Every weekend, south Louisiana readers can visit with Rheta Grimsley Johnson through her syndicated column, a weekly feature of The Sunday Advocate’s editorial page.
On Feb. 22, fans will get to see Johnson in person when she appears at “A Gathering of Readers and Writers” in St. Francisville. The popular annual symposium is sponsored by Art for All.
Other authors on the program include Anne Butler, Wiley Cash and Julie Kane. Ernest Gaines, a recent National Medal of Arts winner, will be present as a guest of honor.
Born in Colquitt, Ga., in 1953, Johnson has covered the South for more than three decades as a newspaper reporter and columnist, including stints on the staff of The Memphis Commercial Appeal and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Tired of city life, she left the Journal-Constitution in 2001 and moved to Iuka, a rural Mississippi community known to her readers as Fishtrap Hollow.
Johnson’s syndicated column about life in the South is published in about 50 newspapers. Part travelogue, part front-porch musing and part political commentary from a self-described “yellow-dog Democrat,” Johnson’s writings offer lyrical takes on culture below the Mason-Dixon line.
She’s no stranger to Louisiana. For several years, Johnson kept a second home in Henderson, just outside of Lafayette, recording her love affair with Cajun cuisine, music and folkways in an acclaimed 2008 memoir, “Poor Man’s Provence.” Since then, Johnson has also published “Enchanted Evening Barbie & The Second Coming,” a quirky account of her early years, and “Hank Hung the Moon,” her tribute to Hank Williams Sr.
Johnson’s Henderson connection deepened her familiarity with St. Francisville, too.
“I’ve been through there a million times when Don and I would drive from Iuka to Henderson. That was our favorite way to go because it was so picturesque,” Johnson said in a phone interview.
Johnson’s second husband, Don Grierson, died suddenly from a heart attack in 2009. She has since married Hines Hall, a retired Auburn professor of history, and travel remains a big part of her life.
“We travel a lot, and we’ve bought a (second) home in Pass Christian (Miss.),” she said.
Louisiana continues to show up in Johnson’s columns. She gave a big thumbs-up to the Crescent City after visiting the French Quarter Festival in 2012, praising the generosity of the residents.
“That’s one thing about New Orleans that never seems to change, no matter the occasion,” she told readers. “It has manners. Individuals, most of them, go out of their way to be courteous. Statistically, you may get mugged and murdered before you leave town, but otherwise you’ll be treated like royalty.”
Johnson was equally enthusiastic about the Louisiana Book Festival in downtown Baton Rouge when she visited the festival last autumn.
“As book events go, the Louisiana Book Festival is way up there,” she wrote. “Where else but Louisiana can you buy good jambalaya, hear rollicking live Cajun music, get the autograph of the Duck Commander’s preacher son and watch the dazzling blond wife of Blue Dog creator George Rodrigue spill the secrets behind the art, all in the shadow of Huey Long’s final resting place?”
For Johnson, the festival seemed like just another example of the state’s flamboyant spirit.
Here’s Johnson again: “Having spent a lot of time in this, the most colorful of states, in years past, I believe it to be Sutter’s Mill for creative fodder. I’ve covered an alligator funeral in Ponchatoula, interviewed a geriatric stripper on Bourbon Street and written about the gubernatorial election that pitted a former Klansman against the charming shyster Edwin Edwards. The bumper stickers all read, ‘Vote for the Crook; It’s Important.’”
In addition to her column, Johnson usually has another writing project going. Last year, she collaborated on a play about Hank Williams Sr. with educator, musician and playwright John Williams. The Hank Williams Boyhood Home & Museum in Georgiana, Ala., plans to stage the play soon.
These days, Johnson is working on a book about life at Fishtrap Hollow, “The Dogs Buried Over The Bridge.”
Last month, she celebrated her 61st birthday.
“I don’t feel 61,” said Johnson. “I feel really good. In a lot of ways, things are better now. I don’t give a damn about what anyone else thinks. There’s something liberating about writing what you feel like writing, and not worrying about what people will say.”