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

May 20, 2015

The book of jazz

Back then he'd hammered out rags as rough as the planks that made up that schoolhouse stage. Over the years he's taken a saw and rasp to those tunes and smoothed them at the edges, sanded them slowly over time with finer and finer grit paper, and applied a polish to them. The songs are comfortable now. People can take their shoes off to dance without fear of a spike in the foot; they can lie back on that smooth and waxed wood to take a nap in the afternoon or make love all night long. Oliver sees himself as a carpenter, a craftsman putting notes and melodies together ...

-- from "Five Night Stand," Richard Alley

"Five Night Stand" is my favorite sort of book. It's full of heart and bursting with music. It's written for all the right reasons, because the writer, Richard Alley, has these stories inside him and he's compelled to tell them, whether the world gives three damns about them or not. He doesn't conform to the trends or pay attention to what's selling these days. This isn't a literary thriller, which is a thing now, and it doesn't call to mind, for me, anyway, anything else you might have read lately. Hell, the main character is an aging jazz man. Is there a less marketable premise going today? But Oliver Pleasant is the best character I've come across in ages. He's real. He's genuine. He's also a tortured soul full of regret, too many miles, too many late nights, and too much hooch. But he's wise and he has stories to tell and some songs yet to play. You'll love him, like his author loves him. Oh and speaking of ... there's a reading Thursday night. If you're lucky enough to live in Memphis, or be in Memphis, you'll want to go. Details here.

Apr 13, 2015

Happy birthday, Eudora Welty

The boys had a surprise -- an alligator on board. One of them pulled it by a chain around the deck, between the cars and trucks, like a toy -- a hide that could walk.

-- from "No Place For You, My Love"

No work today, friends, but only heavy reading, light gardening, and later, some bourbon sipping. It's Eudora Welty's birthday, and we should, by all means, treat it as the national holiday it ought to be.

The distant point of the ridge, like the tongue of a calf, put its red lick on the sky.

-- from "Losing Battles"

The land was perfectly flat and level but it shimmered like the wing of a lighted dragonfly. It seemed strummed, as though it were an instrument and something had touched it.

-- from "Delta Wedding"

I've lost Hazel, she's vanished, she went to drown herself."

"Why, that ain't like Hazel," Virgil said.

William Wallace reached out and shook him. "You heard me. Don't you know we have to drag the river?"

"Right this minute?"

-- from "The Wide Net"

As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.

-- from "One Writer's Beginnings"

Apr 7, 2015

Cigarette Kisses and Typewriter Dreams (Small-Batch Fiction, No. 18)

It's such a sad old feeling
the fields are soft and green
It's memories that I'm stealing
but you're innocent when you dream


"Innocent When You Dream (Barroom)," Tom Waits

So the boy had been kissed and a cigarette had touched his lips. He wondered if the rest of the literary vices would find him as lost and wanting, and he thought about being a real writer and telling tales and acting all literary and holding forth and having a muse or several. He wondered if he could be a writer without smoking cigarettes, wondered if pecking letters on a typewriter would be enough something to do for his hands.

-- from "The Very Last Night"

Mar 2, 2015

The Ballad of Kentucky Jones (Small-Batch Fiction No. 68)

It'll make a toad spit in a black snake's face
Make a hard shell preacher fall from grace


-- "Kentucky Moonshiner," Fruit Jar Guzzlers

The manager’s name – the name he gave – was Kentucky Jones. He was an old carny barker with a master’s degree in economics from Providence and another in philosophy from Vanderbilt. There was a whiff of the South to him, and a hint of older country, too. But wherever he was bred, or whatever he was bred to be, he could sell anything. It was his gift. Bear wrestling or a crucifixion, it didn’t make a damn to Kentucky Jones. He was as short as the singer but wide around as a full gospel choir. He wore dark rumpled suits with a string tie and cowboy hat, looked like he’d come hustling straight from a lost weekend to Uncle Dave Macon’s funeral. But he never drank and had no time for the dead. You couldn’t sell tickets to a funeral; at least, Kentucky Jones had yet to find the way.

-- from the story, "Sanctuary & Desire in the American South"

Feb 9, 2015

Ode to Typewriter

Monday morning. Coffee and writing and Tom Waits singing, "Forgive me pretty baby / but I always take the long way home."

The books in the picture are from a nice little weekend haul at a local used-book store. The Tom Waits song is from the movie version of Larry Brown's "Big Bad Love," which my wife calls "Big Bad Movie." I understand why -- it's a movie about a writer as a fairly lousy human being. He busts up his family, drinks to the point of fighting, and generally can't get, or keep, his shit together. I love it, still and all, for all sorts of reasons, from the Mississippi setting with its high kudzu count to the soundtrack with R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford, Tom Waits and Steve Earle. I especially like that it's a movie about a writer in which the writer actually writes during the movie. Typewriters were harmed in the making of this film!

For the record, though: I do fully disagree with the premise that you have to be a shitheel to be a successful writer (and by successful, I just mean write great books), despite this movie and all the real-life evidence that suggest otherwise, and of course that thing Faulkner said:

The writer's only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is worth any number of old ladies.

Jan 27, 2015

They're Red Hot (Small Batch Fiction No. 13)

Hot tamales
and they're red hot
Yeah, she got 'em
for sale


-- "They're Red Hot," Robert Johnson

She came upon a country crossroads. She parked the car and joined a line twelve deep to buy tamales from a little trailer painted pepper-red with yellow writing all about it, quoting satisfied customers, famous regulars, and scripture. Ivy would not have thought there lived twelve people in a twenty-mile radius of this place, but she knew tamales in the Mississippi Delta-style could draw crowds from miles away, from other states and time zones, seats of foreign power. Delta lore held that tamales were the one thing both God and the Devil called good, that if those two ever held a summit to bring about some peaceful accord, they wouldn’t break bread, but instead Saltine crackers, over saucers of the house specialty from Doe’s Eat Place or maybe Hick’s Famous. Well, that was the Delta lore – or maybe just something Ivy’s mama made up, from scratch.

-- from my novel, "Ivy Coldwater"

Dec 15, 2014

Plaints to haints, and other songs of longing (The Soundcheck & the Fury 2014 Music Awards)

... when you listen to a song like “The Prettiest Train I Ever Saw,” recorded in 1947, you hear with shocking clarity the only non-vocal element of the song, the thing that keeps the rhythm: the sound of the prisoners’ hoes breaking into the Mississippi clay.

-- Chuck Reece, writing for The Bitter Southerner about Dust--to-Digital's "Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959"

I'm going down to Memphis
when I get my 'role
Stand on the levee
and hear the big boats blow


-- "I'm Going to Memphis," Percy Wilson (aka Buzzard) and group, from the Parchman recordings

You can bust your feet
You can rock this joint
But oh mama, ain't you gonna miss your best friend now?


-- Dylan in the basement with The Band, singing "Crash on the Levee (Take 1)"


Crossing into Coahoma County, she came upon a little country crossroads. There she stopped. She did not see Satan, prince of darkness, in his pinstripes and spats, drumming up some of his dirty business, or Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Singers, strumming his blue guitar and singing about hellhounds and hot tamales, dead shrimp and kitchen sex with some dusky gal. She cut the engine and listened to that sad Mississippi morning, to the stir and creak of the coming day. She thought Jesus might then appear, from up the road a piece. But no. She gave him some more time, but still nothing. It would not be like Jesus to keep a regular schedule, like with a train. We know not when the hour, and Jesus was not the Delta Limited.

-- from my novel-in-progress, "Ivy Coldwater"

The older I get, the older I want it. Give me my music aged, like sweet Kentucky bourbon. But give it to me rough, like pure backwoods busthead. Sing it from the hills and hollers. Sing it in the basement, like it's a secret from the world. Sing it on Parchman Farm, and set it to the sound of axes and doom. Sing of women and murder, floods and trains, life and life after. Sing of Tiny Montgomery and Dollar Mamie, of Berta and Stackalee and Poor Lazarus.
Sing the "Disability Boogie Woogie" (sounding like something Sam Phillips might have cut at 706 Union, in Memphis, between Howlin' Wolf and Joe Hill Louis sessions). Sing of the Yazoo Street Scandal and that Million Dollar Bash. Sing about how the only thing you did wrong, was stay in Mississippi a day too long ...

Songs of ache and itch. Songs that wish and wink. Blue stomps and nursery rhymes on a bender. Plaints to haints. ... There's a tunnel from Parchman Farm, in Mississippi, to Big Pink, in New York -- for there are many tunnels, more than you can possible imagine, in the Old, Weird America -- so it's fitting that Dust-to-Digital's "Parchman Farm: Photographs and Field Recordings, 1947-1959" and Dylan and The Band's complete "Basement Tapes," were released at roughly the same time, in the same year. My favorite records of 2014? These aged, ancient wonders ...

Yes, there was some damned fine music actually recorded and released in 2014, as well. You just had to know where to dig. Below are my "great 28," led by a classic in the making, one for the ages -- Sturgill Simpson, out of Kentucky, sounding like an existential Waylon Jennings (or one of the boys in the basement), singing, "So don't waste your mind on nursery rhymes / or fairy tales of blood and wine / It's turtles all the way down the line."

The list ...

1. "Metamodern Sounds in Country Music," Sturgill Simpson
2. "Jim Mize," Jim Mize
3. "Water Liars," Water Liars
4. "If The Roses Don’t Kill Us," Christopher Denny
5. "Small Town Heroes," Hurray for the Riff Raff
6. "Wine Dark Sea," Jolie Holland
7. "Blind Water Finds Blind Water," Adam Faucett
8. "Runaway's Diary," Amy LaVere
9. "Everlasting Arms," Luke Winslow-King
10. "English Oceans," Drive-By Truckers
11. "Here Be Monsters," Jon Langford & Skull Orchard
12. "Most Messed Up," Old 97's
13. "Wild Animals," Trampled by Turtles
14. "Rock 'n Roll Blues," Luther Dickinson
15. "Prospect Hill," Dom Flemons
16. "Night Surfer," Chuck Prophet
17. "The River and the Thread," Rosanne Cash
18. "...And Then You Shoot Your Cousin," The Roots
19. "Half the City," St. Paul & the Broken Bones
20. "Dark Night of the Soul," Jimbo Mathus
21. "Popular Problems," Leonard Cohen
22. "Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth," Otis Gibbs
23. "The Littlest Prisoner," Jenny Scheinman
24. "Benji," Sun Kil Moon
25. "Lazaretto," Jack White
26. "Swimmin’ Time," Shovels & Rope
27. "The No-Hit Wonder," Cory Branan
28. (tie) "Common Ground," Dave Alvin and Phil Alvin; "Tarpaper Sky," Rodney Crowell; and "Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone," Lucinda Williams; "Dereconstructed," Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires


Dec 7, 2014

One Hand Loose (Small-Batch Fiction No. 9 and 29)

I'm a tip-top daddy and I'm gonna have my way
Keep away from the corners, hear what I got to say
Hold a-one hand only, get a-ready for a ride
Give me one hand loose and I'll be satisfied


-- "One Hand Loose," Charlie Feathers

She didn’t know about sharing a joint, the etiquette of such. She didn’t think you could just tear it in half. She guessed you’d just pass it back and forth, and maybe their hands would brush, in the exchange. Maybe one of their fingers would get burned and the other would kiss it. That’s how it would begin – the start of them – and so they’d have to make up another story, one not involving an outlaw crop, to tell to their children when they asked how the two of them met. She was, she thought, getting far ahead of herself.

-- from my novel, "Poor Boy, Long Way From Home"

A dark man in a cream-colored suit appeared, and then they were dancing, and the house orchestra played one wild rag and then another, and then slowed it down for a torch number – a leaving song, a sad lament – and he had his hand on the small of her bare back. She couldn’t get a look at his face, for hers buried in the crook of his neck. He smelled like whiskey, gun powder, train smoke, typewriter ribbon, gumbo with fresh okra, the Gulf of Mexico. He spoke, but not words; it was as if he were humming in some foreign tongue. Ivy felt trade winds upon her neck. He kissed her there. She smelled spice routes and summer rain, and trouble, of a sort.

-- from my novel-in-progress, "Ivy Coldwater"

Nov 12, 2014

'Cussed and discussed, boycotted, talked to and talked about'

Wednesday afternoon. Coffee and writing and old stringband music by the likes of the Arkansas Barefoot Boys and George Edgin's Corn Dodgers, Dr. Smith's Champion Hoss Hair Pullers and the great Lonnie Glosson ...

I've worked like heck, and been worked like heck, folks
I've been drunk and got others drunk
Lost all I had and part of my furniture
Because I want to go around now
and spend what little I earn,
and go beg, borrow and steal,

I've been cussed and discussed, boycotted,
talked to and talked about,
lied to and lied about,
held up and hung up,
and I'm doggone nigh murdered


-- "Arkansas Hard Luck Blues," Lonnie Glosson, a 1936 talking blues from the Dust-to-Digital compilation "Arkansas at 78 RPM: Corn Dodgers & Hoss Hair Pullers"

Nov 3, 2014

Oh Death Where is Thy Sting? (More hymns, elegies, and cemetery polkas)

The day was hot. Mourners crowded the house and spilled out onto the dock, where they stood and talked. It was so hot, a bird dropped down out of the sky and walked in the shadows of the mourners to cool off. There was lively talk, gossip, sometimes laughter. A typical Southern wake.

-- Lewis Nordan, "The Sharpshooter Blues"

You need a little something to save your soul
Come on down to Cemetery Road


-- "Cemetery Road," Fred Eaglesmith

She was gone, twenty-odd years dead and buried in the Tennessee dirt with her Tennessee kin. Old Willie could have told you, in minutes and kisses and kitchen-table toddies, in chides and spats and the odd retort, how long it had been, exactly. God, but he missed her – the mouth on her, her spitfire nature; the simmer and slow burn of her, too. They were nothing alike; he was the sweetest man alive, altogether a gentle soul, and she could cuss the sweet off of Jesus. She was, he said, the spike in his holy water.

-- from my novel "Poor Boy, Long Way From Home"

1. "Oh Death Where is Thy Sting?" Rev. J.M. Gates
2. "Cemetery Polka," Tom Waits
3. "Prayer of Death, Part 1," Charley Patton
4. "Cemetery Road," Fred Eaglesmith
5. "O Death," Bessie Jones
6. "Hymn No. 101," Joe Pug
7. "Death Don't Have No Mercy," Ramblin' Jack Elliott
8. "Country Cemetery," Tift Merritt
9. "The Death of Sis Draper," Guy Clark
10. "Mexican Home," John Prine
11. "Funeral Song for Mississippi John Hurt," John Fahey & His Orchestra
12. "Funeral Road Blues," Charlie Parr
13-14. "Blessed Assurance" and "Let the Mystery Be," Iris DeMent

The air's as still
As the throttle on a funeral train


-- "Mexican Home," John Prine