Paul Hemphill was buried with the cumbersome label of being a southern writer.
His 1,000-word newspaper columns were miniature dramas about what someone called "southern creatures." He wrote of worn out souls who couldn't leave the bar after just one drink, memories of his father, the long-haul truck driver from Birmingham, and mournful scenes such as the day Sgt. Billy Goad came home from Vietnam in a government box.
His books -- some fiction and some not -- introduced us to Stud Cantrell, a bush league baseball manager whose vocabulary would make a sailor blush, stock car racers who coated their lungs with dust from small-town tracks and washed-up quarterbacks who couldn't face getting old. He wrote of a city confronting its past and a journeyman second baseman who dreamed of the big leagues like Hemphill did as a young graduate of Auburn University.
But he was most comfortable as a keen observer of country music. That's evident in "Lovesick Blues," his 2005 biography of Hank Williams, and is between every line of "The Nashville Sound," which has been called the best book ever written about that musical genre.
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Forty-five years after it was written and six years after the author's death, the University of Georgia Press has republished the book, allowing a new generation to share in his snapshot view of country music and the people who made it.
"It's a journalistic record of what music was in 1970," said Don Cusic, a music historian and a professor at Belmont University in Nashville. "What he did was cover all sides of what was going on, from the big names to the would-bes and wantabes."
Cusic wrote the foreword of the new edition and he says Nashville Sound is the senior statesman of books about country music.
"It continues to stand at the front of the line for those who explore the tensions in country music, the fight to keep it 'pure' versus the quest to make it profitable, the conflict of clinging to the past while racing towards the future," writes Cusic.
Even now it's sad that critics can't look beyond Hemphill's tales of rundown ballparks and three-chord melodies and acknowledge that his talents went beyond these topics. His columns and his books are a mirror of who we are and where we've been.
And through it all, he wrote the truth.
-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at email@example.com.