A Celebration of The Life & Work of Paul Hemphill
By James Calemine
"I was ridin' number nine
Headin' south from Caroline
I heard that lonesome whistle blow."
On this clear, mild November Saturday morning at 11AM, I arrived at Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta, Georgia, at the corner of North Avenue and North Highland, to eat breakfast with writer Paul Hemphill.
Hemphill, 70, exists as one of the south’s most important writers. He remains one of America’s last great writer’s whose work documents some of the most pronounced generational changes in the south. Hemphill worked as a sportswriter, journalist and novelist.
Hemphill earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his 1993 book, Leaving Birmingham, experienced Hollywood adapt his work (Long Gone) to film and over the last 40 years written 15 books with a rare degree of experience about truck drivers, baseball, football, basketball, roller derby queens, stock car drivers, politics, journalists, musicians and bootleggers.
A gaunt, grey-haired Paul Hemphill sat at a table when I arrived at Manuel’s Tavern. Hemphill suffered a stroke two years ago, and this spring he was diagnosed with throat cancer. We corresponded over a period of months regarding this article. During an interview in April, his voice kept cracking and he wasn’t feeling well, so I suggested we postpone our interview until he felt better. I called three weeks later, and Hemphill informed me he was diagnosed with throat cancer.
I’ve spent the last 20 years tracking obscure artists with the intention of exposing a wider audience to their work. I always intended to write about the artist while they were still living. In 2004 and early 2005, I’d been in contact with Hunter S. Thompson’s agent. Two times I was told Thompson was not in the mood or condition for an interview. When I called in late January of 2005, I was told the interview would happen. I was instructed to call back on March 1. Thompson committed suicide on February 20. I realized I should have acted on the interview much sooner. I did not want this to be another example of delays having dangerous ends.
Fortunately, after a tortuous spring and summer, Hemphill defeated cancer. On this November morning at Manuel’s, as we sat down to breakfast, I understood I was in the company of a true southern hero…a real survivor.
Born February 18, 1936 (same day, 32 years before this writer), in Birmingham, Alabama, to a truck driving father and a mother who worked for the government. Hemphill’s first love was baseball. The game occupied his most of his time throughout school. Hemphill graduated from Woodlawn High School and received a B.A. from Auburn University. Like most athletic dreamers, Hemphill soon discovered his baseball aspirations would die on the vine. Hemphill told me how he began to realize baseball was not in the cards.
“This was the summer of 54 or 55. I found myself the prettiest girl in town—a strawberry blonde. I had a friend who owned a Pontiac convertible. After the game—sometimes without a shower—we’d go necking with the two prettiest girls in town on the banks of the Neosho River--pure teenagers. I finished my first quarter at Auburn around Christmas and there was an exchange of letters back and forth.
“I decided to hitchhike out to Oswego, and see how things were going. I just finished working with the post office for the holiday. So I hitchhike 800 fucking miles in winter out there in order to dance in this girl’s parlor. I was not invited back to play with Oswego the next year. I was able to make the travel squad at Auburn where I became the batting practice pitcher. Nothing ever came of that.”
An English professor at Auburn told Hemphill he possessed a way with words and encouraged him to pursue the craft. Hemphill wrote a story called “I Gotta Let The Kid Go” in his book The Good Old Boys that describes how his baseball coach informed him he was cut from the team, which led Hemphill to become “a writing fool.”
“I bought a little manual typewriter, and I taught myself how to write and I began copying other writers—sportswriters. After a while, I would just do the typing of a Hemingway short story. Pretty soon I became a sports editor of the Auburn Plainsman—the weekly school paper. That turned out to be the year we were National Champs. That gave me a boost. I wasn’t a player, but I worked in the dining hall where athletes lived, so they all knew me. I was there for most of the games.”
Hemphill learned the ropes, and he explained his gradual ascent into sports journalism. “I hadn’t quite finished at Auburn, so I might’ve finished in March of 57—but I didn’t. Anyway, I was a summer intern for sports at the Atlanta Constitution. So, I still had one more quarter to go.
“I didn’t have any money to finish school, so I got my first job with Benny Marshall at the Birmingham News. He was a hero. I read him when I was a kid in Birmingham. So, in the summer of 58, I moved to the little league (laughs) beat. I was even a bowling editor.
“Then I went to Birmingham to finish up one quarter so I did prep sports. I was pretty damn good. I’d walk up the steps at Legion Field at the Alabama/Auburn game and I felt like a hero because I was covering the high school prep sports game that was always played at Legion Field on Friday nights. So, I was the big guy and that’s what I did.
“I got myself a portable typewriter which I used for years for my newspaper work. I’d sit up there in the press box at Legion Field with my binoculars and that’s where I learned about writing.”
Hemphill covered the Auburn basketball team the year they won the National Championship. Then he joined the Air National Guard to avoid the draft. He was sent to France in 1961 where his grim circumstances brought on a new meat-hook reality.
“That’s where I learned a lot of things happen besides sports. We were stationed in Paris. We were over there for the Berlin crisis. That’s where I first read Hemingway. It was the first reading I’d done other than sports…that was the beginning.”
The same year Hemphill married a girl from Alabama. “She got pregnant when I got her over from Birmingham. We lived in a little courtyard—a little French country place the Nazis used as a headquarters when they were trying to get out of France. I began more reading and I began to put perspective about what happened in the world.
“We did just about a year and then moved back to Birmingham. Just about that time I decided is I was gonna make money I’d better be a sports information director.” Hemphill took a PR job at Florida State. “Bill Peterson was the football coach,” Hemphill told me, “an interesting guy. It was the year Fred Belitnekoff was a freshman. That was when FSU was announcing they were going big time in football. I liked them, but I realized I made a bad mistake. I was no PR guy. I was a fucking writer...”
In the spring of 1962, Hemphill moved to Augusta, Georgia, employed as a sports editor at the Augusta Chronicle. He stayed on for six months and then re-located to Tampa, Florida, for six months. Around this time, Hemphill got his first big break. “My friend called and said, ‘Paul here’s your chance. Come to Atlanta. They’re starting this new newspaper called The Atlanta Times’. I knew it was gonna be Right Wing, but I didn’t give a shit because I just wanted to get to the big city. Six columns a week, and I did that for a year and a half.”
Then the Atlanta Journal called Hemphill for a job he accepted. Hemphill stayed with the Journal for five years. “In 1964, I wound up at the Atlanta Journal. It’s the biggest paper between Miami and Washington D.C., and I was the star. I was the main columnist—one thousand words a day, 6 days a week. Damn near killed me, but I learned how to do just about everything I needed to do to stay home and write—whether it was books or not. I talked them into letting me go to Vietnam. Part of the stuff I sent to the Neiman people was some of my better Vietnam stuff. I spent two years with them in Vietnam. When I got back, I knew I wasn’t long for news papering.”
After Vietnam, Hemphill earned a Neiman Fellowship at Harvard University. I asked what the process was for a southern writer to earn such a prestigious honor to an Ivy League school.
“You just submit some of your best work. Give them a bunch of bullshit about a thousand words on why you would benefit by hanging out at the Harvard campus. Give them some of that poor southern boy crap (laughs). And it worked. Harvard just wants to feel real good about having done their work. They’re so great just by being there. In those years, I chose exactly what they had in mind about country music.”
In 1969 Hemphill started writing his first book, The Nashville Sound. He lived in Nashville during this time. Hemphill explained the relatively painless process of writing the book.
“Well, it was pretty easy. The reason it was so easy was because Nashville in those days all the music people lived in the neighborhood between 16th and 17th streets--right downtown. I was friends with Bill Anderson, the country singer and songwriter from Decatur, Alabama. As it happened, Bill just bought a big house on one of the lakes—Old Hickory—I think. He was getting ready to hit the road for one month. He let me stay at his house while he was on the road. It saved me a helluva lot a money.”
The Chicago Sun-Times called The Nashville Sound “The best book ever written about country music.” The book provides a clear perspective on the state of country music during that time. Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, The Byrds and The Grateful Dead began employing country music into their sound, inspiring longhairs all over the country to seek out country music legends like Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, Lefty Frizzell and others. Hemphill wrote about his ability to penetrate Nashville’s inner circle in the Foreword to The Nashville Sound:
“To do this book, I lived in Nashville, Tennessee, “hillbilly heaven” for nearly two months, where I saw a dozen performances of the Grand Ole Opry and countless recording sessions and television tapings. I also visited Glen Campbell at the CBS television studios in Hollywood, rode along with Bill Anderson and the Po Boys as they played a string of one-nighters in New England, sat in a tiny dressing room in Bakersfield, California, while son-of-an-Okie Merle Haggard loosened up his tonsils with straight bourbon before singing for the homefolks, and sat in an isolated cabin in northeast Georgia, while an old mountaineer played his home-made fiddle the only way he knows how. In all, I traveled 18,000 air miles, interviewed about 150 people and listened exclusively to country music for seven months.”
Through Bill Anderson’s secretary, Hemphill became longtime friends with some of country’s most enduring stars. “She was a super secretary,” he told me. “I’d start my day by coming in and she would tell me, ‘You need to talk to so and so’, and I’d say ‘How do I get him?’ She’d call him right then. If it was Chet Atkins—who was right down the street, she’d say, ‘he’s looking for you in five minutes’. So, I’d go out and talk to Chet. It went like that and she had a built in shit detector. She always knew how to play it.
“I got all the basic interviews staying right there in Nashville in one solid month—January of 1969. By March, I had to go to the west coast. I wanted to get Haggard and Glen Campbell.”
During this trip, Hemphill became friends with Merle Haggard. “He was perfect—very quotable. Then, unannounced, I got on a bus on Hollywood and Vine and went to Bakersfield. I got off the bus and called Merle’s secretary, and she said, ‘He and the band are playing at this auditorium for free, with proceeds going for the next year’s bowling tournament, but they’re right there. I told him to look out for me.
“I heard the first set and the band all disappeared down into the basement and I followed them and there was Merle in a great scene; him sitting there—some teenager getting drunk on his whiskey between sets. I said, ‘Merle, this book is called The Nashville Sound, but you’ve never recorded in Nashville. Why is that?’ And this kid punches him and says, ‘Tell em what you always say Merle.’ And Merle said, ‘It don’t matter where you cut it at, it’s what you put in the groove.’
“About a month later, he was inviting me to the White House because Nixon invited them there. Merle was paying my way up there just to hold hands with him. So, that’s how our friendship began. I was done with the book all except a few hundred words before I left Cambridge at the first of June.”
During this time, Hemphill decided to quit writing for newspapers. “When I finished the book, I got very little money. It came about November, and I got drunk one night with one of the young reporters. I didn’t even have the next day’s column done. I was so drunk I could not type a letter to my boss. It took me a couple of hours to type. I wrote ‘Dear Mack, I quit. I’m sick of newspapers.’ I didn’t know what I was gonna do, but I knew it was gonna be better than that.”
Hemphill wrote a letter to Michael Korda—a rising new editor at Simon & Schuster about The Nashville Sound. A response waited in the form of a letter for Hemphill just before leaving Harvard and return to Atlanta with his wife and two young children. A week later, Hemphill flew to New York and signed The Nashville Sound contract.
“I signed the contract for about two thousand dollars, which I’m told, was not a bad deal then. I finished the book when I get back to Atlanta. The Nashville Sound sold well. In the 1970s I wrote for a lot of magazines. I did two or three pieces for Life, one for Reader’s Digest, several for SPORT magazine. I had a deal for a column a month. So many major pieces a year. Dick Schapp became my editor there. He was excellent. Then I just up and moved to St. Simons Island. My marriage began to die in a small place like that.”
In 1971, Hemphill co-wrote a book with ex-Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen Jr., called Mayor: Notes On The Sixties. Hemphill explained the book’s origins: “The same guy who was at Simon & Schuster--who was a sales rep there and a friend of mine—he’s the one that recommended I mail my proposal for The Nashville Sound. Now, he had another idea, he said, ‘Ivan Allen is retiring after a great decade. We ought to do a book. And I said, ‘Shit, I love the guy. Sure, I’ll do it. I got the money, but he agreed to do it. It was the beginning of a great friendship. Good book, too.”
In 1973, Hemphill visited The University of Georgia as a lecturer. Hemphill always drank, but a gradual literary pressure increased on coastal Georgia. “I drank my way through a couple of years on St. Simons.”
Hemphill wrote about this dissolute era: “I was writing books, but I was married to a woman who, to my knowledge, had never finished reading one.” In 1974, a collection of Hemphill’s newspaper columns were published titled, The Good Old Boys which contends as an essential volume in the Hemphill collection.
In the book’s Foreword, written in the tone of a fading light for The Old South, revealed Hemphill’s instinct: “…But what depresses me, as the South finally joins the Union, is that little of what was distinctive and good as has been retained. The inevitable progress has put us in decent houses and fed our poor and educated us, and even made us more tolerant of black people—however pragmatically—but it also made us talk and act and dress and look just like the people in say, Denver. The good old boys are out in the suburbs now living in identical houses and shopping at the KMART and listening to Glen Campbell (Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubb are now too tacky) and hiding their racism behind code words. They have forfeited their style and their spirit, traded it all in on a color TV and Styrofoam beams for the den, and I find them about as exciting as reformed alcoholics. The book is intended more or less an epitaph to the good old boys.”
Hemphill and his first wife divorced in 1975. She took the children and returned to Birmingham. Hemphill’s drinking increased. Later that year, Hemphill served as a writer in residence at Florida A & M University.
In 1976 Hemphill married Susan Percy—a Decatur, Georgia, native--and they moved to San Francisco where he accepted a position as a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner. Living in California did not suit Hemphill and his new bride. Jimmy Carter was now the president. The south rose from the ashes, and Hemphill decided to move back to Atlanta in 1977.
He began working on a fiction novel about baseball based on his experiences in the minor leagues called Long Gone. “It took me four years off and on to learn how to write a novel which was Long Gone. But Korda rejected Long Gone. He told me he had nothing against short books—which he did. He was getting into that celebrity book shit…paying big money for crappy books. But the same day Sterling Lord, my agent, sold it to Viking. They fell in love with everything they’d seen and I already had the book written.”
Hemphill discussed Hollywood’s interest in adapting Long Gone to film. “When the novel came out, it got great reviews everywhere. One day this guy called saying he was Dustin Hoffman. I thought it was a friend playing a joke and I hung up the phone. The guy called back. It was Dustin Hoffman, but he ended up doing Tootsie…”
Long Gone, a close-to-the-bone story about America’s favorite past time seen in a foretelling business light…almost a prophecy of what was to become of major league baseball. HBO adapted the book to film during a time when they shot a “movie” a month. Long Gone served as one of the first films shot for the HBO series. Chicago actor William Peterson (To Live And Die In L.A., CSI and Manhunter) starred in Long Gone as Cecil Cantrell a 40-year old manager caught in a minor league conundrum between a love for the game and selling his soul to get ahead. As a longtime fan of Peterson, I asked Hemphill about the actor: “I met Peterson in Ibor City. It was Halloween and he was out all night having a helluva time. He was up at 6AM the next morning on location for three minutes of film. It was the scene they were trying to put the fix in.
“I’d met the actress from Long Gone, Virginia Madsen (Sideways), over the years and I’d say, ‘You’ll always be Dixie Lee Box to me (laughs)'. She loved it.”
Hemphill discussed how editorial surgery was performed on his dialogue for the Long Gone adaptation. “What they would do is two takes; first pitch of the game when the kid missed a foul ball. He kicks the ground and said for HBO, ‘Remember Cantrell’s rule—fuck em, if they can’t take a joke.’ Then they’d stop and say, ‘Let’s do one for TV, and he’d say, ‘To heck with them if they can’t take a joke.”
Hemphill expressed disappointments to me, “I get pissed off every year when Sports Illustrated or whoever lists the greatest baseball movies ever, and they never mention Long Gone because it was a cable HBO movie.”
Two years later, in 1981, MacMillan published Hemphill’s Too Old To Cry—arguably his best collection of articles. Hemphill feels Too Old To Cry is a bit stronger than his other collection of articles, The Good Old Boys.
Too Old Too Cry contains stories about minor league baseball, Roger Maris, the late Karl Wallenda, dirt racing in places like Waycross, Woodstock, Valdosta, Savannah and Jacksonville; NBA stories, Auburn football, fishing, writing, Merle Haggard, newspaper heroes, hitchhiking, Vietnam, whiskey, moon shiners, fatherhood and other memorable stories.
Hemphill wrote a sustaining perspective in Too Old To Cry that may echo many a great man: “Most of my best writing is ultimately sad. It is about lost dreams and excess baggage and divorce, whiskey, suicide, killing, and general unhappiness: a boy who died in my arms, in a bomb crater, while I wrote in Vietnam: an old lady who simply died of loneliness; a young couple with a child, stranded in a bus station; a pathetic kid from Tennessee who messed up a bank robbery in San Francisco.”
Meanwhile, Hemphill wrote another fiction novel called The Sixkiller Chronicles. The novel takes place in The Smoky Mountains during a time when not every rural home had electricity, but the radio lured even mountain folk to the beauty of technology. Sixkiller, like several of Hemphill’s great works, failed to fit a Hollywood framework due to its authentic southern quality. Although, the southern writers—the most difficult to please or impress—wrote praise for Hemphill’s work. James Dickey wrote of The Sixkiller Chronicles: “Mr. Hemphill’s mountain patriarch, Bluejay clay, is a powerful representative of one side of the intensifying struggle for the preservation of the Southern Appalachians and the ways of their people. So convincing is Hemphill’s presentation that one almost believes that the contractors who build ski resorts, the mining geologists, and vulgarians who turn his villages into alpine resorts have met their match. Would God it were so.”
Pat Conroy wrote of Hemphill’s novel: "The Sixkiller Chronicles is the crowning achievement of Paul Hemphill’s brilliant career. It is a love song to a disappearing America. In the world of American letters, Hemphill now owns that region along the Appalachian Mountains. It is a splendid work.”
Hemphill’s work classifies him as a literary troubadour. Jonathan Demme, whose work includes Neil Young’s Heart of Gold, Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia attempted to film The Sixkiller Chronicles into a three part series.
“He (Demme) was one of those who bought the rights and wanted to make a movie. They wanted to make Sixkiller Chronicles a three part. Demme was doing the writing and he just couldn’t make the third part work. He said, ‘We’ll have to make a two-parter out of it.’ I guess I learned from it about what would and wouldn’t work. I wrote that and wanted to get it off because I had my son here at my house. We were waiting to go out on the Appalachian Trail and goddam we finished it. We were on the way to Springer Mountain and we rode by the post office—the one down in Little Five Points (Atlanta) to mail the manuscript to New York.”
Hemphill and his son David began a hike on the Appalachian Trail to try and become reacquainted. The arduous trek took a toll on both of them. The seed of this hike served as the fulcrum for Hemphill’s next book, Me And The Boy (1986). By this time Hemphill quit drinking.
“Then we proceeded onto the trail. I had a lot on my plate. I mean, I had David. We were trying to get to know each other and he was 18 or 19 and I was an old fart trying to get over whiskey.”
For a couple of years, Hemphill searched for a worthy writing subject. Hemphill resorted to the wellspring of material from his youth when he went out on the road with his truck driving father. It’s essential to understand the relationship between father and son…the south began transforming…times change…he grew older and the south morphed into a generic regional identity. Even through serious tribulation, Hemphill never failed to pay homage to his family. In honor of his roots, he wrote another fiction novel called King of the Road about a 70 year old truck driver named Jake Hawkins who is determined to make one last haul from Alabama to Nevada.
The one and only Johnny Cash wrote this about King of the Road: “Jake Hawkins is a lot like my own dad was, and this book took me home. King of the Road is a southern masterpiece and one of the finest things I’ve ever read by any writer. I can’t wait to get some copies out to my friends.”
To earn respect among one’s peers cuts through all the other bullshit some civilian might say about your work. Any real artist knows this. The great writer Harry Crews said this about King of the Road: “Here’s a tale that starts in the gut but ultimately comes to live in the heart. I love the old man at the center of King of the Road. I love his courage, his spirit, and his determination to live his life listening only to the dictates of his own blood. Paul Hemphill is and has been for a long time one of the best reads in the country. Put your money down and pick up this book. You’ll not be sorry.”
Hemphill continued freelance writing between books. He explained his psychic weather during this time. “Well, by this time, I had to make a living and I got hooked up with Breneau College For Women up in Gainesville, Georgia, and I taught two classes a week. I had to get in the car on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I got pretty good money. The thing I was learning was if I did okay and didn’t need the money, I didn’t write books. I found that I’d always been like that. I had to write under the gun. I finished one book in eight years because it was King of the Road. I did it because I got great money. It was a good advance but then I took leave to take an apartment in Birmingham to write Leaving Birmingham.”
Hemphill’s book Leaving Birmingham: Notes of A Native Son documented the city’s racial violence…Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham jail…four young girls killed in a church bombing. The book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Hemphill talked about Leaving Birmingham: “I’d been getting reviews in places like The New York Times. It got a lot of good attention. I hadn’t been forgotten. It wasn’t like I quit writing.”
Hemphill began gaining steam in his writing in 1994. He epitomizes the ultimate professional—who regardless what others think of his work or dark personal circumstances, he continues pursuing the vision of his craft. He began developing ideas for his next book, Heart of the Game, published in 1996. During this time, Atlanta hosted the Olympics, and an electric air hovered over the city that summer. Hemphill resorted to his first love, baseball, as a subject. Hemphill explained his motive:
“I just started looking around and felt…see, it was 1994 and the baseball strike was coming on and I was pissed. I decided I wanted to write about the heart of the game. I wanted to find out from some kid in the minor league, making a $1000 a month. But the book sold about five or six thousand copies in hardback.”
After Heart of the Game, Hemphill ended his relationship with his longtime agent, Sterling Lord (who also served as Jack Kerouac’s agent). “Sterling was getting old, but shit, he was only 70 (laughs)—he’s damned near 90 now and still going. I had an idea over dinner with my new editor at Simon & Schuster—the one who done the baseball book. We started talking about Dixie Speedway and dirt tracks. He said, ‘Well, what about the big boys?’ I said NASCAR? And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ That’s when I got a kick under the table. So, it was a pretty good deal and I wrote that in exactly one year. After I wrote Wheels, I never went back to NASCAR.”
Hemphill continued searching for fiction ideas. He came across a story about a church burning in Montgomery, Alabama. This story served as the provenance for Hemphill’s next fiction novel titled, The Ballad of Little River. The writer explained the business circumstances surrounding the book which represents a tale of racial unrest in the rural south: “It was a real bad publishing deal with the wrong people. They didn’t do it right. They didn’t push it. They were busy solving their own problems, like deciding what kind of publishing house they wanted to be. It’s quite different now after all these years they’ve settled down and became a decent publishing house—but they weren’t like that when I did my contract there. It just never worked.”
Hemphill’s next book, Nobody’s Hero, told the story of a small-college All-American quarterback who falls from grace and must face the dark reality of a washed-up athlete. By this time, Hemphill went back to his longtime editor, Sterling Lord, but Nobody’s Hero didn’t sell.
“I just fired my editor David Black who made everybody else rich but me. I had the wrong guy representing me. He had no fucking idea what I was about—he didn’t know the south or anything. I thought Nobody’s Hero was a great novel, but it just died. It sold 800 copies.”
Another collection of Hemphill’s stories, Lost In the Lights, was published in 2003 by the University of Alabama Press. Lost In the Lights contains 15 stories culled from his best sports writing.
Hal Crowther—author of Cathedrals of Kudzu—wrote this about Lost In the Lights: “This is a blue-collar, blue highway, blues-in-the-back-of-the-bus side of the American sports obsession. The things Hemphill says about baseball, stock car racing, pro wrestling, and even roller derby are very topical, relevant to the evolution of much of this ‘rough South’ Sports entertainment. This is the ultimate underdog sports book, by a writer of real gifts and real empathy for these dreamers, losers and oddballs.”
During this period, Hemphill directed his writing to his once-again agent Sterling Lord whom Hemphill respected, and allowed the writer to tell his story. "I got Sterling back and he said, ‘Give me a couple of pages.’ I thought a couple? Hell, my other editor always wanted 100 pages. He drove his clients crazy with those things. I gave him a couple of pages about my Daddy and Hank Williams. He called that afternoon. He told me to write 15 pages and we were gonna go for some big money. I got four publishers interested. Knopf and other people I’d never heard of wanted the book. Finally, Viking co-opted everyone else. They said ‘Don’t change a word'. Bingo. I got almost one hundred thousand dollars total advance. They got me rights in the U.K. and spoken rights…it was the best deal I ever got.”
Lovesick Blues, Hemphill’s book on Hank Williams proves a classic. Hemphill provides a concise and insightful biography on the father of country music. Hemphill details parallels in growing up in Williams’ home state of Alabama. Hemphill writes about being 13 years old riding with his father on a 1,500 mile truck drive when he first heard Hank Williams.
Hemphill explained how truckers listened to all sorts of radio stations from Nashville, Des Moines, Cincinnati and XERF—a 500,000 watt outlaw station in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico.
The book traces Williams’ early years through his famous days at the Opry until his last ride on New Years Day 1952 in a powder blue Cadillac. I mentioned to Hemphill Lovesick Blues earned great reviews. He responded, “Great reviews all over the place. It sold about 20,000 copies which was the breaking point as far as Viking was concerned. They weren’t going to put any more money into it—they were quite happy to stop right there at 20,000 copies of hardcover sold. That would earn them their one-hundred grand…”
I watched Long Gone when I was 18 and I sought Hemphill’s work since then. I tracked down copies of The Nashville Sound, Long Gone and The Good Old Boys. As the years passed I collected his other works. Upon Swampland’s inception, I decided to write about Hemphill and his work since he epitomizes a true southern artist.
After a tortuous summer, Paul Hemphill defeated throat cancer. He completed a coffee table book this year about Auburn football to be published in time for the 2008 season. We met several times at Manuel’s. On this warm November morning, Hemphill informed me he was planning to write a book about his cancer scare. His working title is Dancing With Joe Camel.
As the brisk wind blew red, gold and yellow leaves down the street, I tried to nail down the south's transition through the years. Hemphill's been a customer of Manuel's Tavern for 40 years. These Atlanta streets endured much change in the last five decades. After we finished our hearty breakfast, I asked him about the most significant change in the south during his career, and Hemphill revealed to me “I can’t believe I’m here to watch the death of newspaper…”