Sunday, July 12, 2009

Remembering Paul Hemphill

We lost a great Southern writer Saturday when Paul Hemphill died at age 73. The cause was cancer.

It was one of life's privileges to spend a moment with the author in a smoky hotel hospitality room, very late one night, in Charlotte, N.C. The year was 1996. Hemphill was gathering information for a book about stock car racing, so he had come up from his home in Atlanta for NASCAR's annual preseason media tour.

The beer was flowing and the chatter was boisterous. What better introduction to the world of professional gearheads than to spend a hour or two socializing with the scribes who wrote for a living about the sport? Talk about genuine good ol' boys. Hemphill was one of them himself -- an Alabama native -- only with a bit more polish and less scarlet around the neck.

The stories flowed that night along with the beer, and Hemphill -- a keen observer of human nature and spirit -- took it all in quietly from a couch in the crowded room. I'm not sure how many others were even aware that Hemphill was there, what with all the drinking and crazy stories, like the writer who drove a rental car into a motel pool.

There couldn't have been a bigger fan in the room that night than me. Everybody else was swapping stories about Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip and life on the Winston Cup circuit, and all I wanted to hear about was Paul Hemphill. And there he was on the couch beside me.

My introduction to Hemphill's writing had come a few years earlier on the pages of "King of the Road'', an engaging novel about an uneasy relationship between a long-distance trucker and his son. My dad, like Hemphill's, had made a living as a gear-jammer, and I felt a strong connection to the story.

I would later go back and read Hemphill's first book, "Nashville Sound'', another fascinating subject on the country music scene that he researched and wrote during a Nieman Fellowship in 1969. My library would later include "Long Gone'', a novel about minor league baseball, and "Lovesick Blues,'' a definitive look at the life of Hank Williams (mentioned in a previous post.) "Lovesick Blues'' was a gift from a friend who was thoughtful enough to have it autographed for me by the author. There are a dozen other works by Hemphill yet to track down, including "Leaving Birmingham'', which earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination.

Hemphill was polite, engaging and without pretentions, and -- as you would expect -- a delightful storyteller. Just the sort of person you'd enjoy meeting to shoot the bull about writing and sports and newspapers (we had both worked at the Atlanta Journal, though 12 years apart). Here was a guy who had the best job at the paper -- a column on Page 2 -- and he had the guts to quit at age 33.

Here's an excerpt from Hemphill's "Quitting the Paper'':

I fancied myself a sort of Jimmy Breslin of the South, cranking out daily one-thousand-word human dramas on everything from flophouse drunks to Lester Maddox, sufficiently loved and hated by enough people to have that sense of pop celebrity with which most newspapermen delude themselves. I had the most envied newspaper job in Atlanta, if not the South, and now and then I would see a younger writer in a town like Greensboro or Savannah or Montgomery imitating my style just as I had stolen from Hemingway and Breslin and too many others to talk about. I had been sloppy and inaccurate, from time to time, but I had also written some good stuff. I had hung around all-night eateries and gone to Vietnam and hitchhiked and lain around with hookers and shot pool with Minnesota Fats and sat in cool suburban dens with frustrated housewives. And yet, with the next column due by dawn, I had run out of gas.

It's not difficult to understand how Hemphill could be the hero of every newspaper journalist, past and especially present. It won't be as easy grinding ahead without him, but there are those other books, still unread, to dig into.

I don't know why, but this morning the chorus to an old Don Williams song stopped by for a visit:

I can still hear the soft Southern winds in the live oak trees
And those Williams boys they still mean a lot to me
Hank and Tennessee
I guess we're all gonna be what we're gonna be
So what do you do with good ol' boys like me

Hemphill surely heard those winds rustling through the majestic Southern pines. And by becoming the writer he was going to be, he leaves a rich and lasting legacy that extends far beyond the reaches of his beloved blue-collar South.


  1. I had the great good fortune of hanging with Paul on a couple of occasions in recent years.
    He was irascible about his illness the publishing business and hilarious about everything.
    They seriously broke the mold with this one.
    And btw, it's hard to find, but the made-for-HBO movie of "Long Gone," with the luminous Virginia Madsen and startlingly young versions of William Petersen and Dermot Mulroney, is a gem.

  2. I sat with Paul for about an hour at the Atlanta Press Club holiday book sale one year, and he signed my new copy of "Lost In The Lights," his collection of short sports stories. His words-to-live-by inscription: "Take two and hit to right."
    A couple of years later he was back with "Lovesick Blues," and it was obvious his illness was beginning to take hold. His unsteady scrawl is barely legible. But he welcomed me again at his table, and the stories and conversation flowed like always.
    He had a rare talent for making a person feel interesting and comfortable, like there was nothing he'd rather be doing than sitting and talking to YOU.
    A remarkable writer, an even better human being.