A Tennessee Storyteller
He lures you in with a story and learns from your laughter, the way you cock your head to listen, and the character of the stories you offer in return just what kind of person you are. In the course of a meandering conversation, he takes your measure and, somewhere along the way, Roger goes from calling you by the name you were given to giving you the name you've earned - your nickname. To be given a nickname by Roger Brashears is the Lynchburg equivalent to being knighted.
Lynchburg, Tennessee, and Jack Daniel Distillery have a story to tell, and Roger Brashears has been telling it for over four decades. Roger is the storyteller for the remote Moore Valley town and its treasured world-famous distillery, which, as the oldest registered distillery in the United States, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Roger has held his position at Jack Daniel's for over 46 years. When he began with the company in 1963, he gained entrance as a “temp” after passing a typing test. Shortly after Roger was hired as a permanent employee, his easy-going, down-home personality and soothing voice were determined to perfectly portray the image carefully tended for Jack Daniel Distillery by Brown-Forman Corporation, the corporate owners since 1956. Roger has many titles: Storyteller, Official Historian, Spokesman, Publicist, Promotion Director, and Director of Public Relations. "I have every title you can get without getting a raise," jokes Roger. He participates in the Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue Contest, a two-day event held annually. Roger also hosts special guests for some "family-style cooking" at Miss Bobo's Boarding House, owned by Jack Daniel's, where he has the distinction of being its last star boarder.
"I was born and raised in Oakdale, Tennessee, a town of 150 people, located 35 miles west of Knoxville. It was there that I, as a boy, began my storytelling, which is a Southern tradition," Roger comments. "I used to sit on my grandparents' front porch in a rocker with my feet on the railing and holler across to the neighbors (an activity I learned from my grandfather and his friends) with the news of the day and interesting anecdotes. Today the men in white coats would come and take you away if you did that. My first stories were about how I used to go to the river in the summertime to take baths and my daily trips to the post office two miles away. I can still remember talking about my adventurous fun on railroad tracks and the river bridge (there were no worries about safety then . . . unlike today). When I was in high school, my family moved to Harriman, a temperance haven of 15,000 people five miles down the road. I told more and more stories as I had a bigger audience, and the response was great."
"Daddy was a ridge runner in the bootleg business when he met Mother. Mother reformed him, and he changed his profession to carpentry. Many years later when I took the job at Jack Daniel's and told Mother, she was not happy, but eventually accepted it. Although she never spoke about my place of employment, I found out many years later that Mother always kept in her handbag the letter Frank Sinatra had written to me, which thanked me for something I had done for Frank in my capacity as an employee of Jack Daniel's."
Roger never tires of telling the fascinating story over and over again about how a young Jasper Newton "Jack" Daniel, a runaway from home at the age of six, distiller by 13, and innovator his whole life, pioneered the oldest registered distillery in the United States. Roger relates that Jack Daniel's Old #7 Black Label is today the leading seller of whiskey in the world. He points out that Jack Daniel had the foresight to move the distillery to a source of limestone water flowing from a cave spring in Lynchburg after he bought the business from Reverend Call, who took him in when he left home. Reverend Call was his mentor, teaching him about business through Mr. Jack's work in his mercantile store and also how to make good whiskey. Reverend Call came to a crossroads in his life and decided to devote all his time to his ministry, so he sold his distillery to Jack Daniel. Roger likes to relate that Mr. Jack was an independent character with a mind of his own. During the Civil War, he sold his whiskey to both sides, and when everyone else went to bottling in round bottles, Mr. Jack chose square ones. In 1904, Jack Daniel quietly took his relatively unknown whiskey to the St. Louis World's Exposition to enter it in an international spirit competition. He returned with the World's Fair Gold Medal for "Best Whiskey in the World." In the end, Jack Daniel's spirited nature got the best of him. When he had trouble with the combination to his office safe, he kicked the safe in frustration. At first he suffered just a limp, but gangrene set in, and he died from it some time later. "Jack Daniel was all of five feet, two inches tall," says Roger, "but he was the biggest man around here in his day, and he's pretty big around here right now."
Although Roger's job is to share his knowledge of the history of Jack Daniel, the distillery, and Lynchburg, Roger himself has become a very important part of that history. There are vintage "Brashearsisms," such as his answer to the question, "How many people work at the distillery?" Roger's reply is "about half of us." When asked to comment on how young Jack Daniel came to live with Reverend Call, the Lutheran minister who made whiskey, Roger quips, "I guess you could say Call was Lynchburg's leading spiritual advisor." And he likes to say, "We got some good old boys down here who make barbecue sauce so good it'll make your tongue jump out of your mouth and slap your eyebrows off." Roger's comment, when asked why the company stuck so close to its roots, is, "We don't believe in kicking a pulling mule." His self-deprecating humor is evidenced as he relates how a Tennessee senator walked into his office one day and exclaimed, "You have the messiest damn office!" Roger simply laughed, as he is known for being a pack-rat with papers and memorabilia piled high on his desk and surrounding tables - that is part of the charm of Roger Brashears.
"I am, and always have been, a country boy," says Roger. He has spent a lifetime in one idyllic place and raised a family there with his wife of nearly fifty years. His work, which has an element of fun about it, educates a global audience about an aspect of American history steeped in Southern tradition. Roger revels in simple pleasures, such as his annual Fourth of July family barbecue, a relaxing dinner at Miss Bobo's Boarding House, and "A Good Sip."
© Copyright 2009 Preserve America