An appreciation of Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy’s lyrical, textured
prose was a true echo of the South



Pat Conroy, a writer whose lyrical, richly textured prose evoked the South against a backdrop of traumatic family dysfunction, has died of pancreatic cancer. He was 70.

Conroy drew from the people, landscapes and abuses of his childhood for his thinly fictionalized novels and a series of memoirs, including The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides and Beach Music, which mesmerized readers with their confessional, cathartic tone and vivid descriptions of larger-than-life characters who inhabit the marshlands around Beaufort, South Carolina.

“More than anyone else, he showed how beautiful the broken can be,” says memoirist Lauretta Hannon. “He burned bright in his pain and brought so much light, so much generosity and encouragement, to all of us.”

Conroy’s troubled relationship with his tyrannical father, especially, provided much of the dramatic tension for his books. “People say my characters are over-the-top,” Conroy said in one interview, “but, if anything, I tone them down!”

Donald Patrick Conroy was born on Oct. 26, 1945, in Atlanta. His father, a career Marine, moved the family around the South. Conroy and his siblings attended 11 schools in 12 years before ending up in Beaufort, which Conroy adopted as his hometown, though he settled for a few years in Atlanta as an adult.

Conroy accepted a scholarship to The Citadel, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1967 and gathered the material for three books, most notably The Lords of Discipline, a look at the school’s harrowing hazing policies which sparked a long-running feud with the author, finally resolved in 2001.

Prince-of-TidesConroy’s first memoir, The Water is Wide, published in 1972, offers an affecting account of his stint as a schoolteacher for isolated Gullah children on Daufuskie Island. Made into the 1974 film Conrack, with Jon Voight, it was the first of four Conroy novels to be adapted into movies. It was The Prince of Tides, though, that established Conroy in the front ranks of best-selling authors. His magisterial story of Tom Wingo, an unemployed high school teacher who confronts his past when he travels to New York to help his suicidal sister, sold more than 350,000 copies in and spent nearly a year cresting the best-seller lists, attracting Barbra Streisand to produce a movie of the same name. Readers suddenly could not get enough of Conroy’s lush storytelling:

“To describe our growing up in the lowcountry of South Carolina, I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation. Scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in mud, open you an oyster with a pocketknife and feed it to you from the shell and say, ‘There. That taste. That’s the taste of my childhood.’ I would say, ‘Breathe deeply,’ and you would breathe and remember that smell for the rest of your life, the bold, fecund aroma of the tidal marsh, exquisite and sensual, the smell of the South in heat, a smell like new milk, semen and spilled wine, all perfumed with seawater.”

After The Prince of Tides, Mr. Conroy labored for nearly a decade on his next novel, the epic Beach Music, which touched on themes of suicide and the Holocaust.

“When Beach Music came out, I was working in a bookstore, and we were fortunate enough to have Pat Conroy for a signing,” recalls South Carolinian Jim Watkins. “We were one of the last stops on the tour, and he had signed so many autographs during the tour that we had to have a hand therapist on site to help him through. By the time the signing started, the line was out the door, around the parking lot and down the street. Despite having to take breaks to have his hand worked on by the therapist, for over three hours, he signed every single autograph and sincerely expressed his thanks to each and every person as he signed. Simply put, he was a true gentleman.”

Beach-Music-9780553574579In fact, the suicide of Conroy’s brother forced him to change the fate of a similar character in Beach Music, about a travel writer in Rome who returns home to South Carolina to visit his mother on her deathbed. His last novel, South of Broad (2009), told the gossipy tale of high school friends in Charleston who reunite 20 years after their graduation.

Mr. Conroy also produced several works of nonfiction, including The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes and Stories of My Life (1999), My Reading Life (2010) and The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son (2013). Through it all, Conroy remained a proud and stalwart Southerner. “He forced me to eat grits,” recalls Atlanta novelist Jessica Handler, “and I liked them just fine.”

At the time of his death, Conroy was at work on both a novel and a memoir about living in Atlanta in the 1970s.

Mr. Conroy is survived by his wife, the writer Cassandra King; four daughters: Jessica Conroy, Melissa Conroy, Megan Conroy and Susannah Ansley Conroy; five stepchildren: Emily Conroy; Jake, James and Jason Ray; and Gregory Fleischer; two sisters, Kathy and Carol Ann; three brothers, Jim, Tim and Mike; and seven grandchildren.


Why, Atticus, why?

Jem has dropped dead. Scout – now Jean Louise, thank you — is all grown up and (gulp) contemplating an affair, but, worst of all, straight-backed Atticus is now an old, infirm, cranky arch-segregationist.

No word yet on whether Dill is off gossiping at fabulous parties, but are readers truly ready for these troubling revelations about the beloved characters of To Kill a Mockingbird? Or for the possibility of a somehow lesser, anticlimactic work? In the countdown to July 14, when Harper Lee’s much-anticipated second book, Go Set a Watchman, finally hits the stands, the nervous tension has risen like the mercury in an Alabama thermometer. How could any other novel measure up to the touchstone of social conscience that still occasionally, 55 years later, outsells the Bible, particularly when it gives our hero feet of Cotton Belt clay?

This second novel functions as a sequel, cast 20 years into the future from the original’s Depression-era setting, but it was written earlier. In fact, it was the first manuscript Lee submitted as an untested young scribbler in New York. Her editor saw potential in it but suggested a rewrite, an expansion of certain flashbacks with a change in voice and perspective, resulting in Mockingbird, the ultimate debut novel which became a primer of the civil rights movement while its author ascended to the status of secular saint. The sphinx-like Lee, overwhelmed by the attention, went into semi-reclusion. In one of her rare-as-hens’-teeth interviews, Lee explained, “I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told.” With Watchman, we are essentially getting the rough draft, the dress rehearsal, the raw juvenilia. Because the art often lies in the revision, most mature artists wince at the prospect of trotting out their unpolished work, and Lee always has maintained that she did not plan to publish another book.

The discovery of this manuscript in some papers stored in a bank, and the timing of its release, have raised uncomfortable questions and contradictory explanations. A Sotheby’s expert reportedly was the first to find it in 2011. Lee’s sensible sister, a lawyer described as “Atticus in a skirt,” was alive then and overseeing the Mockingbird legacy, and no one pushed for publication. Now that this guardian has died, Lee’s lawyer is credited with unearthing Watchman and presenting it to a publishing community that always has hungered for more from Lee. The author, 89 and reportedly impaired in her vision and hearing, receives care in a nursing home. So allegations of elder abuse and manipulation have swirled around this event, without slowing its momentum. HarperCollins has ordered a first printing of two million copies for the book, which makes it the most preordered book in the house’s history, and on amazon, Watchman ranks as the most preordered book since Harry Potter in 2007. The publisher did not release the customary advance copies for reviewers but teasingly proffered the first chapter.

That Atticus has morphed into Archie Bunker at his most dyspeptic has sent Southern progressives reeling. The enduring power of Mockingbird lies in its empathy and idealism, its clear delineation of good and evil in that sun-struck atmosphere of mule-pulled “Hoover carts” and ladies “who were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” Readers who are animated by social justice root for Atticus and yearn to believe themselves brave enough to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with him as he fends off a lynch mob, just as they want to believe that a child’s sweet voice could be the force that ultimately halts that bloodthirsty group. In Watchman, though, Atticus fumes: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” Oh, the heartbreak and nausea inflicted by those words. And there is more, of course. He condemns the NAACP as “troublemakers” and says African-Americans are too “backward to “share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship.” If Jean Louise has not completely lost her innocence by the end of Mockingbird, she certainly will now, as have we who live in a world where African-American men still perish in police custody, and where bigoted relatives can ruin a Sunday supper with rants about President Obama. “What this news does is put Atticus in the same category for me as my grandfather: He was a racist, but he was also a great man who did good for many people, black and white,” says Bryan Sorohan, a social activist and a professor at Brenau University. “He’s a part of me, flaws and all, and I wouldn’t change that even if I could. But, in that respect, as well as probably others, he was wrong and his wrongness undoubtedly did harm. There are no pure heroes, and this book may be a catalyst for confronting that fact. It will be instructive to see who is smug or happy about this turn of events.

Watchman no doubt will prove instructive in other ways, as well, especially on the craft of writing, of transforming an ambitious but apparently flawed novel into a masterpiece. Here is a chance to glimpse Harper Lee’s formidable, acrobatic mind at work – and an opportunity for all writers to regard their editors with renewed respect. However, we also run the risk of inserting the author into her own metaphor. Dragging shy Boo Radley into the spotlight, even as a hero who saved two motherless children, would have been like the “sin” of killing a mockingbird, she wrote. It might have been best to leave Lee to sing the tune of her choice, in the privacy of her own garden.

Indigo Girl Amy Ray Gives Voice to Her ‘Country Soul’

Solo album ‘Goodnight Tender’ a welcome down-home detour

“I’m just a Southern gar, no spar left to be had
drifting on a current in the rain in a riverbed
I been so long in this world
What I got left is all I need now…”

—Oyster and Pearl

Amy Ray’s home sits in one of those pockets of Appalachia that defy the most sophisticated GPS system.

Getting to her 80-acre, Etowah River spread requires the proper gear and close attention to topography—switchback loops, steep grades, sudden dips—instead of signage, which is practically nonexistent in the Lumpkin County backcountry. Many of the roads in her brambly, unmanicured neck of the woods are unpaved and cross-hatched with deer tracks and old logging and mining ruts from the area’s gold-rush past, and odds are that somewhere nearby, half-buried in a creek-bank, are some Mason jars that still reek of moonshine. The terrain is both rugged and feminine, its horizon curvy and sloped like the earth’s own odalisques. To navigate this landscape without getting lost, you have to know it by heart.

Ray’s most recent solo project, Goodnight Tender, her first country album, proves that she has studied every pig trail, outcropping and fallen log, down to the last striated lichen.

“It would be hard to live here and not have banjos influence what you do,” she says from her northeast Georgia living room, a few miles from where Fiddlin’ John Carson, the first country artist to make a record, jammed on the square in Dahlonega, and about an hour away, depending on Atlanta traffic, from where she grew up in Decatur.

‘Three Chords and the Truth’

amy ray

Amy Ray smooths the jagged edges in her voice for new country album

Older, more mainstream audiences know the singer/songwriter as half of The Indigo Girls, the Grammy-winning duo who shot to fame in the 1980s, with Ray providing the tenor scaffolding for spiraling harmonies with Emily Saliers. They still write, tour and record together, consistently impressing critics and fans with their eloquent lyrics and gravel-and-silk sound. Ray, meanwhile, has long enjoyed a successful career on her own, releasing five other solo projects, served up in varied badass trappings of rock and punk. She growls, she shouts, she whips her heavy curtain of bangs, and her socially conscious audiences do a gentle, considerate form of slam-dancing. Joan Jett and The Butchies accompanied her on Stag, her debut outside The Indigos, and those influences helped set the gritty tone.

So Ray’s newest release, which is country in its purest, and purist, sense, took some listeners by surprise.

“Think Merle Haggard in the 1960s,” she says. “I want people to cry in their beer.”

They will.

Harlan Howard famously summed up country music as “three chords and the truth,” and Goodnight Tender, released in January by her indie label, Daemon Records, offers the kind of stripped-down melodies, honest, hat-in-hand emotions and keening pedal steel and old-time strings that once emanated from tear-stained, honky-tonk jukeboxes. “This material is more visceral than intellectual, with a wistful sense of the creek and the dirt, as well as unrequited love,” she says.

Hitting all the notes of Saturday night and Sunday morning in the hard-partying, churchgoing South, she sings movingly about self-medicating (“More Pills”) and heaven (“The Gig That Matters”), while a sense of down-and-out fatalism lingers like barroom cigarette smoke over the entire album. Some love songs about dogs were inevitable. “Tender” is the real-life name of a beloved pet in her mix of rescues, and that word connotes both adjective and noun in the lullaby-like title track: “Goodnight, sweet Tender, the veil is on the loom…”

“I like to think of my dog watching over the people and land I love, guarding and ‘tending’ them, when I’m away from home,” she says.

Ray recorded these 11 originals, with one cover penned by Mount Moriah’s Heather McEntire, at Echo Mountain Studio in Asheville rather than Nashville, where she has not, so far, courted the genre’s establishment. “I’m old, gay and political, which are not qualities Nashville typically embraces,” she says bluntly, “but I had these songs pouring out of me, in a rush of feeling, that didn’t fit any catalog but country. I was tempted to slip a political song in here, but I wanted this album free of anything that defines identity in any way.”

To achieve that achy sound, she convened artists she trusts with fiddle, banjo, dobro, pedal steel, Wurlitzer piano, bass, and percussion.

“This project felt and sounds so spontaneous because Amy has an uncanny ability to latch on to the energy in a room and encourage its flow,” says Phil Cook, who played keys and banjo. “She recognizes the spark in every situation and every artist and knows exactly how to fan it. I think Amy went back to the land and found she has a country soul. She was singing from her core, as if she were born to this style of music.”

Blueswoman Susan Tedeschi contributed vocals to “Duane Allman,” a tribute to one of Ray’s early music heroes, who left a “god-sized hole.”

“There’s always sincerity and passion and raw emotion with all of Amy’s songs,” McEntire says, “but this batch feels to me like a bit of a homecoming for her, like peeling back the layers in a soulful, fluid way,” she says. “I think this album is a lot like her as a person: warm, Southern, curious, open, brave and earnest.”

New Sound, Same Authenticity

Ray also took pains to keep the technical end of the project as authentically retro as possible.

“We tried to stay true to old recording styles, using old microphones, old reverb plates, and sometimes all of us gathered around one microphone if the song called for it,” she says. “I didn’t want the laborious arrangement process—I wanted recordings I didn’t have to mess with too much.”

All in all, the result is more paleo-country than anything Music Row has (over)produced lately, and Ray is eager to explain, with characteristic modesty, how this scenic detour, from folkie to folksy, was not quite as out of the way for her as it seems.

Ray, who just turned 50, was born in Decatur. Her mother went to Emory on scholarship, and her father was a radiologist at Georgia Baptist Hospital. She has two sisters (all gay, she notes) and a brother —a happy, close Methodist family that gardened and kept bees together.

“Although Southern Rock was standard fare at my high school, I didn’t really grow up with the country music I love now,” she says. “My grandmother campaigned to get me on Hee Haw to clog, though. She watched it religiously.”

Instead, Ray and Saliers—a bohemian pair of friends who shared the same intense gaze, bookworm intelligence and empathy for underdogs—would sneak into Atlanta bars with fake IDs and perform Patti Smith covers. After graduating, Saliers attended Tulane and Ray went to Vanderbilt, but, feeling homesick, they both eventually transferred to Emory University, where Ray double-majored in English and religion.

In 1987, during the ascendancy of folk femmes, an A&R rep who was visiting Atlanta to see R.E.M caught the women’s act at the Little Five Points Pub. Epic Records signed the act, and their self-titled, major-label debut yielded the hit “Closer to Fine” and a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. From then on, The Indigo Girls established themselves as platinum-selling fixtures in the music industry, as well as vocal political and environmental activists and out-and-proud icons in the LGBT rights movement.

It was her solo projects that roped Ray into country in the 1990s, when she fell in with Austin’s South by Southwest scene, where punks “mixed it up in the bars on Sixth Street with the cowpunks and the best of Texas swing.” The two disparate-seeming genres, she decided, were kissing cousins. “The Southern punks I knew listened to and got their swagger from classic country as much as anything else,” she says. “Simple country tunes sounds held the same populism and rebellion that I loved about punk rock. Neko Case and Loretta Lynn were cut from the same cloth. The Clash and Hank Williams were the heartbeat of populist songwriting. George Jones and Paul Westerberg had the same demons. There was hillbilly rock running through the veins of The Cramps.”

She immersed herself in Alan Lomax. “I pulled out the old field recording LPs my grandma gave me and listened to them with a whole different ear,” Ray says. “The sounds of an old woman singing Applachian murder ballads in her kitchen, the chain gangs working the fields, songs from the mountains to the coast reflecting a beauty that was rough and honest.”

Restless yet rooted

Her creative curiosity has always been boundless, says her old friend and musical partner. “One of the many things that is inspiring about Amy is her combination of talent and work ethic,” Saliers says. “She also always wants to grow, so along the way she has learned to play harmonica, mandolin and electric guitar in addition to acoustic guitar, practicing as hard as anyone I’ve ever met. She can rock hard, write a beautiful ballad, or even a pop song, and she has expanded the use of her voice, starting to sing in falsetto as well as her deep, resonant tenor.”

Ray’s versatility is almost as pronounced as her humility. Despite her musical achievements, it was only last year that she first sat in with the locals who regularly gather, in un-ironic overalls, to play bluegrass and mountain music on the Dahlonega square. Why? Ray felt “intimidated” by the twangy chops on those laconic old-timers.

Ray moved to her current home in 1993 because of fond childhood memories of nearby Camp Glisson, a Methodist summer camp. “The rich, Appalachian culture started seeping in,” she says, noting that the first country song she penned around 2001 was a hanging ditty titled “Johnny Rottentail.”

Just after Ray started experimenting with more high-lonesome sounds, she encountered someone who made her feel less lonely.

“We met at Lilith Fair,” says Carrie Schrader, Ray’s partner of 12 years,an instructor at the University of North Georgia, and a screenwriter/filmmaker. “That was how I knew I was gay, actually— my reaction when I first saw her.”

Schrader, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, still puzzles affectionately over Ray’s deep-seated “devotion to Jesus” and pride in a conservative region that traditionally has resisted many of her sociopolitical ideals and causes.

“Amy is so incredibly loyal to her roots,” Schrader says, shaking her head. “She is unusual because she is so very liberal, yet, if anyone talks negatively about the South she will defend it like a rabid dog! I think Amy is very opinionated and very outspoken in some ways, and to some, she can seem rough.  But I have watched her nurse a broken baby bird back to health, staying up for five nights in a row, willing it to live.  I have seen her cry over a deer that strangled itself on our fence and gently bury it. I have watched her wrangle a copperhead away from our dog—in order to save the copperhead.”

That last incident inspired “Anyhow,” one of Goodnight Tender’s strongest tracks, haunting in its imagery despite a tempo faster than her weepers:

“That ol’ copperhead, he’s hung for sure
 with half of its being in the jaw of my cur
The other half waving its head in the dirt
With just enough venom to do some hurt.
I can’t save it now, so I watch it die
And I thank the Lord for better times…”

A New Orientation

Given the entertainer/activist’s soft spot for animals, the song that stunned a few dinner companions was “Hunter’s Prayer.” Ray has been a vegetarian for 27 years. “I do eat cheese,” she says sheepishly, and explains the song: “One night this huge buck appeared in the fog—his antlers still hadn’t shed their fuzz—and stopped and looked at me in this long moment, in the way animals have of seeming to see right into you,” she recalls. “I thought of the Native activists I know, and some of my neighbors here in North Georgia, the ones who know how to treat the land and are much more connected to the chain of life than some of us are. So I wrote ‘The Hunter’s Prayer,’ initially as a folk song, then as a barroom sing-along, and then it went into another place. It’s about not only wanting a good dog and a good love, but also wanting to find your bearings in life.”

Ray always has one ear cocked to the cosmic tuning fork, and last year reverberated with pivotal events that prompt all of the Big Questions. Her beloved father died a week before Schrader gave birth to their daughter. “The happiness of new life doesn’t take away the grief, but it helps us cope,” she says. “It also gives me something big to worry about, in terms of the future. I notice children in a way I didn’t before. Parenthood reorients all of your thinking about humanity.” (As if her social conscience were not ardent enough already.)

Ozilline Graydon Schrader-Ray was born in November, with a thick thatch of dark hair and merry eyes. “Ozilline,” pronounced oze-leen, was the name of Ray’s grandmother who loved “Hee Haw.”

“I love trying out my new material on her because she’s so responsive,” Ray says, putting the baby down for a brief nap and singing “Folsom Prison Blues” as a lullaby. “She also likes ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.’ I want her to be part of my creative process, not separate from it. I don’t think of parenting as ‘giving away a piece of myself.’ I was sick of myself anyway!”

A friend drops by bearing veggie burgers from the Yonah Burger, and the two catch up and reminisce.

“The bloodlines and kinships in music feel pretty powerful and infinite to me these days,” Ray says. “I’ve heard some folks say that country is where punks go to die. I don’t know about all that, but I imagine the last mile is the most lonesome, and there’s nothing like the sound of a pedal steel to keep you company.”

Then she scoops up Oziline in a infant sling and takes her family’s three dogs for a walk, crunching through the leaves on the forest floor and pointing out the funny-looking knotholes in trees to her daughter.

An honest ode to small-town life

My two-stoplight hometown

Where everyone knows your name—and your business

August 15, 2013

A while back, a conspiracy of kindness unfolded like an unassuming flower in my hometown.

The haircuts of a beloved barber in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s began to falter in their military precision. His clientele, unanimously concluding that his feelings trumped their vanity, made a pact to continue submitting to his clippers, while wincing imperceptibly into the mirror. Some of them slipped into a more feminine salon for damage control afterward, but one customer who was already shiny in the pate just shrugged and said, “What’s one hair out of place when it’s all I got?”

These gestures can happen anywhere, but I associate them more with small towns, where we know each other’s history and tender spots, for better and worse.

I grew up in Cleveland, population 3,410. The town has more than doubled in size since my childhood but still requires no more than two stoplights. For long stretches, I resided “away” and traipsed through urban grit, only to wash up here every few years like a dazed refugee after a job or relationship went apocalyptically bad. So here I am again, y’all, this time as rooted as an Irish tater—don’t bother with the fatted calf.

“In the great cities we see so little of the world, we drift into our minority,” wrote W.B. Yeats. “In the little towns and villages there are no minorities; people are not numerous enough. You must see the world there, perforce.” Lord knows few “minorities” of any sort occupy this pocket of Appalachia, where diversity boils down to Baptist, Methodist, or Holiness, but the intimacy of scale appeals to the idle anthropologist in me. Cleveland remains obstinately mule-paced—part of its beauty and its bane, its comforts and its claustrophobia, and the reason it balms my nerves just slightly more than it irritates them.

To live as an adult in the small town where you grew up means you collide head-on with your past every day. I cannot dash into the grocery store without running into someone with whom I went to school, church, bed, or a family reunion—or some awkward configuration of all four. We may nod and speak or avoid eye contact altogether. No matter how we furiously erase
and revise our personas as we age, part of us remains frozen in time here. You may have starred in some Caligula-like adventures in the Big City, but to your old classmates, you will always be that bespectacled, bucktoothed wallflower.

For teenagers coming of age here, the only force stronger, deadlier, and more excruciating than hellzapoppin’ lust is boredom. Of all of the odes to small-town life, I prefer Hal Ketchum’s song with the line “gotta be bad just to have a good time.” You become resourceful with cow pastures, rivers, muscle cars, each other’s bodies. My pubescent landmarks start with the Dairy Queen; a cherry Mr. Misty float might as well be Proust’s madeleine. My first kiss was at Country Roads skating rink. That boy grew into a poker-faced deacon, and now when I see him I wonder if he flashes back to the rink’s rainbow-winking disco ball the way I do.

Government eavesdropping does not incense me personally because I never assumed any privacy to begin with; everybody knows your business here, a de facto policing of the social compact. You can flip off other drivers on I-285, but in Cleveland, you likely will encounter them in church, so don’t do it. Likewise, don’t cheat anyone or steal someone’s mate, and remember when you gossip that your listener has cousins—the gene pool is the size of a raindrop. Conversely, you also must develop a flinty disregard for what these people think of you, and that resilient, high-hat carriage is easy to spot in a crowd. The city-bred do not have to weather the lingering personal scandals of a small town.

While social conformity here rivals that of the Amish, people also make allowances. I shudder to check my credit rating, but my family’s “good name” usually floats me. I used to bristle when an outsider clucked that I must have been “sheltered.” My reflexive response was to self-immolate, to bring down that roof around me, but increasingly I respect the infrastructure—the sturdier the heart pine, the better. Just when I rail like George Bailey at crummy Bedford Falls, some freckle-faced good ol’ boy cheerfully submits to a bad haircut, and I know I am sheltered where I belong.

This article originally appeared in our August 2013 issue.

Cue the banjos, and deliver us from developers

The Legacy of Deliverance

James Dickey’s wild Appalachia has been tamed

December 1, 2010

Forty years after its publication, Deliverance leaves most of us native Appalachian readers feeling—much like that quartet of luckless river voyagers—conflicted and sore. Its legacy of comedic shorthand spawned in the backwoods of northeast Georgia functions as a regional guilty pleasure. Most of us do not know whether to bow up at the story’s gamy iconography or wear the gag-gift T-shirt that reads “Paddle faster, I hear banjo music!”
However, many of the toothless-sodomizer jokes I have cracked over the years taste brackish in my purty mouth now that I finally have read the book, which does not contain the “purty mouth” or “squeal like a pig” lines made famous in the movie’s harrowing man-on-man rape. I grew up just down a curvy road from where the story’s action takes place, but I shied away from the novel for years, leery of what I might discover about “my people,” and possibly myself.
Certainly, for home-folk, some passages prove excruciating to read, but the writing swept me like a current into an exalted awareness of the primeval and our part in it, reinforcing a perverse pride in our queer—or quarr, as old-timers say—otherness. Appalachian Studies majors usually sputter when their turf is described as “the country of nine-fingered people,” defined in one brutal stroke by sawmilling mishaps. However, poet James Dickey’s novel, which was published as the leaves changed colors in 1970, struck some notes of cultural and geographic chauvinism in me that are, like a twangy, claw-hammer mountain ballad, more complicated and less guileless than they sound at first. Could it be that I am that odd hillbilly who read Deliverance and felt . . . proud?
Its lessons on nature, rendered with such lyrical precision, have been overshadowed by the so-called “love scene.” Dickey wrote with a pupil-dilating rapture for wilderness, for wildness. The river is “blank and mindless with beauty . . . its icy pit of brightness, in its far-below sound and indifference, in its large coil and tiny points and flashes of the moon, in its long sinuous form, in its uncomprehending consequence . . . the more wonderful for being unbearable.” Just his description of feeling an owl’s talon through tent canvas is worth the price of the book, which could make a vegan dream of bow-hunting. Humans—the orthodontically challenged and ultimately the Atlanta bidniss-men—are just more feral players in this darkling landscape.
Lately, some critics have pronounced this “man vs. nature” theme dead, but its seeming decline in relevance is really a matter of mud-spattered supply and demand, with nature on the dwindling end of things. I am scanning the lumpy silhouette of the mountain behind my childhood home, where I used to poke around junked 1968 pickups rusting in the weeds, unearth old Mason jars half-full of moonshine, and look in vain for the legendary buzzard roost. Now it, like most of America, is a subdivision, “blank and mindless,” but not, as it turns out, with beauty. The rivers, too, have been “neutered,” as my outdoorsman friend Joe says, meaning dammed for electricity and exclusive, seasonal colonies of the lake house peerage. If you think those peckerwood psycho-rapists were clannish and hostile to outsiders, lug a cooler and a fishing pole around Lake Seed looking for recreational public access. The torrents of Tallulah Gorge, where parts of the movie were filmed, are timed with sluice gates for “aesthetic” releases—a show for tourists. A few wild stretches of rapids still exist here and there, but the shale-bed shoals increasingly conduct guided, inflatable rafts or neon-pink inner tubes that Lewis Medlock, the buff survivalist of Deliverance, would use for target practice with his bow and arrow. “Every ten feet, there’s a house, most of the time,” Joe says.
Atlanta, too, has changed. At the time, it was a preening boomtown dominated by ruddy, smooth-talking Southerners who were just a generation or so removed from dirt farming—men like James Dickey, a Buckhead native who was revered in literary circles for his exquisitely euphoric poetry but was better known around the city for obstreperous drinking and ass-grabbing (everyone who encountered him has a story). He had been a hotshot copywriter for Coca-Cola, and the book is narrated by the similarly employed Ed Gentry—think Mad Men in breathable seersucker. That “back to the land” theme hit much closer to home then than it does now, in the coffee shops of Kirkwood.
Fittingly, the book starts with Lewis observing, “We really ought to go up there before the real estate people get hold of it and make it over into one of their heavens.” Well, those “gray affable men” finally have taken over. And they always were more predatory than the mountaineers, who tend to depend on each other in the social compact—if, at times, truculently—in lieu of Realtors and stock dividends. For all of their resourcefulness, Appalachian people historically have lacked the resources to block the developers and the vintners and the retirees migrating here from New Jersey by way of Tampa.
Some of those settlers are my friends. I do not, as a cousin once did, greet them with a shotgun, and I am not suggesting that Bobby Trippe was “asking for it,” though the literary character—a disdainful and dull man—is noticeably less sympathetic than Ned Beatty’s portrayal on film. My senses, however, tell me that a certain amount of savagery remains essential to the ecosystem, that we need Tennyson’s “nature, red of tooth and claw” to keep our pulse from growing faint. I miss the haintlike skirl of the panther that used to stalk the mountain laurel behind my house. I always imagined this muscled cat in the moonlight with a shiver, similar to the exhilarating fear, the awe, that Dickey anatomizes.
“I had never lived sheerly on nerves before,” muses Ed Gentry, “and a gigantic steadiness took me over, a constant trembling of awareness in a hundred places that added up to a kind of equilibrium, that made my arms move in long steady motions and showed me where the rocks were by the differences in the swirling of the water.” That strange ecstasy of survival and endurance illuminates the nightshade of this story like foxfire. Deliverance, like the river that runs through it, is all the more “wonderful for being unbearable,” even if its players, with or without banjos, are now extinct.
Illustration by Lisel Ashlock

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Hang up your ‘Gone fishin’!’ shingle and pick with the best musicians at Bass & Grass festival

From a couple of years ago in Georgia Music Magazine:

This place dangles some irresistible lures to reel in creatures known for their gloriously big mouths — from bass lunkers to bass players.

The Green Bell Guest House, a sixth-generation, hundred-acre spread in Middle Georgia, features a storied “party barn” and fire pit; sleeping quarters in a magnolia-shaded farmhouse and cabins; and the well-stocked, 100-acre Goose Lake. All of it makes for a rambling and hospitable venue for the Bass and Grass festival, four days of tuneful, distinctly Southern leisure and enrichment. “As in big bass and bluegrass,” clarifies proprietor Jennie Hart Robinson, “with lots of fishing and good eating scheduled around picking and jam sessions, which sometimes greet the dawn.”

The annual event, usually slated for late October, also offers two workshops a day for mid-level musicians to refine their technique with professionals such as Jeff Mosier; autoharp legend and “colorful character” Gove Scrivenor; fiddler Caroline Pond of Snake Oil Medicine Show, and Steve “Big Daddy” McMurray from Acoustic Syndicate.

bass and grass2 “We sit around in a circle and make music together,” says flat-picking guitarist Larry Keel. “There are unspoken rules to that sort of thing that take practice, such as getting the courage to solo and expanding your musical vocabulary. I see progress every year in our students.”

These lessons and all of the late-night noodling and riffing culminate in a round-robin showcase that is recorded on keepsake compact discs. This year, Keel also plans to videotape the performance for a television pilot in the works.

“The artists are not shuttled off somewhere else, separate from the students,” Robinson says, explaining that she also rolls out cots in the barn for this informal fish-camp setting. “We have big, family-style breakfasts, and go out in boats for some phenomenal fishing, capped off with a big fish fry. So, in addition to the formal lessons, you get plenty of intimate, coffee-drinking time with Rev. Jeff and the other big names, who are happy to give helpful pointers during your picking on the porch.”

The festival started in 2008 when Keel, who owns a Virginia-based company called Fishin’ and Pickin’, met Robinson at the Magnolia Festival in north Florida. “I sing a lot of songs about fishing, and we got this idea to combine these two loves we shared and get other like-minded people together for it,” Keel says. “When I visited Green Bell, I was struck by this family atmosphere that just felt special and right, and it always seems to bring out the best in everybody. Plus, even the smallest fish in that lake feels like a whale!” (His largest catch so far? A 9-pound, two-ounce large-mouthed bass. “But I know there are bigger ones swimming out there.”)

Besides, adds Robinson, “I live in the middle of nowhere, so I have to bring the party to me,” joking that she resides in a midstate “Bermuda Triangle” with a Fort Valley address and a Perry phone number, just over the line in Macon County — a leafy, isolated complex among the peach and pecan orchards with red-dirt roads that thwart even the most fine-tuned GPS.

Envy whoever gets lost here, though, in the state’s sweaty navel. This earthy  conservatory preserves the landscape — in camellias and communion — of Old Georgia.

“My father was in the textile business, and he used to bring clients here to do business the old-fashioned way: over hunting, fishing, and fried chicken and biscuits, all sealed with a handshake,” Robinson says. “For 60-plus years, the name was Malatchie Farms — many people still know it as that — but we wanted a fresh start, so I chose ‘Green Bell’ because of the big camp bell and also because of a wonderful family tradition from my husband’s family of ‘giving someone a bell,’ which means you ring a bell as your friends and family drive away after a visit to ensure peace and love ’til you meet again.”

bass and grass1 City folks will realize they are far from Buckhead when they see the walls and shelves of the comfortable accommodations that are dubbed — with down-home irony — “the shack” and the “dog-trot,” which showcase portraits of prized retrievers and coon dogs; a  homemade pecan exhibit; faded photos of Governor Herman Talmadge; caricatures of “Lint Head Shoots” from the 1960s and ’70s; and displays of antlers and other taxidermy trophies, including the head of a growling bear in a bunk room (skittish types might want to sleep elsewhere). The sign over the entrance to the farmhouse directs visitors to “Unload Guns,” and its bar offers the similarly practical advice, “Danger: Men Drinking.” The bookshelves hold musky titles such as  Deliverance and yellowed hunting and field guides along with a few, incongruous copies of The New Yorker, which, I suspect, are a flourish from Robinson, who holds a degree in studio art from Kenyon.

Along with their musical instruments and fishing gear, visitors can bring their dogs to Green Bell, which boasts several chickens and a donkey named Delilah. “A whole repertoire of jokes has accumulated among the musicians about my ‘fine ass,’” Robinson says, rolling her eyes.

Even though Bass and Grass is in its third year, music is hardly new to the farm. In addition to his textile “bidniss,” Robinson’s father, Walter Forbes, was also an R.C.A. recording artist who would bring his Nashville buddies home for song-filled retreats.

“He called them ‘music swarms,’” Robinson says, name-checking accomplished guests such as Cowboy Jack Clement; Fletcher Bright; pianist and arranger Charles Cochran; and Roger Cook, who wrote “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”

Keel still hears their happy echoes.

“Green Bell is truly magical,” he says. “It’s a place where the years of good times and great experiences have left their mark so deeply you can feel them. That’s why I feel so comfortable and inspired every time I come here. We want to share that with other people who love music … and fishin’.”

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Nothing weeps as exquisitely as pedal steel

          Whenever Harold “Shot” Jackson was tinkering in his workshop, he did not fret — in any sense of that word.

          He clearly reveled in playing his steel guitar and dobro on stage at the Grand Ole Opry with artists such as Roy Acuff and Kitty Wells, and, noodling around, envisioned all kinds of sonic innovation, installing string pullers with pedals on Fenders and Rickenbackers to bend a note in sly, unconventional ways.

         Image In 1955,  Jackson, who grew up in Blackshear, Georgia, teamed up with his musician friend, Buddy Emmons, to develop a fretless instrument  that you almost have to see — and then hear — to fathom its honky-tonk physics. It relies on a metal bar to fret, or shorten, the length of the strings, along with pedals for the feet and knees to change the pitch, enabling what composers call portamento or glissando. As if country music were not plaintive enough, suddenly even the guitar could weep. Jackson and Emmons christened this newfangled ax the “Sho-Bud,” a combination of their nicknames, and the pedal steel guitar helped usher in the historic era that became known as the “Nashville Sound.”

          “You might not know exactly what a pedal steel is, but you certainly recognize that sound when you hear it,” says David Jackson, the son of the “King of Pedal Steel.”  “It opened up new possibilities for musicians because if they wanted a note to waver, they could do it on pedal steel in ways they couldn’t on a regular guitar. They used this steel bar to express their inward self, to make a soulful, crying kind of sound.”

          So high-lonesome went high-tech as the pedal steel enhanced the music’s range of expressiveness while smoothing and polishing its rougher “hillbilly” barbs to a tear-stained gleam. Porter Waggoner became the first spangled headliner to use a Sho-Bud, and then Webb Pierce went wild with it. Soon enough, Shot Jackson was crafting, customizing, and refitting instruments for Roy Clark, George Jones, Ernest Tubb, and anyone else who drifted into the Sho-Bud music store on Broadway, trailing sequins from the Ryman Auditorium next door.

          “It was a full music store, but it also had kind of lounge, where stars sat around and told stories, pounding a lot of whiskey,” David Jackson recalls, explaining somewhat apologetically that “it was just the lifestyle most of those singers had back then.”

          Shot Jackson’s sons expanded the business, adding coveted features and gadgets. In the late 1960s, David patented a new pedal device that would become the most replicated string-pulling mechanism in the guitar industry. He operated Music City Manufacturing Company, where his older brother, Harry, built most Sho-Bud steel guitars, while their dad transformed the dobro into the “Sho-Bro” and worked on other nifty projects upstairs in the shop. Today, Willie Nelson still plays “Trigger,” which the elder Jackson repaired and customized for him, and, in Branson, Buck Trent dazzles tourists with the pedal banjo that he acquired in the early ’60s. Shot Jackson’s instruments not only made history; they have endured it “on the road” and everywhere else.

          “My dad was a mechanical genius who absolutely loved — lived and breathed — music,” David says.

          Pedal steel eventually infiltrated rock ‘n’ roll — Eric Clapton and the Eagles took up Sho-Buds — and found a jubilant home in the Sacred Steel tradition of gospel music, an African-American Pentecostal movement that originated in the House of God Which Is the Church of the Living God the Pillar and Ground of the Truth Without Controversy.

          In 1981, Gretsch-Baldwin bought Sho-Bud, and, later, Shot Jackson sold his repair shop. A couple of months after retiring, he suffered a stroke that impaired his speech and left him unable to play music until his death in 1991. The master inventor — whose handle was a truncated version of his childhood nickname in South Georgia, “Buckshot” — was inducted into the Steel Hall of Fame in 1986.

          “I’m not 100 percent sure about this, but I believe the Jackson family claims more patents in the business than any other,” David says.

          And they are not finished.

          After a long hiatus, the music-loving clan — now with the David’s daughter, Dawn — recently revived the family business and based it in Dahlonega, with the motto “Pulling Strings since 1955.”

          “We relaunched it for reasons of heritage,” David says, “but also because I get down on my knees to pray, and God just keeps sending ideas. I’m 67 now, but if the good Lord lets me work, I’m going to keep doing it. We’ve applied for three patents, and I have six or seven more in the works, all related to pedal steel and string pullers, to standardize the tuning to simplify the playing. We’re planning a pedal-slide.”

          Before these developments, David had worked on touring vehicles for musicians. During a bus repair, he met his current wife, Susan Peck, who sings with her sister in the award-winning gospel act, Karen Peck and New River, based in north Georgia. In 2005, he unveiled the next generation of instruments, a Jackson Steel guitar, at the band’s annual homecoming celebration in Dahlonega.

          Along with his prayer-driven creativity, he was inspired by his daughter’s growing interest in music. Another Jackson with a dual flair for science and the arts, Dawn had studied biology at Mercer University and then worked in the health-care industry, but in 2002, she founded Sho-Bud Music Inc., an indie record label and publishing company. (Its first single, “Beer on the Table” recorded by Josh Thompson,  went to No. 17 on the Billboard charts.) She handles sales and marketing while writing songs and working on a documentary about the Sho-Bud dynasty. Her uncle Harry who still lives in Nashville, does metal fabrications, manufacturing, and development for the company.

          “Word is out that the Jacksons are back in business!” David says.

          One of their hippest exponents is Robert Randolph, who grew up in Sacred Steel and now plays R&B. “In my church, the pedal steel guitar substituted for the organ,” he says. “I wanted to do with it what Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix did.” Randolph was working with T Bone Burnett on last year’s much-praised release, “We Walk This Road,” a jukin’ celebration of black roots music, when he called up the Jacksons to request more instruments.

          “With so many others out there, you have to cut and paste parts together,” Randolph says, “but the Jacksons have figured out a way to nail it all down in a cohesive way that meets in the middle and consistently gives you a superior tone. You can plug one of their pedal steels into any amp and know you’ll get a great sound.”

          It is one of “pure emotion,” Dawn says.

          “It’s ironic to me that these guitars truly come from men of steel,” she muses, “in the sense that Papaw and Dad and Uncle Harry are men of few words who don’t show much emotion in talking. But these instruments say it all.”