Even with longer life expectancies, there's no such thing as an average nonagenarian, but all it takes to tell that Lidabell Beagles is special is a handshake.
At 93, her fingers have a strength that belies their seeming frail delicacy, but it's not until she puts them to the strings of a mandolin that the years really start slipping away.
As she sits in the armchair of her LaFayette, Ga., home, Beagles' hands walk up the frets as she launches into an instrumental rendition of "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue," a favorite among foxtrotters of the 1920s.
Standing next to her, her only son, Steve Slack, 71, and his wife, Ginger Slack, 65, follow her lead at a tempo that dancers of the period would probably have found challenging.
"Momma loves to play," her son laughs. "She will start [songs] so fast that we can't get the words out. We have to constantly slow her down."
That she's playing at all is remarkable, not just because of her age but because, for more than half a century, she didn't touch an instrument.
Beagles was born in 1919 in Ten Mile, a tiny community in Meigs and Roane counties, a few miles east of what is now Watts Bar Lake. At age 7, her family relocated to Rossville, Ga., where they took up jobs at Peerless Woolen Mills.
At family gatherings, music was the primary form of recreation. Indoor plumbing was still a relatively novel concept, Beagles remembers, and there was no radio to gather around, but the family sang and played to entertain themselves.
On her home's organ, she discovered she had a keen ear for music, Beagles says. While someone else pumped the bellows, she would pick out melodies without benefit of sheet music.
"Anything I heard ... if I heard it a time or two, I could play it," she recalls. "I found that out right away, as near as I can remember. It's just a talent the Lord gave me."
At 13, she was given a mandolin. She's not sure where it came from -- she assumes it was a gift from her parents -- but playing it came naturally to her, even without lessons.
Within two years, however, she fell in love with her neighbor and fellow Rossville transplant, Abraham Slack. At age 15, she married him, went to work at the mill and eventually started a family. The mandolin lay forgotten in a box above her garage for 60 years.
"I was young and foolish," Beagles admits, laughing.
She divorced her first husband, then married again. Her second husband, Tom Beagles, passed away in 1993. After years of taking care of him as he aged, she says she needed a new outlet for her energy, so she turned once more to music.
At first, she was worried her talent might have faded over the years. Beagles says she never learned to ride a bike, but for her, picking up an instrument again felt almost as natural.
"It all came back," she says.
Delighted by the discovery, she decided she needed someone to play with and invited her son to bring over an all-but-forgotten guitar he kept around the house. Slack says he wasn't even aware his mother could play, but she showed him a few chords and then was off like a rocket.
"Of course, I slowed her down," he says. "I don't have the ear that she has."
Within a matter of months, Beagles decided to try out for The Valley Singers, a local gospel and bluegrass band comprised of retired musicians who perform primarily at retirement communities and nursing homes. Holding a pick in her hand for the first time in decades, Beagles says she remembers feeling nervous as she drove to her informal audition.
"I was scared at first that I couldn't play with them, but I did," she says. "After the first song I played, [they] said, 'You're a keeper,' and I've been with them ever since."
More than 20 years later, Beagles is the only musician from that night who is still performing with The Valley SIngers. After they retired, Slack and his wife eventually joined the band, as did vocalist Betty Black and resonator guitarist Eric Geissinger.
The Valley Singers have regular monthly shows at eight area nursing homes, where they play for an audience of "little old people," as Beagles, now 93, describes them with a chuckle and a wink.
Geissinger, 66, a retired TVA chemist, recalls first hearing Beagles about 15 years ago at a monthly meeting of the Chattanooga Area Friends of Folk Music. Even in her 80s, her speed on the frets was impressive, he says.
"She'll play songs where we're all hanging on just to keep up with her," Geissinger says. "I don't know how she plays as well as she does, but she's got the will. I think the music is what keeps her going."
Beagles hopes to keep up the tempo. With the exception of injuring her left shoulder about five years ago, she has had few medical issues to overcome. She still retrieves the mail every day and drives herself around town. Three years ago, she was pulled over doing more than 80 mph in her Mercury Sable.
In October, Beagles will turn 94, but she says she has no intention of repeating the mistake of her youth by putting down her instrument again.
"Life would be dull without music, wouldn't it?" she says, stroking the blond curves of the mandolin in her lap. "I hope I don't ever give it up. I hope I die playing it."