Author Archives: Caine O'Rear

About Caine O'Rear

Caine O'Rear is a writer and editor based in Mobile, Alabama. He is the former editor in chief of American Songwriter Magazine. Follow him at www.instagram.com/caineorear.

Better Late Than Never: An Introduction to Postmodern Blues by Victor Cabas

Cover illustration by Rachel Briggs

Below is the introduction I wrote to Victor Cabas’s novel “Postmodern Blues,” which was published in 2020 by Charlottesville, Virginia’s Hypocrite Press. The book can be purchased in hardcover or paperback format here.

I spoke with Victor Cabas about Postmodern Blues in early 2018, just a few weeks before he died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 69. Over Christmas break that year I’d found some of the early chapters he’d given me nearly a decade prior. As I re-read them that winter I found myself still riveted by the story, still laughing out loud, and finally, left wanting more.

“We’ve got to get moving on this thing and get it published,” I told him over the phone. “It’s too good not to be read.” Victor was a great believer in Time, and he moved at his own pace. I felt he needed a kick in the groin.

He seemed excited by my renewed interest, adding that it was basically done and that he’d read over it the past year and still liked it. “I’ll have my secretary send you the rest of it,” he said.

I was working as an editor in magazine publishing at the time, and suggested trying to get an excerpt published somewhere. He seemed open to the idea, but he forgot to send it. Then one day in late February I got a text from a friend telling me he was gone.

*****

Cabas began writing Postmodern Blues sometime in the 1990s, working on it off and on through the following decades with periodic bursts of sustained effort. Then he would leave it alone, for years even, perhaps for nearly a decade in one case. I stopped inquiring about the book during our phone conversations, as I could tell it nagged him that it wasn’t finished. But he was a man of many pursuits. Between teaching, working his cattle farm, playing weekly music gigs, and buying, selling and repairing vintage guitars — lots of them — there wasn’t always time to put pen to paper.

In the summer of 2008 he took a break from teaching summer school at the University of Virginia, and in a burst of output, much of the book was written. I remember him being giddy the day he handed me those first chapters. “It’s gonna be good,” he beamed with a Mephistophelian grin, before pausing. “Well … at least it’ll be funny.”

The novel tells the story of Jack Shock, an English professor who, as the novel opens, is drinking himself to near death in the highlands of Guatemala (where Cabas, in his words, “once got stoned in the biblical sense” by a horde of rock-wielding Mayans in a case of mistaken identity). The rest of the story unfolds in Washington, D.C. and the classrooms and downtown bars of Charlottesville. The main character, and much of the story, cribs from Cabas’s own life, but the two are far from carbon copies of one another.

Postmodern Blues is a book of many hats. On one level, it details a man’s struggle with alcoholism in almost Dostoevskian fashion; the novel’s cast of barflies and ne’er do wells leap off the page in vivid Technicolor and bear the blemished edges of a humanity not yet incised by the self-correction of digital culture. It is also a picaresque romp in the tradition of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, one of Cabas’s favorite books and one that Shock quotes from more than once — “Hide, and if they find you, lie.” For Jack Shock, “they” are the Bernard Vandillinghams, Charlie Bledsoes and Jackson Prileaus of the world.

Thomas Wolfe once observed that all fiction is largely autobiographical. As such, it is no surprise that the character of Shock shares some qualities with the author, but for those who knew him, it’s obvious it’s not a facsimile of the man. The sections in the book that satirize academia recall Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim, a work Cabas himself taught in “The Jim Class,” along with Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Huckleberry Finn.

The novel’s apocalyptic pull recalls Joseph Conrad as well as Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano, another tale of rot and exile in Paradise by way of demon rum. But perhaps more than anything else, Postmodern Blues is a love story, shot through with every beautiful and problematic complication our capacity for loving (and loathing) creates.

As for Shock, Cabas said he based him in part on a professor he had while earning his Ph.d in upstate New York. The professor was a Texan of the Rabelaisian sort who dedicated his book on Conrad’s “metaphysics of darkness” to Larry, Moe and Curly — a signature Shock adopts himself. Cabas told me a story years ago about how one afternoon the two were walking to a bar, seeking sanctuary from the brutality of a Buffalo winter, when they passed a strip club that had the portraits of the performers framed in the window, like you sometimes see on Bourbon Street. “She looks pretty good for a stripper,” Cabas remarked offhandedly. “I know,” his mentor deadpanned, “I was married to her.”

Throughout his professional life, Cabas remained suspicious of academics. Like Shock, he abhorred the cynicism of the postmodern ethic, and the idea that the critic is paramount. As Shock tells of his former student Susan Monteith:

I didnt want to sound like a college professor, not to her, not that I was much of one. Like Susan Monteith, I had pretty much had my fill of academic life. But I didnt feel like copping an attitude. Academia was no phonier than any other form of corporate self-aggrandizement. It hadnt always been the moral equivalent of Exxon and somewhere at someplace small it was probably still mostly about teaching. But while Id been at the University it had almost always had the stink of snake oil.

I first met Cabas as a student at the University of Virginia, when I took his “Mississippi In Song And Story” class, which mostly concerned the novels of William Faulkner and lyrics of bluesman Robert Johnson. He walked into the classroom at Bryan Hall the first day of class wearing dark sunglasses, a straw hat, torn jeans with a star patch over one knee, and Jesus sandals. As he was walking in, he started addressing the class. “If I had taken this class at your age,” he said, “I would’ve dropped it in a New York minute, because you are going to work. I went to summer school at the University of Hawaii, and let me tell you, it ain’t exactly an intellectual powerhouse.” He seemed more Douglas MacArthur than Jerry Garcia, despite the appearance. It turned out to be the best — and most challenging — course I took at UVa. I’ve heard others say the same.

With Cabas in 2005. Charlottesville, Virginia.

“The saying is, those who can’t do, teach — but it’s a noble profession,” he once said. His students well recall such banter — and how he took teaching seriously. But it always bothered him when professors talked down their students and his humor was an honest balance. He felt that books had transformative power and could change lives, and he seemed to genuinely care for each of them. “Dr. Cabas never had children but often thought of the many students he worked with at the College as his sons,” wrote Kenneth Townsend, a friend and economics professor at Hampden-Sydney, shortly after his passing.

Much like Shock’s, Cabas’ father was an Air Force Brigadier General and renowned war pilot named Victor N. Cabas, who passed away at the age of 98, just six months after his son died. The elder Cabas flew more than 300 missions in World War II before flying combat missions in Korea and Vietnam and was said to have seen more aerial warfare than any man on earth. Born in Newport News, Virginia, the younger Cabas spent much of his youth in South Carolina, where he attended high school and was something of a military brat as a kid, living in England and Hawaii for a spell.

It was at UVa where Cabas encountered Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick for the first time, and the book made such an impression that it inspired him to become an academic. He was accepted to the University of Virginia School of Law, but after sitting in on classes as an undergraduate, he decided it was like “reading your car manual over and over again.” Instead of pursuing law he accepted a scholarship at State University of New York at Buffalo where he wrote his dissertation on the use of meta-drama in Shakespeare’s plays and earned his doctorate in literature in 1974.

In the mid-70’s he began his academic teaching career in the English department at the University of Virginia. He did not put himself up for tenure and started teaching at Hampden-Sydney shortly thereafter in the Rhetoric department, where in addition to writing, he taught Shakespeare, Melville, Faulkner, the Civil War, American Blues Music, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, as well as other subjects.

However, it was actually music that was Cabas’ foremost love in life, especially the blues of the Mississippi Delta, and in particular the songs and guitar playing of Robert Johnson. Those sentiments are echoed by Shock:

I remember the first time I heard that voice [of Johnson’s]. I was at a party, and I had just taken a hit of reefer. The song was ‘Kind Hearted Woman’ … The counterpoint of voice and guitar, both distorting sound, the voice like a record slowing down, and the triplet A chord on the seventh fret . . . And then soaring above it came that eerie falsetto ‘Oo, baby, my life won’t be the same,’ the sound rising above the forlorn desire of the words themselves.

Cabas was never happier than when he was playing guitar, whether on one of his beloved arch-tops or some obscure electric belted through a vintage tube amp. He knew a great deal about American roots music and as a guitarist he was a respected bottleneck slide player, with a raw, feral style that befitted his personality. According to Townsend, Eric Clapton once called Cabas’ house and asked if he’d be playing a party the Brit was attending in the area. Vic responded, “Eric who?”

In the book, Shock repeatedly filters the events of his life through the prism of old blues lyrics from masters like Johnson, Son House, Bukka White, and Blind Lemon Jefferson. Still, the curiousness of this tendency is not lost on him as a Southern white male:

Why did I identify with a black man whose world I could know only in books and records? Maybe it was the car wreck that orphaned me as completely as if my father had died in it too. Or the sick in me that attracted me to a woman like Donna Gordon Prileau.

I heard many stories over the years from Cabas’ bacchanalian, post-divorce drinking days, a time that he recalled fondly. A large section of the book transpires in the bars of Charlottesville’s downtown mall. Back then, Charlottesville’s downtown scene was an orbit of artists, writers and scholarly inebriates. The playwright and actor Sam Shepard lived nearby, raising horses, and could often be found slaking his thirst at Miller’s, a former drugstore turned bar. Cabas was regarded as a man to know in bohemian circles, frequently sought out for mentoring from aspiring artists and musicians. “Charlottesville bartenders. All of them had college degrees. About half of them were English majors,” Shock muses. This was when Charlottesville was still a laid-back Southern college town, quite different from the hedge-fund village and showpiece it would become. Dave Matthews had just started performing in public and would give Cabas his early demos for feedback. Matthews even played the role of a drunken fratboy in a play Cabas wrote that was performed at the local playhouse Live Arts. Shock, it seems, might have known him too:

Sonnybuck and I walked along the bar, past the musician strumming an old Ovation guitar. It was a guy named Dave who had worked there two years ago when he had a Mr. T haircut. Eyes half-closed, he was singing ‘All Along the Watchtower,’ as if everything in his world depended on it.

Even after he quit drinking, Cabas continued to perform on Charlottesville’s downtown mall through the late ’90s, setting up on the street, sometimes solo, sometimes with a small band, and playing for tips. He played and sang through an amp, so you could hear that unmistakable bellow from the other side of the mall. But someone eventually complained, as people are wont to do, saying he was violating the noise ordinance, and that was that. Understandably, the old townie was ticked; he loved playing there, seeing his friends and a cavalcade of former students among the crowd.

As I think back on these elements that were part of Cabas’s world I am reminded of something the novelist James Salter once said: “There comes a time in life, when you realize that everything is a dream; only those things which are written down have any possibility of being real.” For everyone who knew Victor, and his fans were numerous, we’re lucky to have this record from the man. It is not a portrait of his life, but in a way, it does feel real, as real as a visit with an old friend, one who now lives in that undiscovered country from which no traveller returns.

— Caine O’Rear
Mobile, Alabama (January 19, 2020)

The Battle Over Confederate Symbolism

Former Jefferson Davis monument on Monument Avenue, Richmond, Virginia. Public domain

The Black Lives Matter movement has called for the removal of Confederate symbols on public land, making the legacy of the Civil War a hot-button issue for candidates and elected officials in the South.

Black Lives Matter, originally conceived in 2013 as a protest against police brutality toward black Americans, has begun to target other agents of oppression. The recent chapter of the burgeoning movement, ignited by the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer, has seen protestors fighting for the removal of Confederate names and monuments from the public sphere. The growing chorus has forced a closer inspection of the South’s “Lost Cause” propaganda campaign, and why the memorials appeared in the first place.

The issue found its way to Capitol Hill on June 11, when the Senate’s Republican-led Armed Services Committee heeded the call of Black Lives Matter, voting to rechristen the names of all U.S. military bases and installations named after Confederate generals within the next three years, setting up the potential for a Senate vote on the bill this year. President Trump said on Twitter that he would not consider renaming any of the military bases. 

On June 13, the committee’s vote became a flashpoint issue in Alabama’s senate campaign when former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a candidate for the Republican nomination, launched a Twitter attack against incumbent Democratic Senator Doug Jones. Sessions accused Jones of dishonoring the memory of Confederate soldiers by voting to change the names, arguing that he was catering to the “woke mob” in “an insane attempt to erase history.” In his official press statement, Sessions said, Naming U.S. bases for those who fought for the South was seen as an act of respect and reconciliation towards those who were called to duty by the States.”

Jones responded by telling Sessions to “delete his account,” adding, “I know it’s tough for you to be on the right side of history when it comes to the Confederacy, but you should give it a try.” 

Fort Bragg, which is in North Carolina, is considered the largest military base in the world, with some 50,000 active duty soldiers. It is one of ten military bases currently named after Confederate generals. Established in 1918, the fort was named after North Carolina native Braxton Bragg, a Confederate general and West Point graduate who also fought in the Mexican-American War. According to William Sturkey, a professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the local chamber of commerce named it after Bragg because he was the only general from North Carolina during the Civil War, rather than as an effort toward reconciliation between North and South.

Sessions’ concern for the memory of Confederate soldiers doesn’t appear to jibe with the feelings of some U.S. veterans. A report in the New York Times on June 14 featured comments from black military veterans about being stationed at Confederate-named bases, with one veteran calling it a “slap in the face.” 

In cities across the South, Confederate monuments have been toppled by Black Lives Matter protestors; foremost among them the Jefferson Davis statue on the fabled Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. According to a 2019 report by The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights legal advocacy organization, 783 Confederate statues remain standing on public ground in the U.S.

On the night of June 14, the statue of Robert E. Lee, also on Monument Avenue, was tagged with the Black Lives Matter slogan and painted in the rainbow bars of the LGBT-Pride flag. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (a Democrat who came under fire last year when a 1984 photograph surfaced of him pictured in blackface) has said the Lee statue, along with the four other Confederate monuments on the street, would be removed. (Property owners on Monument Avenue have filed suit against the City of Richmond seeking to block removal.) On June 16, the Monument Avenue statue of Arthur Ashe, a champion black tennis player from Richmond, was vandalized and spray-painted with the tag “White Lives Matter.” The Ashe statue is one of six that line Monument Avenue, and the only one of a black Virginian. It stirred controversy in Richmond when it was unveiled in 1996.

***

Sessions, who was first elected to the Senate in 1997, is currently locked in a close race in the Republican primary with former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville. The two will meet in a runoff on July 14. Tuberville, who refuses to debate Sessions, has castigated his opponent for abandoning Trump during the Department of Justice investigation into the possibility of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Sessions has been harangued by Trump on social media for recusing himself in the investigation, but he still maintains support for the president, campaigning on the idea that he was the first prominent sitting politician to embrace the Trump movement. As of June 20, Trump will hold a rally for Tuberville at Mobile’s Ladd Stadium, sometime in July, according to national media reports.

Instead of only focusing on Tuberville, whose campaign has been marked by cheesy football metaphors and blind fealty to Trump, Sessions has targeted Jones, his would-be Republican opponent in November, for his vote on the Confederate-named bases. A former attorney, Jones won the Senate seat in a 2017 special election that pitted him against former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, a Republican evangelical who was accused of inappropriate sexual and social conduct by nine women during the course of the campaign, including one who claimed she was sexually assaulted by Moore at age 14. Jones, who was considered an underdog in the race, was vaulted into office after receiving overwhelming support from the state’s female black voters.

As of June 19, Tuberville had not weighed in on the issue of Confederate-named bases, and could not be reached for comment as of this writing. When Tuberville was head football coach at Ole Miss, he was instrumental in banning the Confederate battle flag at Ole Miss games in Oxford, Mississippi. Early in his tenure as coach, Tuberville said he faced obstacles in his effort to recruit black players as a result of the flag’s presence at games. The effort to remove the flag was met with protest from a portion of the student body and some Ole Miss alumni, so, in a diplomatic sleight of hand, the school’s president issued a ban on “sticks” at games.

When the issue of Confederate monuments comes up for debate, historians often note that Lee was opposed to the erecting of Confederate statues after the war. Lee’s objections were ignored during the advent of the Lost Cause movement, a century-and-a-half propaganda campaign which advanced the theory that the Civil War was fought over the issue of “states’ rights,” a viewpoint a plurality of Americans adhered to as recently as 2011, according to a Pew research poll

Upon close inspection, the states’ rights argument withers when one considers that the Confederate States Constitution, established in 1861, did not grant the individual states in the Confederacy the sovereign right to decide the question of slavery [Constitution of the Confederate States, Article 1, Section 9:4], though the document’s preamble says each state was acting in its “sovereign and independent character” when the new government was formed.

The Lost Cause idea, which was first promoted in an 1866 book by Virginian Robert A. Pollard, deified numerous figures in the Confederacy, none more so than General Robert E. Lee, whose characterization was emphasized as that of the chivalric man who could not take up arms against his home state of Virginia. Lee and his soldiers fought heroically on the field of battle, but were grossly outmatched in military size and industrial strength and defeated for this reason (and not because of strategic mistakes), the Lost Cause asserts. 

Some historical accounts paint Lee the man in a much less honorable light. Writing in The Atlantic in 2010, Ta-Nehisi Coates relates the tale of a black man who says Lee ordered his slaves to be washed with brine after they had been flogged. Lee at times called slavery a moral and political evil, adding that it was God’s will and the duty of the white man to nurture the black population until it had evolved to the point where it could live freely (a common refrain among Southern preachers then). Lee’s sentiments partly echoed those of Alexander H. Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy, in his notorious “Cornerstone Speech,” a virulently racist tract which claimed that “slavery subordination to the superior race is his [the black man’s] natural and normal condition.” In his speech, Stephens also rebukes the founding fathers’ notion that slavery was inherently evil, making his views on race retrograde to those of  George Washington, whose statue in Portland, Oregon was toppled by protestors on the night of June 18.

On “The Jeff Poor Show,” a conservative radio program broadcast in Alabama, Sessions said the current movement to eradicate Confederate monuments jettisons any opportunity for debate. “It’s a demonizing of anybody who was not perfect,” Sessions told Poor. “The great [scholar] Shelby Steele talks about this and it was clear in the 1980s, the radicals of the ’60s and ’70s and coming into the ’80s — but, they judged America by a standard of perfection. And, of course, we fall short. Good Americans will say to the radicals, ‘We hear you. We want to get better. We want to have better racial relations. We want to have a better justice system. We want to have a better economic system.’”

****

James Longstreet, Lee’s right-hand man and most trusted general during the Civil War, was not honored by the Lost Cause. A cool-headed officer from South Carolina that Lee called “my old warhorse,” Longstreet was often blamed by Lost Cause ideologues for the defeat at Gettysburg and consequently the loss of the war. But it was Longstreet, along with other subordinate officers, who cautioned Lee against Pickett’s Charge, a crippling psychic and physical blow to the Confederacy. Gettysburg National Military Park contains a statue of Longstreet, but there was never one erected in the South. After the war, Longstreet joined the Republican Party in support of Reconstruction and was branded a scalawag by most Southerners. Though he owned slaves before the war, he is also remembered for helping lead a black militia in a fight against white supremacists in New Orleans in 1874.

Gary Gallagher, a Civil War historian and professor at the University of Virginia, explained the rationale for the Lost Cause movement on “The Civil War in American Memory” podcast in 2011. “They knew they were out of step with the great tide of Western civilization,” Gallagher said. “They knew they would not be received well if they played it straight on how important slavery had been.”

It’s certainly no myth that the Confederate army performed valiantly on the field of battle (as was also the case for the Union). Take the 15th Alabama Infantry Regiment, for instance, whose members were said to range in age from 13 to 70. At the start of the war, the regiment, which consisted of soldiers from southeastern Alabama, contained 1,958 men. After seeing action in 15 major engagements, including horrific bloodbaths like Gettysburg (where they famously charged the 20th Maine on Little Round Top), Antietam and Chickamauga, not to mention dealing with the onslaught of disease in consistently deplorable conditions, the regiment contained only 170 soldiers by the end of the war. 

In his Twitter thread June 13, Sessions writes: “Make no mistake, this [Jones’ vote] is not a little matter. It reveals a profound deficit in his understanding of what it means to be AL’s Senator. Doug Jones’ vote seeks to erase AL’s & America’s history and thousands of Alabamians for doing what they considered to be their duty at the time.”

While many volunteered to fight for the South, a great portion were forced to by law. After having trouble attracting volunteers to fight in the early days of the war, the Confederate Congress passed its first Conscription Act, or draft, in 1862, making all white males ages 18 to 35 available for service for three years. By early 1864, the age limit had been increased to 50 years old. Wealthy Southerners also had the right to purchase “substitutes” to fight in their stead, a common practice. Historical estimates of the number of “substitutes” range from 50,000 to 150,000. There were also parts of Alabama that did not fully support the Confederate cause. In Winston County, where plantation life was largely non-existent due to the non-arable soil, pro-Union sentiment was strong enough to generate a legend that the county had seceded from Alabama.

*****

At the start of the war, nearly one-third of Southern families owned slaves, according to the 1860 census. Many of those who fought in the Confederate army, whether voluntarily or through conscription, were objects of derision among the slaveholding class. Like so many American military conflicts, the Civil War could be viewed as a rich man’s war fought by poor boys. In the case of the Confederacy, the South’s ruling class had to secede in order to ensure the preservation of an economy that was fueled by a slave-labor state. 

For the North, preserving the Union was paramount at the start of the conflict. In August 1862, President Abraham Lincoln wrote to the New York Tribune, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, an executive order, it was done to punish the Southern states who had rebelled against the U.S. It was a strategic decision on Lincoln’s part as much as anything else. Regardless, abolition had now moved to the forefront of the Union cause. 

****

Alabama, of course, is no stranger to racial politics. The Yellowhammer State was one of the main stages of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. And now, in 2020, Alabama finds itself grappling with the legacy of the Civil War in a prominent political campaign. In his Twitter thread, Sessions says the issue of Confederate names on bases is not about slavery, arguing that the issue was “settled by the war.” Sessions went on to label Jones as a member of the “radical left” who would advocate for the demolition of the Jefferson memorial and Washington Monument, presumably because these figures owned slaves. But it’s worth noting that the men of the Confederacy did fight a war against the United States.

As an argument, the defense of Confederate symbolism on public land is a tough sell, as quixotic as the doomed Pickett’s Charge, when Lee ordered some 12,500 Confederate infantry to march for three-quarters of a mile across an open field in the face of enemy artillery and rifle fire that was being directed from behind a fortified stone wall. In his 1948 novel Intruder In The Dust, William Faulkner reimagines the scene leading up to Pickett’s Charge, writing that “for every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863 …” The historical record, as many are learning, suggests that Confederate hagiography is itself a fantasy, a nostalgia for a past that never was, the defense of which is, indeed, a lost cause.

The Legend of Black Dog

 

I wonder if anyone in Richmond has considered erecting a statue in memory of Black Dog. This near-mythical, dread-locked stray canine roamed the streets of Richmond’s West End neighborhood for nearly fifteen years, some say, eluding animal control the entire time. A woman once claimed he saved her from a mugging, such was his legend. Some Richmonders built dog houses and left food out for him, hoping to adopt and domesticate him (he never let humans get too close), but that is not how outlaws roll.

In the two years I lived in Richmond I saw him three or four times. He would sometimes come out of hiding and walk the perimeter of the park near Mary Munford Elementary in the mid-afternoon, when the kids were being let out of school. I looked for him every day for a year before first clapping eyes on him. When I did finally catch a glimpse, it was as if I had just seen Bigfoot. One afternoon, my toy poodle at the time got loose on a walk and, to my horror, approached him, as if to say, “Hey buddy, wanna play?” He declined the offer, but was cool about it.

His longevity was such that some speculated it was “Son of Black Dog” they were seeing in those later years. But they underestimated the indomitable old lion.

Mark Holmberg, a celebrated Richmond journalist who penned several columns about the stray, said it best when he wrote: “It’s important to remember how much Black Dog reminds us it’s okay to be independent, to be free, to be scruffy, and to be hungry every once and a while.”

Black Dog has been gone for nearly a decade. It’s high time the city of Richmond commemorates his legend.

Lincoln in Richmond

On April 4, 1865, two days after Union forces had taken Richmond, Abraham Lincoln arrived in the fallen Confederate capital with his son Tad. The city’s black residents gave the president a hero’s welcome, while the city’s white population greeted him coldly.

Lee surrendered at Appomattox five days after the Richmond visit; Lincoln would be killed less than a week after that. I was always struck by the fact that Lincoln took Tad with him to Richmond. He had to have known there was a risk of assassination (he only had a few sailors with him for protection), but there was something there that he wanted his son to see, and for him it was, perhaps, worth the risk.

Today, a bronze statue of the two, which was unveiled in 2003, sits at the Richmond National Battlefield Park Civil War Visitor Center. The president has his arm wrapped around his 12-year-old boy. Behind him, etched in stone, are the words: “To bind up the nation’s wounds.” The phrase is taken from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered in March 1865. #blacklivesmatter

Read more here.

How Steve Earle Gave Voice to Forgotten Miners on Ghosts of West Virginia — Rolling Stone

Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff

Beneath the veneer of his country-rock stylings, the early work of Steve Earle is shot through with moving descriptions of working-class life. His stirring debut album from 1986, Guitar Town, is haunted by characters hopelessly mired in small-town and rural America, barely scraping by in landscapes that are as bleak spiritually as they are impoverished. On the title track, Earle writes about his own life, with a deft nod to Hank Williams: “Nothin’ ever happened ‘round my hometown/And I ain’t the kind to just hang around/But I heard somethin’ callin’ my name one day/And I followed that voice down a lost highway.” It’s a nod, of course, to Williams’ classic “Lost Highway,” a song written by Leon Payne.

This image of small-town life and the urgency to leave it behind is as blue-collar as it is timeless Americana. But Earle’s characters are not so much conquered by fate as embattled by the forces of culture and economics — and he returns to these subjects for his latest project, Ghosts of West Virginia, out Friday. In these early works, there is the distance between aspiration and reality, and it is here where the struggle to survive with some semblance of meaning intact is maintained. On the song “Someday,” a Springsteen-esque anthem from Guitar Town, Earle relates the tale of a young man who pumps gas by the interstate yet yearns to know “what’s over that rainbow.” In “No. 29,” a tune from Earle’s sophomore album Exit O, a middle-aged man is sustained by little more than his glory days on the gridiron, which he relives every Friday night when he watches the town’s star tailback, wearing the narrator’s old jersey number, play at the local high school. Early Steve Earle was country music, all right: songs about the frustrated working man and the tender mercies that keep him going through hard times. But in Earle’s case, it is country music written by someone who knows the city just as well.

Read the full essay on Rolling Stone.

On The Road: A Tribute to John Hartford

I wrote a brief bio of John Hartford for the new Hartford tribute, On The Road, a benefit album for MusiCares.

John Hartford is one of those unique American creations whose life could have been born from the pen of Mark Twain. Like Twain, Hartford grew up along the banks of the Mississippi River, where in his youth he worked on a steamboat, a passion that would have become a career, he said, had the imprint of the roustabout minstrel within been any less strong.

Like the great American river, Hartford’s music traverses vast terrain: he was a masterly country-folk songwriter, a brilliant interpreter of old-time and early bluegrass, a progenitor of newgrass, and a dynamic live performer whose sense of exuberance and whimsy influenced scores of musicians across generations. Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon recalls Hartford’s onstage power, saying, “I’ve never seen a performer so absolutely capture a crowd. He was the complete package…and there will never be another like him.”

Hartford’s late-’60s, country-folk-pop masterpiece, “Gentle On My Mind,” made popular by his friend and frequent collaborator Glen Campbell, is regarded as a standard in the Great American Songbook. In 1971, Hartford pioneered a new sound with the album Aereo-plane, a solo project that found the musical visionary connecting the hippies with the hillbillies and stretching the boundaries of traditional folk and bluegrass into more “herb-friendly” zones. “Without the album Aereo-plane, there would be no newgrass music,” says Sam Bush, the revered mandolinist who popularized the genre with his band New Grass Revival.

LoHi Records will honor Hartford’s legacy this summer with On The Road: A Tribute To John Hartford. All proceeds from the project will benefit MusiCares, an outfit run by The Grammy Foundation that offers critical assistance to musicians in times of crisis and need. Their work is crucial, for the economic realities of being a musician have never been more dire. All of the artists on this album understand the pressures of not only surviving but creating art in a deteriorating financial landscape. Sadly, the past year witnessed several well-known musicians succumbing to deaths of despair and this album serves as a rallying cry in the face of those tragedies. Resources do exist and it is hoped that this album can shine more light on those that can help. Now with the arrival of Covid- 19 erasing all live performance, a further reduction in artists’ incomes is inevitable and resources like MusiCares have become even more essential. “This is going to call on our better angels to come out during this time,” says Vince Herman. “I hope we all are feeling that we’re all in the same boat, and we either sink or swim together.”

The music of Hartford, who died in 2001 after a long battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, courses through myriad styles of American music, so it’s fitting the album features 14 reworkings of Hartford originals from some of the preeminent artists in the worlds of Americana, folk, country traditional bluegrass and jamgrass. “This album is an homage to all these hardworking musicians who are out on the road making their living,” says Chad Staehly, one of LoHi’s founders, who is also keyboard player for Great American Taxi and Hard Working Americans.

The album opens with Sam Bush’s rendition of title track “On The Road,” a song Bush performed live with Hartford as far back as 1977. As a kid growing up in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Bush first heard Hartford on CBS’s Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and later on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, and he’d record some of those television performances straight from the tube into a cassette player, he says. On trips to Nashville with his dad, Bush would gobble up copies of Hartford albums at Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop. Years later, he would go on to collaborate with Hartford on numerous occasions. He looks back fondly on picking parties at Hartford’s residence in Nashville that, he says, would last four or five days at a time. “I never met anyone who liked to jam as much as John,” Bush says. And coming from the mouth of Sam Bush, that’s saying something.

On The Road was recorded in studios across the country, and yet, it sounds amazingly cohesive. Hartford’s music had a deep spiritual center, to be sure, and it’s that core that shines through in each of the album’s cuts. And while no tribute album could explore every nook and cranny of Hartford’s extensive catalog, this album hits some of the high points of a career that spans more than three decades. Railroad Earth offers an affecting version of “Delta Queen Waltz,” one of several paeans to the steamboat life written by Hartford in his lifetime. John Carter Cash and Jerry Douglas perform one of his better known and well-covered tunes, “In Tall Buildings,” a song about bidding adieu to the pastoral life and going to work for the man. The Infamous Stringdusters contribute a soulful reading of “Gentle On My Mind,” while Americana folkie Todd Snider serves up a stripped-down version of “I Wish We Had Our Time Again.” Keller Williams, the pan-genre wunderkind, teams up with the Travelin’ McCourys for the zany “Granny Woncha Smoke Some Marijuana,” a cut from Hartford’s mid-’70s pushing-the-envelope period when he was recording on an independent label. Williams, a wild and chameleonic performer in his own right, is certainly an heir to Hartford’s solo performance tradition. Longtime Hartford enthusiasts Leftover Salmon funk it up with “The Category Stomp,” one of Hartford’s earlier songs from the late ’60s, and one whose lyrics speak to the man’s musical manifesto (“It’s a folk-country-disco-tech-soft-rock-contemporary-abstract- expressionism-word-movie-flower-power-hard-ragging-neo-bluegrass-stoned-billy-dirty- boogie-freak-down-coming-on-jellybean-psychedelic stomp”). “I just love that stuff,” says Vince Herman. “It’s old-timey rap, I guess, and the chance to put a kind of funky thing on it seemed like a good idea. I think John would approve of the direction we took on it.”

The lyrics to “On The Road” encapsulate what the album is about. “Every day it’s your turn, another verse to be earned/ it’s a road, no big turn/ won’t get home much this year.” The album closes with an additional version of the title track, this one by banjo whiz Danny Barnes in solo guise. It’s a full-circle moment that captures the spirit of Hartford’s life and music, and in a very real sense, all of American music, that great unbroken circle that connects one and all forever. Long live John Hartford.

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ACTs of the Apostles

For the past month, I’ve worked as a part-time tutor in south Alabama, helping high-schoolers prepare for the verbal portion of the ACT, the standardized college admissions exam generally preferred by the universities down in Dixie.

As part of the interview process, I was required to take the English section of the test and notch a certain score.

I felt a pang of terror upon hearing the news. It had been 24 years since I walked into Murphy High School one fine spring morning and filled in those tiny ovals with a pair of sharpened No. 2s. I had worked as a writer and editor since 2004, but, under the gun, was I really the prince of punctuation I fancied myself to be?

It was too late to take a practice test, so I decided to “get in the zone.” I sought to achieve this through a form of method-acting, by which I’d recreate a day in the life of my 17-year-old self. That afternoon I ran wind-sprints in cleats and washed my hair afterward with a green, toxic slime known as Pert Plus. I ate ham-steak for dinner with baked potato and washed it down with a Carnation Instant Breakfast while watching an episode of “Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper.”

The next morning, I was ready to go.

I finished the English section of the test with a minute to spare, and completed Reading Comp at the buzzer. I think the ACT gods were smiling on me. The Prose Fiction section of Reading Comp was written by a not-so-well-known Vermont novelist named David Huddle, whose daughter taught me poetry writing at UVa. The Natural Sciences section sported a passage by Oliver Sacks, whom I’d been reading that very week.

After finishing the test, I sat nervously in a small cubicle awaiting the results. I soon found out I’d aced the Reading and missed a few on English. I was ecstatic. I imagined at that moment I had the world by the balls. I had made it. I could go to any college of my choosing. Then I could land any job in the world and marry any girl I wanted.  I walked out of the tutoring center like a man on fire. I got in my car and blasted “Rain King” by Counting Crows, fishtailing out of the parking lot as my car shape-shifted into a burgundy-and-cream ’89 Ford Bronco.

New Skin for the Old Ceremony

The night before the release of The Unraveling, the new album from Drive-By Truckers that dropped January 31, Patterson Hood posted a picture to Instagram of the New York City skyline at night. He captioned the photo: “Thirty-one years ago, Lou Reed’s New York album was one of my two favorite albums of the year. Neil Young’s Freedom was the other one. Both of those album politically pointed to this current moment in time … Within a week there will be Brexit, the Iowa 2020 caucus and most likely Trump’s acquittal. The soul of America has been sold out (to paraphrase Marianne Faithful) ‘for such a low bid.’”

Lou Reed’s New York, generally regarded as one of his stronger solo efforts, documents the dark underbelly of Gotham in the late ’80s, turning its lens on the city’s street denizens and working-class hustlers, the folks struggling to pay rent to a landlord “who’s laughing till he wets his pants.” The album could’ve been written yesterday. As Reed sings on “Dirty Boulevard”: “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on ‘em/ that’s what the Statue of Bigotry says/ Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ‘em to death/ and get it over with and just dump ‘em on the boulevard.”

Young’s Freedom, the more well-known of the two, opens and closes with acoustic and electric versions of “Rockin’ In The Free World,” respectively. It’s a song the Truckers uncork regularly in concert these days and it works as a sort of thematic centerpiece to the live show.

The Unraveling — the title of which recalls liberal economist Paul Krugram’s 2003 book The Great Unraveling — is very much in the spirit of the Young and Reed efforts. It’s also a suitemate of sorts to the band’s 2016 release American Band, the group’s most pointedly political album up to that point and one that attempted to grapple with hot-button issues of the republic like gun control and Black Lives Matter.

The Unraveling was recorded in a mere six days at Sun Studios in Memphis, and the immediacy shines through. The album is mostly a Hood affair, with co-principal songwriter Mike Cooley contributing just two songs. The opening track “Rosemary With A Bible And A Gun,” a Southern Gothic travelogue that recalls Springsteen’s Nebraska and namechecks Memphis photographer William Eggleston, is a bit of an outlier on the record. Cinematic in its scope, it’s a cryptic story that sets the tone for what’s to follow. The next song, “Armageddon’s Back In Town,” is a dirty rocker about the return of Reagan-era, Cold War paranoia, with Hood lamenting that “you can’t tell the rabbit from the hat” in his trademark Southern rasp. “Thoughts and Prayers,” the album’s first single, deals with the failure of the political establishment to take action on societal horrors like mass gun violence, while “21st Century USA” chronicles the dry rot of small-town life, painting Anytown, America as a place of Wells Fargos, KFCs, payday loan centers, and shitty bars, populated by folks working for shrinking pay while awaiting the return of the Savior. “Heroin Again” laments an acquaintance’s relapse on a drug that is finding its ways into new corners of American society as painkiller addictions rage and scripts get harder to come by.  “Babies In Cages,” a title that could be the authoritarian state writ large, is a plaintive cry of the heart, with Hood singing, “This ain’t the country our grandads fought for us to be.”

The Truckers, now 12 albums deep in a career full of twists and turns, have never been shrinking violets when it comes to politics, which is something of a rarity for rock bands from the American south. The group’s breakthrough double-album Southern Rock Opera was a deeply political affair, one could argue, exploring what Hood called “the duality of the Southern thing.” Hood was born in the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama in 1964, the year of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a watershed piece of legislation that tilted much of the white, working-class south in the direction of the Republican party. Southern Rock Opera explored the nuances of race and politics throughout Alabama history, referencing everyone from Lynyrd Skynyrd to George Wallace, a politician now regarded as a forerunner to Trump. As The Unraveling drops, three Alabama politicians are vying for the Republican nomination for Senate, all of them desperately trying to out-Trump one another, with former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville suggesting Trump was chosen by God to be president, House Rep. Bradley Byrne running a series of blatantly racist ads that go well beyond dog-whistling, and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions championing the record of a president who kicked him to the curb like a mangy dog. Clearly, not much has changed in the neighborhood.

“This is no time for circumlocution, this is no time for learned speech,” Lou Reed sings on New York. The Truckers would seem to agree. The Unraveling is as hard-boiled and direct as anything they’ve written, and there are no words minced. Politics and art have always been tricky bedfellows, and some artists come up short in their efforts, with the music amounting to nothing more than cheap dogma and rhetoric. And while this isn’t the best Truckers’ album by a long shot, it is a pretty good one, and one that achieves its objective of holding the mirror up to a country that’s bargained so much of its soul.

In a recent interview with Forbes magazine, Hood said he wanted his kids to know which side of history he stood on when the smoke eventually clears. This album makes it abundantly clear.