Thursday, April 23, 2009

Potato(e) hole.

Remember when Republican Veeps were basically harmless?

Yankee translation: a secret hiding place in the ground, often under the floorboards of a plantation shack where a slave would store some extra food, aka A TATER. I'll do a proper review of this fine new album by Booker T. later. Just know standing in for the MGs are the Drive-By Truckers. And Neil Young lays down some incredible guitar solos in an occasionally incredible 5 guitar assault (Booker T., Patter Hood, Mike Cooley, John Neff, and Neil Young). Yowzah! Now that's what I call music. Plus a lot of fun covers: OutKast, DBTs, and Tom Waits. Produced by Foo Fighter's guy, Rob Schnapf.

But the title track provides a musical clue about today's entry, a discussion of Rick Bragg's presentation at Mississippi State University's Mitchell Memorial Library for the annual Dessert Theater fundraiser. You all know Rick Bragg as a famously hilarious and heartfelt best-selling memoirist of rough and tumble family life in the rural South, specifically NE Alabma, more specifically Possum Trot just outside Jacksonville, in works like (cf. All Over But The Shoutin' and Ava's Man). I first came to know Rick Bragg as a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter/columnist for The New York Times, who happened once to write about a folk ad area near and dear to my heart: the oystermen and women of Franklin County Florida in general and East Point and Apalachicola, specifically. That's all that needs to be said on that topic. If you don't think stringers are valuable working class folk, ask Dan Rather about his career break. What I was unaware of was that Rick now has a new third (or is it fourth?) career as Professor of Writing in the Journalism Department a scant 89 miles SE of Starkville at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Apparently he does know the meaning of another Booker T. track, "Pound It Out"!

The Dessert Theater was held in a nicely appointed John Grisham Room on the 3rd floor of the library. Round tables with white tablecloths and low mood lighting aided and abetted by the odd candle set the tone for a special evening. There's a nice linkage there. John was born in Jonseboro, Arkansas, the sight of a much later tragedy we all remember, perhaps from Mr. Bragg's reportage for The New York Times as a national correspondent based in Atlanta.

Here's Rick prior to speaking sitting next to Starkville maven, Elizabeth Gwen. Pretty well preserved for a centurion! Yes, she was a High Fashion model in Manhattan in the 20s!! She remains a gracious hostess, proud supporter of MSU academics in general and the English Department in particular (whom her late husband served well and long), and a lovely dinner companion.

We talked about all kinds of interesting things, the best kind of BBQ and its availability in Memphis and T-town. I'm glad to report Bragg properly wants a wet rib and his wife understand the need for low and slow cookin'. He then nervously talked about how modern YouTube, cellphone camera (read and blogging culture (Heh Heh) had in a way destroyed readings because authors felt less free to fully express themselves less a clip be taken out of context (translation: Karl Rove's basic playbook for 12+ years).

Soon it was time for the main event, Rick talking and reading from his third best-selling memoir, The Prince of Frogtown, about his father.

Bragg talked quite a bit extemporaneously, highlighting his ascent from that birthplace of gifted "Celtic fringe" storytellers, the Appalachian foothills. He even gesticulated to great effect.

Eventually he turned the night into a more traditional "reading." Funnily enough this act was prefaced by an even better story which highlights the man's essential qualities. He briefly left the podium and walked to the Barnnes & Noble table full of stacks of all three paperback memoirs and grabbed one to read from. He's stopped taking his own books to readings because
I always end up giving them away to some homeless person. You see in a big city you often get the Homelsss at readings because it a clean, well lighted place [well those weren't his exact words], usually warm and often with some free food. I'm living a dream no based on where I come from and what I write about. How could I begrudge someone so much worse of than me the pleasure of a book?
Then he read a story about his stepson with his wife's editorial "control" in plain view. It was a bravura performance!

Finally he took questions. Maridith asked the first one, a beaut reconfiguring the age old chestnut about whether or not there is still an essentially Southern literary quality. Three things stood out about Bragg's answer. It was long and well formulated. He was unafraid to display the courage of his convictions by naming names (though given his basically sweet-natured disposition he wasn't calling anybody out), and his anthracite-hard focus on "class" as the defining element of said culture was profound. No more needs be said about point one. Two: He trotted out several of this blog's personal faves, so who I am kidding when I say he, of course, knew what he was talking about. He did, you know! ;^)

Run don't walk to a bookstore near you and pick up a copy of Ron Rash, Serena. I was also moved to hear him talk abut Larry McMurtry and call Lonesome Dove (the book not the mini-series mind~!) one of the great novels of American literature. What Bragg didn't focus on is the fact that LM is arguably the greatest bookman in America today. Do yourself a favor; find a copy of this. The third point is so important to ponder, that I'll need another post to adequately deal with it. As a preview, a short honorary catalog of important Southern chroniclers of class: Faulkner, Hurston, Welty, Agee and Evans,WJ Cash, The Agrarians, Randal Jarrell, Otis Redding, The Drive-By Truckers, John Sayles, and Cynthia Cooper (even without an editorial board!). All I can add as a refrain:
I Don't Hate The South. I Don't Hate the South. I Don't Hate the South.
With the reading'done, it was time for the signin' as the fans lined up.

One special moment occurred when Rick signed former Athletic Director Larry Templeton's copy. Bragg wrote a famous SI piece about football in the South with a focus on the then new MSU Head Football Coach, Sylvester Croom. He also reminisced about enjoying a memorable beat down of the dread Gators on Scott Field.

Of course you're wondering: Yes, I got my picture taken with Mr. Bragg, and No, you're not going to see it. Life is like that sometimes.

1 comment:

Lisa W said...

Hey there:

I enjoyed your post about Rick Bragg.

We just finished celebrating his three memoirs for our community read here in Kalamazoo. He spoke on April 14 to 700-some people who could have sat there for hours.

I agree that Larry McMurtry is truly great.

-Lisa W.