By M. Scott Morris
TUPELO – A solid argument can be made that Jesse McAlister owes his life to the band Widespread Panic.
On April 13, 2002, McAlister was driving from Fayetteville, Ark., to Meridian when he fell asleep at the wheel.
“It was 4:30 or 5 in the morning,” he said. “I was going through Grenada.”
The resulting injuries put him in a coma for 27 days. He has a tracheotomy scar in his neck from the ventilator.
“I’m a big Widespread Panic fan. I’ve seen them 96 times,” said McAlister, 31. “My grandmother and mother started playing their CDs nonstop, and that’s when I woke up. I don’t know any more than that, but that’s what happened.”
His love for the band helped change his life several years later, too.
McAlister earned a general business degree from Mississippi State University, and came to Northeast Mississippi to work with finance companies.
The money was good, but the work wasn’t for him.
He had a buddy, Perry Gregg, who often traveled with McAlister to Widespread Panic shows. Gregg was a barber in Tupelo at the time, and he suggested that McAlister get into the hair-cutting business.
“He was the guy. He talked me into it,” McAlister said. “It actually was not a bad idea.”
With financial help from his grandmother, Judith Ford, McAlister went to Starkville Barber and Hair Design College.
About a year ago, the Pontotoc resident opened his own shop, complete with barber pole, on Highway 6 at the Lee-Pontotoc county line.
It’s been tough, but that was to be expected.
“Other barbers tell me it’s two years when you start making money,” he said.
The location has its pluses and minuses. Low overhead goes in the positive column, but he’s not exactly in a population center. McAlister said he’s been picking up two to three new clients a month.
“I’ve got some regulars,” he said. “I’ve got some guys who come from Hamilton, Ala. A guy brings his son. I’m not sure why he does it. I’m just going to say, ‘Thank you.’”
His shop is a one-chair operation. He bought the chair used, and it has an ashtray in the armrest. He has a TV, and magazines, including Sports Illustrated, Reader’s Digest and Cycle World, are stacked on a table in front of a small couch.
When he gets a client into the chair, he knows it’s all about them.
“What I do, basically, is I find out what they want to talk about,” he said, “and that’s what we talk about.”
McAlister also has his own stories to tell for anyone who wants to listen, and he’d certainly be pleased if a client brought up Widespread Panic.
“But I’ll tell you, they aren’t really good on CD,” he said. “With Widespread Panic, you’ve got to see them live.”