“We lost a good one.” When I opened my email Monday morning, that was the subject line on a message from Nashville book publicist Tom Robinson about the death of his friend, writer Paul Hemphill. An acclaimed columnist for the Atlanta Journal in the 1960s, Hemphill went on to write 16 books, chronicling the South in essay collections, novels, memoirs and biographies. We asked Tom to share his personal recollections of the soft-spoken writer who captured the South in a way few others have:
Getting hooked on Paul Hemphill
By Tom Robinson
Paul Hemphill has been my literary hero since 39 years ago when I first opened the cover of his debut bestseller The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music. Last weekend he passed away in Atlanta.
For the last 30 years “Hemp” allowed me to be one of his many friends. For that I’ll always be thankful. He could weave sentences about the blue-collar South like no one else, because he was blue-collar South. That ability to lay it on paper grabbed so many of us and thank goodness we never shook it. Hemphill’s wheelhouses were the south, sports (with heavy emphasis on his Auburn War Eagles and Atlanta Braves) and country music. “I’m talking REAL country music,” Hemphill would say. “Country music has steel guitars, fiddles and singers with names like Hank, Merle, George, Kitty, Patsy and Loretta.”
So it came as no shock when about six years ago I answered my phone and the familiar soft voice said, “Tom, it’s Hemp. I’m going to write a book on Hank Williams. I think it can work, don’t you?” Work? There was no one better to connect the dots on this one. Hemp was born and raised in Alabama, Williams home state, when the country singer was alive and making his mark on the world. Like Hank, he’d also experienced broken dreams, divorce and a bout with alcohol, all well chronicled by the author. The big difference was that with the love of his wife Susan, Hemphill lived to conquer his demons and saw his life and writing age like fine wine.
“Now I’m planning to come to Nashville and do some serious research,” he said. “I need your help.”
My assignment was to get him together with Don Helms, Hank’s steel guitar player. A quick call to Helms and it was arranged, with a bit of a twist. “Tom, do I need to pull out the steel for Paul?” Helms asked. I’d been to Don’s house when he’d favor guests with those Hank hits, like he did on the historic record sessions. It was incredible how he could still make the lonesome steel cry. “That’d be great,” I said. “We’ll surprise him.”
When the interview day came, Don greeted us at the door and led us to the den, where Hemphill looked with astonishment at the double-neck instrument as Don sat behind it. “Have a seat gentlemen,” Helms offered. We did and he gracefully started in on the chords and reeled off many standards … Cold, Cold Heart, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, Your Cheating Heart. The Hank hit parade continued with Hemp grinning like a kid at Christmas. “This is the real deal,” Hemphill whispered to me. As Helms played on the author leaned in, right ear almost touching the chords, making sure not to miss a single, haunting note. The entire time he grinned. “That’s the sound,” Hemp said nodding his head. “Just like on the records.”
He wrote the book, Lovesick Blues, and it earned praise from reviewers across the country. Once again, Hemp nailed it.
Last summer we lost Don Helms. Now Paul Hemphill. Wednesday at his memorial service in Decatur, Georgia, they will read the prologue he penned for Lovesick Blues. In it Hemp reflects on hearing Williams for the first time on radio while riding across the country as a kid with his truck-driving dad. As Hemphill’s loving wife Susan put it, “It’s only right that Paul gets the final word.” Amen to that.
Tom Robinson is a Nashville resident and author/book publicist and media consultant. He also produces the monthly online column, The Author Forum, at BookPage.com.