Yesterday Ben Wiley Payton was late for our gig. Ben isn't usually late. So many bluesmen are. So much so, that this wasn't the first time I sped away from the venue 30mins before showtime to play Find the Missing Bluesman.
Ben's place doesn't have good cell reception. Like so many in the Delta. So the obvious Delta solution is you go find their house. Even if you don't know where it is.
Which means calling a friend who directs you "down 49, past Hopson, past a sign, then look for the white building set back from the road. You can't miss it." #thatssodelta amiright? Might as well have directed me to "the place between the cotton fields."
15mins and 1 U-turn later and I'm there.
His car is in front, and after I ring and knock and shout to him, it turns out his neighbor is in back. (With a pistol.)
I tell him Ben's missing a gig, so I'm coming to see if he forgot and still wants to play, and to check on him. (I've learned in Mississippi that's what we do: we check on each other.) His neighbor says Ben doesn't miss a gig. And lets him know when he's going out of town.
I explain it's just a small gig in town, not worth mentioning and maybe even easy to forget. He explains Ben got a little woozy a couple weeks ago climbing a tree to hang a bird feeder. So I don't turn around and go home -- we both go back to ring the doorbell again and knock a little louder.
Ben rents from a musician friend who's also remote and not yet picking up his phone. I call the musician's friend, a nearby venue owner; he has a key. (We're all extended blues-family and neighbors here.) There's some back and forth on whether to call the sheriff for a wellness check.
There's a dynamic here of me as the white Yankee virtual venue owner, feeling more than a little bit foolish, not wanting to seem overdramatic just cuz a bluesman's running late, not wanting to intrude, not wanting to cause this scene that is in all likelihood more than a little bit overblown.
Yet there's this neighbor who says they say hi across the fence every morning, and he didn't see Ben today.
There's talk of Covid hitting quickly and reminders that with strokes or falls, time matters.
So we call the sheriff and the friend with a key. In this small town where we don't like to make scenes, my mask hides my blushing at the anticipated embarrassment of discovering I dunno, Ben went for a walk. There is indeed a scene of vehicles pulling up outside, as we struggle to get past locked doors inside.
And find Ben is gone.
Only a few hours before.
In this case, time didn't really matter; he was gone.
Still, time mattered: Ben lived alone, and had I not come knocking, had we neighbors not talked or friends not taken each other's calls... I might've turned around and gone home figuring another bluesman just flaked.
I almost did.
I'm glad I didn't.
All this to say: check on your neighbors.
Say good morning over a fence. Look for small signs your loved ones are okay. Call for help.
There's so much to say about Ben; Scott and Bill and so many friends and family and blues-family are finding the right words. I don't know what they are...
I'll say this: Ben's set list is still sitting atop his desk, with his guitar beside the door, ready to go.
Bonesman may have said it best: "If anybody gets to go to heaven, Ben does."
Now we know where Ben's gone.
Photo: Ben's last gig live from Clarksdale, for the Kennedy Center with Scott Baretta. Credit: Roger Stolle.