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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

If Trouble Don’t Kill Me

If Trouble Don’t Kill Me
Ralph Berrier, Jr.

Whenever a friend of mine writes a book or records an album, I can’t so much review it as just promote it.  The fact is, I’m just so terribly pleased to be friends with the kinds of people who write books and record albums.  At times, it almost ceases to be extraordinary.  Everybody makes records, right?  Of course, they don’t, and I’m just lucky enough to be perpetually surrounded by talented and creative people.

Ralph is one of those people.  I’m not actually sure if he’s made any records — he might fiddle on some of the early Black Twig Pickers catalog, but I wouldn’t swear to it.  But he has written one hell of an ambitious and compelling book.  If Trouble Don’t Kill Me is the story of Ralph’s great-uncles, the Hall twins, early bluegrass musicians and WWII combatants extraordinaire.  The book is the sort of thing that could easily have veered into the ditch.  It could have become dry family history, a hackneyed war story, or hokey nostalgia for the good old days that never were.  Writing a book like this, pitfalls abound.  But Ralph avoids most of them.  He doesn’t lionize his protagonists — at least, not too much.  He tells their stories more or less they way they probably would have told them themselves: with some exaggeration and braggadocio, to be sure, but also with strokes of self-effacement and humor to balance things out.  It’s the kind of story that everyone hopes someone will write about their own family.  Someone else, of course.  Ralph had the good sense to realize that nobody else was going to write it for him.  If there was to be a book about his great-uncles, he would have to write it himself.  So he did.

And the result is a pretty good read.  I finished If Trouble Don’t Kill Me in a couple of days.  Ralph has a good sense of storytelling.  The pacing is about right, the characters are multi-dimensional and engaging, and aside from a few overly-cute Faulkner-esque phrases, he mostly avoids the obvious clichés of rural Americana.  I can’t be impartial, of course, but even if I were, I think I would feel OK about recommending the book.

Playing Silk

Playing Silk

Buddy Charleton

A couple of weeks ago, the world lost a marvelous musician and a hell of a good guy. I got to know Buddy Charleton just one year ago, when I started taking pedal steel guitar lessons with him at Billy Cooper’s Music in Orange, VA. It was impossible not to be immediately taken with Buddy. He had such an easy, patient demeanor. As a teacher, I wouldn’t say that he had a method. It was mostly just hanging out with him, trading stories. Then he would say, “Have I shown you this lick?”, then play some run on the guitar, then repeat it while I fumbled through it, trying to get a handle on what he was up to. Some times I would get it; most of the time I wouldn’t, but Buddy wasn’t deterred either way. “Keep your back straight”, he would say. “Keep your elbows in.” “Stay relaxed.” Ten strings, three finger picks, a steel bar in my left hand, three foot pedals, four knee levers, a volume pedal, all to be manipulated in unison. Stay relaxed. OK.

Buddy was an old man by the time I met him – a man without a damned thing to prove to anybody. He had played with Patsy Cline, toured with Ernest Tubb, recorded with Porter Wagoner and Loretta Lynn and Jean Shepard. He was a Steel Guitar Hall of Fame inductee; his students had played with Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson, the Dixie Chicks. But when I met him, he was mostly an old man living with his wife in a trailer in Orange County, dying of throat cancer. I was fortunate enough to spend some time with them before he passed on, recording his music and stories for posterity.

Playing Silk is definitely the work of a man with nothing to prove. After doing thirty or so Nashville studio albums with different bands, Playing Silk is the record that Buddy wanted to make for himself. Sure, there are some of the jazzy barn-burners that made his fame with the Texas Troubadours – tunes like “Almost to Tulsa” – and an instrumental rendition of “Waltz Across Texas”. But then there are also oddities like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. I must have listened to that track a dozen times before I realized that what I was hearing was the sound of pedal steel guitar with no accompaniment – no rhythm track, no bass, just Buddy coaxing symphonic sound out of his instrument. These are instrumental tunes about Buddy at home: “Kay Lee’s Song”, written for his wife; “Gizmo”, written for the pet raccoon, now also deceased; “Bud’s Therapy”, written as an exercise for his students. The whole thing was self-produced and available either in person or mail order c/o Buddy Charleton, General Delivery, Mine Run, VA. Probably almost nobody owns the album who didn’t know Buddy personally.

I will miss the man. I’ll miss his boyish grin when he played music; I’ll miss his stories about Patsy Cline and Ernest Tubb; I’ll miss the vastness of knowledge that he attempted to impart to me and so many others by way of the pedal steel guitar. As tall as his legacy is, it can’t compete with the sweet old man whom I met living in that trailer in Orange County.

Les choses

Les choses

Georges Perec

Comme toujours, c’était difficile à moi à lire un roman entière en français.  Malgré pratiquer un peu chaque jour, c’est une guerre quotidienne à tenir lequel je connais.  Mais Les choses était encore difficile à cause de la temps — c’est entièrement dans la temps conditionnelle.  Ça prête un air d’incertitude et des choses possibles mais jamais réalisés.

Le récit est assez simple — Jérôme et Sylvie, une jeune couple Parisienne, voudraient rien mais d’être riche.  Ils travaillent dans les métiers de la classe moyenne.  Pas pauvres, mais pas si riche comme ils voudraient.  Leur vie est un ruse — tout de l’argent ce qu’ils gagnaient, ils dépensent immédiatement sur des choses lesquelles les gens riches avaient.  Donc, c’est impossible à devenir riches leur-même.  Ce semble qu’ils sont toujours presque réaliser leurs rêves, mais leurs rêves s’agrandissent constamment.

Les choses ne dit rien à moi.  Je n’ai été jamais un homme qui désirait les choses de luxe.  Les instrument de musique, oui — mais pour jouer, pas pour posséder, et cette différence est une grande chose.  Je lis les livres français assez rarement que je souhaite j’ai lu quelque chose différent cette fois.  Mais il n’y a pas de sensé en souhaiter pour la passé — c’est l’avenir que nous pouvons créer.