SWEET LIPS, Tenn. — It was sundown. The crisp, clear air in this West Tennessee hamlet stirred with sounds of wildlife--a symphony of chirping crickets and whistling partridges.
Sitting on an old bench and creaky chairs outside the clapboard Sweet Lips grocery were several town residents caught up in Tennessee Homecoming '86 fever.
The tiny town, population 85, has never had a parade, quilting bee, yard sale, bake sale or live band. But Sweet Lips is planning all that and much more this year.
"The biggest thing ever happened here afore, been a contest to see who whoops (spits) chew of tobaccer furthest," explained Royce (pronounced Ross) Kinchen, 75, a lifelong Sweet Lipper.
You can't get a haircut in Sweet Lips. There are no sidewalks, stop signs or street lights here. The post office closed years ago and the old two-room Sweet Lips school is now the Sweet Lips grocery.
But Sweet Lips has a new sign along Sweet Lips Road, a sign with the Tennessee Homecoming '86 logo, showing a quilted Tennessee state flag--red field with blue circle embracing three white stars--draped over an old wooden rocking chair.
All of Tennessee is celebrating a statewide homecoming this year. H. Jackson Brown Jr.'s song, "Comin' Home, Tennessee," can be heard from Mountain City to Memphis and from Anderson Bend to Ugly Creek.
Two well-known Tennesseans are co-chairing the yearlong homecoming: Alex Haley, author of "Roots," and the Grand Ole Opry's Minnie Pearl.
The homecoming celebration is the brainchild of Gov. Lamar Alexander, 45, who is finishing the final year of his two terms (the maximum a governor may serve in succession here). He announced plans for the homecoming in his inaugural address in 1983 and again at the National Governors Meeting in Nashville the following year.
"It's a simple idea. We're inviting everyone who was born in Tennessee, whoever lived and worked here and moved elsewhere to come home and visit in 1986," the governor explained during an interview in the 1855 Capitol modeled after a Greek Ionic temple.
He and Lee Munz, 53, executive director of Tennessee Homecoming '86, described special events planned or already held in some of the 741 participating communities, each indicated with red tacks on a 6-foot-wide map of the state in the governor's office.
"It's a statewide paint up, clean up and fix up," the governor said. "Each community and several communities within larger cities have at least one special project and one special celebration as part of Tennessee Homecoming '86.
"We have invited everybody to come home this year," he continued, "including Tennesseans who have become celebrities. It is the biggest celebration in the state's 190-year history."
The governor said 2,000 residents of Winchester wrote their hometown favorite, Dinah Shore, asking her to come home for their celebration on May 3. "Dinah's coming," he noted.
It's a community celebration--part history lesson, part hoedown, part family reunion, Munz noted, "a celebration of pride and heritage in Tennessee celebrating the importance of everybody's hometown."
For years the people of Boonshill, population 54, in the hills of Middle Tennessee, had talked about buying a decent fire truck. But there has never been enough money available in the tiny farm center.
This year, thanks to Tennessee Homecoming '86, they got the money. Peggy Bevels, 45, who describes herself as a "cold cream housewife," and the women of Boonshill staged a homecoming celebration to raise funds to buy the fire truck.
"We had a big community feed, a liar's contest, wood splitting and goat milking contests, a parade and a dance at the school house featuring two live bands," explained Bevels, who chaired Boonshill's celebration.
More than 2,000 people who formerly lived in and around Boonshill attended the turkey-and-trimmings feast along with family and friends of those living in the area now.
The homecoming raised $12,000, enough to buy a 1979 International fire tank truck that holds 1,600 gallons of water.
"Until now we had a 300-gallon mini-pumper, water enough only to fight a fire 15 minutes," said dairy farmer Loyd Helton, 47, chief of the 10-man volunteer department. "We don't have fire hydrants in Boonshill," he added, giving the new fire engine an appreciative pat. "But this should do us fine."
Alex Haley, 64, changed the title of his new book from "Henning" to "Henning, Tenn.," just to make sure the world knows exactly where his roots are.
Haley, co-chairman of the yearlong observance, had this to say about Homecoming '86: "I remember sitting on my front porch in Henning when I was a little boy, listening to my grandmother tell me stories about my ancestors, wonderful stories that eventually became 'Roots.'
"We need more front-porch storytelling because every time an old person dies, it's like a library burned down. We need to do more looking back. That's why Homecoming '86 is so important to me."