Southern Festival of Books at The Bluebird: Marshall! Matraca! Silas! George! (and Jason!)
“The first time I ever heard the name Elvis Presley… was the first time I saw him play live,” began Marshall Chapman, dusky voice pouring out like slow smoked honey, reading from her Good Bye Little Rock & Roller. “They say he’s white, but he sings like he’s colored…”
Marshall Chapman was 7. Cora, the black maid who ran the Chapman family home, was going to take the little girl, fresh off her bike, to the “big show at the Carolina Theatre” to see what everybody was talking about. The prices for tickets weren’t just child and adult, but also designated for the colored balcony, a reminder that segregation wasn’t just a notion when the woman once proclaimed “the female Mick Jagger” was growing up.
Chapman is the overlap this night: a published memoirist who contributes to Gun & Garden, but made her name after Vanderbilt with a raw-boned record deal at Epic Nashville. Too wild for even the not-yet-Outlaw movement of creative mavericks that included the not-yet-franchised Willie Nelson, Roger Miller and Waylon Jennings, the South Carolina textile mill owner’s daughter was sent to New York where she recorded the reggae “Don’t Make Me Pregnant,” a drawn out gender spun take on Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page” and a near feral rave-rock lament “Why Can’t I Be Like Other Girls.”
Tonight, the mood is quieter, more contemplative. Chapman’s life has been lived in full, so when her first selection opens “There was no fallback plan,” the tides of music inform the rhythms of “Blaze of Glory.” As much a scrapbook as a philosophical take on commitment, a lack of options and the drives that push you when common sense says “stop,” the tugging ballad speaks to hungers far more serious than mere flesh can mandate.
The Southern Festival of Books may make unlikely bedfellows, but it also offers a concrete bridge between literary disciplines. To hear great writers sing their songs or read their works is to be immersed in a viscerality of the mind – as this night at the legendary songwriters venue clearly demonstrates. Sold out in two minutes, the mixed audience – young and old, male and female, seemingly well-read or well-heeled – came for the strength of the immersion, and hung rapt on both the songs and the stories.
What was especially interesting, given the Bluebird’s reputation as “the home of the hits before they were hits,” was the fact no one called out for a song somebody had gone to #1 with, nor was there a sense of dejection that the evening wasn’t a retread of big country hits.
What there was – beyond a true salon environment – was organic overlapping. Silas House reached into The Coal Tattoo to read a passage inspired by Berg’s “Oh, Cumberland,” recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with Emmylou Harris on their Grammy-winning Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 3. Written long before he’d met the Hall of Fame songwriter, it offered a clear view of how impactful songs can be.
Anneth, the heroine of Tattoo, has left where she’s from with a boy she’s run off with, and as day crawls through the night, she finds herself pulling into Nashville. It has been so many firsts as to be a tumble, and she’s trying to imprint all the feelings that running off, getting married, driving to a new state, then to Nashville and following the signs to the Ryman can yield. And in that she has the comfort of knowing the Cumberland River can always take her home.
Berg has always been a fairly reluctant presence. Brilliant in extreme, wickedly funny in private, her reticence in a “Look at me! Look at me!” world is palpable, almost to the point of seeming awkward.
She has debuted two songs this evening. “Her Name Is Mary” about a very young waitress with “maraschino cherry colored hair” who is leading a terribly hard life without forsaking hope and the chilling “Magdalene,” trying to remove blame and sow compassion for a street-tricking prostitute who needs to hang up her pumps. They came hard, but they hit harder.
Still finding the comfort zone of “Oh, Cumberland” allowed Berg the room to share a little of who she is. Conceived in Eastern Kentucky and brought to Nashville to be put up for adoption, only to have her mother change her mind, the now lithe songstress has rooted strong in both Nashville and the hollers where her mother’s people come from. “Oh, Cumberland” was that river’s siren song to a girl out of place and out of sorts in Los Angeles, trying to make a record and stake a claim on her future, but only succeeding to plumb new depths of homesickness.
For all four of the artists, home and roots became a unifying theme. George Singleton, a classically manly guy, has a deep sense of wry that belies his Guggenheim Fellowship – and that only makes his tales of trailers, loneliness and odd details that much more hilarious and heart-tugging.
The Greenville, South Carolinian’s sense of place is so strong that he truly puts the listener/reader there. Characters carved like a Michelangelo sculpture, you can tell everything about the boy in a story from his 2012 collection Stray Decorum whose mother dies at 33 and is taken for a low budget cremation where the cremator’s daughters “would make Homer rethink the part in The Odyssey with the Sirens.”
Like Flannery O’Connor, there’s slightly busted humanity and almost compassion for the poor souls beneath the grostequeries that give his stories traction. All slightly off people like the broken folks we all are and live with, that warm glow he applies to the foibles creates a sense of real life that can be endured.
Endurance is everything. Whether it was the sweetness of Chapman’s “Leaving Lokapocha” in wide-eyed pursuit of a dream or Singleton’s story about lying neighbors, fire ants and the notional solution of “anteaters” leading his protagonist to a trailer where the most hellish moans and screams are escaping. “Deliverance” gone hostage? In-bred sex games? Ritual slaughter of drawling nature? It is that unlikely twist – a sister badly deformed and mentally broken — that takes the obvious and makes it compelling.
Like the best music, like the best writing: the riveting turn makes the human connection.
Silas House takes a reading from the Coal Tattoo and suspends the attendees in that moment where a girl sees a boy playing a guitar unseen at some local party, and with all the moxie she can muster and allure she can summon transfixes him. Anneth sees poetry in her hard-scrabble world: coal dust affixed to the miner’s lashes becomes mascara, loves the wildest girl for being wild and dreams of a world far beyond her holler… knowing it’s out there, knowing it’s only a matter of time.
That human recgognition, though often pulled from imagination or memory, can sometimes be life itself. Five rounds into the performance, the evening prepares to wind down. When it’s Berg’s turn, she announces her niece Cecelia’s 17th birthday, and asks her to step into the circle to sing with her. The song is “Strawberry Wine,” a yearning memory-sketch of the summer that 17-year old heroine lost her virginity, fell in love and learned the power of another’s presence in your soul – and the honey-haired young lady’s eyes glow at the prospect.
For Berg, a back-up singer’s daughter who dreamed of better for her daughter, it is the circle of life turning one more time. Cecelia, intent on making her own mark, has devised a unique way of phrasing, choppy at the ends of the lines and pushed in a way Deana Carter’s whisper couldn’t dare. In this moment, tt becomes a song sung by a young woman chomping at the bit to find out what all this life stuff is about.
It is the fiber of songs, of novels, that moment. Tears shine in the eyes of the four grown-ups. Jason Howard, who wrote the wonderful A Few Honest Words about Kentucky’s musical heritage had accompanied House earlier on the beautiful, beyond old timey “Foreign Lander,” reached for his autoharp and began playing in time.
When art is good it moves beyond artifice to distill life. It is why reading – and actual records, not just tracks – matter. It is essential and nourishing. At the Bluebird Café, where people stood outside to listen through the glass, it was a witness to everything those people performing believed.
After Singleton closed things down with the declaration: “I’m not following that.”
He demurred slightly, offering one sentence, “My dog Tapeworm Johnson needed legitimate veterinary attention.”
A perfect non sequitur — and the only possible response. Rather than guffaw the tension awayor return to the potency of a song strung between grown-ups who can only remember and a young woman on the verge who sang that first verse, the mismatched artisans reached beyond any notion that seemingly made sense – and embraced Mother Maybelle’s Appalachian soul with June Carter Cash’s song of lust and obsession “Ring of Fire.”
Worlds colliding in a mad tea cup sort of way, the romp was frenzied and fun. Not as fraught as Carter’s intent, perhaps, but enough stomp to create a crescendo that left the poignance in tact, suggested what we know can always be recast and offered a myriad of potential for all those who would be sent tumbling into the night.