Monday, November 28, 2016

Everything but the Squeal by Timothy Hallinan – Book Review

In Everything But the Squeal, Timothy Hallinan continues with the third in his (so far) six book series written toward the end of the last century. (Everything but the Squeal by Timothy Hallinan, perhaps best offered as part of this three volume set.) Simeon Grist has decided to take on the task of finding thirteen year old runaway Aimee Sorrell, whose mid-western parents have sought him out. Facing a defensive and obviously dysfunctional family, Simeon is nevertheless moved to accept.

In a wonderful set-piece chapter featuring Simeon's group of aging, perpetual graduate student friends from his university days, Hallinan creates a picture of the family as a social construct based on the need of medieval families to produce a number of children to survive rather than the romanticized family unit of American kids of the late twentieth century. Halinan's willingness to take his time letting his point emerge combines with his quick stiletto-like humor effectively turns a history lesson into far-from-sober analysis of problem families. This kind of scene is only one of the elements making Timothy Hallinan a master of detective fiction rising to the quality of real literature. His mixture of an action oriented, cerebral hero with twisted, cruel, and dangerous villains provides readers with opportunities to think and to experience the vicarious thrill of the chase as well as plenty of action filled gore and child exploitation.

As the story emerges, a missing thirteen year old girl, an unhappy twisted, family, a body in the morgue, and a long weary search, so do the themes that Hallinan chases in each of the three series he's written or writes – the difficulty of developing and maintaining healthy relationships, particularly family ones, in a world gone wrong in so many ways. His children spark with mordant humor, quick wit, lively intelligence, and deep wounds. His heroes would be knights in shining armor if they weren't a part of the world they wish to drive out of the dangerous perimeter they inhabit between themselves and a strong, solid family. Whether its Junior Bender, Poke Rafferty, or Simeon Grist, the hero is smart, witty, resourceful, and gifted, but always flawed in ways that make sure he will get himself into trouble.

This is the third Simeon Grist novel I've read, of six published at the end of the last century. It contains more suspenseful violence than either of the two newer series do, while setting the stage for both the succeeding characters. Grist is a perpetual student holding several advanced degrees which do him absolutely no good in terms of his ability to earn a living, but make his insights into the dark world he often inhabits more likely to tweak the mind as his adventures stimulate the fear and horror hormones. Meanwhile the mordant, literary wit flies, and anyone who can enjoy the wrenching dislocation will glory in Hallinan's prose as well as his taught plots and quick moves. In Nothing but the Squeal another Hallinan concern is strongly on display, child sexual exploitation. It has struck me that Hallinan's treatment of children, especially the dialogue, reminds me of Robert A. Heinlein, the great science fiction writer. His adolescents, too, are smart as whips, courageous, adventurous, and trouble prone. Hallinan's are more haunted by the dangers for children present in today's world.

Timothy Hallinan

Hallinan's writing is highly cinematic. In fact, given the breadth and quality of his writing and the almost script-like dialogue and description he writes, it surprises me that none of his characters have made it to the big screen, let alone today's always voracious television market. His writing meets my primary criterion for excellence, it has what musicians call “drive.” It draw the reader's sensibility onward fully engaging all the senses and managing responses without too obvious writerly tricks. He's a master of character reveal through taught dialogue. He's patient enough to linger over setting, using plenty a descriptive passages to capture local atmosphere without ever allowing the tale to drag. vulnerable, and powerful. From Space Cadet, a young adult novel to Stranger in a Strange Land, an important book to the counter culture of the 1960's, Heinlein dominated my adolescence and later. I think that his writing still animates much of my own thinking. Like Heinlein, Hallinan creates his own world, peoples it with sometimes outrageous, but always believable characters, and creates highly memorable situations in which to test their mettle.

Reading in the Simeon Grist series not only provides bang-up thrillers a little more rough and raw than Hallinan's later books, it also shows shadows hinting of the characters to come, in the two later series. Both Poke Rafferty and Junior Bender, a writer of travel books and a thief, have their genesis in Simeon Grist, a private detective caught in perpetual land between his yearning for action and his capacity for deep thought. What better intellectual and emotional place to put a private detective could there be? I highly recommend Everything but the Squeal by Timothy Hallinan both for its stand alone excellence and for its importance in helping readers capture the totality of his work as writer.

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Friday, November 18, 2016

In the Country of Country by Nicholas Dawidoff - Book Review

In the Country of Country by Nicholas Dawidoff (Random House, 1997, 365 pp., $18.95/14.99) explores country music from its earliest recognized and recorded luminaries (The Carter Family & Jimmy Rodgers) through the great periods of classic and outlaw country to the newest musicians on tour at the time of the book's writing in the late 1990's. The book is filled with anecdotes that surprise and enlighten. For instance, Dawidoff recounts a story heard from Charlie Louvin about a boy near a show in Dyess Arkansas who showed him to the nearest bathroom. On the way back, Charlie ate a soda cracker. When the boy asked him why, he said, “To keep from starving.” The kicker: that's why Johnny Cash ate crackers before every performance. Such connections between the early practitioners who emerged in the 1940's and great stars of the last decades of the twentieth century appear everywhere. While I read the book, I listened to recordings of the subjects of each chapter, thereby enriching my experience and deepening my understanding.
Individual chapters focus on major figures in the development of country music, including bluegrass. Dawidoff interviewed all of his subjects, including Bill Monroe, Earle Scruggs, George Jones, Kitty Wells, Doc Watson, Buck Owens, EmmyLou Harris, and more) except Jimmie Rodgers, Sara Carter, and Patsy Cline, all of whom were deceased at the time of the writing. One other luminary is strangely not included, although his name crops up in almost every chapter: Hank Williams. Perhaps Williams, who died in 1953) was simply too big and dominating a character to be adequately covered in simply a chapter.

It's a joy to read a book about music by a writer who's taking on a subject rather than a fan who decided to write. The use of lively imagery, thoughtful narrative, careful structure and apt description raise Dawidoff's writing above the pedestrian, bringing life to the characters who've enriched country music for nearly a hundred years. Published in 1998, the book uses living artists and extensive interviews with those who knew the subjects, bringing them to life in a way no other book I've read has managed.

In the chapter on Doc Watson, the actual voices of Tom Ashley and Ralph Rinzler give the descriptive passages a greater reality that brings Watson's background and development as a performer to life. Insights, such as the fact that Doc grew up with music he heard on an old gramophone and the radio differentiated his music from that of others who learned theirs in church or on the front porch, giving it the distinctive precision that other country and bluegrass musicians of the time lacked. Such connections, found in each chapter distinguish Dawidoff's pellucid writing as they permeate Watson's playing.

The Johnny Cash chapter examines the role of celebrity on productive song writing along with his image, life, and the road with comments from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. In the George Jones chapter, I learned more about the reality of Jones in one short chapter than I did in the entire Grand Tour bio by Rich Kienzle. Part of this comes from the quality of Dawidoff's writing, and I think also from the distance he achieves by not being fully tied to the music community. While the book is often admiring, it never falls into hero worship as it keeps a clear, though sympathetic but never sycophantical eye on the character and development of each person in every profile.

Dawidoff gives attention to the social and geographical mass movements of the mid- and late-twentieth century. Often, this is a book of displacement and connection. Most of the singers profiled came to stardom in music when they brought their music to honky tonks, theaters, and recording studios far removed from the southern poverty so many of them were born into during the depression. Even performers, like Rose Maddox and Buck Owens, who were from California, are the of product of southern migrations to places where they or their parents could find more lucrative employment or escape the rigors of depression era farming conditions. His insights punctuate and extend the insight that today's country musicians don't share that experience, leading their music to go into other directions, because it has often come from less challenging circumstances. EmmyLou Harris represents a changing voice and sensibility in country music. Discussing her view of country's past and future, she says, “We're bringing a different experience to it, and that's right. Mimicking the past because the past is a safe bet is the worst thing to do.”

Nicholas Dawidoff

Nicholas Dawidoff is the author of six books. One of them, The Fly Swatter, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and another, In the Country of Country, was named one of the greatest all-time works of travel literature by Conde Nast Traveller. His first book, The Catcher Was A Spy: The Mysterious Life Of Moe Berg was a national bestseller and appeared on many 1994 best book lists. His latest book, Collision Low Crossers: Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football was published in 2014. A graduate of Harvard University, he has been a Guggenheim, Civitella Ranieri and Berlin Prize Fellow, and is a contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and the American Scholar. The fact that he chooses a wide range of topics, including sports, family history, and country music suggests that Dawidoff brings broad experience to his writing, allowing unusual, piercing insights to emerge.

In the Country of Country by Nicholas Dawidoff (Random House, 1997, 365 pp., $18.95/14.99) was written after all the people he interviewed were well past their prime. Fortunately, he was able to interview them in their own contemporary setting before they left us. He portrays a time when what so many people today call “real” country was still a close memory, even while it had been replaced in popular music by rock and roll, contemporary pop, and hip hop. His vivid profiles, along with my listening contemporaneously to the performers themselves, helped clarify their place in music history for me and to realize why the music so many people seem to yearn for lies in our past rather than our present. I consider this book to be essential reading for anyone interested in the growth and development of country music. I read In the Country of Country in a used trade paperback version I bought through Thriftbooks.

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Friday, November 11, 2016

Without Mercy: A Body Farm Novel by Jefferson Bass: Book Review

Without Mercy: A Body Farm Novel by Jefferson Bass (William Morrow, Oct. 2016, 352 pages, $21.87/12.99) is a workmanlike detective procedural from the point of view of a forensic anthropologist named Bill Brockton, who teaches at the University of Tennessee. It surprises me that it's the tenth in a series, as it lacks spark and drive, although there's enough veracity in the story and goriness in the details to have kept me reading.

Dr. Bill Brockton, middle-aged Chairman of the UT Anthropology department, long widowed and, apparently, surrounded by younger, attractive, people who keep him socially and intellectually alive, introducing him to new technology as he mentors them in negotiating the halls of academia. He's an amiable, smart, sometime funny sometimes stodgy good man with the right inclinations but not fully up -to-date with the latest technology in his field or the world. As such, he's a person who benefits from the learning of others as he mentors them. Brockton comes across as slightly out of date, but always up to learning, filled with curiosity and broad experience.

Dr. Brockton (almost always using his title as a shield and a billboard) along with his graduate assistant Miranda, who's also his tutor in the ways of the modern world, is called to drive east from Knoxville into Smoky Mountain hollers to investigate a body found by the local sheriff. They discover a badly marred skeleton (the stuff of forensic anthropologists) chained to a tree where a worn path littered with empty food tins marks the torture that must have taken place there. As they examine the scene and the desiccated skeleton, the possibility emerges that there may have been a hate crime here.

Forensic evidence leads Brockton and Miranda to Montgomery Alabama where they visit with Laurie Wood at the Southern Poverty Law Cente who introduces them to white supremacist people and organizations using real people and incidents as examples. I googled a few, just to check, but spent little time in research, because I didn't want to get connected to this particular craziness in Google's mind. It may be too late, which raises the question of whether there can be too much verisimilitude in background info for a crime novel. Sadly, but truly, it also made the book suddenly more intriguing as a mystery and as regards character development. Meanwhile, a convict, imprisoned for twenty years because of evidence Brockton developed, engineers a spectacular and gory escape.

Whether the tone is generally stuffy because that's who Bill Brockton is or because it reflects the writers themselves and their approach to cooperating in writing, I cannot say. Nevertheless, Brockton remains somewhat distanced from the events surrounding him, despite his being central to the plot and the tension the authors seek to develop. At times the narrative seems poised to take off, but as often as not it deflates. When I read thrillers, there often comes a time when I simply can't stop reading because the tension drives me forward. Or, sometimes, I need to put the book down for a few minutes or hours just to maintain some sort of equilibrium, allowing the tension to recede. Neither response was triggered by this novel for me.

Jon Jefferson & Dr. Bill Bass
Jefferson Bass

Jonathan Bass is the pseudonym for the collaboration between professional writer Jon Jefferson and forensic anthropologist Bill Bass, who is a longtime professor of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee (as is the Dr. Bill Brockton character), and the developer of the real-life laboratory there which has become known as the Body Farm, featured in novels by other writers and a non-fiction book by Jefferson.

I found Without Mercy: A Body Farm Novel by Jefferson Bass (William Morrow, Oct. 2016, 352 pages, $21.87/12.99) to have an intriguing premise which somehow failed to fully live up to the possibilities it suggested. While the villain was sufficiently villainous, he didn't scare me as much as I felt he should, leading to my disappointment in the novel. Perhaps this series has worn out its welcome, as it is the tenth in a series I had never before encountered. Apparently, the authors agree with me, because, in their afterward, they announce a hiatus of undesignated duration for the series. I read the book on my Kindle App as an Advanced Readers Copy supplied by the publisher through Edelweiss: Above the Treeline.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Tennessee Fall Homecoming 2016 - Saturday & Sunday: Review

The lovely campus of the Museum of Appalachia can accommodate thousands of people without ever seeming to be stretched. With woodsy paths leading to old homes and farm building, four stages, vendors and demonstrators spread across the grounds, and food vendors offering up traditional southern cooking both traditional and more modern, the museum combines living history with living, changing music to appeal to general tourists as well as traditional and more contemporary music lovers. With bands ranging from local family bands hardly known beyond nearby farms and small towns to national touring bluegrass bands arriving in large tour buses, there's plenty for everyone.

David West & Ciderville Folk

The Stewart Family

Mornings at Tennessee Fall Homecoming begin early, with the first band hitting the stage at 9:00 AM and music continue for a couple of hours before the first band one might see regularly at a festival comes to the stage. While locally known on Knoxville TV, at local granges and get togethers, these bands are not why people buy tickets to this event. Nevertheless, they demonstrate one of the charms that old-time and bluegrass music represent: the direct connection between home/church/family/rural culture and professional touring musician. The line is direct. Furthermore, those people who perform are also ones who attend and support festivals, jam until two in the morning, and love the music. They keep tradition alive.

Dobro Champion - Johnny Bellar

Bellar is a well-known and respected Dobro player, whose greatest contributions have been studio work as a session player as well as touring with the Stonemans and various country bands.

Matt Foster

Foster sings contemporary singer/songwriter material on a far from contemporary instrument, the open back banjo.  His style and his music perhaps come across more effectively in smaller, more intimate venues where the content and style will be more fully appreciated.

Mike Bentley & Cumberland Gap Connection

The Stewart Family

Uncle Doc Wilhite

Uncle Doc Wilhite seeks to keep the legacy of Uncle Dave Macon, early Grand Old Opry Star, alive.

Uncle Shuffalo & His Haint Holler Hootenanny

In the Museum Gift Shop

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers at Stage 2

Chris Jones, also known for his work as a radio host on Sirius/Xm radio and a weekly columnist for Bluegrass Today, has been the long-time front man for his own band, too. Their winning combination includes classic bluegrass and contemporary songs written from within the band.

Chris Jones

Jon Weisberger

Grinding Sugar Cane for Syrup

Dale Ann Bradley

Dale Ann Bradley, five time IBMA Female Vocalist of the the Year, appeared for two too brief segments, along with frequent member of her band, Phil Leadbetter, who was here with two bands, while fans celebrated his victory of cancer after five years of concern for him.

Phil Leadbetter

Museum Founder - John Rice Irwin

Each year at the Tennessee Fall Homecoming a brief time is set aside to remember the music greats and museum benefactors and workers who have passed on during the year. John Rice Irwin often speaks about their importance to the museum and their role in helping realize his lifelong dream.

John Rice Irwin, Cindy Baucum
Museum President: Elaine Irwin Meyer

Bill and the Belles: An Up-and-Coming Band

Offering traditional music with a strong whiff of innovation...a refreshing band.

Kris Truelson

Grace van't Hof

The Barefoot Movement
Warming Up Back Stage

And On-Stage

Tommy Norris & Alex Conerly

Flatt Lonesome at the Cantilever Barn (3)

...And the Main Stage (1)

Charli & Buddy Robertson

Flatt Lonesome, a young, increasingly strong band featuring a unique blend of bluegrass, country, and gospel music was a big winner at this year's IBMA Awards show. 

Paul Harrigil, Dominic Illingworth & Kelsi Robertson Harrigill

IBMA Executive Director: Paul Schiminger

Many Attendees Come in Costume

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper
at the Cantilever Barn

and Main Stage
Michael Cleveland

Joshua Richards

Nathan Livers

Audience at Cantilever Barn

...and the Main Stage

Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time

Known by his fans and friends simply as Cord, Larry Cordle is an iconic song writer for both country and bluegrass music as well as a first rate performer who deserves to be seen and heard much more widely. When you get a chance, don't miss this straight ahead singer with a fine back-up band. 


Jody King

Kim Gardner

Chris Harris

Kristin Scott Benson & Cindy Baucom 

The Grascals
John Bryan

Singer/Guitarist John Bryan seems to be the last piece in the rejuvenation of The Grascals, noted for their allegiance to the Osborne Brothers as well as a raft of more contemporary story songs and their high energy performances. The Grascals are entertaining and there's always lots going on during one of their shows. 

Kristin Scott Benson

Terry Eldredge

Danny Roberts

Adam Haynes

John Bryant and Terry Smith

Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out

Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out is one of the country's most popular, well-regarded, and successful bluegrass bands. Currently on their 25th anniversary tour, their music is familiar and well-loved to bluegrass fans everywhere. 

Russell Moore

Wayne Benson

Justen Haynes

Keith McKinnon

Jerry Cole

Saturday at Tennessee Fall Homecoming enjoyed fine weather and a good crowd with first rate bands. 

Clinch Valley Bluegrass
Early Morning on Stage 4

Cozy Fire Back Stage

Mountain Music Ambassadors from Morrehead State

The Price Sisters with Faculty Advisor

Dale Jett & Hello Stranger

Dale Jett - Grandson of Sara Carter - Link to the Roots

Annual Antique Tractor Exhibit

Let's Take a Look at that Honey
Paul Schiminger & Stuart Wyrick


Flashback is a reunion band of the 1990's band put together to recreate J.D. Crowe and the New South with Stuart Wyrick playing the banjo in the place of the retired Crowe. The band is lively, tuneful, and offering new bluegrass in addition to the material from a couple of decades ago. 

Phil Leadbetter

Curt Chapman & Richard Bennett

Don Rigby & Stuart Wyrick

Cindy Baucom - Emcee

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Hall of Famer Doyle Lawson, during his long career,  played with some of the most important and influential bands in bluegrass history - Jimmy Martin, The Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe & the New South - before founding his own band, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, which has been a leader in bluegrass and bluegrass gospel music for a generation. He has trained literally dozens of musicians who have gone on to be leaders in their own right. His performances are always balanced and tuneful, combining wholesome entertainment with fervent gospel proclamation. His Sunday performance at Tennessee Fall Homecoming offered him up at his best. 

Doyle Lawson 

Dustin Pyrtle

Josh Swift

Eli Johnston

Joe Dean & Doyle Lawson

Steven Burwell

Dustin Pyrtle & Josh Swift

Mountain Faith

Mountain Faith leapt to prominence because of its success on the summer television series America's Got Talent, where they made it to the semi-finals, and their story. The band, under the leadership of father Sam McMahan work during the week at the family's tire store in the Smoky Mountains while testifying to their faith through their performances on the weekend. They're both attractive and fun. A good strong band to end the Fall Homecoming with. 

Summer McMahon

Cory Piatt

Braydon McMahan

Luke Dotson

Summer McMahan

The Tennessee Fall Homecoming is, perhaps, the best example of a music festival and cultural tourism to be found. Combining some of the best in bluegrass bands with significant local and regional musical input leaning towards old-time and traditional music with the culture, art, architecture and food of Appalachia, it provides three days filled with music and fun. Put it on your calendar for next October.