Honky Tonk Heroes – Benjamin Whitmer Guest Blog

There was a time when being an admirer of Cormac McCarthy was more than a little like being a member of a cult.  It was before Oprah, when the only way you’d have heard of him was by word of mouth. There were no movie adaptations, and if you knew anything about his life, it was that he was living in a cheap hotel room in El Paso working on his next novel.  Which, you figured, was just as it should be.

blood meridian

Depending on your particular bent, you could stay up all night discoursing on either Suttree or Blood Meridian — nobody’s ever been known to love both of those books equally — much to the irritation of friends and family alike.

I was on the side of Blood Meridian, of course. It set me on a ten year sequence of reading in Indian hating and extermination, trying to understand it. It sent me west and turned family vacations into tours of massacre sites. It filled hundreds of pages of notes, and even inspired a class at CU on the subject. It sent me careening off on fresh obsessions: Vietnam fantasies, gunsmithing, American Indian Movement activism, among others.

Now and then I’d meet a fellow traveler, somebody who’d read Blood Meridian with something like the same level of interest I had. It was akin to meeting a fellow ham radio operator or amateur stamp collector, in both its intensity and inevitable disappointment. But I tried to meet each and every reader with all the hospitality I could, no matter how obviously wrongheaded their approach to the book. Everyone I met, I met with a gift. A gift that I figured provided not only a clue to Blood Meridian, but to a fundamental truth about the creation of books.

Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes.

Honky Tonk Heroes is, to my mind, the greatest of the Outlaw Country albums. It was recorded by Waylon Jennings with all the creative control he’d wrested from the Nashville machine, and every song but one was written by Billy Joe Shaver, who, in a just world, would be celebrated as one of our greatest singers and songwriters. The details of the album’s creation are too lengthy to delineate — and too easy to find on the web to require it — but they include all the hallmarks of the album’s material: addiction, obsession, the pursuit of freedom to the point of ruination, occasional violence, and, of course, the preoccupation with border crossing that runs like the Rio Grande through Billy Joe Shaver’s lyrics. It is, simply, a masterpiece.

Not that any one of those reasons is why I give it to every fellow Blood Meridian fan I meet. Nor is it because it’s impossible to read Blood Meridian, or, for that matter, any of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy without seeing all those themes.

No, I give it away because of the song, “Ain’t No God In Mexico,” from which McCarthy lifts one of Blood Meridian‘s most memorable lines, a line that’s echoed in different ways throughout the Border Trilogy. It’s given us by the insane Captain White who has decided to invade Mexico with a gang of Army irregulars. “There is no government in Mexico,” he tells us. “Hell, there’s no God in Mexico.”

It’s one of McCarthy’s greatest lifts from country music, though there others. McCarthy is, among many other things, a master of pastiche. As is his progenitor, Faulkner; his, Melville; and his, Shakespeare. As McCarthy put it in a 1992 interview with the New York Times, “The ugly fact is books are made out of books.” And, as McCarthy knows, country songs, the good ones, they tell stories that run in the blood of those of us who come from European peasant stock. Which brings us to another ugly fact: country songs are made out of country songs.  “Let’s settle down and steal each other’s songs,” Kristofferson sings in “Don’t Cuss The Fiddle.”

See, authenticity is so bitterly contested and vehemently reaffirmed in literature and country music exactly because both are so willing to repurpose and reuse the creations of that came before. I try to remember that whenever another novelist is accused of plagiarism. If nothing else, it helps keep me from getting too exercised about something that has absolutely no bearing on me at all. After all, it’s the stories that matter, not their authenticity. As a friend of mine, Matteo Gregor, put it recently, “I think I’ve probably spent more days behind bars than Johnny Cash at this point, but I will never be able to express the futility of that time as the great man in black has.”

The power and movement of a great country song is something that got driven home to me when working on my latest project, co-writing Charlie Louvin’s memoir, Satan Is Real. The songs that Charlie and his brother Ira first sang were brought over from the old country by their mother.  They were tragic songs of life and murder ballads that had been sung in her family for a hundred years or more, passed down generation to generation.

The one that moved Charlie the most was “Mary of the Wild Moor.” We listened to it together, and he broke down in tears at the cruelty in it. It was a song that was as much a part of him as his nervous system. As much as the gospels sung in the Sacred Harp tradition in the Baptist church where he was raised, and from which he and his brother learned much of their distinctive harmonizing. As much as “Knoxville Girl,” a murder ballad the Louvin Brothers also learned from their mother, that dates all the way back to the Elizabethan era. Charlie couldn’t escape that one even when he wanted to. It followed him his whole life. And we won’t even talk about “Wreck on the Highway” (And not the Springsteen song, though it’s a hell of an example of repurposing in its own right).

I was asked recently in an interview why I decided to work with Charlie on his memoir. I’m a novelist, not a music critic, and I wasn’t an intuitive choice for the project, not by any stretch of the imagination. I didn’t answer the question very well — I don’t answer any question well that I don’t have time to think about for awhile — but the answer is for the same reason I give Honky Tonk Heroes to every McCarthy fan I meet. Because it’s important to understand how those stories work — the stories in country songs that become the stories in us — and how they get used. My purely selfish reason for helping Charlie on his memoir was that I hoped to understand how stories work better. And I think I do.