THE READING ROOM: Crowther Essays Paint Colorful Portraits of Musicians and More
Award-winning journalist Hal Crowther deserves to be better known, or at least more widely known. He certainly made a name for himself in the South, where his work has appeared regularly in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Oxford American, and Independent Weekly. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, Crowther served for a time as a staff writer at Time and as media critic for Newsweek. He’s spent his career as a thorn in the flesh of any pundits or politicians who dragged truth through the quagmire of political expediency, refusing to allow any preacher, politician, or journalist to muddy the waters of cultural conversations to hide the clear facts or truths at stake. During a conversation last year about his new book, Freedom Fighters and Hell Raisers: A Gallery of Memorable Southerners (Blair), he told me, “We live in a time now when people in high office have such low standards for morality and imagination. I thought it would be a good time to focus on people with high standards — real heroes. They are not only people I had admired, but they also influenced me. I met many of them and called several of them, like Molly Ivins and Jesse Winchester, friends.”
In this new collection of essays — many of which are extended obituaries that reflect on the lives of several friends and cultural figures — and in an earlier one, Gather at the River: Notes from the Post-Millennial South (LSU), Crowther not only focuses his razor-sharp gaze on politicians, preachers, or journalists, but also on several musicians. Although he wrote “Nashville: Dolly and the Subterfugitives” over 14 years ago, Crowther could just as easily have written it yesterday. Ostensibly a report on a conference called “Writers of the New South” at Vanderbilt University, Crowther uses the occasion to reflect on Robert Altman’s film Nashville — “Altman’s nose did not deceive him when he chose Nashville as the locus for his disturbing psychoportrait of the American condition” — and the oft-asked question of cultural authenticity.
To anyone who’s visited Nashville recently to find it taken over by Bird scooters, pedal taverns, construction cranes, and mammoth celebrity nightclubs, Crowther’s words will capture the crazy, mixed-up allure of the place: “Nashville is a real place as well as a showplace, a city where multitudes of people live unconnected to the country music industry and regard the herds of goggling tourists and would-be entertainers as a necessary evil. … This is a schizoid town where straight and twisted co-habit, where cultural opposites attract and repel. Tax attorneys write country songs on Palm Pilots, everyone but the governor is in a band; Opry backup singers pursue M.F.A.s at Vanderbilt. … Nashville presents a slippery slope, a backlit stage where the well-meaning and the predatory sing a strange duet.”
During his visit to Nashville, Crowther and his wife, novelist Lee Smith, have lunch with Dolly Parton. Sprinkling his report with Parton’s sparkling humor (“The dumb blonde act didn’t bother me because I know I’m not dumb — and I know I’m not blonde either”; “Many an old boy has found out too late that I look like a woman but think like a man”), Crowther illustrates that “Parton may be more comfortable with Nashville’s splintered consciousness — pickers and poets, rural roots and rhinestones, high standards and hard cash — than anyone I’ve ever met.” He concludes that “One of my litmus tests for Southern authenticity would be the ability to appreciate the paradox of Dolly Parton: beneath a blinding surface of deliberate, exaggerated, self-satirizing artifice lurks one of the most engagingly authentic individuals in the Nashville pantheon.”
In other essays, Crowther recalls his friendships with other musicians, writing appreciations of them and their music. In the essay “Jesse Winchester: Tennessee Kid,” Crowther fondly remembers his short time with him at Williams College, where the young man from Tennessee was never comfortable: “He was up in Bennington entertaining bohemian girls with blues chords, or he was on the road with his band, or rehearsing a rockabilly combo deep in the basement of the student union.” The last time he saw Winchester, backstage at a small show, Crowther recalls that the singer “was abstracted, shy, a wayfaring stranger who didn’t seem to know anyone — still an exile, as he sang and wrote, ‘with my feet in Dixie and my head in the cool blue North.’” After Winchester dies, Crowther draws a memorable portrait of the singer: “Unlike some blues artists who had more lean years than fat, Winchester never had to load trucks or play lodge picnics to make ends meet. But he became one of those cult figures who separates serious music buffs from the day-trippers. Everyone knowledgeable knew who he was, but almost no one knew where he was. … Here was a skinny incongruously formal guy with a neatly trimmed beard, dressed like an off-duty librarian, performing a weird soft-shoe shuffle like your Uncle Dan might assay after his third martini. But you quickly saw the art of it. No hoofer, no athlete. Winchester just had those Beale Street rhythms coiled around his bones, and his exhibition of fancy footwork was one of the most arresting novelties in show business.”
In a meditation of one of his favorite bands, The Red Clay Ramblers — “Tommy Thompson: The Last Song of Father Banjo” — Crowther offers somber and lucid remembrances of one of the group’s original members, banjoist Tommy Thompson: “Tommy Thompson was from West Virginia and he bore a certain resemblance to a mountain, or at least to someone who’d just come down from the mountain after talking to The Boss. He wore the weather on his shoulders. … Thompson was a connoisseur’s musician, a stylist who took on the mountain masters and won the World Champion Old Time Banjo Contest at Union Grove, North Carolina, in 1971. The Ramblers were a connoisseur’s band, only with some wires loose. Their irreverent eclecticism — they all wrote songs in different styles — eventually moved them beyond the protection of every established genre. … A Ramblers concert was not an entertainment option but a seasonal celebration, like Mardi Gras or the Blessing of the Fleet in a fishing village. Everyone came, and everyone who could play wanted to play with the Ramblers.”
Gather at the River: Notes from the Post-Millennial South and Freedom Fighters and Hell Raisers: A Gallery of Memorable Southerners range over a number of memorable characters, from journalist Molly Ivins and preacher Will Campbell to artist McKendree Long and pianist Eubie Blake. His essays on music, however, capture best the enduring spirit of the musicians and the music that both soothed and tortured their souls and ours.