Jan 26, 2016

The Writer's Prayer

William, give me the bourbon to accept with gentlemanly grace
the criticisms of the parts which might be changed
the clear eye and chops to change the parts which must be changed
and the old-fashioned horse sense to distinguish the difference

Cheers and Amen

Jan 20, 2016

The Ballad of Molly O'Ghost (Small-Batch Fiction No. 23)

And we never sang grace
and never ever took a knee

-- "Grace for Saints and Ramblers," Iron & Wine

Molly O’Ghost was a tough bird but we didn’t mind the guff she gave us. We didn’t come to the bar to have our cheeks brushed or be called dear. We didn’t come to escape life but to look it deeper in its one good eye. We came to drink and cuss our editors and the ink barons who owned us. We came to rail against the fates, and revel in the long hours and low pay, and to make like money was nothing to us, like we had a higher purpose. Wick was right. We really thought everybody else was playing with dolls and toy trains, and that game with the dice and little, tiny soldiers. We were doing the important work. We were the chroniclers of the crucial days. We thought even our drinking had a higher purpose. It was church to us. It was more: The bar was an extension of the newsroom. It was our locker room, our clubhouse, our secret bunker hideout. We could be the worst of ourselves there. We could let our bitter natures roam free. We could be bad, in the bar – or talk about being bad, play songs on the jukebox about being bad. Ah, our bitter natures. Our better angels, too – they came to the bar, as well, to be corrupted by the likes of us. That’s how we thought. We did. We thought that’s what made us charming, all of it, but secretly I think we knew better. Sometimes we’d even vow to change. I told Molly one time I was going to stop being an asshole. She said, “They got a patch for that, Charley? Gum?”

-- from my novel, "Come Again No More"

Dec 13, 2015

Pilgrims and strangers traveling through this wearisome land (The 2015 Soundcheck & the Fury Music Awards)

So they kicked you out of paradise
grinned and locked the garden gate
What those devils called your greatest sin
Gabriel and I called your great escape

-- "Pilgrim (You Can't Go Home)," Dave Rawlings Machine

Sweet tea, white lightning
Breaking hearts and not minding

-- "Where the Night Goes," Josh Ritter

We'll let freedom ring while the blacktop sings
in the sad Baptist rain for us

-- "Sad Baptist Rain," John Moreland

Later, when the booze had given out and the freeloaders all gone home, and the last record played, and it was just old friends now, the night turned solemn, and serious things were said, warm and deep and heartfelt things, and then a welcome stranger did appear, as if by providence.

-- from my novel, "Come Again No More"

Give me train smoke and dark hearts, high water and skeletons dancing. Give me Mississippi River queens trying to play the saint ("This far down the river you pretend you're whatcha ain't) and dead Cairo kings. Give me a story that begins, "Everything’s predictable in little river towns / Barges and tobacco, drinking straight Kentucky brown." Set out for parts unnamed, for reasons unknown; light out into the darkness in cracked boots and broken dreams, and I'll follow. Tell me tall tales of low-down doings, and I'll listen.
Sing me the most unlikely line of popular music, 2015 -- "Mama’s bunions swelling when there’s evil creeping round" -- and we'll say fuck-all to what's hot, what's cool, the trends of two seconds ago. We'll raise a cup of that straight Kentucky brown to the Dave Rawlings Machine and "Nashville Obsolete," The Soundcheck & the Fury's album of the year.

It was a good year for music. Every year is, as I like to say, if you listen hard. This one was especially good, even if two of our best songwriters -- Patty Griffin ("American Kid" was my No. 1 album of 2013) and Jason Isbell ("Southeastern" was No. 3 the same year) -- put out records that left me a little wanting. No matter. Rawlings' "Nashville Obsolete" -- with strings recorded in Memphis, at Royal Studios -- is some exquisite dust, a record on which my favorite guitar player becomes a great singer. It's the equal of the records he's put out with Gillian Welch, the best of which -- "Time (The Revelator)" and "The Harrow & The Harvest" -- are among my favorite records ever, by anybody. ... In others years, the John Moreland, Josh Ritter, James McMurtry and Jake Xerxes Fussell records would have made outstanding No. 1s. As it is, they're unofficially all tied for second.

Now then, the list:

1. "Nashville Obsolete," Dave Rawlings Machine
2. "High on Tulsa Heat," John Moreland
3. "Sermon on the Rocks," Josh Ritter
4. "Complicated Game," James McMurtry
5. "Jake Xerxes Fussell," Jake Xerxes Fussll
6. "Long Time Travelin'," Anna & Elizabeth
7. "A Wanderer I'll Stay," Pharis & Jason Romero
8. "Lucky or Strong," Caleb Sweazy
9. "Trinity My Dear," Mark Edgar Stuart
10. "Coming Forth by Day," Cassandra Wilson
11. "Sundown Over Ghost Town," Eilen Jewell
12. "Rhythm & Reason," Bhi Bhiman
13. "Gates of Gold," Los Lobos
14. "Dark Bird is Home," Tallest Man on Earth
15. "Oh My Goodness," Donnie Fritts
16. "Sings Lefty Frizzell," Brennen Leigh
17. "The Ruffian's Misfortune," Ray Wylie Hubbard
18. "Lost Time," Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin
19. "All a Man Should Do," Lucero
20. "Daniel Bachman," Daniel Bachman
21. "I Never Thought It Would Go This Far," Wrinkle Neck Mules
22. "What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World," The Decemberists
23. "Something More Than Free," Jason Isbell
24. "Servant of Love," Patty Griffin
25. (tie) "Tomorrow is My Turn," Rhiannon Giddens and "Still," Richard Thompson

Best video: "Homecoming," Josh Ritter, featuring the old Home tobacco warehouse in my hometown of Maysville, Ky., at the 1:02 mark.

Favorite shows of the year: John Moreland, Folk All Y'All house concert, Memphis; Elvis Costello solo, Detour tour, Memphis.

Album I wrote to the most this year: "Songs From the Shipyards (Diversions, Vol. 3)," The Unthanks. (A sort of British folk meditation on work and hard times, with a cover of Elvis Costello's "Shipbuilding.")

New old discovery: Pablo Casals' "Bach Cello Suites"

Rivers run east out of West Virginia
Rivers run west down in Tennessee
A river runs north out of South Dakota
None of that makes a damn to me

-- "Ain't Got a Place," James McMurtry

Dec 2, 2015

Funeral Dance Music (Small-Batch Fiction No. 19)

"My patron saint is a-fighting with a ghost
He’s always off somewhere when I need him most"

-- "Abandoned Love," Bob Dylan

The first psychic’s shop had a certain funky charm. The walls were covered with the same sort of colorful fabrics she wore as her gypsy fashion. In the dim light of the old joint they flounced about like drunken ghosts to the breeze from an old oscillating fan. The fan made a proper racket – Ivy’s Caddy had not much on it, in the noise department – but then she could make out music, from some darkened corner, sounded like some Mid-South version of gypsy song. It had drone and twang and the powers of hypnosis, sounded to Ivy like funeral dance music.

Ivy felt in the presence of a pro, a true dark artist. The psychic motioned to the center of the room, to a table there. It was probably just a junk-store card table, Ivy thought, but was covered with another of those gypsy fabrics. Points for presentation, Ivy thought. She sat in a straight-back wooden chair, the psychic in an overstuffed blue chair on the opposite side. The table was empty but for a candle, which the psychic now lit. It smelled of – what exactly? Crushed mint and sweet tobacco? Grave dirt, ginger? Ivy leaned in, took a whiff, felt a bit of a buzz coming to meet her.

She closed her eyes. When she opened them, the woman had taken her right hand. She was studying the map of her palm, the roads and where they led or didn’t, the crossroads through which she’d blown in that evil car of hers, no doubt. The psychic said, “Hmm.”

-- from my novel "Ive Coldwater"

Nov 3, 2015

Memphis Noir (An imaginary soundtrack)

"Memphis is marvels and misfits -- two-faced and unabashedly so."

-- from the introduction to "Memphis Noir," by editors Laureen P. Cantwell and Leonard Gill

I think I'll move down into Memphis
And thank the hatchet man who forked my tongue

-- "I Dream a Highway," Gillian Welch

Well I've took enough pills for big Memphis town
Ol' Jerry Lee's dranked enough whiskey to lift any ship off the ground

-- "A Damn Good Country Song," Jerry Lee Lewis

A playlist -- an imaginary soundtrack, if you will -- for "Memphis Noir," a story collection with a launch event tonight at Crosstown Arts Story Booth here in Memphis.

1. "Tuesday Night in Memphis," John Lurie
2. "Oh How She Dances," Tav Falco's Panther Burns
3. "Memphis Beat," Jerry Lee Lewis
4. "Bluff City Ruckus," Porch Ghouls
5. "Kassie Jones," James Luther Dickinson & North Mississippi Allstars
6. "Memphis Flu," Elder Curry & Congregation
7. "Memphis Moon," Magnolia Electric Co.
8. "Windswept Plains of Memphis," Delta Joe Sanders
9. "Crump St." the City Champs
10. "Mystery Train," Little Junior Parker
11. "Memphis Rounders Blues," Frank Stokes
12. "All Sewn Up," Lucero
13. "Shotgun," Valerie June
14. "Jellyroll," Furry Lewis
15. "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again," Bob Dylan
16. "A Damn Good Country Song," Jerry Lee Lewis

Mona tried to tell me
To stay away from the train line
She said that all the railroad men
Just drink up your blood like wine

-- "Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again," Bob Dylan

Oh, didn't we shine?
Didn't we shine?

-- "Memphis Moon," Magnolia Electric Co.

Oct 31, 2015

'Memphis Noir' is coming

I would go to the hill country
but they got me barred

-- Charley Patton's "High Water Everywhere"

Cryin' won't help you
prayin' won't do no good

-- Memphis Minnie's "When the Levee Breaks"

This is a true story, made up and written down. This is a fable and a good cry, a cautionary tale, a murder ballad.

This is the 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.

This happened, just not yet.

-- from my story "Her Better Devils," in Akashic Books' "Memphis Noir"

The book launch is 6 p.m. Tuesday at Memphis' Crosstown Arts Story Booth.

Sep 27, 2015

Sly Talkers and Rhythm Shouters (Small-Batch Fiction No. 42-0037-B)

Millions of hearts have been broken, yas, yas
Just because these words were spoken

-- "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie," Fats Waller and his Rhythm

Swearing was much the fashion in the big house on Peabody in those days, most all of it sweet in nature. Ivy’s mama swore to God and Jesus and the ghosts of soldiers, to the local law, Rock City, and the House of Bourbon. She’d swear to whoever was singing on those records she always played. She’d stub her toe or spill a swish of drink and swear to Fats Waller or Jimmie Rodgers. She loved sly talkers and rhythm shouters, blue yodelers. She loved the old stuff.

-- from the story "I'll Take You There" and novel "Ivy Coldwater"

Aug 15, 2015

'I don't sound like nobody'

There were dim tubes all in a row, the dimness seeming like a swaying presence to him, small ghosts, a choir of them about to take up some solemn hymn of healing. 

-- from my story, "Tales of Ancient Grease (The Jukebox Repairman's Lament)"

Just a country boy, he combed his hair
And put on a shirt his mother made and went on the air
And he shook it like a chorus girl
And he shook it like a Harlem queen
He shook it like a midnight rambler, baby
Like you never seen
Like you never seen
Never seen

-- "Elvis Presley Blues," Gillian Welch

I don't sound like nobody.

-- Elvis Presley

Aug 13, 2015

Nothing in Rambling (More songs about lighting out and bringing it all back home)

It is a great blessing, perhaps the greatest blessing a writer can have, to find at home what others have to go elsewhere seeking.

-- Flannery O'Connor, from the essay "The Regional Writer"

Ivy thought of her wants and wishes, her lists of questions that needed answers. She thought of her wandering, and all the wondering that fueled it. She thought of the world ending. She thought of a great flood. She thought of her clawfoot tub with a sail attached and a stout southward wind gusting up. She thought of Jesus, head down, hair in his eyes, all tired out from the folly of man. That’s what this whole search for Jesus had turned into, she thought. She’d looked for God and found nothing but the damned folly of man. She could have stayed home and done as well.

-- from my novel "Ivy Coldwater"

Just one horse shy
of a one-horse town
This ain't the first time
it tried to burn itself down

-- "Needle & Thread," Eilen Jewell

Songs about leaving home and coming back again ...

1. "Nothing in Rambling," Memphis Minnie
2. "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road," Lucinda Williams
3-4. "Walking Far From Home" and "Homeward These Shoes," Iron & Wine
5. "Feel Like Going Home," Charlie Rich
6. "The Red, Red Dirt of Home," Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires
7. "Dark Bird is Home," The Tallest Man on Earth
8. "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)," The Decemberists
9. "Sister's Coming Home," Emmylou Harris
10. "Sing Me Back Home," Flying Burrito Brothers
11. "I'm Coming Home," Gal Holiday & the Honky Tonk Revue
12-13. "Needle & Thread" and "My Hometown," Eilen Jewell
14. "Long Way Home," Tom Waits
15-17. "The Weight," "This Wheel's on Fire," and "Home Cookin'," The Band
18. "Sing Me Back Home," Merle Haggard
19. "Grace for Saints and Ramblers," Iron & Wine
20. "Why Don't You Just Go Home," Greg Brown

If sweetness had a sound
It would sound like my hometown

-- "My Hometown," Eilen Jewell

Jul 15, 2015

Memphis Minnie's Ashes (Small-Batch Fiction No. 34)

I got ice man in the spring, coal man in the fall
All I need now to get my ashes hauled

-- "Ice Man," Memphis Minnie

“And then there was Memphis Minnie,” Lucy said. She had scolded him and chided him and now set about to teach him, about life and the blues, about women and men, and what one poet of the dark chord called the stuff you gotta watch. “Her real name was Lizzie Douglas, from down in Louisiana. She sang ice man, ice man, come on up. My, oh. And she sang about her butcher man and her strange man and another man who was a sandhog in the sea. I don't know what a sandhog is, but anyhow he died. Reckon he drowned doing a sandhog’s dirty business. But what’s one man, more or less? Minnie didn’t need ’em none, just kind of liked having ’em around. But only kind of. She’d cut a man if he crossed her. I mean, drain him pale. Slice me if I’m lying, Billy Heavens. Minnie, she went through men enough to fill this cemetery. Corpses stacked double, men piled high.”

She stopped and turned to face him, as if to watch the chill settle on him. It was the first little bit of power she’d had in life. “You looking a little drained yourself there, Billy.” She felt a bit woozy, herself.

-- from my novel, "The Very Last Night"

Note: Photos are from the Blues Hall of Fame, now open down on South Main in Memphis. You should haul your ass there, first chance.

Jul 5, 2015

Fireflies and molasses: Reading Faulkner's 'Light in August'

She did not answer for a time. The fireflies drifted; somewhere a dog barked, mellow, sad, faraway.

― from "Light in August"

... the finish is spicy and longer than a Faulkner sentence.

― from a description of Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, in "American Whiskey, Bourbon & Rye: A Guide to the Nation's Favorite Spirit," by Clay Risen

“Now, this one,” she said, “belonged to Mr. Faulkner. It was one of his.”

The old woman nudged with her scuffed sneakers a dusty, black manual typewriter. The keys were marked with flaking, gold letters, and the space bar listed heavily to one side, the right, like a seesaw at rest. She nudged the typewriter as if it might pick up the story from there.

“When he lived over to Oxford,” she said finally. “That’s when he owned this particular one. Rowan Oak, the house where he lived. Mr. Faulkner wrote 'Light in August' on this typewriter.”

― from "Typewriters of the Stars," a chapter in my novel, "The Very Last Night"

And then there is Faulkner, the poet laureate of corn whiskey. I read 'Light in August' over the course of about seven shifts that first summer. A significant portion of the book concerns the exploits of a pair of bootleggers — a topic with which Faulkner was familiar, having run boatfuls of illegal whiskey into New Orleans during Prohibition. There are lovely passages describing the act of drinking whiskey, which goes down “cold as molasses” before beginning its slow, warm uncoiling.

-- from "Faulkner’s Cocktail of Choice," Robert Moor, The Paris Review (Dec. 31, 2013)

"It's peas," he said, aloud. "For Sweet Jesus. Field peas cooked with molasses."

― from "Light in August"

William Faulkner has abandoned, one may say, the cruel brutality of 'Sanctuary' for the brutal cruelty in writing his new novel, 'Light in August.'

― review of "Light in August" by George Grimes in the Omaha World-Herald, Oct. 9, 1932

It is much more palatable for the average reader than 'Sanctuary,' but still a bad choice for those who dislike pictures of life in the raw.

― review of "Light in August" by Henry George Hoch, Detroit News, Oct. 16, 1932

To conclude, William Faulkner writes well enough not to write so badly, if such a phrase may be excused. He is frittering away a genuine talent.

― review of "Light in August" by Barry Bingham, The Courier-Journal, Nov. 20, 1932

My, my. A body does get around.

― from "Light in August"

Jun 29, 2015

Old Crow (Small-Batch Fiction No. 94)

I can't say your name
without a crow flying by

-- "The Way It Will Be," Gillian Welch

One minute passed, taking slightly more than its allotted time. An unseen crow mocked the minute and the seconds that made it so.

The crow cawed proverbs and river stages. The crow cawed sermons of doom. And the boy wondered how much farther to the devil’s place.

“Up over the rise and down again, Billy Heavens, if you dare,” Lucy sang. “Up over the rise and down, Billy, if you do.”

-- from "The Very Last Night"

Jun 22, 2015

One Minute to Post (Small-Batch Fiction No. 7)

Poor boy in a red-hot town
Out beyond the twinklin’ stars
Ridin’ first-class trains, makin' the rounds
Tryin’ to keep from fallin’ between the cars

-- "Po' Boy," Bob Dylan

One minute to post.

Joe walked up to the window and said it how he’d practiced it.

“Eighth race,” he said in a slow, flat, unsteady voice. “Twenty to win on the seven dog.”

A woman pushing fifty with peach-colored hair and a Viceroy rasp took his money and handed him a slip. She did not inquire as to why a man would chance his last twenty dollars on the cross-eared red fawn with those soft haunches and an underbody the color of jalopy rust. She had to know it was something like this, even just knowing the dogs as numbers on a screen. Any woman who ever had looked into any man’s eyes could see it was the last shred of money he had in the world, and that the man knew, too, in his head and his heart, deep in his gut, down to his own soft haunches, that he was pissing it away. She might even have guessed the name of the dog, by looking at the man.

“Good luck, hon,” she said.

Joe stood there, still, staring at the betting slip as if there might be some small print upon it that explained what he was to do next. As he studied the slip, his lips seeming to move or perhaps tremble, she wanted to tell him it was a dog race he’d come to, not a Chinese meal. But she’d been warned by management about her mouth.

“They’s about to run,” she said, to shoo him.

It was then he told her, if only because he had to tell someone.

“It’s the old man,” Joe said. “My father, I mean. My daddy. He’s dying, down in New Orleans. I got to go down to see him, before – well, I got to get the money up, for fare. Bus or train. Bus, I guess, would be cheaper.”

He wanted to tell her more. He wanted to tell it all. He wanted her to ask. But she only said, “Well, I surely do hope he gets better, hon.”

Joe turned and walked away.

“It ain’t even about that,” he said to himself, to no one.

-- from "Poor Boy, Long Way from Home"

One day they will be as giants
Stronger than the sun
But that day ain't yet come

-- "Poor Boy, Minor Key," M. Ward