Wednesday, August 03, 2011

New Books: Hank and Muddy by Steve Mertz

Writing Hank and Muddy
By Stephen Mertz

By 1975, I knew that I wanted to be either a writer or a musician.

That year saw my first fiction published in a national magazine.

And I was a working musician, blowing harp (as in harmonica) in Eagle Park Slim’s Mile High Blues Band, the house band at a black after hours club in Denver’s Five Points. From the 1930s to the 1950s Five Points was considered the “Harlem of the West,” with bars and clubs where people like Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday played, but by the 1960s it had suffered the same demise as inner cities across the U.S. In 1975, Five Points was a rough part of town. Slim is a real deal St. Louis bluesman (who currently resides and works in Eugene, Oregon) and the Mile High Band was hot. I’ve got the tapes to prove it. The band’s gig was Thursdays through Saturdays, 11PM to 3 AM. The drummer and I were the only white boys in the place.
I was living the life.

Trouble was, by late ’75 I was beginning to gradually sell more of my writing to the smaller markets of the day. No bread to speak of but I was establishing a presence. I’d wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. I could taste the dream of being a published novelist becoming a reality, that’s how close it was even though the rejections continued to outnumber the sales.
I was also starting to realize that life as musician was not exactly conducive to the discipline of schedule and routine necessary to produce fiction. Plus, an earlier conversation with the famous blues harp player, James Cotton, lingered in my mind. I was in a band called Blue Tale Fly at the time, a bar band playing Allman Brothers and J. Geils covers and a few originals. We’d landed a four night gig as the opening act for Cotton at the old Rio Grande down by Denver’s rail yards. Cotton was a party animal. Plenty of drink and smoke and passing the time with small talk between sets. He’d just signed with Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager, who had landed him a contract with Capitol. Star time! Except, Cotton added, for the last two years, he’d been on the road 50 weeks out of the year.

That sunk in and stayed. I’d only been “living the life” with Eagle Park Slim for 18 months and I was already starting to burn out. I like to entertain and socialize well enough but like most writers, I am by nature a solitary soul.

Then Don Pendleton stepped in to nudge me into my future with an offer to assist him in the writing of Mack Bolan novels. (This was years before Don sold the Bolan franchise to Harlequin, where it continues to flourish, scripted by a cadre of contract writers.) For me, Don’s offer was the writing dream come true. No more smoky bars, bad food and crazy hours. I could sit at a keyboard and make a decent living. An apprenticeship! I could not say no, and so I said goodbye to Slim and the guys and to the musician’s life. I resettled on a country road near Don’s spread in Brown County, Indiana.
Well, that gig lasted for six months (not Don’s fault; we remained close friends until his passing) but in the process I had acquired a lifelong taste for what is called the writing life. I’ve lived on back roads ever since, writing short fiction and novels which, I’m happy to say, have been published for the most part to favorable reviews and reader acceptance.
And guess what? Turns out that being a writer is not that different from being a musician. Sure, the work conditions are more comfortable but it’s still all about hustling up the next gig, about finding an audience by striving to provide something worth their while.

My new novel, Hank & Muddy, is the account of a fictional meeting between two rough-and-tumble American music icons, whiskey-soaked Hank Williams and mojo man Muddy Waters, on a steamy summer night in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1952, and the misadventures that ensue. The title characters alternate as narrators. It’s a tale about music, race, sex and the other things that unite and divide American society in 1952 and today, with a plot that involves the Ku Klux Klan, crooked cops, and the black underworld of Shreveport in that era, G-men and commies, a bank robber’s free-spirited daughter and a quest for Hank’s missing songbook.

I hope you like it.

These days I perform now and then around Tucson with a humble little unit called The Blues Doctors and I’ve written a novel about the music I love.

Who says you can’t have it all?

Just wish I’d figured that out back in ‘75.


Mike Dennis said...

Great post, Stephen!

I too am a former musician (piano, keyboards). I spent 30 years at it, traveling everywhere, playing clubs, fairs, concerts, recording studios, and yes, smoky after-hours bars. Somewhere in the middle of my career, I got the writing fever and it never turned loose of me.

I retired from music a few years ago and now, like you, I'm churning out novels and short stories. And like you, I have a novel about music and musicians, this one a tale of a one-hit wonder who recorded for Sun Records in the 1950s. I even got Sun to approve the use of their logo on my cover.

I now live in Key West, where I perform every once in a great while. Life is good. Yes, it is.

Cap'n Bob said...

I'll be in Tucson in November, Steve. Any gig lined up for then? I'll try to stop by and say hello.