Time used to move slower in the south. I remember in 2002 walking into the Slow Bar on a blazing afternoon in the summer and there was a band beating the hell out of Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips." It was Th' Legendary Shack Shakers, Nashville's Southern Gothic Tent Show Revival Punk Blues Band. Sometime later I met their frontman J.D. Wilkes and every time since that when we'd run into each other we'd talk about history and art. He ended up making a movie that came out in 2009 Seven Signs: Music, Myth, and the American South. Leaving the premier at The Belcourt Theatre, former spot for The Grand Ole Opry and driving through Vanderbilt the Ivy League of the south, everything around me spoke to the divide between the strange old south and the new banking and insurance south. Time flies don't it? Because that seems like a million years ago and Nashville is now under constant construction. In the Fall of 2015 J.D. Wilkes sent me a rough manuscript for a book of fiction he was working on. I was thrilled to read it and what struck me first was that he had pulled many of the great stories he had mined for his band's records and his movie together into a great book. It was like these tales had found a new, perfect home. Below is an interview by way of e-mail with J.D. who is out there on the road somewhere.
The Vine that Ate the South is coming out in March from Two Dollar Radio. This is your second book. Your first of pure fiction. Can you set it up right quick for the folks at home?
It's about two friends who take a bike ride down an old abandoned railroad bed into a strange southern forest, only to discover that many of the legends they grew up hearing come true once inside. It was a way that I could re-tell, in a novelized way, many of the "regional interest" legends that I love.
So we’ve talked before about the Foxfire books. Collections of rural stories, ways, legends, and it’s always been a key theme to your art to use stories from your own culture, your immediate culture where you grew up. Do you find old newspapers and archives or is it a-lot of oral history where you make recordings?
It's mostly a mix of local Kentucky and southern tales, ghost stories, oral history learned from family and friends, dreams and gleefully misremembered history. I still wanted to make each anecdote my own, which is in keeping with folk storytelling. (Reference the book South from Hell-Fer-Sartin to see how mangled stories can become with each re-telling. This especially happens in places of rural isolation...and with the old folks who preferred fun to historic accuracy.)
When you're collecting stories do you see an emotional core to each story? In that past narrative things that relate to key emotions. For instance, displacement or frustrations, or crimes of passion and love? If we can see ourselves in the past it helps ground us. As this would pertain to the book, are the characters in your book based on metaphors, composites, bits of old stories or are they based on you and your experience?
I suppose some of the tales serve to mirror the themes and quirks of the larger novel, but I didn't set out to consciously make that happen. First and foremost, I write to entertain myself. If a folk tale I use ended up acting as a metaphor it's by accident, or the unconscious product of my immersion while writing.
I am a fan of you Instagram weekly banjo tune, and how it displays your adherence to the stylings and nuance of the songs of the past. How do you think that related to working on your first book? Being aware of where the art that you practice has been is missing from a-lot of art in our immediate digital culture. And while there’s something to be said for just blindly going for it and rampaging a trail but at the same time you have to know the rules to break them?
There's a place for both tradition and rebellion. I love the old tales and superstitions, but if it's kept under glass like a lab specimen, no-one nowadays in our post-modern world will care. Folk culture should be enlivened by a sense of fun, not suffocated by the authenticity of competitive "history nerds".
With research you have all these documents, songs, movies, books, and as a storyteller you're being an archaeologist of sorts, preserving, trying to dig these things out of the dirt? But in the end it’s entertainment. On one hand you're defining yourself but on the other trying to leave crumbs for the future?
Yes, again I'm trying to take the old stories that I find fascinating and fuse them into something entertaining. To treat it too preciously is like being at an Old-time fiddlers' convention in 2017, where the joy of making music and dancing has been stripped away in favor of "period perfection". There's a fine line there between honoring the past and enlivening it, but again, reference South from Hell-Fer-Sartin to see how absolutely gonzo storytelling was when the tales were compiled 60 years ago in deep Appalachia.
I know for myself when I switched from songs to narrative I struggled. With songs I had a defined way of getting what I wanted and could get a few tunes pretty quick. Given how long you’ve been at it I know you have a song writing process. Did you take bits of your songwriting routine and use it for the book or did you have to build a new way to fashion a book?
I've been writing folktale-based songs for twenty years so it was no leap for me when I started the novel. Actually, I see the novel as the rightful place for my old song ideas and lyrics. For decades, I've only ever written about exactly what this new book is all about.
Did you write on tour?
Yes, I wrote on tour a lot. I even began writing the book while riding in a tour vehicle, barreling through a tunnel in the Norwegian mountains, at first just cracking my laptop open as a light source, ha!
Do you take materials with you to reference? Notes? Notebooks? Smoke signals? Are there any old prized collections of Kentucky Mayhem that you carry?
No I never bogged myself down with reference materials once I got started. I write to have fun, that's all. Fact-checking, when necessary for some particular passage, came later. By the way though, the Kentucky history books of Keven McQueen also showed me that history can be written about in a fun way. See The Kentucky Book of the Dead.
Boots Randolph is from Paducah. I know your song about Speedy Atkins. I’ve never been to Paducah but it sounds like it's redolent with vibe, you know? I’ve never been to Charlotte except the airport but that city strikes me as pretty boring but some places have this thing going on, like Clarksdale, Mississippi or Memphis. Maybe it’s the water? What gives certain southern towns that strange and wonderful mix?
The South has an intense past. The climate is conducive to agriculture, so it brought together simple farming folks from other lands and put them in a strange, larger nation that was quickly becoming industrialized.
Each pocket of the South, each town, had it varying degrees of poverty, community, religion and isolation. Dramatic elements there, right? So there's where your variety comes in, from Appalachia to the Delta.
When the Agrarian era ended, so many southerners lost that innate sense purpose. They lost their birthright of hard work, something that was (and still is) ancient and inborn in our blood memory. So The South was reconstructed in the image of the Industrial North and a mix of resentment, dejection and purposelessness set in. Now we have an obesity problem and have lost touch with our traditions.
However, the art, literature, music and cuisine that grew out of that old existential hot-house (and even out of forbidden, racial collaboration) is, I believe, the secret envy of the world today.
Alright ladies and gents, make sure to look at local bookstores to pick this title up. The book The Vine that Ate the South comes out today! I am really looking forward to digging into the finished product. It's a lovely package! 3/0 print on 10 PT C1S with French Flaps! The interior features drawings by J.D. himself. Buckle up baby, it's rolling ride.
Here in Nashville
or try the excellent East Side location
Or order it from the Publisher, Two Dollar Radio. Here's a rad video from them about the book.