The Dancing Outlaw makes a run for the West Virginia border 

Jesco White needs to go home.

His sister, Mamie, is tired and her feet hurt. She's partied for three days and three nights. Her feet have swollen into small watermelons.

"I don't know what the fuck it is," Mamie says in a raspy voice, propping up her legs for inspection. "They ain't never got this big."

But Jesco is the Dancing Outlaw -- the star of a cult documentary by the same name. He has made many new friends this weekend. Damn it if his older sister is going to stop him from having a little fun.

"You can never have a sad moment around me," he declares. "Everybody who gets around me and my sister leaves with a heart full of joy and a mind full of laughter."

For now, Mamie is stuck with Jesco in Macon. But, with the help of five young men (myself included) and a Freightliner cargo van, they'll leave tomorrow morning for their trailers in the hills of Boone County, W.Va. First, Jesco must finish some business ... the kind of business he swore he'd never do again ... that business known as show business.

In 1990, a filmmaker named Jacob Young stumbled upon Jesco while hunting for D. Ray White, Jesco's father. D. Ray was a gifted clogger -- so good he supposedly could mimic masters like the late Gregory Hines on sight. He seemed a perfect subject for The Different Drummer, a series Young produced for West Virginia Public Television about the unsung geniuses and charismatic madmen of Appalachian country.

But Young came looking for Jesco's daddy a little too late. D. Ray had been gunned down four years earlier, while protecting his younger son, Dorsey, from a drunken assailant. His legacy might have died with him had his oldest son, Jesco, not started dancing himself, in his daddy's shoes no less. So Young turned the camera on Jesco and the legend of the The Dancing Outlaw was born.

The movie is less about Appalachian dancing traditions than it is about Jesco's penchant for boozing, burglary and butane

huffing. The audience meets Jesco after a lengthy montage of Boone County squalor, its trailer homes and salvage yards. With a boom box clutched to his ear, Jesco hoofs over a rickety suspension bridge. The camera follows him to a trailer and enters his Elvis room, which Jesco claims saved his life from certain doom. He speaks openly to the camera about his life and its sorrows. He tearfully recollects a father who rejected him, then blithely mentions threatening his wife, Norma Jean, with a butcher knife for cooking sloppy eggs.

Though viewers may initially snicker at Jesco -- or even recoil in horror -- they can't help but like him. He's the real country deal, with a guileless manner in front of the camera and an act so unpolished that it's not quite folk art. It's hard not to sympathize with a sweet, intriguing oddball who holds out an unlikely hope for a future without violence and tragedy.

"You never know," he says just before the credits roll. "I might have a whole new life next time you see me."

For a while, he did. The documentary stirred a buzz on the public TV circuit. It won an American Film Institute Award and an Emmy. Tom Arnold invited Jesco on "Roseanne" for a cameo, which led to a sequel documentary, Jesco goes to Hollywood. The Kentucky Headhunters wrote him a tribute song called "Jessico." And promoters began to pay him $1,000 or more to travel across the country and dance the way his daddy taught him.

Then, things began to unravel. "I'm blessed with a gift, and it's almost killed me," Jesco tells me over the phone before his trip to Macon. His family, he grouses, grew jealous of his overnight success. An arsonist torched his trailer and destroyed an Elvis collection he estimates worth $50,000. He began to suspect that people -- from the Kentucky Headhunters to his managers to Young -- were making more money off his name than he made himself.

Jesco quit show business -- he can't exactly remember when. He stopped accepting invitations to dance and hunkered down in Boone County. He isolated himself in a new trailer and spent his days watching deer graze in his front yard. The only family he kept in contact with were Mamie and Norma Jean, now a diabetic living in a nursing home.

Then, last Mother's Day, Jesco got a call from "Dirty Johnny" Harrison. Harrison promotes Bragg Jam, a one-day summer music festival in Macon. It honors two young musicians, the brothers Brax and Tate Bragg, who died in a car wreck while on tour four years ago. This year, Harrison expanded the festival to celebrate Macon and its Southern rock heritage. He booked more bands and more venues. And, a longtime fan of The Dancing Outlaw, he hunted down Jesco.


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