I ran across this novel and right away I admired the concept. A Rockabilly Crime novel set in Memphis! Memphis is colossal in my mind, it's part of Tennessee but completely otherworldly to my East Tennessee youth. It's the most Cosmopolitan of Tennessee cities to me. Nashville is a banking town. You'd never call Nashville funky or soulful. But Memphis? Sun Records is ground zero to so many of my favorite artists, from blues and country, and it epitomizes grand goals of the American experience. Beale Street at its best is visceral blues. Besides music you have William Eggleston, Carroll Cloar and the weird art scene that revolved around the city. There was a ubiquitous strangeness. Truly, I would have picked Memphis to start my crime novel writing but I would have felt weird not living there and be afraid I wouldn't get it right. You know how it is chasing the ever elusive real.
Somehow through the twists and turns of the internet, I'll blame twitter, I ran across Descending Memphis by Robert R. Moss. I dug its verve right off. The author, did his homework and dove into a Memphis set in the mid 1950's.
It's written in the Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross MacDonald school of noir though our gum shoe isn't a former cop or Pinkerton man; Tommy Rhodeen is a Rock 'n' Roller who has decided while biding his shot at the big time to become a sleuth of sorts, chasing down missing items for interested parties. Besides writing a cool book, Robert is a great guy. When I reached out to him he responded with some insight into his process. Here we have distilled it into an interview format.
So I always like novels that are set in the past, that give you a sense of place. What sort of research did you do to get the time and place down for Memphis?
More than anything, I needed to speak with people who lived in Memphis and Nashville in the 1950s, and I was lucky to get introduced to several such folks. Two were Memphis historians, Gene Gill and David French. Both grew up there, and Gene's about the same age as my protagonist. I looked through their online archive and asked them a lot of questions. They helped me get many esoteric details right, like the odd liquor laws in Memphis back then. I also got hold of Colin Escott (Million Dollar Quartet) and Craig Morrison (Go Cat Go!), and asked them about rock 'n' roll musicians and venues in the '50s since they've not only studied the music, they formed relationships with many of these guys.
What did you do in regards to Nashville?
I couldn't find anything on rock 'n' roll in Nashville in 1956, and John Rumble of the Country Music Hall of Fame confirmed that while the studios may have recorded out-of-town rock ‘n’ roll artists, there was no local Nashville rock 'n' roll scene in the clubs back then. I used that fact in the story. Mr. Rumble also introduced me to Ruth White, who got into the music industry in 1947 and worked on Music Row. Ruth remembers everything and everyone, and she filled me in on the honky tonks and provided insight into Nashville of the 1950s as two separate music cities: one white and one black.
How did you approach the racial divide of Memphis during that time? I'm sure there's a mountain of material to go through.
To get the race relations part of the story right, I wanted to also speak with black people who lived through segregation. I met an older black man named Abdul Amin. He grew up in West Memphis, just across the river. He changed his name, I believe sometime in the 1960s or '70s. Anyhow, Abdul read my manuscript and suggested changes to more accurately show the black experience of the time.
That's fantastic that you got some firsthand input. I think reading all the books in the world doesn't go as far as talking to someone who really knew the place. Had skin in the game as it were. That being said, were there books you dug into for the vibe of the times?
Yes, I read several books, both non-fiction and fiction, while writing mine. I also read the accounts of blacks dealing with Jim Crow, including a book jointly written by Ruth White and R&B legend, Ted Jarrett, called You Can Make It If You Try. It describes Ted's experiences, starting with growing up on a farm where he was pretty much persecuted by his stepfather, a sharecropper, who tried to prevent him from developing his talent for writing and music. That very much informed one of my characters, Harold P. Washington.
Other books I read focused on early rock 'n' roll, like Craig Morrison's Go Cat Go! and Rockabilly: A Forty-Year Journey by Billy Poore. The Secrets of the Hopewell Box helped me understand corruption in Tennessee, in this case, Nashville. I also read Cormac McCarthy's Suttree and several of his other books that take place in eastern Tennessee. I realize Appalachia and The Delta are entirely different worlds, I think the only thing I took from McCarthy is the term 'splo for moonshine whisky and some of the way in which Tommy Rhodeen experiences the more sinister qualities of Nashville, which I relocated from McCarthy's Knoxville to existing places in Music City. I don't mean specific events in McCarthy's novel, more of a feeling than anything.
Elvis sort of hovers in the background of your story, but you chose to feature Johnny Burnette,
Charlie Feathers, and some other lesser-known guys who helped start the rockabilly sound. Why was that, and how did you get into rockabilly in the first place?
When I was a kid, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis and Buddy Holly were all lumped together as Oldies Music. It wasn't until I was 16 and started going to see local bands in the Washington, D.C. area that I learned the difference. I was underage when I first saw Tex Rubinowitz at a club called One Flight Up, and that was the first time I'd seen rockabilly played live. Robert Gordon, who grew up in the same town I did, also played a lot of shows in the D.C. area and, like Tex, he was getting airplay on WHFS. It was around this time that I started playing in bands, which gave me an appreciation of the struggle musicians go through. I wanted Tommy Rhodeen to show that struggle, in addition to everything else he goes through.
As far as Elvis, he's the elephant in the room. You know that fistfight Elvis got into at a gas station really happened, although it was several months after my story takes place. The reason I put guys like Charlie Feathers, Eddie Bond and Johnny Burnette in my novel is to show just how far Tommy would have to climb as a musician. Elvis and, to some extent, Johnny Cash, are in an entirely other league. Tommy Rhodeen is an underdog, and his is the kind of story I want to tell.
So there you have it. You can pick up Descending Memphis at Parnassus Books here in Nashville. If you're not in Nashville, please check with your local store. Located below are some indie bookstores that carry the book. Check below to see if it's in your area!
The Booksellers at Laurelwood, Memphis
Skylight Books, Los Angeles
Upshur Street Books, Washington, D.C.
Atomic Books, Baltimore
Another Read Through, Portland
Couth Buzzard Books, Seattle
PJ Boox, Fort Myers