Trees that tell a story, songs to save your soul: recent discoveries

The trees of William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak: You come to see the house, to see the rooms where Pappy wrote, slept, pondered his great thoughts, but you can get lost on the grounds, too. Those trees, good lord. How stately. How anguished. How they twist and soar and seem about to strangle themselves. How they split open and dare you to look inside. The shapes they’ve achieved—or maybe assumed; you half-expect to look away and back again, and see them changed, the tall tricksters. It’s like they know what was being created inside that old house, all those years, and they’d best carry on in the best tradition of the place.

“Been All Around This World” podcast: Exploring folklorist Alan Lomax’s seven decades of field recordings. So, prison work songs from Southern penitentiaries, Italian tuna fishing chants, Haitian carnival street music, and so much more to maybe, just maybe, save your hurting soul. Beautiful and powerful stuff. Bold and playful, wry and rousing. The human experience in little two- and three-minute bursts. The host is the excellent acoustic guitar player Nathan Salsburg, curator of the Alan Lomax Archive.

“The Hot Spot: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack”: Smoldering John Lee Hooker blues, with Miles Davis’ horn making like smoke over the proceedings. From a 1990 neo-noir directed by Dennis Hopper. Not sure I even need to see the movie. I’ll just close my eyes and listen to this.

Photos taken during a visit to Rowan Oak, 8.26.22.

High water and shameless plugs (An ‘Everybody Knows’ excerpt, w/ playlist)

In about five months, if the world lasts that long, my Southern-fried satirical novel EVERYBODY KNOWS will be published by JackLeg Press. Here’s a short excerpt—and a Spotify playlist:

This is a story of rain and more rain, high water and the search for higher ground—Beulah Land, or that bluff in Memphis. God is high up in heaven, watching, with silver flask and furrowed brow.

This is the blues, played on a single strand of broom wire, with the world about to end.

This happened, just not yet.

Elvis all over again (For the King on his death day)

August 16th — Elvis’ death day, and the birthday of Luther Gaunt, the fictional rock ‘n’ roll singer from my novel LONG GONE DADDIES. Here’s a riff from the book, on this the fated day:

We played street corners for change and small bills. We played subways, city parks, traffic jams, the sidewalk outside Yankee Stadium. I told the ball fans that Babe Ruth and Elvis Presley died on the same day, in different years. I said I didn’t know what to make of that, but it’s true. August 16. I said that day should be celebrated like a holiday, a holy day, mourned with kegs and candles. Even without me saying it was also the day of my own birth, hands reached into pockets and coins were dropped in an upturned Yankees cap. It was gas money, rambling fuel. We had a long haul ahead.

We fancied ourselves this brand-new thing, this unheard sound, this unsung song, all the while knowing we were the oldest story there was. We were Elvis all over again—that thick stew of country, blues, and gospel, whatever we could scrounge.

Which made us what? A broken record? Fine.

More songs about spuds and angels (On Big Thief’s ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You’)

Songs about snakes and kissing, angels and infinity. Songs about crows and rivers, ants and plants. Potatoes, too, of course. Lyrics that free-range from poetry to pure corn, “To hit the stage and blush wild, laughingly / Crush the rage and rush time tappingly” to “I wanna be the shoelace that you tie,” and always sound just right. A song (“Red Moon”) that sounds like it belongs on side two of Neil Young’s Hawks & Doves — my favorite side of any Neil album, or practically any album, period. Another song (“Love Love Love”) that sounds like Neil with Crazy Horse. A 20-song double album that sprawls and ambles, burrows and soars, stops to light up and throw one back. Lovely.

Single Barrel Old Nordan (Reviewing ‘The Sharpshooter Blues’)

Decidedly sweet, deceptively pungent. Notes of love, death, sex, cordite, and peach pie, with hints of hope, reconciliation, and Prell. A mouthful, a revelation. Take it neat, or watered down with tears of joy and heartbreak, both. A most satisfying finish.

Liar, liar, pages on fire (Reading Barry Hannah)

Lately I’ve been re-reading LONG, LAST, HAPPY, the sort-of “Barry Hannah’s Greatest Hits” collection from 2010, a few months after he died. Hannah may only be my fifth-favorite Mississippi writer (after Faulkner, Welty, Lewis Nordan and Larry Brown, in more or less that order) but that probably still lands him in my all-time Top 10 or 15. Say what you will about Mississippi, but damn.

I read Faulkner for his wisdom, his great tangle of words, and the profound mysteries they hold dear. I read Welty for the lovely sentences, so carefully assembled. I read Lewis Nordan, who set out to “write about love and death in a comic way,” and did so like nobody ever, to summon up some of that writerly courage to be different, singular, on the page. I read Larry Brown, plainspoken Larry Brown, for characters so real the pages of his books smell like cigarettes, dive bars, catfish, sweat, and fumes.

I read Hannah because I’m too scared to drive a motorcycle or jump out of an airplane but I’d like to feel how that feels.

If you haven’t read Hannah, what the hell’s wrong with you? No, let me try that again: If you haven’t read Hannah, start with “Water Liars,” maybe the most heartbreaking short story you’ll ever read with a fart joke on the first page. Hannah’s stories are full of heartbreak, even as they’re also funny as hell. Often, you don’t hear the hearts breaking for the sound of your own laughter. He’s like Nordan, then, only different. They’d make a great double bill, but in a Little Feat and Captain Beefheart sort of way. I think you know what I mean. If not, listen to “Fat Man in the Bathtub” and “I’m Going to Booglarize You Baby” back to back.

Anyway, if you somehow don’t have a copy of “Water Liars” in one volume or other, and would like to hear it instead, maybe read by “a rather mysterious Welsh-sounding lady,” as Slate called her, I’d suggest this episode of Miette’s Bedtime Story Podcast. It’s grand.

Meditations on America on the Fourth of July, 2022

I love my country, like a little boy
Red, white, and blue

I love my country, stupid and cruel
Red, white, and blue

  • “Cruel Country,” Wilco

“ … no other time in my life has caused me to doubt American democracy so profoundly as I doubt it now. The Supreme Court has issued opinions tying the hands of liberal state legislators trying to protect their citizens from gun violence while simultaneously handing to conservative state legislators total control over their citizens’ reproductive rights. The final ruling of this session hamstrings the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to fight climate change.”

  • Margaret Renkl, Nashville-based contributing Opinion writer in The New York Times

“There is nowhere in the USA quite like America’s South; there is no place more difficult to fully understand or fully capture. … The people who walk that land, both black and white, wear masks and more masks, then masks beneath those masks. They are tricksters and shape-shifters, magicians and carnival barkers, able to metamorphize right before your eyes into good old boys, respectable lawyers, polite society types, brilliant scholars, great musicians, history makers, and everything’s-gonna-be-all right Maya Angelou look-alikes—when in fact nothing’s gonna be all right.”

  • James McBride in “Kill ’Em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul”

“This is a Southern Gothic, mock-apocalyptic, shrunken-epic satire of politics, race, religion, sex, climate change, literature and the creative process, technology and the news cycle, country music, the blues, crime, capital punishment, and the proud American predilection for violence, set at flood stage.”

Where in the world are the joyful motherfuckers
The fearless lovers, the rainbow shooters
The wild acceptors, the hopeful sinners
The gentle teachers, the true forgivers?

  • “Joyful Motherfuckers,” Allison Russell

The Ballad of Molly O’Ghost (Small-Batch Fiction)

A bit from my (alas, unpublished) newspaper novel, COME AGAIN NO MORE. The time is a few years back, when the layoffs were coming in waves. The occasion is a wake for the latest victims, among them the narrator, freshly erstwhile reporter Charley Pogue. The setting is a place that’s as sacred to some newspaper folk as a newsroom …

I turned toward the back of the bar, took three steps, and about crashed into the barmaid. Molly O’Ghost, we called her. She was carrying a tray with beers, but still managed to catch me before I fell. She spun me back in the direction of the pisser, all in full stride, without spilling a drop. It was like ballet, with thicker ankles. Molly was an old woman, scowled all the time, never had a kind word to say. We adored her.

Photo: Earnestine & Hazel’s, on South Main in Memphis, a few doors down from my fictional newspaper bar, called Little Blind’s.

How dark is it? (Not so dark that you can’t read)

Three things I’m liking right now:

1. The universe, giving me hints — like, hey, asshole, when was the last time you read some Annie Dillard?

It’s been a while. “The Writing Life” is a book I return to every few years, for motivation and mental sustenance. It’s a kind of eternal flame, for a writer. But yeah, it’s been a while. I actually have two copies, one in a slim, standalone volume and another in “Three by Annie Dillard,” a fat collection that also features “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” and “An American Childhood.” I confess I haven’t read those two.

So, the universe, those hints: I’ve come across references to Dillard in both of the books I’m reading now. In Michael Ondaatje’s “Divisadero,” a character quotes a line of Dillard and calls her “That marvel.” Then there’s “The Edward Abbey Reader,” in which he twice drops her name in “The Author’s Preface to His Own Book.” First, Abbey notes how a reviewer once “attacked me as ‘smug’ and ‘graceless’ because of a careless remark I let drop about Annie Dillard’s theological nature writing,” in his essay collection “Abbey’s Road.” A page later, Dillard is mentioned in a list of writers “whom I respect” but who had at the time achieved more critical acclaim than commercial success. (The list also included Joan Didion and Thomas McGuane. Put me on a list with those two and commercial success can go hang.)

Finally, the book I finished just before taking up with Abbey and Ondaatje was Irish writer Kevin Barry’s first story collection, “There are Little Kingdoms.” To read Barry is to hear his voice, but I wanted to actually hear him speak, so I found a podcast (“Top 5 Books with Shane Coleman,” on Spotify) in which our man from County Limerick, in the west of Ireland, shared five of his favorite books. Damned if Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” wasn’t among them.

The universe has spoken. (I do answer to hey, asshole, when it’s the universe speaking.) So to the bookshelf I go, to pick up that used copy of “Three by Annie Dillard” that’s been sitting unread for far too long.

2. Kentucky bourbon (Four Roses Small Batch, currently).

I’m not going to bullshit you and say I can actually pick up woody notes of toffee and saddle leather. I’m just going to tell you that a glass of bourbon, neat, soothes me in these savage times like nothing else can.

3. Charlie Musselwhite, 78-year-old Mississippi-born master of the blues harp, covering Guy Clark’s “The Dark,” swapping out Fort Worth in the final line in favor of a place closer to his home and heart:

How dark is it?
It’s so dark, the wind gets lost
How dark is it?
It’s so dark, the sky’s on fire
How dark is it?
It’s so dark you can see Clarksdale, Mississippi, from here

BONUS CONTENT: Another connection between those books I’m reading: The name “Divisadero” comes up in Abbey’s “best of” collection. In a piece called “Sierra Madre,” he comes to a point on a canyon rim, “called Divisadero, meaning ‘overlook.’ ”

In Ondaatje’s novel, a character says:

“I come from Divisadero Street. Divisadero, from the Spanish word for ‘division,’ the street that at one time was the dividing line between San Francisco and the fields of the Presidio. Or it might derive from the word divisar, meaning ‘to gaze at something from a distance.’ (There is a ‘height’ nearby called El Divisadero.) Thus a point from which you can look far into the distance.”

It’s the idea of division, and of distance, more so than a street in San Francisco, that inspires Ondaatje to name his novel “Divisadero.” The street doesn’t really play a role in the — I just about said “plot,” but remembered this is Ondaatje we’re talking about. I think he just likes the word, the feel and sound of it, what it suggests. It’s a sort of mental sustenance for the reader.

My kind of writer.

Write free or die

If anyone asks (no one has, as yet) for my advice on writing, it goes like this: “Write the book only you can write.” Because otherwise, why write? Why bother? Why sit your ass at the keyboard day after day, doing the hard work of a writer (and it is hard, and not just on your ass), except to create something new and different or otherwise original? Be singular. Anything else is just stamping license plates.

Edward Abbey gives more or less the same advice in his preface to THE BEST OF EDWARD ABBEY: Don’t pander. Write with passion. The rest will work itself out, if you’re a serious writer writing serious books.

And then he says this, which is pure Abbey:

Be of good cheer, my fellow scriveners! Ignore the critics. Disregard those best-selling paperbacks with embossed covers in supermarkets and the supermarket bookstores. And waste no time applying for gifts and grants — when we want money from the rich we’ll take it by force. The honorable way.

Death before dishonor, as it were.

Live free or die.

Ghosts and Truckers

I finally got around to seeing the Drive-By Truckers live. They were loud and glorious and sent me home drunk on some of my favorite songs of the last twenty-odd years. That’s befitting what I’ve elsewhere called the greatest American rock band ever. I won’t bother with a review because this photo captures the concert, and the power of live music, better than (I can’t believe I’m typing this) words. But in the spirit, here’s the opening of my own (alas, wordy) attempt at rock ‘n’ roll, the novel LONG GONE DADDIES …

Some nights, we have the road to ourselves and the radio sings only for us. We play our shows and tear-ass out. Tonight, it was this little dive bar in a town we took to calling East Motherless — nobody there but two old boys shooting pool for beers and a long-haul trucker we all swore was dead. One night, we played to an empty room, couldn’t even scare up a ghost. But we play, no matter. We rock and then we roll. The soundcheck and the fury, the power chord and the glory. Then we load our gear into a muddy-brown Merc with a little trailer behind, and we’re off. Slinging gravel, filling sky with road.

Photo above: Drive-By Truckers, May 12, 2022, at Graceland Soundstage. The linked Instagram photo is credited by Patterson Hood to @missycurtis90.

Reading Faulkner’s ‘Sanctuary’

The first Faulkner novel I ever read, possibly because I was feeling brave enough to finally try the old man and it wasn’t such a fat volume. I bought it many years ago at Faulkner House Books, in Pirate’s Alley in New Orleans, and I still remember the strange look the woman there gave me when I said it was my first Faulkner and I needed something to read on the plane ride home. That look — like I’d decided to try alcohol after a lifetime of abstinence and was fool enough to start with trip out to the Old Frenchman place for a jug of Lee Goodwin’s bootleg hooch.

Drinking to Remember (Small-Batch Fiction)

From my Kenyon Review Online story, “The Newspaper Wake,” and the novel, COME AGAIN NO MORE. They’re having a wake after the latest round of layoffs at a fictional Memphis newspaper. Charley Pogue, reporter, freshly erstwhile, is talking…

I remember elegies and requiems. I remember toasts and chants. I remember blues songs about the midnight crawl and the dead rat swing. I remember someone, it may have been Donleavy, who covered city hall, produced an actual dead rat. He paraded it through the bar, holding it by the tail and addressing it as our esteemed editor in chief. Most everyone remarked upon the likeness of rodent to man, though several allowed as how the rat was a slightly more handsome fellow and carried just less of a stench, and far fewer diseases. We cursed the editor in effigy and then we drank some more to our fates and then we broke into old stories about the time when …

Don’t be dogged by rejection

I’m not a rejection junkie. I don’t wallow in them. You send out stories and mostly they come back, mostly with form rejections. You could say it’s not personal, but it is. They don’t want YOUR story. That’s the game, though. It’s stacked against you. You’re a writer. You’d best have a thick hide, and a good dog for company. Cuss a bit and move on. Laugh, if the rejection strikes you as laughable, as sometimes it will.

Last year in this space, I wrote about the journal that rejected a story and then immediately asked me to subscribe, because it “really helps keep us going, and is a great way to keep in touch with our mission, which is always to reproduce the variousness of the impulse to write as a means of increasing the availability of that variousness, for writers.” Now that’s pretty fucking funny, you have to admit.

This week, I had a story rejected by a journal, which I won’t name, because I’m fairly nice guy. The rejection began in the usual way, going on about how the story wasn’t right for the publication, about the decision not being a reflection on my writing, and about the selection process being highly subjective — all perfectly legitmate reasons, except the one about it not being a reflection on my writing; how can it NOT be? But anyway … then came this doozy, which made even my dogs howl with laughter:

Writing is hard work, and writers merit some acknowledgment. This note doesn’t speak to that need.

Huh? What? Really?

So buck up, writers. Bear on. Most of all, keep writing. I can’t say what you’re writing is worth a damn — I haven’t read it. But I feel sure your dog loves you, and it, unconditionally. This blog post speaks to that.

World gone right (Bob Dylan’s new book)

I guess the world is going to have to totter and wheeze along a few more months, if it can. Bob Dylan has a book coming out Nov. 8.

News of “The Philosophy of Modern Song,” a collection of some 60 essays about songs by others artists, thrills me for all sorts of reasons. I love Dylan’s writing style, the cadence and strut of it, how he pulls words from deep weeds and deeper wells, from out behind your ear. Dylan the prose writer is sly, crafty, and half or more of the pleasure of reading him is in the delivery: His money pitch is the knuckleball. Yet it all goes down easy, and you learn so much from the man — he really could quit the day job.

Dylan on Dylan is what we crave, of course, but he’s a notoriously untrustworthy narrator — he aims to tease. He’ll tell us personal stories, as in 2004’s wonderful “Chronicles,” but who knows what’s true and what’s not? (That’s true of any memoir, you know.) I don’t blame Dylan, mind you. I admire him all the more for it, and enjoy the way he messes with us. The man’s an artist, not a fucking vending machine.

But have you ever noticed? He’s at his best as a writer when the subject is someone other than Dylan. My favorite is the Dylan of the “World Gone Wrong” liner notes, where he riffs on “Stack A Lee,” the Mississippi Sheiks, and Blind Willie McTell’s “Broke Down Engine,” like so:

… it’s about variations of human longing — the low hum in meter & syllables. it’s about dupes of commerce & politics colliding on tracks, not being pushed around by ordinary standards. it’s about revival, getting a new lease on life, not just posing there …

This is Dylan at his most honest and open, I suspect: unguarded, wild, going electric on the page — writing about other musicians and their music. That’s what this new book promises to be. Bring it on. Along with promised essays on the likes of Stephen Foster, Elvis Costello, Hank Williams and Nina Simone, here’s hoping he takes on Charley Patton, Tom Waits, Memphis Minnie and John Prine. But hell, it’s his book. Bob, as ever, can write what he wants.