It's a long story here in this town tucked in the mountains of far northeast Tennessee. If you set a spell, they'll tell you the whole thing.
Jay O'Callahan, 47, a New England storyteller, will tell about crazy Old Man Denniker, who loved Halloween too much, who wanted more than anything to go into town and "scare someone half to death, maybe more."
Jackson Gillman, voice dipping and breaking like the ocean off his native Maine, will tell the Ballad of Willie, who "just came back from being drowned, if it's anything to you."
Peninnah Schram, 50, who learned tales at the knee of her cantor father, will tell a Talmudic story about how she chooses which story to tell.
Attorney Betty Jean Skinner will tell about how she decided to drive 12 1/2 hours from Fenton, Mich., to attend this year's 13th annual National Storytelling Festival here.
And, if you can catch him long enough, Jimmy Neil Smith, 38, restaurateur, chief festival organizer, former journalist, former teacher, former mayor, will tell about how he started the festival here 12 years ago.
Lot of tales here -- four circus tents and a graveyard full, in fact. For this year's festival, held last weekend, there were more listeners than ever. More than 3,500 people drove in from 23 states, including California, Florida, Colorado, Ohio and Texas, and settled into tiny Jonesborough to hear tell.
Smith admits that maintaining the accessible atmosphere of the first festival is a struggle. That one was held on an autumn Sunday afternoon in 1973 around an old horse-drawn wagon in front of the courthouse.
The festival is fast becoming a rite, not only for "a serious relax" as the Tennessee hills soften toward gold and maroon and the air hints briskly at fall, but also for some of the serious business of storytelling.
Librarians, educators and fallen-away yuppies -- all passionately devoted to the tale and, after a single visit, to the festival -- renew acquaintances, relate job opportunities and reassure themselves of the vigor of their calling in the era of music videos.
"It's the intimate coziness and knowing everybody that brings me back," said Kathie Meizner, 34, a Montgomery County, Md., librarian who came with her husband. A visitor for six of the last seven years, she takes home tales for her children's storytelling program.
Far from being a professional gathering, the festival featured tents fragrant with smells of wool, pipe tobacco and freshly cut grass and areas overflowing with the enchanted of all ages.
Steve Burchett, 29, a computer salesman from Rockford, Ill., and professed yuppie, said he was bewitched. "Quite honestly, I didn't expect to care for it at all," Burchett said while standing in line to buy a funnel cake, a waffle-like confection heaped with fruit and whipped cream.
"I came just to appease my wife," he said. "I just thought it would be a bunch of old people twice my age sitting around telling boring stories. But they're great! These people are able to bring out the imagination that, sometimes, sitting in an office day after day, well, I didn't even know it was still there."
Burchett exhibited serious signs of addiction as he waited 20 minutes, anticipating the funnel cake. Just two people shy of gratifying his hunger, his face clouded. "I don't think I'll be able to wait for my funnel cake," he said before dashing off. "I've got a session starting."
The town, home to the festival's sponsoring organization, the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling, could not have been better conjured as a location by the best tale-teller. Jonesborough claims to be the oldest city in Tennessee, with 2,850 residents and half a dozen active churches.
Main Street passes a majestic county courthouse and is lined with a dozen shops in two- and three-story brick or wood buildings, many with porches. Most of the shops are operated by local people who also have tales to tell.
Townspeople talk of the still-simmering " 'Ugh' Controversy" about whether the town's name ends "boro" or "borough." Officially, as of 1981, "ugh" is it, but the town hall, post office and most of the stores retain the other form.
Up the hill from Main Street, alongside white, clapboard houses with linens drying on wraparound porches, is the Old Jonesborough Cemetery. Visitors trek up Cemetery Hill to sit, blanket-wrapped and shivering in the inky night, and be scared witless during the festival's ghost-story sessions.
This year, Chuck Larkin, 53, his mustache waxed and twisted into two tiny tusks, told of the encounter between John and Elvira and Hank, a headless farmhand who couldn't settle into his grave without his head.
"I tried to see a psychiatrist about this, Elvira," Hank said, "but you know they won't talk to you if you ain't got no head."
The dean of the festival is unquestionably Ray Hicks, a teller of indeterminate age from the rural North Carolina hills, the only teller with back-to-back, hour-long appearances in the festival's main tent.
He hobbled on stage in blue coveralls and a khaki fishing hat and sat in a chair. A technician adjusted a boom mike, and Hicks looked across the tent, grinned, and said, "Well, I've made it back." The crowd exploded with cheers.
Hicks told a meandering tale about his childhood love for the beautiful, black-haired girl who lived down the hill. Somehow, during his encounter with the girl, he lost his britches and acquired a slop bucket on his left foot.
"After that, when I used to go by her house, I'd go wide into the forest," he said.
When he came to a line he particularly liked, Hicks would pause, and burst into his own nearly silent laugh, squeezing his eyes shut.
Helen Green, 76 and blind, nodded knowingly as Hicks talked, occasionally laughing heartily.
"I didn't know we had anything like this left," she said.