This month the Richard B. Russell Jr. Special Collections Library’s book club is reading Paul Hemphill’s The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music. (A book the Chicago Sun-Times called “the best book ever written about country music.”) The book club meets Tuesday, May 26 at 5:30 pm, so today we’re running an excerpt from the book’s preface. Here Hemphill describes his personal connection to country music and how his father taught him what he really needed to know about it.
The best times we ever had together were when we were riding over the mountains at night. My old man would be leaning against his door, half chewing and half smoking an El Producto cigar, wiggling his toes in the sandals and thin white cotton socks that helped him bear the athlete’s feet earned from a lifetime of driving big trucks, hanging his beet-red left arm out the window and stiffening his pale right one at the elbow to make it easier to fight the belching four-ton Dodge around the curves, now and then looking in the rear-view mirror to check on the swaying trailer that was loaded to the ceiling with giant spools of cotton twine headed for the Goodyear plant in Akron. It would be three o’clock in the morning and we would be barreling over the eerie Blue Ridge Mountains, trying to make time before the sun came up and brought with it the tourists and “the boys,” as he called the weight-station cops. And the only noise other than the whining of the tires and the groaning of the motor came from the radio, which was tuned to a high-powered outlaw station that boomed all the way up from the Mexican border and played country music all night for people like us. XERF, I think it was, Villa Acuña, Mexico. A jakeleg preacher selling anything short of autographed eight-by-ten glossy photographs of Jesus, now and then jolting his audience awake with a terrifying cry of JEEE-zus!!! And the world-ah will not-ah be saved-ah until-ah it drinks-ah of the precious. blood-ah . . . JEEEzus!!! . . . Thank you, Sister Maybelline, for that inspiring Hymn of the Day . . . That’s one thousand baby chicks, friends, sex not guaranteed . . . Write Jesus, Post Office Box Twelve, Del Rio, Texas . . . For as long as He makes this offer possible . . . GLOW-ree Hallay-LEW-yah!!! And after the “preacher” had finished paying the bills he would slap another record on the turntable and maybe it would be a girl singer named Jean Shepard doing a song which was very popular then because the Korean War was on and there were at least half a million GIs over there who knew exactly what she was talking about—
Dear John, oh how I hate to write
Dear John, I must let you know tonight;
That my love for you has died,
Like the grass upon the lawn;
And tonight I wed another, Dear John . . .
—and my old man would maybe shift a little in the seat and glance over at me, half awake and bleary-eyed and trying to get comfortable against the rattling door of the cab, and he would twist the cigar in his mouth for dramatic pause and finally say, after mulling it over for a few seconds “Hell of a thing to do to some old boy, ain’t it?”
To do this book, I lived in Nashville, Tenn., “hillbilly heaven,” for nearly two months, where I saw a dozen performances of the Grand Ole Opry and countless recording sessions and television tapings. I also visited with Glen Campbell at the CBS television studios in Hollywood rode along with Bill Anderson and the Po’ Boys as they played a string of one-nighters in New England, sat in a tiny dressing room in Bakersfield, Calif., while son-of-an-Okie Merle Haggard loosened up his tonsils with straight bourbon before singing for the home folks, and sat in an isolated cabin in Northeast Georgia while an old mountaineer played his homemade fiddle the only way he knows how. In all, I traveled 18,000 air miles, interviewed about 150 people and listened exclusively to country music for seven months.
But now that it’s over and I look back, I can see that no amount of research could beat what I learned about country music from my old man, and from being raised in the South. Because country music has always been the soul music of the white South. It came over from Europe on the first boats, and the reason it survived in places like Appalachia and Canada and rural New England and East Texas and central California—and quickly died in places like Richmond and Boston and Philadelphia—is that the music, like the people who clung to it, was earthy and simple and conservative and, in its own peculiar way, religious. My old man, who came out of a hamlet in East Tennessee when he was thirteen years old and spent his whole life working the coal mines and the railroads and the truck lines out of Birmingham, came a lot closer to understanding Jimmie Rodgers (“Well, I’m goin’ to California/Where they sleep out every night”) than he did, say, Kate Smith, for God’s sake. So he listened to the country stations because they spoke his language, and he really couldn’t care less if most of the rest of the country did call it “hillbilly” music. The music was his music, and he liked it, and it did something for him when he heard it, and that is what music is supposed to be all about.
So this book isn’t so much about music as it is about people: the people it is by and the people it is for, and how and why. There has been a handful of books on country music, but their approach has been scholarly and/or historical. They have their place, of course. A lot of people would like to know what a shaped note is, or whether the three-finger banjo-picking style means three fingers or two fingers and a thumb, or what is the true origin of the steel guitar. Fine. But a banjo can’t talk. Scoopie Brucie Harper of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Nashville, Tenn., can. And does. Often, at length, and with soul, and I love him, whether he believes it or not.