(AV17656) From Idea to Novel: A Writer and Activist at Work

good evening everyone thank you for
coming out tonight to hear Rick bass before we before I get into the
introduction I just want to thank a number of people who helped put this on
every year the MFA program and creative in writing an environment where I’m a
professor my name is Dean becau Ellis by the way the Department of English where
the MFA program is housed has been very supportive of Rick basses affiliate
faculty status and we thank the entire department for that I also want to thank
the Committee on lectures which is funded by the government of the student
body and we thank them for their continued support of bringing writers to
campus it’s a it’s a key component of a literary education is to hear people
other than your professors talk about writing and so the visiting writers
program has been very robust this year in the last two weeks we’ve had a number
of wonderful writers on campus and it’s nice to have Rick here this week to take
us into Spring Break which we all desperately need I think Rick bass is an
affiliate faculty member now in Iowa State’s MFA program and creative writing
an environment he’s the author of more than two dozen books of fiction and
nonfiction his works include the autobiographical why I came West and the
short story collection the lives of rocks his new novel Nashville chrome
draws on the rise and fall of the brown trio the true life country music
Trailblazers who pioneered the 1950 sound from which the novel takes its
title Rick also works actively and thoughtfully to protect Glacier National
Park in other wilderness areas from unbridled development and unsustainable
resource extraction I could list all I can list many more awards and
publications and accomplishments tonight it would be an incredibly lengthy list
but I want to tell you something a little more personal tonight as to why
we in the MFA program here asked Rick bass to join our faculty as an affiliate
member in Iowa State there’s a million not a million that’s an exaggeration but
there’s many many invited mental writers in this country that
influenced the faculty and the students in the MFA program but we zeroed in on
Rick and and coerced him to come join us for a number of reasons he’s a writer of
deep compassion and integrity as a fiction writer and essayist he brings a
strong deeply felt wisdom to each page telling stories some true some imagined
that are simultaneously mythic in their urgency and grounded in their exquisite
detail he is a writer who understands that nature is not a distinct thing not
some other realm but that nature is our realm something we must try to live in
and be in relationship with if we are to be whole and healthy human beings
Rick understands that the humans place and creation is profound troubled and
powerful as a teacher as a teacher we have found Rick to be thoughtful
generous and ethical as honest as direct and as big-hearted a writer as you’ll
find on any campus in this country we are glad he is here on our campus this
week and part of our team next year our graduate students look forward to
exploring Montana with Rick as our guide but for now please join me in welcoming
Rick bass Thank You Dean for for having me in and
for inviting me here to Iowa State what you guys are doing is really really
amazing a lot of folks are trying to emulate you know behind the curve other
folks are looking over their shoulder it’s it’s really uh you know just don’t
look at any of that just keep doing what you’re doing it’s it’s it’s really
unique and powerful and wonderful I’m really very honored to be asked to be a
part of it and uh for a number of reasons not just because what y’all are
doing is great but also because of what I do is is atypical and and ranked and
wild and and and ill-formed and and often unprofessional so I just didn’t
thrilled by that leap of trust to let me be part of your your programming and I
hope that that hybrid vigor continues to help in some small way you guys move
forward with the force and power and integrity with which you’re proceeding I
am so comfortable with the faculty here and the students that I almost need to
apologize I’m gonna read something I’m turned off I think yeah I want to read
this nonfiction piece that was the basis for this novel that I wrote called
Nashville chrome and a lot of y’all in Barbara’s class have have read it deeply
and intensely and really put me through the wringer with some real hard
questions yesterday about the about the novel and I’ve come across this
nonfiction piece that was the template for the novel and while it’s not my best
writing I’m so comfortable with you guys and what you’re doing that I don’t feel
the need to try and do what visiting writers do sometimes is show off and
bring their best work and end off you know say look at how great I once was
you know what went for one moment in time listen to this again and again
and so I’m gonna read kind of this this pretty flat rectangular shaped piece of
non-fictional I see people heading for the doors okay Molly do it can you hear
me in the back all right it’s a nonfiction piece that became that it’s
it’s really just the blueprint for the novel now the flaw with this deal is if
you haven’t read the novel you’re just gonna have to hear a flat nonfiction
piece but if you happen to have read the novel or if you’re going to read the
novel then you can recall this this reading and see wow that’s kind of a
cool thing to go from such a flat piece of crap to uh to make up an organic
living resonant vibrant magical novel but that’s that’s how I that’s how I
wrote this novel and this was the the first thing I wrote about the it’s it’s
essentially just a template of treatment really interesting stuff and I tried to
write it non fictive lis at first which is what y’all are gonna hear and then I
thought I’m not finished I want to try and puff this up I’m making it sound
worse than it is it’s not it shouldn’t be whether its torturous or not it won’t
be extraordinarily long we’ll all survive but it’s called oh it’s about
this country music group from the 1950s called the Browns totally forgotten but
once upon a time they were more famous than anybody in America they were this
hinge point of history that took you know the backwoods Appalachian front
porch back porch whatever country music ethos of just playing for yourself and a
few other friends into the multi billion-dollar entertainment industry
that became they were the first ones to have massive commercial success and and
crossover success across genres the first group to have a number one hit in
pop and country just bigger more famous than you can imagine they played to a
hundred thousand people in Germany they were internationally renowned and their
fame lasted about four years there three of them us a trio of siblings and all
I’ll talk about this in the QA but I’ll just read the story and and then
hopefully have some questions and answers about Oh about how it came to be it I hope this
will go quicker that I’m making it sound there’s a lot of pages here I think
they’re gonna read pretty quickly because it’s big type and big pages if
there’s time afterward what I might want to do is read just a couple of pages
from the novel what’s striking to me is how flat and workman like this piece is
and then how I make this shift to really engage with language and imagination in
the novel I may try and read a couple pages of the novel after you know for an
after-dinner mint back in 1934 in country music there was only the purity
of the sound the sound the message the people had not yet become a commodity
the possessor of talent called him or her the traveler I’ve got to interrupt
myself here I don’t know what this means calling him or her the traveler this is
like a total rough draft it’s on I think I was thinking of that movie of The Big
Lebowski you know what was the guy not the dude but who was the narrator
sometime narrator the stranger right Oh was it the stranger what was that guy’s
name what’s it what’s the actor’s name yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah so I’m thinking
I don’t know I’m gonna have come a Salmonella character till tell this
story this mythic story to you know kind of puff it up but the traveler never
comes back into this stow hurry the possessor of talent called him or heard
the traveler was not yet presented with the conundrum of needing to make a
choice between fame or greatness during this time there was a family called the
Browns living on the banks of tulip Creek
Arkansas hardscrabble poor who and for whatever reasons fate chance destiny
went on to the top of the country music world back then anyone who was anyone in
the music business not just country music but any music revered the Browns
sound bewitching as that of sirens and was drawn to them greatness sought
greatness and for that little window of time four years
they might as well have been the nucleus of it all Maxine Brown had a flame with
Johnny Cash her sister Bonnie dated Elvis Presley and they had a huge
influence on the Beatles development as Harmonist they knew Patsy Cline produced
records with Chet Atkins there was almost no award that they didn’t win it
didn’t happen however this incandescent run it almost didn’t happen however this
incandescent run of the famous family singing trio so famous that almost
nobody today has heard of them sometimes I think the main reason the Browns have
been forgotten and passed by is that they did the three worst things you can
do in country music they crossed over into pop rock and folk and then worse
yet they lost a rough high Appalachian twang and developed a more sophisticated
polished marble smooth Nashville sound of the late 1950s and early 1960s worse
yet they achieved great artistic if not always commercial success they were the
first recording artists ever have number-one hits on multiple even
simultaneous charts and I think also that they may have been passed by or
forgotten never quite afforded the full status of myth because worst of all they
survived they still play now and again in a
special encore performance every few years but what she Maxine misses make no
mistake about it is the steady roar of youth and fame from a time when there
was no foreseeable into anything and the only direction was up the Browns were
not so much participants in history as instead the raw material of it the
greatness the curse and blessing of it came roaring up into them then inhabited
them like a spirit it was the same or similar uproar the same will upwelling
which inhabited and destroyed so many others at that same point in time and
Maxine 75 years old now half blind and broken hipped wants more the applause
nearly killed her then it went away and she somehow survived
going away but now she wants it back their early years consisted of a life
spent down in the logging camps of the old-growth hardwood bottoms of Arkansas
where would-be musicians such as their father Floyd were forever losing digits
and limbs to the blades of that profession the world ever hungry even
during the Depression for the high-quality dense timber from those
swamps and creeks and hungrier still after the depression lifted and the war
began and then beyond the first edges of affluence which came licking like fire
after the war the Browns youngest brother was killed when he was seven
years old riding back from the logging camp
Maxine herself rescued her other little brother Jim ed from a burning cabin when
she was but three years later one of the oldest members of the Grand Ole Opry
commenting on the brown smooth sound sucking sour grapes because of their
sudden success would lay the verbal whip across Maxine’s back the Browns and
grown up more country than anyone but then got smooth which infuriated
old-timers and disc jockeys alike y’all ain’t country sneered one of Maxine’s
once upon a time idols what was so bewitching about their music
as best as anyone can tell there was something in their blood that gave their
harmonies a quality that could be produced only by another family member
it wasn’t any one tone or timbre but instead a living thing organic
spontaneous vital as adaptive in any moment as breath or breeze and with each
slight alteration in sound being followed seamlessly by the other two
siblings in the manner of a flight of swallows flaring as if each was
inspirited by one electrical current of longing the Nashville sound it would
come to be called mysterious gliding elegant smooth maxine describes their
sound as a tempered harmony one where their notes are bent I have no idea what
either of these phrases mean and when I asked Maxine she tries to explain it
with words but can’t she tries to make the shape of it with her hands
but can’t get the point across to me that way either they left that raw high
Appalachian sound and brought something strange and silken to an era the late
1950s which though sterling would not last either as evidenced by too much of
today’s country music which tends to fall apart and instead becomes just a
bunch of breathy crooners professing the abstractions of heartache of gut or guts
swollen nasty louse singing about the manly rigors of an extraordinarily
unimaginative brand of alcoholism the music if it can be called that
foundering in part on the Enabling success of the vigorous marketplace that
exists for such things it makes you bat mad enough to bite nails if you’re a fan
of the pure older more elemental rootstock or even say if you’re a fan of
authenticity truth integrity in any form or fashion and how mad must have made
Maxine not only was it tough being a crossover artist in the 50s and early
60s as country disc jockeys felt that their religion slipping away it was
brutal being a woman in country music swimming upstream to the rapids with few
exceptions of misogyny and in this regard to Maxine was a trailblazer I
feel sorry for today’s musicians Maxine says speaking of the multimillionaires
whose lives are governed by the pressures of success they may have money
she says but they don’t have that family they don’t know what they’re missing I
feel sorry for them the brown children Maxine Jim ed and their sister Bonnie
saying beautiful harmonies which were hypnotizing even as children
Jim ed in particular was able to imitate all the Opry stars
unbeknownst to Jim ed Maxine sent in a tape of him an audition for Amateur
Night on a weekend radio special called the barnyard frolic a regional
low-wattage spin-off of the Grand Ole Opry a postcard arrived after a few
weeks saying he had been selected for audition Jim ed lifting his eyes to
Maxine who is watching him read the card and knowing that she had entered him
there long and strange journey beginning there are devils as well as saints in
their story it was a devil who appeared first his name was Faber Robinson and in
short order he tied the innocence up in a contract signed eagerly by them and
with Jim ed and Bonnie not even yet of legal age for such things which would
come to haunt them for the rest of their days in conjunction with Faber however
they were to meet also the first Saint another country star similarly betrothed
to Faber gentleman Jim Reeves and his wife Mary who though Reeves was only
seven years Maxine senior took the Browns in under their wing and became
advisor supporter confidant mentor and friend and who would remain these things
through thick and thin there was joy during those first long hard tours Jim
and Mary Reeves saw to that one trip which stands out particularly in
Maxine’s memory up through the Pacific Northwest towing a little trailer
crammed full of their instruments in costumes Floyd and Bertie Lee had bought
a sick little 16 millimeter movie camera for their children to film the great
adventure none of them had ever been west of Arkansas and I spend an
afternoon over at Maxine’s in the green springtime suburbs of North Little Rock
Mockingbird squalling J shrieking and the murmur of lawnmowers growling their
way across various yards watching the old silent movies and the dark depths of
the din in the films everything looks ancient
the unpeopled land the rutted roads the mountains the forests with only the
sprightly young people mugging for the camera
appearing new recent in the world and yet appearing with my for loaded
knowledge of the narrative to be dissolving already even as the bright
light of the Sun shines upon their mouth pale bodies their movements animated
enthusiastic but oddly jerky before the camera gone already as if almost before
the camera stops whirring pale as parchment as if about to ignite into
flame in the next glance combusting spontaneously for no more reason than
the cam Glantz another image on pikes peak up
about 14,000 feet Jim Reeves had been plagued the whole trip by the swaybacked
little trailer and with the tour almost completed heading home now about to
descend back down into the flat country he took everything out of the accursed
trailer wadded it into a car trunk and then with a sly grin unhitched the
trailer there at the top of the world placed his foot upon its bumper and gave
a shove the situation with their manager Faber was untenable Faber said he would
allow them to buy back their contract for $10,000 cash a fortune to the young
singers Jim had put down his guitar and went back to work in the sawmill a year
later they were free ready to begin again supportive of and excited about
their children’s careers Floyd and Bert Ely decided to open a dinner club which
they named the trio club in honor of Maxine Jim ed and Bonnie a fourth child
Norma was 12 years younger than Maxine and never really quite fit into the trio
because of that fact though some said she had the most talent of all located
in Pine Bluff the last crossroads for all southern musicians as they traveled
up to Nashville the trio Club soon became renowned for
the best cooking in the south and in that first magical year the Browns
befriended a shy young musician Elvis Presley the Browns quickly became his
adoptive family when he was on the road he took to calling Bertie Lee mama Brown
and could not say no to her pies and biscuits her gravy and especially her
banana pudding the young musicians began to tour together and hung out at the
restaurant when not touring where they talked about the usual things dreams and
hungers and music and love they talked about Fame – as if deluded into
believing that it was the twin rather than distant cousin of greatness
Elvis fell hard in love with the ravishing dark-haired beauty of Bonnie
it’s eerie looking back at Mack Sene scrapbook and her old movies of the
gang horsing around by the swimming pool are taking their Sunday dinners together
in Floyds in Bertie Lee’s living room still dressed up from church but with
guitars and some of their laps now a world in which music and family were the
foundation two things strike the viewer watching those old silent movies are
looking at the old photographs how young and pale how childlike the principles
appear despite their neat haircuts and
semi-formal attire of white blouses plaid skirts bobby socks and slacks and
button-down shirts with thin ties they are still just children imitating at
first the habits and customs of adults the jaunty tilt of the cigarette that
could if they lived long enough destroy their voice and career the half-empty
tumbler of sunlit amber ditto and the second thing noticeable in any
individual all but all the more so in children posing as adults is how gaunt
and hollow-eyed they are even in moments of relaxation and pleasure the dark
circles beneath their eyes revealing some Haggard Nisour within of which even
the travelers themselves are not aware who would wish for such power such
danger thank goodness perhaps it is so rare in an in generation the Browns did
not need to be keen observers of history to be noticing how many peers were
falling by the wayside Betty Jack Davis of the Davis sisters
whom they had only just befriended killed in a car wreck and route to a
concert Hank Williams dying in the back of his limousine Patsy Cline’s plane
crash and Buddy Holly’s and his bands the road will kill you Maxine says but
she does not voice the other side of that equation the possibility that the
absence of those highs might kill one just as dead they recorded yet another
number one hit I take the chance which had been written by our Lovins of the
lovin brothers it’s a powerful song smooth and silky yet raw also with
desire written by IRA for Maxine IRA like so many others in that era of
bad roads reckless choices and always pushing on would be killed in a car
wreck at the age of 41 no sooner had I take the chance hit number one however
then Jim ed was sucked up by the army through luck and a lot of phone calls
during which Floyd argued he needed Jim Ed in the mill Floyd had only one leg
now and one son they were able to get Jim Ed redeployed from Germany back to
Pine Bluff but still it threw a huge kink in the Browns touring and in their
recording and practising Elvis not yet fully confident of his own talents we’re
still using the trio club and Mama Brown as a home away from home a refuge as
much as a diner and he and Bonnie fell hard in love
Maxine too tumbled first where Elvis’s bass player bill black and then the most
wretched luck of all asserting itself for a dashing attorney a usual
run-of-the-mill small-town verbal abuser and womanizer who worked later for
segregationist governor Orval Faubus Tommy Russell was in Maxine’s words
seven years of hell but alas also quote just so damn
good-looking she writes sparing love sparingly of him
in her 2005 autobiography looking back to see wanting she says to spare her
grown children too much pain from remembering those troubled times when
she was on the road and Tommy was away from home with other women leaving the
children in the custody of inept housekeepers the litany of woes to which
Maxine would return after one six-week tour or another was appalling
with Tommy having fled the housekeeper would have been feeding one of the
emaciated children paregoric an opium derivative to Stu fought to stupefy the
infant while the housekeeper slipped out other times would Maxine other times
Maxine would return to find her children scalded from one accident or another
there was a lot of drinking another of the liabilities of trailblazing and then
two at home one of the occupational hazards of being a member of the country
music club back then it would not pass unaccounted around this same time
group of young men over in England began putting together a band and like Presley
started attracting immediate attention when the Beatles were asked which
American singers they most admired they answered the Browns and when the Browns
first came to Europe it was the Beatles who were there to greet them waiting to
carry their bags up to their rooms they began to work with the legendary
guitarist and producer Chet Atkins in the recording studio and things got even
better for them there was a photo of Chet Atkins from around the time of the
Browns incandescent descent he is sitting in the control room on one side
of the soundproof glass a cup of coffee at his side and is staring across at the
Browns who are in the midst of a session the three Browns are gathered around the
microphone leaning in and hitting their note their faces pure and clean and
illuminated in that moment caught perfectly in the space of what the world
most wants them to do Atkins is back in the shadows countless times he was the
most accomplished studio guitarist of his generation he had been over on the
other side of that glass playing but in this photo he is recording he is
producing and the look on his face which some might describe as simply attentive
is so much more than that it is the look of a man who has captured
something he cares deeply about there was almost guilt in his expression at
witnessing the object of his affection and admiration
thus bounded and restrained but there is a quiet all in his look too and even is
this possible an awareness that there is some reckoning some faded accounting
going on but to all even reverence trumps any guilt he was aware of the
nature of the accounting and a little sad of that awareness you can see it his
gaze but most of all odd reverent rapt it’s the look of a man seeing the thing
for which he has been searching a long time
yes he’s found it but is there not also a sadness and that the search is over the Browns and Elvis would share the
next year’s the Browns dominating country music
Alvis rock and some years the Browns would cross over and knock an Elvis song
out of the number one spot with one of their own or would compete with him and
the Beatles for a Grammy Elvis did call one night and try to talk Maxine out of
marrying Tommy for the simple reason that quote he didn’t even know the dude
and later when Bonnie got married while Elvis was in the Army Elvis went into a
soul leaving early at a party which they were all present but for all the bumps
that followed their earlier friendship the Browns remained supportive and
non-judgmental of their friend from the old days for years afterward in his
various recording sessions Elvis was fond of saying to his Jordanaires gospel
singers give me some of that Brown sound and because it was Elvis everyone
assumed for the longest time that he meant James Brown until finally he had
to explain it to them that he wanted the tempered harmony you might think that
being on such a runaway train of Fame quitting would be the last thing on
their minds but the economics were untenable back then and the road was
longer and harder and it was more impossible still being a woman and most
impossible almost impossible of all being a mother it’s not easy today but
it was different then and took so much more than talent and so much more than
ambition it took something else something more than a person could give
in the end it might have even come perilously close to demanding a chunk of
the travelers soul it had been fun but finally they had had all the fun they
could stand they called up Chet Atkins who had saved them from Faber and
championed them to RCA and told him the hard news that they were going to quit I
understand that consid but before you go will you come to Nashville and record
one more song they did and put everything they had into it the three
bells an old French folk song told in three parts which was just the right
song for the right time a stoic and yet also sentimental story about little
Jimmy Brown whose life passes by in a rolling three minutes he’s born married
and then as an old man buried all in the same little Mountain Valley with the
greater and larger world unable to intrude
his charmed isolation it was the last half of 1959 the eve of the most
turbulent decade the country would ever know the second they had recorded the
song Chet Atkins came out of the control booth to congratulate them barely able
to can contain himself which was not his style at all I’ll quit my job with RCA
if this isn’t a hit he said congratulations you’ve just recorded a
million-seller back into the maelstrom they went the three bells became the
first song to ever chart number one on both the country and pop charts
simultaneously they went into the 1960s not so much like the Trailblazers they
were creating opportunity and markets like bulldozers but instead gliding with
an intoxicating procession of number-one hits again charting in multiple genres
no one foresees collapse in times of prosperity Maxine says that sometimes
they had the haunting suspicion that even with each new success the
correlative reversals were becoming disproportionately freighted that some
kind of wobble had been entered in this regard that the old strange harmony of
high and low could no longer be held or sustained and was unraveling that their
old and perhaps ancient contract with greatness was being renegotiated the
litany continued the stars all around them continued falling handsome Johnny
Horton ran off the road and was killed though band Mandor band member Tommy
Tomlinson survived he had been clutching his lucky rock at the set at the time
the same rock he always asked Maxine to squeeze before going out on stage when
they performed together Bill Black Elvis’s bass player died of a brain
tumor at 39 they were all being taken the relatively small generational note
of greatness having done its work sparking that once buried fire into the
world but vanishing quickly now blinking out all around the Browns like street
light bulbs popping fizzling an arc of spark then darkness Maxine had drafted
divorce papers only discovered only to discover she was pregnant a third
she gave birth to Alisha divorced Tommy then was plagued with a terrible
backache to the point where she couldn’t walk or control her bladder a myelogram
discovered three burst disks bad luck and coincidentally cancer of the uterus
good luck for they caught it just in time on the way back from Europe ice
began forming on the wings of their plane so that the pilot had to descend
to an altitude where the ice might melt the plane was bucking and stalling the
stewardesses told everyone to put on their life jackets they descended to
within a hundred feet of the ocean bumping along a thousand miles from land
a thousand miles from anywhere in the dead of night but the ice melted and
life was still fine maybe it was not so much that the magic was leaving them as
instead it was metamorphose into a different kind it might have seemed to
some by that point and even to them that the world had used them up and yet if
that was really the case why would the world not release them Jim Reeves called
one day in July of 1964 inviting Maxine to fly up to North Arkansas with him to
look at a possible investment property Jim had brought his own airplane and
enjoyed Jim had bought his own airplane and and boy enjoyed puttering around in
it Maxine was worried that they might get
stranded due to a summer thunderstorm oh hell Maxine he kidded I won’t let us
get stranded Nev if we do we’ll have a good time alright she relented but the
trip didn’t happen I rather she didn’t get on the plane her youngest child
became ill the night before and Maxine had to call and cancel bring her with
you Jim said we’ll take her to a doctor in Little Rock but Maxine said no the
next morning Alicia was better and Maxine went on about her life which
included preparation for a show she and Jim ed and Bonnie were doing at the big
D Jamboree in Dallas a couple of days later they drove out to attend it and on
the drive that night somewhere between Little Rock and Dallas listening to
Ralph Emery show on WSM they heard the breaking news that a plane with a
country music star was missing they went back to Nashville to help with the
search when the plane was found it was only half a mile from
Jim Edd’s house it turned out Jim Reeves had been only two or three minutes away
from the airport but a violent summer thunderstorm intervened and if there had
been any previous question about the Lowe’s getting lower than the highs were
high there was no longer any doubt with tears running down their cheeks they
recorded the usually maudlin mommy please stay home with me
and somehow transcended ranks sentimentality to accomplish some pure
more elemental level the album which held that song was nominated for a
Grammy though it ended up having the bad luck of competing that year against the
Beatles a hard day’s night Bonnie got in a wreck ran off the road and when
another car nearly clipped her and Jim ed and Maxine rushed her to the hospital
where Bonnie was pronounced fine though she wasn’t shortly after that she
developed crushing headaches memory loss and vertigo to the point where the world
seemed upside-down to her she was often snappish to Jim ed and Maxine the
opposite of her old self and had lost much of her hearing in the accident it
was over there would not be a comeback this time Maxine and Bonnie told Jim ed
to go ahead on his own to forge a solo career and down to his last $8 recorded
the best-selling jukebox classic Papa talked into fit-in
indefatigable how does that word pronounced indefatigable thank you
indefatigable even somehow in her defeat Maxine tried one last time to soldier on
traveling to Nashville to meet with RCA executives to plot a comeback to
petition for a duet with someone only be told by one of the new young men running
the company that it was over that as far as RCA was concerned she was old hat and
then he smiled and walked away I’m in Maxine’s kitchen watching as she adjusts
the blue flame of the stove to heat some water for tea her life for the past few
months has been lived entirely downstairs though all her clothes are
upstairs last year two days before Christmas she broke her hip and she’s
been going to therapy ever since trying to
fight her way back into enough recovery to be able to climb up her own stairs
again I don’t drink anymore she says she makes
a dismissive gesture with her hand all those lost and wasted years spent
drinking after our ca told her she was old hat she just takes it a day at a
time now she says one of the first things she said to me when I came to
visit was how she wished she had met someone decent and someone after Tommy
it’s hard being old alone she says and these days that’s one of her main
regrets the loneliness there just wasn’t time she says they worked so hard and
then she was trying to raise the children it was bad luck breaking her
hip like that but apparently the old brown luck continues to effervesce in
her blood when the doctors were examining and x-raying her they
discovered a bulging aneurysm one they said was probably within two or three
days of blowing I’m not bitter she says and I believed her she still shakes her
head about Faber for instance and she doesn’t like the way Opry stars of today
dressed like poppers and Street walkers but those things are more annoyance than
rank bitterness she knows full well she paid many of their dues and it would be
easy to be bitter but she shrugs it off as best as she can her main goal these
days is simply getting back up her own stairs why are the Browns still here why
was she saved spared so she could merely work at trying to get back up her stairs
is that all that life’s about or did the world and that era merely pass on by
never to return again and pass by so completely that it failed even to take
her with it that’s a harsh consideration and I don’t believe it I think she is
still here along with her brother and sister because they were there at the
beginning everyone else came along a little later added on and she’s still
here too because she pulled back just in time and yet still despite her best
efforts to lie down and be quiet the old fires are in her still she wants to
reunite wants to sing again not just once but on kind of a steady basis
steady enough to know adulation that was once hers and a few
others seemingly in excess she and Bonnie have made a pact that if
they do come out of retirement and ever fail to get a standing ovation they’d be
great agreed to retire again we’d have to work hard Maxine says we’d have to
get back in shape or Bonnie and I would Jim Edd’s already always in shape you
can hear it listening to the old songs they are about control strict mastery of
self and voice and again no matter what the content of the song the subtext is
that all as well all is under control the flames of passion and the world
itself may be burning but listen to this harmony listen to these tempered notes
as they navigate their way through the flames there is a dog in her life now
there’s time and space for at least a dog now we’re never there was before and
yet as if even now in experienced in and somewhat uncomfortable with such matters
the dog Buddy is not really hers but is instead a
neighborhood dog a communal property a Wayfaring Stranger of sorts who spends
his nights curled up outside one neighbors home then arising at dawn and
making his slow and cautious rounds stopping at each friendly station along
his route where he will receive a pat on the head are some morsels some tidbit he
was abused by his previous owner Maxine says and he doesn’t trust men anymore
but he spends the middle part of the afternoon in the rising heat of the day
either on Maxine’s back porch or sometimes inside her house where he
tiptoes around as if it is actually his home and as if she is actually his owner
her sister Bonnie and her husband brownie are in town for some regular
medical check-ups and they swing by for an afternoon visit we’ll go out to
dinner later all three are dressed elegantly despite
our evening destination being a catfish house I wonder if such styles and
sensibilities will ever come back in vogue it is hard to imagine and given
all the other challenges and considerations of the world these days
probably not that important in the greater scheme
brownie is having trouble with his hearing now and Bonnie scolds Maxine for
driving with her vision failing they discussed with concern Jim Edd’s heart
medicine and for no real reason at all watching and listening to them I’m
reminded of a scene Maxine has described about standing around their car outside
of Graceland one sunny winter’s day Jim ed and Bonnie and Maxine and Elvis
tapping out on the hood variations of a song the Browns had just recorded money
young kids 50 years ago having a conversation that was casual meaningless
and would be whisked away as if by the wind as only an expression of one moment
in time Elvis said he’d been thinking about the song a lot and drumming his
hands on the hood showing them how he’d like to play it a variation they were
just young kids shooting the shit that day talking about the things that
mattered to them Maxine gets up from the table and leads us into her downstairs
office her memorabilia room weather has gathered an amazing assemblage of
photographs images of an utterly pure Elvis and utterly joyful Elvis the world
never really got to see a kind of expectant dazzled look a radiance on
their faces as if not yet able to believe all that which had been given to
them photos of the Beatles and Bill Clinton photos of Jim and Mary Reeves
the Carter Family and Johnny Cash I can’t really imagine what it’s like for
the Browns to be left and to not even really be all that ancient and I’m not
sure they’ve got it all figured out either I think it is still a surprise to
them that it might be like a kind of waiting that’s when there had been but a
brief intermission and the remaining performers the entertainers might be
waiting for the curtain to open back up and to go out again more 16-millimeter
ephemera and near the bottom of one chest a CD copied on someone’s computer
and scrawled John Lennon 1982 three bills we drop it into a little portable
CD player and there’s linens so familiar voice warming up in the studio crooning
about little Jimmy Brown and all of a sudden he’s ready to go
offers a bit of banter about Browns then jumps into some driving rock
at dinner that night it’s festive a party once more Maxine’s drinking iced
tea and the talk is about music always music she admires alison krauss in
particular she admits she likes the old-time music the talk turns toward
what makes a song great and Bonnie leans forward eyes alight and says that it’s
magic that you can never tell that it’s just something that passes through the
performer Willie Nelson’s classic stay all night stay a little longer for
instance Bonnie hums a little bar of it sings a lilting run then parses it out
sitting in the window singing to my love slop bucket fell from the window up
above mule and grasshopper eating ice cream mule got sick and I laid him on
the green a mule and a grasshopper she cries delighted what can that possibly
mean walking out of the catfish house that night I offer maxine my arm in the
darkness as we navigate gently sloping handicap walkway I can’t really see
where we’re going I have confidence it will make a switchback and lead us back
to the parking lot but the walk appears simply to be leading us into the dark
woods a forest of croaking frogs and tendrils of Spanish droopy Spanish moss
and chirping crickets she grips my arm tightly but does not complain nor does
she acknowledge fear or limitation still despite her silence I can feel the
tremors passing through her body she struggles for the strength for something
as once taken for granted as the next step what a blessing that no one ever
told any of them that it might be like this what a blessing I see that no one
told them anything and that they considered nothing beyond the
unsustainable burning of the moment there is little in her sights now save
for one more round of applause and then one more and again just because such a
thing might more comfortably fit our notions of quaintness the idea of an
aged person ultimately accepting every one of the limitations of his or her
long life does not mean that that is how it always should be it should be more
than in a universe as large and mysterious as
this one for there to be some fires that never go out fires which continue to
burn even long after they seemed to have consumed all the available fuel she
wants to sing again she wants not so much to go back to the time of all her
now disappeared peers as to instead simply keep on going she might get lucky
yet she might get to fulfill her hunger again and the Browns might yet reignite
reunite might somehow be caught back up in that strange war of Fame that first
chose them so long ago the world’s dream and hers as if she is still but a young
woman just starting out might yet coincide at least once more and then
first long as she wants it maybe one more time again so I know I’m drifting a
little long here but what I want to do just a kind of experiment is read this
section from the novel interest an interesting exercise for students would
be a like every scene in that 23 page nonfiction piece is in the novel I mean
that was the that was the template I said okay I’m gonna take each thing and
it’s gonna be its own chapter I’m just gonna dramatize it answer some questions
about why why I did that but like you know Jim and Mary Reeves pushing that
trailer over the hill that’s one chapter uh Chet Atkins recording them that’s one
chapter they’re there like 30 chapters in 30 scenes in here and I took
everything from this there’s nonfiction piece and then blew it up puffed it up
dreamed it up gussied it up prettied it up into you know 30 some-odd chapters
and that was that was the novel so I’m just gonna read one and a half pages
here from the novel just to give you a sample of the difference in tone and
voice and and uh in my mind what the difference is between nonfiction my
nonfiction and my fiction and there may not be a change here they may not I hope
there is but uh there’s a big waste of five years of my
life if there’s not a change this is an experiment I’m starting to get cold feet
here maybe I’ll alright this is the prologue for a little while the children
Maxine Jim ed Bonnie were too young to know the weight of their gift or even
that their lives were hard their parents had always been poor but never before
had there been such desperation never before had there been a time when one’s
talents whether hunter or farmer salesman or tailor had been insufficient
to keep food in the mouths of their family now the country was saying the
Depression had ended but where they lived in South South Central Arkansas
not so far from Mississippi back in the swamps between the rolling ridges that
look down on Poplar Creek nothing was different things had been bad before the
Depression then got much worse during it and people were not yet recovering even
though what little news they heard back in the hills told them that everything
was better now the children’s parents Floyd and Bertie were still starving
still ravenous still wondering why they had been put on earth why they had been
brought into the world but for a while the children didn’t know this despair
they would have breathed it like the fog vapors that rose some nights from the
swamp would have absorbed it night and day until it became so wreaths within
them that soon enough it would have begun to replace the spirits with which
they had come into the world but not yet not then Floyd was drinking hard and
logging harder felling the oaks and hickories with axes and crosscut saws
and sledging them out of the swamp with mules and when the meals were injured
with men to pour sometimes to abort afford even a cup of fuel for their
bulldozers and tractors and so their knives at the old forest seemed as
infant assimil as they were ceaseless it seemed that the old forests might grow
back in just as fast as the men could sledge the logs out the places where
they worked opened the forest briefly to the sky let in little patches of white
light in which ferns orchids grew blossomed and prospered
briefly before the young canopy closed back in over such clearings the children
before they knew their calling sat at the edge of the creek next to one such
clearing and watched the slow muddy waters of Poplar Creek drift past the
nearest town sparkman was eight miles away to them the world was still
beautiful and only beautiful they sat there quietly in the last three days
before they became aware that they had a gift not a gift they had asked for or
labored toward but which had been impressed on them from birth and they
waited one must assume for the wisps of despair and misery to begin to soak into
their skin like the smoke from the burning of the slash Powell’s blue smoke
hanging in sunlit rafts all throughout the forest as if a great war was being
fought one about which they knew nothing one of which they were entirely unaware so that’s I hope that’s a little
different and that’s all that’s the end of it end of my reading I’m happy to
answer any questions you you guys have such a great strong environmental spine
to your lives and your academics that are really inspired by and again proud
to be at the edge of it so I imagine some of those questions will come up but
I’m also happy to answer questions uh pertaining to this strange nonfiction
fiction conundrum Thanks when I wrote it nonfiction first and
just was not satisfied it felt like they were still leftover stuff left over
richness it was really these folks lived incredibly rich lives and it just felt
like there was still some gas left in the tank and I thought you know I’d like
to very rarely do I get that feeling I usually make my choice at the beginning
it’s like you know running back picking a hole in the line of scrimmage you
don’t stutter step you don’t go when you make a decision you you should do it
while it’s still there and it just felt like there was more opportunity like
there were a lot of holes all up and down the line of scrimmage and you know
went through this one but then wow what if I’d gone outside here and gone
through that one what would have happened I just very rare that that that
happens but just I just felt like there’s extra stuff left because again
testament to the richness of their lives yes the questions about this obscure little
novel called the desmo which I’m pleased just a total indulgent act on my part
grew up in Texas where they just browbeat us with anglicized Texas
history in which you know the defenders of the Alamo were not genocidal maniacs
you know moving the native people out of their their territory and claiming it at
the lone star flag but but instead you know heroes defending the homeland and
and a lot of the language from from that this this secret war where the Texas
went across the border New Mexico under falsified documents I mean think
yellowcake and got into trouble was is this historical event in 1848 I was so
upset when we went into Iraq and and I just felt such a hostage to this like
I’m a citizen my country and yet I don’t support this and yet Here I am killing
other people in the name of I am spending money to kill people I don’t
wanna be killed I was just I’d never experienced that in my lifetime or as an
adult and it was so upsetting so I wrote this little novel to uh I tried to
channel that frustration into retelling an old forgotten story about oh this is
familiar when when did I oh yeah when I was in the fourth grade they told us
about this this same story and and what was your question oh how much research
did I do yeah no I didn’t didn’t do any at all it’s just totally a emotional
response it was Thoth was scared of where I was
scared of my country as scared as I was I was scared of who we had become or who
we were and and uh it was just a totally emotional indulgent response a metaphor
just one extended metaphor whatever that’s called interesting well great yeah another
questions about noticing Javier notice the difference in personification of
nature and in the fiction part that I read as opposed to a nonfiction piece
and then was was asking you know forget what you’re asking I just have no memory
I don’t know if I see it as a significant shift between fiction
nonfiction I mean I’d love to stretch out and and be languorous in in either
fiction or nonfiction in describing landscape but I think in nonfiction you
really can’t you have to be kind of careful to keep it moving but um you
know maybe I feel that in a novel there’s a little more space and the
thing about ancient you know craft 101 workshop advise the seed or template or
genetic destiny of a story should be able to be found somewhere in the first
sentence or at the very or the first paragraph at the very latest by the end
of the first page so take I really believe in that so you know first
sentence in a novel really really that lays down the logic of what the story is
going to be about and everything has to grow from that conception so let’s oh
well here listen to this epigram this will answer your question I think from
Cormac McCarthy’s very obscure epigram it doesn’t ever really tie into the
novel but it ties into what you’re asking I think this is from all the all
the pretty horses they said that it was no accident of circumstance that a man
be born in a certain country and not some other and they said that the
weathers and seasons that form a land form also the inner fortunes of men in
their generations and are passed on to their children and are not so easily
come by otherwise I mean that idea of destiny and landscape is genetic
template you know they believe then I believe that’s why
the Browns work became who they were who they are and and you know they were just
in that place in the country at that point of time yeah so it’s just that
first page and a half is just an extended metaphor for how quickly you’re
gonna have an opening in the for sunlight will come in Fame will come in
and for us to close in it’ll be back to rotten senescence and the force goes on
richer for having done it why did it come in that come up in that place blah
blah blah he sets the the logic and the template for all the patterns that
replicate throughout the novel yes oh that’s so kind thank you thank you
oh that’s so kindness so so sweet can you all can I give you my daughter’s
phone numbers and who knows that’s very nice I’ll take that home with me thank
you yes Dean is shifting and cracking his
knuckles this is the last question thank you all for being so patient and and
they are padded chairs now this this week all all 200 of us are
very attentive to your edginess and your aunt Ida so we don’t want you to get
upset indeed so you have you had a tough week and you of all people deserve
better so I hope things turn turn around for you I will I will do nothing to
disappoint you this this week your your a one badass I still love that totally
so happy to be here you guys are the real deal it’s really really an honor so
this is a long answer as you may have guessed how I came into this story my
daughters were smitten with the country pop star
Keith Urban and they were at that age of adolescence where they wanted nothing to
do with me anymore so I was like you know trying to get in front of them in
their line of vision and say what what you know how can I be relevant your life
and I thought I know I’m gonna interview Keith Urban
which yes I can interviewing you know the Beatles or something whose job I
didn’t realize it was gonna be hard I thought yeah I’ve got published in a lot
of you know any magazine in the country I’ve published in it and I thought you
know who could say no to me ask him to do a story about Keith Urban well a lot
of people could say no so and they kept saying no so finally I found myself
washed down and out in Nashville trying to secure a gig with country music
magazine and and they said know what you know Keith haven’t done one thing to do
with you are you crazy and and it was like I was stalking him I’d been on for
a couple years and and I told you all this in Barbara’s class but um I kept
writing his manager and stuff and and you know this this was about the time
Ted Kaczynski was having his troubles with it with the federal government so
the entertainment company was his manner of you getting these letters from
Montana saying I want to write a story about Keith Urban I want my kids to be
there so finally they took pity on me this at these eight-by-ten glossies of
him with his signature and stuff and and I came back from the mailbox a Carl’s
girls look what I got I delivered the goods look what I got for you and they
were so scornful of it they go dad I mean this is like this isn’t even his
signature dad you did this this is so I flew out to Nashville I had a
friend of a friend of a friend of a friend who was a publicist or something
and we’re having lunch and shoe Center here’s the deal you know I’m gonna help
you get closer to Keith Urban but first you have to go through seven rings of
hell you you start doing small profiles of lesser-known stars and show the
country music industry that you can you know deliver the goods and then okay
okay and and I have a client for you Maxine Brown I want you to rent of
course shoot your season so conflict of interest but he who I met had lunch with
the Browns and was blown away by the richness of the story just uh and Maxine
is just so Fame crazy so she uses that she says I’ve had this incredible life I
want you to make a movie about my life and again you will remember from the
nonfiction piece she has an incredible knack for bad luck and that was just an
extension of her bad luck picking me to write a movie about her I mean it’s like
you know this book sold a thousand copies I mean that’s not many for those
of y’all who don’t don’t don’t know a body count kind of thing it she picked
you know the most literary high-minded artsy guy in the world to go engage her
in Hollywood it did not work out well but that’s just she I wrote this
nonfiction piece no interest in her life so I said okay Mexi know right I’ll do
the best I can and write a novel and maybe somebody get interest in the novel
but I really want to write the knowledge in and she said I want you to write the
no last into the long answer so this novel comes out Maxine you know is all
about control right this their sound is about all about control I’m I’ll get
into I don’t have to say that the AP writer for of Nashville entertainment
writer in Nashville for Associated Press did a big long article feature about the
book and he as being a good reporter he calls up Maxine and says Maxine what do
you think about the book sorry this review comes out the lead interview for
the first review out for the book and as a writer I can promise you this is what
you you never want to have this experience so I open up the computer
email and it’s here’s the review and I start reading and here’s the first
sentence I it’s seared in my memory it’s in quotes
it’s Maxine speaking to open the interview the review the first time I
read that damn book I got so mad I cried and threw it across the room then I got
up on my broken hip and walked over and picked it up and put it in a trash can
and stomped on it there’s like you’ve got a thousand more word there’s all
this text below and you’re just like I can’t read any further it’s just sick
and so she didn’t like it she asked however she didn’t like what she asked
for and oh she’s just she just I mean you know the emails between us for it
was just oh it was it was it was rough and I tried to be very respectful of it
I mean there’s some juicy stuff in her autobiography I’m not Chris anomalus I
could I couldn’t read a best-seller based on her life I mean there was like
crap in there you wouldn’t believe you wouldn’t believe and uh but I just kept
this high road and and just you know revered not revered respected them all
the way through and left out all of the stuff that I wouldn’t want said about me
and but she still you know people are funny when you write about him just you
just know that’s not who I am I’m better than that and end on huh she’s come
around since then she loves it she’s its biggest fan she’s just she just she’s
got it all over a web page she’s just she’s just oh but you know she’s she but
but it was a rough six months her son actually who’s an English major said mom
this is wonderful this is great stuff this is metaphor this is not you this is
the dream of you mother and and oh yeah Tommy tell her tell it and uh so and
she’s come around she’s you know a Hmong us at age 80 would could make that kind
of span of being embarrassed and mortified for some bison he had a
problem with the bottle when I mean in her autobiography she’s got seven
chapters on it but but for a stranger to say it in you know one little half
paragraph is like you know you know but she to hurt her credit
she’s come around and you know I’m sorry okay all right thank you all for having
me and it’s really great to be back

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