Fathers and sons, Horse People, and dog days.
photograpH © 2013 by Nell Dickerson. All rights reserved. Permission to excerpt from PORCH DOGS by Nell Dickerson granted by John F. Blair, Publisher, www.blairpub.com
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Should anyone still have doubts these days about the publishable talent here in Memphis, let this month serve as a good month to put any doubts to rest. And that goes for a range of talents. There’s a new collection of short stories by Cary Holladay. There’s man’s best friend as pictured in the pages of a photography book by Nell Dickerson. Then there’s a debut novel by David Wesley Williams. Let’s start with that novel.
It’s Long Gone Daddies (from North Carolina publisher John F. Blair) by Commercial Appeal sports editor David Williams, but sports has nothing to do with Williams’ multigenerational look at fathers long gone. Memphis music does — from the early 1950s to the late 1990s. Behind all that music: a 1930s Cassandra Special Rider, a guitar with a soulful sound and more curves than the Mississippi.
Ask Malcolm Gaunt of Scranton, Pennsylvania, about “Cassie.” He got hold of her in 1939 and took her down to Memphis with hopes of being just what Sam Phillips at Sun was looking for in 1953: a white guy who could sing black. Meanwhile, Malcolm’s wife, Sara, broods back home.
Ask John Gaunt, who follows in his father’s footsteps (Cassie now in his arms) down to Memphis too but with his own wife and son back in Scranton.
And ask Luther Gaunt. He’s John’s son, Malcolm’s grandson. When Long Gone Daddies opens, Luther and his band mates — a drummer named Buck Walker and an electric guitarist named Jimmy Lee Vine — are rocketed off the road and into an empty Arkansas rice field. The car they’re in: a muddy-brown Merc. The girl singer from Texas, who’s along for the ride: She’s a real piece of work but with stars in her eyes. Her name is Delia Shook, but she’s thinking about changing Shook to Shake.
It’s the Fourth of July 1998 when Luther, Buck, Jimmy Lee, and Delia find themselves stuck in that rice field, but a firework climbing the night sky over rural Arkansas could be Delia herself, who’s ready to burst on the music scene in Nashville. The song that makes her a star in the country-music firmament: one written by Luther but dressed up in the slickest sounds Nashville has to offer. And as for Luther and his band mates: They get to where they’re going, which is Memphis and its music scene, which turns out to be equal parts inspiration and frustration. Leave it to Malcolm Gaunt to settle the score:
“Damnedest place ever was, but I do love it. Memphis slouches and Memphis grins and Memphis is real, in the best and worst ways and most ways in between.”
“Real” in the best and worst ways and most ways in between could sum up the thorny but loving relationship between fathers and sons in Long Gone Daddies, which is rich in character and made richer by the author’s wry way with dialogue and his self-penned song lyrics scattered throughout the narrative. Lyrics on the order of: “I’m an old car battered/ I’m frayed-flag tattered/ Been awhile since I mattered/ to you.”
Which just goes to show: Williams’ winning story, “Memphis Minnie’s Ashes,” in Memphis magazine’s annual fiction contest in 2002 (reprinted in the June 2011 issue) was no fluke. The big surprise here: Though Williams can’t play a note, he sure knows his Bobby “Blue” Bland, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Furry Lewis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins, whose spirits haunt these pages. Hank Williams’ too, the man who sang “I’m a Long Gone Daddy” and the main man to teach David Wesley Williams his way around a story of heartache and heartbreak.