Tim Ruttenber, better known as Deacon Lunchbox, was a gentle giant, bigger than life but kind as a saint. He was a brazen and scary loudmouth on stage, but a caring, soft-spoken friend in real life. He delivered his impassioned rants while banging on an old metal torpedo and wearing fake breasts, but his message was deep and intelligent. He was a bona fide Southerner who refused to conform to the standard signifiers of ignorance, isolationism or prejudice. Somehow he managed to maintain a balance and sense of congruence between his personalities.
Sadly, we lost Deacon at the age of 41, along with Jody Grind members Robert Hayes and Rob Clayton, in a tragic auto accident on Easter Sunday in 1992. But they have never been forgotten.
My earliest recollections of Deacon were from the crazy nights at Tortilla's on Ponce de Leon, where at midnight the eatery was called "the Mudd Shack," a coffeehouse for underground performance artists who just didn't fit into the local rock clubs. Deacon was a force of nature, more than 6 feet tall, burly, with a thick, red beard and a voice that rattled the windows. "He was one of the most important artists in Atlanta during a period of unparalleled progressive activity," says writer Doug Deloach. "At its best, his work evoked the soul-stirring, madcap, outlaw Southern identity of which he was so profoundly proud. He was fearless; as a result, he emboldened and inspired. He gave us words to live by: 'Life is an illusion, so you might as well make it a good one.'"
Around 1988, Deacon came to one of my gang's weekly NASCAR Sunday parties with Deloach, and our bond was cemented by our mutual love of the sport, way before racing exploded in national popularity. His devotion to the roots and traditions of stock-car racing were instrumental in shaping my own views, and stay with me today. Much to my chagrin, Deacon's casting of evil spells cost my hero Dale Earnhardt more than a few victories. Taking our party twice a year to the infield at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Deacon was the master of Sunday breakfast. His early morning coffee and eggs Benedict saved me from many a day of hangover misery.
Back when the Convicts and I had a fairly steady gig at the Austin Avenue Buffet, Deacon often attended our shows and would do a few of his poems, sloppily accompanied as we winged our way through some semblance of a melody. His performances were always a big hit with the crowd, and we took our act all over the city. And he is responsible for christening Atlanta's unique country music scene, which he called the "Redneck Underground."
Singer Kelly Hogan knew Deacon as well as anyone, having worked and toured with him on many occasions. "He knew what he was doing at all times -- all that showbiz was just dazzle camo, man, dazzle camo -- because then he would turn loose with the real deal -- his intrinsically Southern, hilariously intricate, and ridiculously nimble romance dance with words. He exalted the English language! He wined and dined words! He took language to Red Lobster! Without a coupon! Sex, art, nature, sly humor -- always with rhythm -- albeit 5/4 'Deacon time.'"
Deacon's influences reached far beyond the small circle of artists and misfits who regularly attended his shows. Kristi Casey, co-founder of the Savage Tree Arts Project, recalls her indoctrination into the cult of Lunchbox. "Deacon Lunchbox changed my life. When I was 16, I got all my crazy nerd friends to trip down to the Oxford bookstore for his book-signing/performance art event. He banged on a fishing pail, clobbered on a torpedo, blew our minds and made us think and laugh in a way you never got in Roswell. Deacon gave us hope that even if life and people didn't get any better, then at least there were modern troubadours pointing it out and making the world better in their own funny way."
As the Savage Tree Arts Project closes its month-long celebration of madness, what better way than to celebrate the art of Deacon Lunchbox? There will be a limited number of The Complete Lunchbox books and homemade CDs of Deacon's performances available at the celebration.