degree in journalism at the University of Memphis on a graduate assistantship. By day I am copy editor and business manager for an internationally respected academic journal. And the rest of the time, I’m a full-fledged graduate student with a 4.0 GPA so far. Once again I left everyone and everything I know behind for a sparkling opportunity that miraculously presented itself. Once again I am in all new territory. My world had grown miserably small again when this opportunity surfaced, so, at 43, I feel as ill-equipped to navigate some of this landscape as that 17-year-old boy launching out from Ellijay for his very first day of college
But I know i’ve got this. And I know I can handle whatever comes next.
I know, because I have the memory of being a scared , small-town boy with nearly no societal exposure beyond the keys of a piano or walls of a church who eventually would call Spain home for a while. I have the memory of picking up a television camera to shoot a story with no idea how to use that camera, just like I remember having no hesitation to drive across Georgia to cover a high school shooting alongside the networks. I happily remember being celebrated as a pop singer, and yet I still hold on to disappointment that gospel music executives never paid attention to me. I remember losing short-lived but great jobs and settling for lesser, more enduring ones. I am truly sorry that I can’t forget that I tried to drink misery away for a while.
But through it all, I must acknowledge my persistent, blind fortitude rooted in hometown values and big city dreams that has enabled me to keep taking the next step, not even knowing where it might lead. Who knows what a Master’s degree, a possible new journalism career, or even music might have waiting for me around the corner. Based on my life’s course, I couldn’t even presume to know. But based on that same life’s course and the fortitude all its highs and lows have forced me to rely on, I know I can at least say…bring it on.