Hemphill, who died Saturday, July 11 in Atlanta at the age of 73, was from the generation just before me — the last one, I believe, who will have intimate acquaintance with the subjects of his books. In 2005 and 2006, after years of communicating by phone and letter, I finally got to spend some time with Paul while we were on tour plugging our books — I, my biography of Bear Bryant, The Last Coach , and he, Lovesick Blues: the Life of Hank Williams . The dialogue that follows is mostly from my recollection of things he said during times we ducked out of book signings for coffee.
On Hank Williams: “Don’t you get the feeling that Alabama has always been just a little bit ashamed of Hank Williams? Really, he’s our state poet, and when I talk to people in Alabama, I often get the impression that not one out of 10 actually knows that he was from Alabama.
“There were three great popular music icons in America after World War II: Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and Hank Williams. Hank was the only one of the three who wrote his own songs.”
On country music: “White kids that grew up in the south in the late '60s and early '70s shied away from their roots — they disdained people like Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Roy Acuff, George Jones, Jim Reeves and Roger Miller kind of the way black kids around the same age stopped listening to people like Louis Jordan or Lighting Hopkins or Robert Johnson. It was their parents’ and grandparents’ music, and it revealed a rawness and lack of sophistication about their past that they wanted to pretend wasn’t there.
“The funny thing about white country music and black blues is that they reflected a culture that prided itself on tradition, and yet has almost completely disappeared from Southern culture. Turn on the radio and try to hear some evidence of the past. Everything sounds as if it had been made in the same studio in the last couple of years.
“If you want to hear real country music or blues, you have to go to some college radio station.”
On baseball: “When I was growing up, baseball was far more popular with the average Southerner, white and black, than football because the two kinds of baseball we had, the white minor leagues and the Negro Leagues, began to die in the late fifties. I mean there was some interest in Alabama and Auburn football in the forties and fifties, but you didn’t see people going around wearing school caps and shirts.
“Football fans were mostly college graduates, so interest in sport mostly meant baseball. In Birmingham Rickwood Field was the center of sports interest. Television began to kill all that by bringing major league games into people’s homes -- especially the Atlanta Braves – in the mid-sixties. They forgot about the minor leagues and the Negro Leagues. Two and three generations of baseball culture faded from people’s memories.”
On his father: “People say they don’t know what made Ty Cobb a virulent, unrepentant racist. I do — he loved his father too much. He couldn’t break with his father, so he either had to rebel or accept and embrace his father’s racism. It was very hard to be a young person in the South in Cobb’s time and be rebellious. It was very hard in my own time.”
On politics: “I have to laugh whenever I hear anyone in journalism say that most journalists aren’t liberals. What a lie. Of course we are. Most of us are educated or we wouldn’t be journalists in the first place. I understand why the white people I grew up around could be conservative — what I don’t understand is how in all good conscience the next generation could proclaim themselves conservatives. There were two major issues in my lifetime, Civil Rights and the Vietnam War, and folks who called themselves Conservatives — with a capital C – were on the wrong side of both.
“When Reagan was elected, a lot of the same people who had supported Wallace suddenly jumped to the Republicans and became ‘Conservatives.’ Their attitude became ‘Racism is dead. No need to talk about it anymore.’ They were the people who pretended it never existed in the first place.”
By the way, Paul Hemphill lived long enough to see Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and Rickwood Field become fashionable again, something which he got a kick out of.
I reviewed The Heart of the Game for the New York Times, and my review of his Hank Williams book ran in papers across the country. (If you read an obit that said his books were “critically acclaimed” that was probably me.) In 2005, knowing that he had been such an influence on me when I was starting out in journalism in Birmingham in the early '70s and that I loved his book on country music, The Nashville Sound (which, incredibly, he wrote while attending Harvard), he asked me, frankly, if I thought there was any conflict of interest in my reviewing his later books. I told him no, that I had read the books and liked them, and if I hadn’t, I would have simply made some excuse and not reviewed them.
When he told me he was working on a book on Auburn football (he was the only person I’ve ever met who went to Auburn and Harvard). I told him not to count on a good review from me on that one.
I don’t know where the next generation’s Paul Hemphill will come from. Newspapers are rapidly disappearing and with them the intimacy between a writer and his sources.
I see and read a lot these days about the literature of the New South and about Alabama’s literary heritage. Many of those books are by writers with three names and have subtitles like “Reflecting on life while sitting on grandma’s porch.” In my opinion, if there is a basic mistake made by current southern writers, it is in putting too thick a nostalgic haze around the recent past and rejecting the unadorned truths of Paul Hemphill.
Paul was bitter about the Birmingham he grew up in; if not, he never would have become a writer. His gritty blue collar sensibility, reflected best in Leaving Birmingham (1993) — a book that no one who seriously calls themselves an Alabama writer can not have read — wasn’t in fashion then and will never be, though Paul Hemphill will be read long after writers of fashion are forgotten. He used his bitterness the way all good writers do – to fan the flames in the forge of the smithy of his soul.
Birmingham native Allen Barra writes for numerous publications, including Salon.com, American Heritage and The Wall Street Journal. Send your feedback to email@example.com.