Books
4:24 pm
Fri November 30, 2007

King of Country

The real king of country was, of course, Alabama's Hank Williams. To make sure the reader understands that his protagonist Bobby Lee Butler is not a thinly veiled Williams, the first scene in the novel is young Bobby Lee attending Hank's famous funeral in Montgomery. Bobby Lee is also from Georgiana, knew Hank, has the music in his blood, and is a skinny, poor, white boy with no power or connections in this world. Life will be hard.

Wayne Greenhaw, native Tuscaloosan, has been writing about Alabama in books of fiction and nonfiction since the publication of his first novel, The Golfer, at the age of 27. Now, eighteen books later, River City Publishing of Montgomery has released the paperback of King of Country (1994), extensively revised.

Greenhaw has a lifetime affection for country music and has, as they say, made a study of it. His next novel, in fact, is about Jimmie Rodgers, The Singing Brakeman. Greenhaw researched King of Country with the help of country stars Jim Reeves and Roger Miller, and you just know that had to be fun.

The real king of country was, of course, Alabama's Hank Williams. To make sure the reader understands that his protagonist Bobby Lee Butler is not a thinly veiled Williams, the first scene in the novel is young Bobby Lee attending Hank's famous funeral in Montgomery. Bobby Lee is also from Georgiana, knew Hank, has the music in his blood, and is a skinny, poor, white boy with no power or connections in this world. Life will be hard.

As the novel moves along, Bobby Lee slowly grows up, and it's not much fun. He is beaten by his drunken father, who deserts the family, is used by the local rich girl, Tommie Sue, and then, caught in the back seat of her Cadillac by her brother and a thoroughly vile deputy sheriff, is charged with statutory rape and sent to Medoc, the state reform school, in Mobile. In a more just world, Tommie Sue would have been arrested.

In these early chapters, I think, Greenhaw does his best work. Small-town life, Tommie Sue, the deputy, and life at Medoc are strong, believable chapters. Sex scenes are always difficult, but the teenage fumblings in the back seat of the car seem spot-on, hot and believable without becoming pornographic. Incarceration at Medoc is awful but falls nicely short of melodramatic. The superintendent of the reform school, Mr. Slade Lake, is just grotesque enough, "wearing jodhpurs and shiny brown leather boots. Between the fingers of his right hand he carried a long thin riding whip." Lake is obviously a monster and a pervert, even if he doesn't know it himself. While he threatens Bobby with dire punishment if he is caught in any unnatural act, Slade Lake is himself a living, breathing unnatural act.

At Medoc, where Bobby Lee is thoroughly miserable and without his guitar, marvelous musical things happen. He dreams up melodies, writes lyrics, and rehearses the songs over and over in his head, so that by the time he is released at eighteen, it is as if he has been to a conservatory rather than a reformatory.

Bobby Lee's rise to celebrity is much as one might imagine.. He sings at honky tonks and gets a Montgomery radio gig, (Greenhaw knows and describes Montgomery the way James Joyce knew Dublin, street by street, store by store.) Bobby Lee moves on to Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry, "The Cathedral of American Music, The True Music of America"-where, he is reminded, Elvis was not invited back-and national fame, including the Ed Sullivan Show. In Hollywood, Bobby Lee parties with Ali McGraw, Steve McQueen, Truman Capote et al.. The fame and riches and his absolutely insatiable need to be adored in every way then lead him, without much delay, to debauchery, drugs, and alcoholism. In fact, he turns out to be as mean a drunk as his daddy. Then there is divorce, detox , and a collection of self-inflicted wounds.

Perhaps these self-inflicted wounds were inevitable. Finally, however, I think Greenhaw took up torturing Bobby Lee where Slade Lake left off. This man has more bad luck, pain, loss, and tragedy in his life than anybody ought to, pill-popping drunk or not.

Greenhaw never lets up on Bobby Lee, but maybe it is all for the best, because out of this life of suffering come the tunes and lyrics that made Bobby Lee immortal. That's country music for you.

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