Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Doc Watson

There's no mystery in my mind as to who was the greatest country and traditional guitarist over the past fifty years. He died yesterday at the age of 89.

Doc Watson made the wooden box with strings sound like no other before him. He could do it all.

He first toured with his son Merle in the '70s and early '80s. Merle was killed in a tragic tractor accident in 1985 and a grieving Doc curtailed all his touring for a while. When he resumed touring he hired an accompanist he had met and worked with before Merle's death, Jack Lawrence. Lawrence, a superb guitarist in his own right toured with Doc for the next two decades.

My wife Joyce and I saw him (and Lawrence) in the mid '90s when he came to the Ryman for a concert. It was the most memorable concert experience of my life, something I'll never forget. I was mesmerized by his abilities. His fingers seemed to be moving at an impossible speed and the sound was incredible. Doc was a gentle man, strong, but humble, and that came through in his comments to the audience between songs. He was a guy you instantly liked.

He was from a place back in the North Carolina mountains called Deep Gap, nearby the town of Boone. They are rightly proud of their world famous native son and had a statue of Doc created to show their pride and respect for his talents.

He first received recognition as a traditionalist with his phenomenal flat picking renditions of mountain fiddle tunes like "Black Mountain Rag." This video of the tune blows me away (that's Jack Lawrence with him). The fingers of both men are absolutely flying and then at the end they kick it up to warp speed. Doc has explained that it was back in the late '50s when he first learned to pick the tune. Interesting to note that he learned it first on a Les Paul electric when he was playing in a rock and roll band!

Doc also recorded some of the contemporary "folk" singers' material from the '60s; this one is "I Can't But Wonder Where I'm Bound" by Tom Paxton.

And here's Doc doing his version of Jimmy Rodgers' "Peach Pickin' Time in Georgia." That's Jack Lawrence on the first run and Doc saves his magic until the second.

Finally, here's Doc with his grandson Richard as they perform the song that seems to get rediscovered with every generation, "House of the Rising Sun."

Rest in peace, Doc Watson. 1923 - 2012.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Nashville Mysteries: 500 Miles to Dream Country

Tennessee Jesse Hill Ford is most famous for his novel The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones which dealt with racial issues in the South. Once in a discussion during a workshop I attended, Ford discussed writing and the types of fiction we in the workshop were experimenting with. Ford advised us to (1) write what we enjoy reading, (2) keep the narrative flowing, (3) create believable characters, and (4) not only put our heroes up a tree but throw rocks at them. It was and is good advice.  

Many successful contemporary mystery novels have some sort of angle to set them apart from others in the genre, a sleuth who’s odd or different, or perhaps a specialized setting. I’m working both of these angles. My setting is Nashville, more specifically the country music industry. At present, I’m writing about two sleuths, Joe Rose and Dilly Renfro, and both have certain peculiarities that make them different from other investigators.

Joe Rose, who moonlights as a traditional private eye, is a professional guitarist, but he also works as a sideman on Nashville record sessions. His work as a side guitarist gives him an insider’s perspective on many of the stars and the industry itself, but also adds a dimension to his character. Rose, who’s the narrator in my first novel, Blood Country, is a big, rough and tumble guy with a smart mouth. He's quick to anger and has a problem controlling his violent tendencies. Rose is fictional but if he lived, physically he'd look a little bit like the ex pro football player and sports analyst Howie Long. 

But there's more to Rose than the tough guy exterior, he shows patience when dealing with his clients and has an unswerving loyalty to them. He's also a skilled and accomplished guitarist and his music artistry shows his sensitivity. 

My latest central character or heroine, Dilly Renfro, is featured in my latest novel, Dream Country. She is the daughter of a rich and legendary country singer, Doyle Renfro, as big a star in his day as Eddy Arnold. Dilly was shot in the head by a robber in a mini-market holdup a year ago which has led to some interesting changes in her life. She has become more assertive, admitted to her family she’s a lesbian, and, most importantly, discovered she has precognitive dreams. Besides using her dreams to find her half-sister’s killer, she hires attorney Harry Hardin and Private Investigator Joe Rose to help in her quest.

She too is of course fictional, but I imagine that she would look a lot like the young woman on the cover of Dream Country if she were real. That's one reason I selected this picture for the cover. 

Why Nashville, why country music? In it's original and traditional forms, it's a music that is "of the people." After laboring in the hot sun all day, families in the south would sit on their porches or out under a shade tree and make music. They played stringed instruments--guitars, fiddles, banjos, and mandolins. Some of it was music they had heard their mothers and fathers sing, but there was definitely nothing commercial about it at first. Just people expressing themselves in song. And then the world heard the Carter family, Ernest V. Stoneman, and Jimmy Rodgers on records, and an industry was born. Today, people from Japan, to Germany, to Canada, to California, to Tony, Alabama, listen to and enjoy this music.

Country music deals with basic and universal human issues, that 's why it speaks to and for people around the world, as in this great song by Bobby Bare, "500 Miles Away from Home."
Also, another reason I like the music is that I’m a Nashville native and I grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and Country Music on the radio. I’m not directly connected to the country music business, but I have friends who are song writers and producers. I also know three or four chords on my old Silvertone flattop (I think knowing a few guitar chords is the law in these parts). And I’ve written a song or two, just for fun and my own entertainment. 

One of my students back in the day was a session musician and he arranged for my wife and I to cut a demo of my songs in the famous Woodland Studio, where artists as diverse as Robert Plant, Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, and Gordon Lightfoot have recorded through the years. It was late night and off the books and the musicians were paid with a case of beer. We had a blast.  And now, several years later, I've found a use for a couple of these old songs in my first two mystery novels. Funny how things you've forgotten about still pop up from time to time and reveal themselves to be most useful.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Review of "Dream Country"

Dream Country has just been published in e book form on Smashwords. It's available on Kindle now (click on the link to the right) and will soon be available on Nook, iPad, iPod, etc. The novel will also be published later this spring in paperback by Word Clay.

Dream Country was awarded 5 stars in a review by Terri Tumlin from Readers Favorite. Here's Ms. Tumlin's review.

"Dilly Renfro is an interesting woman. She is a lesbian and one of a pair of twin daughters of rich country singer Doyle Renfro. Dilly has had dreams that predict the future ever since she was shot in the head a year ago. Now she has a new illegitimate black half-sister, Pearl, and in a dream sees her murdered. The dream is true and around the murder swirl a fascinating cast of characters--some suspects, some striving to find out the truth. Preacher and Cowboy are a couple of street people who were near Pearl's building when she was murdered. Tyrell, Pearl's ex-boyfriend, was actually in her apartment. And then there are the Renfros--Dilly's siblings, who have financial as well as personal motives for perhaps wanting Pearl dead. Harry Hardin, the alcoholic but sober lawyer, tries to help Dilly, but doesn't know what to make of her dreams.

"Dan Jewell has written a jewel of a book. The plot is fascinating. The characters are complex and well-drawn. The psychological element of the story line adds, but doesn't overwhelm the other elements of the plot. It is the kind of book that pulls the reader to care for the characters and it is surely a page turner."