Dead Cow Blues
Oxford's Larry Brown has moved High Gothic to the other side of the tracks once and for all-into the pickup trucks and mobile homes, the run-down apartment buildings, and the four-room cabins packed with dogs and children. Out along the roadside in the open air, where he sets the deliberately outrageous story, "A Roadside Resurrection," packed with 'everything I could get in here: Jesus, Elvis, faith healers, overweight women, incest, truckers, goats, pistols, sin and faith and redemption.'
-Hal Crowther in the Oxford American
When Larry Brown called this week, I was midway through the emotionally wrenching calf-pulling chapter of his latest book, Billy Ray's Farm. I was too far in, and too-well acquainted with what he calls "the fickle finger of cow fate," to expect that it would turn out well.
I told him what I was doing, and he affably refused to clue me in on the ending.
"You know this is tearing me up," I said, reminding him (unnecessarily), that I'd grown up on a farm (and had first-hand experience pulling many a calf). As I started to elaborate, he interrupted with "Hell girl, I remember you had a beagle that was afraid of rabbits... That'd jump up on the bushhog to get away from 'em...." pausing to chuckle, "A beagle, no less."
That particular beagle - Libby - has been dead at least 20 years. And the conversation during which I told Larry about her took place more than five years ago. But that eye and ear for observation and detail, along with a memory like a steel trap, are what make Larry Brown one of the finest natural talents in contemporary literature (he's the only author to win the Southern Book Critics Circle award for fiction twice).
Although the promotion of this latest collection of essays has already begun (the official launch party will be held in Oxford this Saturday), Brown sounds rooted at home in Mississippi, as he always does.
He talks as if he has a chaw of tobacco in his mouth, and is pausing occasionally to spit (....but it doesn't seem polite to ask).
Though his son, Billy Ray, "takes care of all that [farming]," Brown has been "fishing a little" these days. He's "planted a few pecan trees." The vague chug of lawn machinery can be heard in the background while we talk - it's wife Mary Annie mowing the yard. And he notes they'll "have to start bush-hoggin' 'fore too long."
The new book amply pays his debts to the writers who helped him in his early years (either via inspiration, or more direct support of his work) - authors like Barry Hannah, Harry Crews, Willie Morris, and so on. He says, "they showed me a lotta kindness."
The book doesn't deal as directly with the impact and influence he himself has had on a new generation of writers. He lectures periodically, and did a writer-in-residence stint at nearby Centre College a few years back. Though he acknowledges he isn't able to fit in as much one-on-one mentoring as he once was.
He says, "Well, there's a lotta young writers, and there are a lot of things I don't have time for any more... I can't read people's novels or short stories..." (Though, like any successful author, he's consumed by requests.)
In national stature, Brown has come a long way from the relative cult status he enjoyed on his last lengthy visit here. Back then, he returned from the bar with his Wild Turkey and Pepsi, leaning across the table to remark, in a moment of surprised delight, "That guy knew my name. Just said, 'How ya doin' Larry?'" Asked how he was taking to the fact that the bar doesn't have Coke to accompany his Wild Turkey, he reflected on his tour experiences. "Y'know, you can't get a Coke on the West Coast. Somebody oughtta tell Co-Cola there's some kinda conspiracy goin' on out there," he laughed, but he was clearly disappointed to find such deprivation this far east and this far south.
That particular tour turned up in the new book, under the chapter title, "The Whore in Me," though much of what he said about it then was off the record at the time.
Back then, Brown seemed to subsist on a diet of Marlboros and Wild Turkey while he was on the road - augmented by the occasional culinary sample he might be persuaded to lean across the table and take from your plate, but only if you insisted. He always had a pack of Merits on him - not because he was trying to cut back - but because he thoughtfully kept them on hand for a friend of his who was a non-smoker. Apparently, smoking Merits complied with the definition of "non-smoking" at the time. ("Got one right here for ya, buddy," he'd say, patting his pocket.)
One favor Brown recently completed was to write a blurb for the forthcoming book, Portraits of America, by William Allard (photographic essayist known for his work with National Geographic). A fan of Allard's, he was happy to contribute a favorable assessment for the jacket of the photographer's 36-year retrospective (which deals with the Amish of Pennsylvania, the Hutterites of Montana, the American West and the Cowboy, William Faulkner's Mississippi, Minor League Baseball, Minnesota Lake country, black Blues Music, and professional Rodeo). Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford will contribute a foreword to this book.
He's excited about the prospect of the three-gig tour with Alejandro Escovedo (Joseph-Beth in Lexington, on Monday April 23; in Chicago on April 28; and New York on May 12).
The May date, unfortunately, will prevent him from attending Cannes, where he says, "Big Bad Love is fixin' to premiere." It's based on a novella within his collection of the same name. Arliss Howard directs (his brother, Jim Howard, wrote the screenplay). "It stars Arliss, his wife Debra Winger, Angie Dickinson, Paul LaMat, Roseanna Arquette, and Michael Parks." Brown has a small role himself.
He sounds almost as excited about the soundtrack (which he had a hand in compiling) as he does about the movie. So far they've lined up Tom Waits, Steve Earle and Bob Dylan.... to name a few.
If his life had a soundtrack, it would undoubtedly be written by the likes of an Alejandro Escovedo or a Robert Earl Keen.
Struck by how much the three of them had in common artistically, I'd sent along Thirteen Years and No. 2 Live Dinner after his last visit here. He went on to form friendships with both, and he's currently working on a piece about Keen for an upcoming edition of No Depression. Last summer, he wrote about Escovedo for Oxford American, and he contributes another short piece on him to the May issue of Men's Journal.
It's easy to see how their lives spiral around one another - based on a natural kinship found in mutual rhythms and respect for place.
In his new book, Brown shows his colors as a Naturalist of the first order. The non-romantic kind. There are Thoreauvian moments, there are hints of a Wendell Berry (in an essay called "By the Pond," for example). But there are blood and guts and mud too.
After losing their first calf, he writes of the encounter, "I was angry about a lot of things: that my boy didn't have a decent barn to get his heifer into to help her, that we didn't have a decent light, that the lot was full of mud, that the calfpuller jammed, that we didn't have one ourselves. I was angry that the heifer had been bred to a big Beefmaster bull whose progeny was too large to slide through the width of her hipbones. More than anything I was angry about my boy trying so hard to start a farm of his own and having everything he touched turn to shit."
Someplace beyond lonely
Wherever I go, people talk about [Alejandro Escovedo] with awe. They do that because he touches something inside them, something that trembles at the beauty within the songs, something that, in my case, keeps a man company on a ride through the country just as the sun is fading down into the hills. Even if it takes me someplace beyond lonely for a while, that's ok, because I know, like Alejandro, that hearts like ours were made to be broke.
-Larry Brown in Men's Journal, May 2001
If you ask Alejandro Escovedo, he's not "the kind of writer" Larry Brown is - and strictly speaking, that's true.
Though Escovedo is widely acknowledged for his "storytelling" as a songwriter, his greatest strengths are in images. In examining the Austin musical landscape for comparisons, his lyrics are occasionally like the straightforward narratives of Robert Earl Keen or Terry Allen, but sometimes share more with the often poetic, often mystical territory of a Jimmie Dale Gilmore or a Butch Hancock.
Nonetheless, both Brown and Escovedo are masters of synesthesia -their books and their songs are so viscerally emotive that you virtually see, feel, and taste all of them.
Escovedo says, "My interest initially was in writing. I wanted to be a writer. I wasn't quite sure where that would take me... screenplays... screenwriter...short stories or whatever."
He'd planned on that well before he started playing guitar (at 24) or writing songs (at 30).
He values his late start now, saying, he had "all that time to store up a lot of things. When it came time to write songs it opened up this huge reservoir of material. As I become more accomplished as a songwriter, I can see where they really lend themselves to each other - that eye for detail and images."
He says, "You mentioned Robert [Earl Keen] as more of a straight narrative... I don't know that I'm such a writer. Joe [Ely] writes in a similar way too..." - that beginning to end style of storytelling.
When Keen starts with "Sherry was a waitress at the only joint in town/She had a reputation as a girl who'd been around...." and ends with, "It's Main Street after midnight, just like it was before/21 months later, at the local grocery store/Sherry buys a paper and a cold six-pack of beer/The headlines read that Sonny is going to the chair/She pulls back on to Main Street, in her new Mercedes Benz/The road goes on forever and the party never ends" - you have virtually read a novel.
Escovedo, instead, offers glimpses - images. It's the difference between looking at a painting via the bright light of day, versus seeing it as illuminated by a flash of lightning. Both views are extraordinary, but different.
Of his early writing experience, he says, "a lot of that has always been my interest in movies too. It's come full circle, because of this play I've been working on [By the Hand of the Father]," adding, "I always wanted to make music that'd be like movies, and I think this record has more of a cinematic quality."
Of the renaissance status of fellow Austin artists (Terry Allen also comes to mind) who never limit themselves to one vision - moving from art to music to theater seamlessly, Escovedo says, "we're all better for Butch Hancock" (a Flatlander, along with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely), who's mastered everything from art to architecture to songwriting.
Escovedo's play premiered last June in L.A. and the troupe tries to perform it a few times a year, though the logistics are difficult for him. The narrative is loosely woven around a tribute to his father he always intended to write in some form, whether as a "song-cycle or record, or something else." It eventually took the form of this play.
He says, "My father was born in 1907 in Mexico. He crossed the border at 12, in search of his parents who were working as pickers in Texas."
His father was a different kind of renaissance man from his son, very much of a different generation.
Escovedo says, "From there, my father at the age of 16 ran away to the coast of California. He got work on ships to Alaska and back. He was a singer in work camps... a prizefighter... a baseball player... a singer in a mariachi band.... and a father of 12 children."
He finishes, "I always wanted to give him this story as a gift." He just wasn't sure the form it would take until he found collaborators who "were about same age, with a lot in common, [whose] parents had taken similar paths."
Escovedo will be playing with his full band on Saturday night (he'll be on guitar when he accompanies Brown at Joseph-Beth).
He's bringing along Hector Munoz on drums (desperately missed on the band's last trip through Lexington); Luis Guerra on bass; keyboard, pedal steel, trumpet and guitar will also all be featured (with the steel and keyboard handling all the string work from the new album).
On rockers like "Castanets" (and to some extent, "Velvet Guitar"), Escovedo and the band are capable of crushing through with the fully amped, throbbing wall of sound you might expect from a Joe Ely show. On ballads like "Wedding Day," there's a haunting acoustic feel that would be right at home in the most intimate coffeehouse.
As Brown puts it, "his versatility in things musical is a joy to hear and see, but his heart is still in rock 'n' roll."
Ace Weekly and Lynagh's welcome Alejandro Escovedo to Lynagh's Music Club, Saturday, April 21. Tickets are $10. Info, 255-6614. Ace Weekly and Joseph-Beth Booksellers will host a reading and performance by Larry Brown and Alejandro Escovedo at the bookstore at 6 p.m. on Monday, April 23.
|l||Letters from Larry
August 10, 2000
....Right now I've been burning the midnight oil for about a month straight trying to finish up my next book. I may have done it tonight, don't know yet. See how it looks tomorrow.
Probably going to take a break for a while. Arliss Howard is fixing to start shooting this movie called "Big Bad Love" up at Holly Springs with his wife Debra Winger on September the 12th... It is the big deal going on around here...
I did get a small part for myself. I get to play Leon Barlow's dead daddy lying in a deep freeze. This scene to be played with Robert Duvall they say....
Can't stay away from in here too long but too much of it at one time is not good either. There's where I'm at now, trying to get out of here for a little while and recoup.
It was a good piece you did on the music issue of OA. It's too bad they cut all the first 300 words from my piece where I talked about meeting you in Lexington and you turning me on to Alejandro and sending me his CD [Thirteen Years] and how much I appreciated it. But them editors' pens cut it all away...
....First they wanted 800 words, and I wrote 1200 easy, and then had to pare it down through some drafts, and then after all that hard work trying to make it fit and get everything in there, I mean it was tight, they just whacked off the whole front end. And these little girls are trying to make sentences for me, and I'm having to correct them, and I think I'm through messing with them.
Anyway, life is good, and your paper's good. I like the Wendell [Berry] piece too. He's a smart man. I got to meet him last spring when he was here....
February 5, 2001
...I hear I may be coming there in the Spring, since I'm supposed to book tour with Alejandro... He played a killer show here last spring, headlining our annual street festival in the afternoon.
We got to hang out and he played a show that night, too, which was also great but different. He knows so many songs. And I've got you to thank for him being my friend now. I was out in Austin almost a year ago, doing a four day gig for the Michener Writing Center, but I spent a lot of time with him. He was here again about a month and a half ago and we sat up late.
Don't know if you heard the scoop on Big Bad Love, but it's in the can and is almost finished being edited.... they plan to show it at Cannes in May... I think there's a good chance there's some Steve Earle music in it by now. I kind of helped them get hooked up just because I knew a few music people who had read some of my books.
I've not seen it but I did see a lot of dailies down here... It looks real good and I hope it will do well. It was fun to watch it get made.
Well it's late and I've got to go to an aunt's funeral a long way off early in the morning, so I'll close....
reprinted with permission of Larry Brown
Dirty Work, a novel
Joe, a novel
Facing the Music, a collection of short stories
Big Bad Love, a collection of short stories
On Fire, a collection of non-fiction essays
Father and Son, a novel
Fay, a novel
Billy Ray's Farm, Essays from a Place Called Tula
Hound: A Very Short Story
Everybody has a story to tell, and among a community of writers, nothing is sacred. It generally belongs to whoever gets it into print first. We can be pretty unrepentant that way.
Back in 1997, Larry Brown good-naturedly swore he was going to base his next story on a tale he stole from me. (I've been looking for it ever since, but don't think it's turned up yet.)
I'd told it to him over lunch one day.
It was about this friend of my parents who was dying of cancer and someone stole his dog.
Then my mom FOUND HIM. She was driving by and just saw him in the yard (a very scary trailer parkish sort of place).
She got out of her car (in this very wrong-side-of-the-tracks area), and asked the guy on the front porch (quite confrontationally, I'm guessing), "Hey mister, where'd you get that dog?"
His response was one of perfected jeeter nonchalance, "Why, he just come and took up."
My mom said, "Bullshit. You stole that dog. I know who he belongs to, AND I'm takin' him back home."
Then she yelled "Here, Hound!" (That was the dog's name.) He started to trot over - happy to see a friend - before his kidnapper collared him.
The redneck said, "Lady, I don't know who the hell you think you are, but you'll have to come through me to get this dog," and she said, "Well... I'm a'comin' right on, buddy."
I've always thought a lot of women might've gone off to fetch a husband, or maybe the law.... and I'm absurdly proud that in my family, we AIN'T those kinda women.
At that point, the guy (wisely) backed down (probably never guessing that my mother was, and always is, packing). I'm not saying my mama would shoot a man over a dog... But I'm not saying she wouldn't either.
Hound jumped in the car, and Mom brought him home, gave him a bath, and reunited him with their friend Everett that night.
Everett died the next day. Apparently he'd just been waiting for his dog to come home.
So if you ever see a Larry Brown story called "Hound," you'll know it's mine.
A Man Under the Influence
More Miles Than Money
With These Hands
Theater (Playwright and Actor/Performer)
By the Hand of the Father (on tour)
The Pawn Shop Years
Rank and File
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