"Look at that work; this is all carved from a single piece of limestone," he said of the ornate, moss-covered sculpture, a tombstone dating from the late 1880s and set in a tiny
Billy is an old friend, and he and I went road-tripping Tuesday, visiting a few tiny cemeteries south of
----It's 1972, Billy is in his early 20s, and he's just returned to his hometown of
Billy says sure, and after a half-day of training he embarks on what would become his lifelong career. He masters the sandblaster and chisel, the primary tools of the trade. He starts with simple lettering -- names, dates and the like -- and develops his skills to where he could "make a rose that looked good enough you'd think it had a smell," he said.
In the days before satellite mapping or even gazetteers, he navigates to out-of-the way cemeteries using simple maps and notes filed away in a recipe box stored in the "date-cut truck." Sometimes to find a specific grave in a cemetery he walks a pattern, usually three rows deep, back and forth between the silent sentinels until he finds the right stone. Or he looks for sprays of wilting fresh flowers stacked at the base, often hints of a recent funeral.
His appreciation for his craft grew in life stages. Stories from sextons added context.
Stories: Seven children from one family buried side-by-side, all dead in 1883, victims of some epidemic, smallpox, they say; a stone sidewalk leads to a space left empty in the center of a cemetery, all that remains of a tiny church, torched years ago, it's said, by a troubled youth; there's rumor of a slave buried beneath a tiny shed.
Over time, Billy absorbed the esoteric aspects of his trade. Sometimes lessons were as as simple as re-learning something his parents taught him years ago while decorating the graves of relatives for
"I'd finished carving a date and stepped back to look at it," Billy said.
The family happened to be out at that time, and a man walked up to Billy, took hold of him and moved him back a bit.
"He said, 'This is an awfully sacred place, there's an awful lot of love buried down there, and I don't appreciate you standing on it.'
"That'll give you some perspective."
----"To be honest, when I first started out in the shop it was just cutting names and dates in stone," he said. "Then I cut the first stone of a person I knew, and that changed everything. And the first time I cut an infant marker after I had children of my own, I never saw a marker for a young person the same again."
Billy is well-know around these parts as an accomplished musician, most recently playing with
"There was this lady at
"I thought, 'There you go, Marie.' I hope you can still hear it, wherever you are.'
Billy came to see ritual in the finality of cutting the date of death into stone.
"On the contract it actually says 'Final Date Engraving,' the last date of that person's life, and cutting in that date is a final act that happens without pomp or circumstance," he said. "No music, no people standing around watching. You're all by yourself, and you're putting the final date of a person's life in stone. You are the last audience to that last act of that life. It's humbling to play that role."
Billy is done carving stone. And he's also finishing what he says will be his last album. (The cover photo was shot at The Joynt in
And although he's no longer cutting stone, he'll continue to visit cemeteries, walking the rows, reading life stories carved in polished granite or worn marble or sandstone.
"I can't help it; I'm drawn to them," he said. "When you go to a cemetery, you're on some sort of hallowed ground. The old sections particularly are like art museums of sculpture. You come across things that are truly soul-moving.
"I don't care what your spiritual beliefs are -- that's a moot point. It stirs something inside you."
Contact: 715-830-5926, [email protected], @ECPC_DanL on Twitter
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