19 March 2011
THE DEVIL AND PRESTON BLACK
You'd think finding a song named after you on an old record would be kind of cool. But that's not how it goes down for Preston Black.
What starts out as a search for his old man turns into a quest for an original version of "The Sad Ballad of Preston Black". Turns out the song is about his deal with the devil, a deal Preston doesn't really remember making.
When the devil decides it's time to cash in things get really interesting. People he loves get hurt, and Preston starts to wonder if a long fall into an icy river is his only way out.
Lucky for Preston, he has help. A music ethnographer with connections in some of Appalachia's darkest hollows convinces him that his salvation can be found in the music. Preston can buy that. It's the hexes, curses and spells he has a hard time with.
And it's the ghost of John Lennon who convinces Preston to do something about it.
I wish I could say I found that record the first time I walked into the joint. But honestly, I'd been going into Isaac's every week since he'd hung his shingle out. Ever since I started giving lessons next door, at least. Killing time at Isaac's was easier than killing time with Mick's Strats and Twin Reverbs. The guitar shop had become too much like work, Mick too much like a boss. If I showed up early he always found meaningless little jobs for me to do, like tuning the Guilds and refilling humidifiers. If I showed up a minute late he was all, 'Get yourself a watch.'
So I'd hide out at Isaac's until my lessons arrived, soaking up the juju that dripped off the old vinyl like heat from a spotlight. The simplicity of an album, its lack of moving parts, spoke to me in a way CDs didn't. Vinyl had a tender, handmade quality that made me believe that the music had been born into a more authentic era. Like a record could somehow be more sincere than a CD or mp3. But I knew all that was a load of crap. In the end, only the music mattered.
For me, walking into Isaac's gave me the same feeling some people get when they walk into a church or a mall. I can't describe it. Maybe enlightenment, but I'm not sure if I've ever experienced that feeling. Either way, all I had to do to soak up the collective wisdom hiding in all of those vinyl grooves was appreciate the music, and try to understand where the artist was coming from. I swore if I browsed long enough I'd find whatever guidance I needed to get me through my paper-thin life. And since my own father ran off long before I ever learned how to hold down a G chord, I'd never have to worry about overdosing on guidance.
The guys my mom brought home didn't have a lot of wisdom to pass on. They all either wanted to preach to me or beat me. So I didn't need a semi-employed union pipefitter around giving me shit when I had the Holy Trinity of John Lennon, Joe Strummer and Bruce Springsteen helping me down the path of lyrics and music. Each of these guys came into my life when I needed them the most. And each left just like my own dad did--long gone before I ever had a chance to say goodbye. But their lessons stuck. Joe Strummer taught me it was okay to throw a few bricks, and that a cop was something I really didn't want to be. From John Lennon I learned that if you were clever they hated you, and for a fool it was worse. From Robert Hunter I learned the devil's friend sure ain't a friend of mine.
In hindsight, I should've listened to Hunter. Call it irony, but the morning I found the old LP that had me standing on the Westover Bridge thinking about taking the final jump, I'd been browsing near Ozzy, a friend of the devil if the devil ever had one. Before that LP I assumed lyrics were just lyrics. Didn't know they could be warning labels too.
Besides, the douche bags who worked at Isaac's treated me like I had the musical tastes of a ten-year-old boy. I couldn't help it I never heard of Black Flag or The Pixies growing up. My brother and me were pretty much forced to listen to whatever mom played in the car. Mostly country. Kenny and Dolly singing "Islands in the Stream." Garth Brooks, if we were lucky. Most people didn't have to dig as deep as I did to find something they recognized in an old record or song.
And digging deeper was pretty much what I was doing the day I found my LP misplaced behind Blizzard of Oz. On my way to return the record to the BLUEGRASS section the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen stepped out of the CLASSICAL stacks. She smiled. I smiled back. She asked what I had in my hand. On the cover a bunch of anonymous pickers sat in front of an old log cabin. The back of the record said Uncle Mason's Front Porch: Best of the Blackwater Sessions.
And on the track list, between "Pretty Polly" and "Hangman's Reel" was a song called "The Sad Ballad of Preston Black", written by E. Black.
I knew right then and there that if I could ever find the man who'd written that song, I'd have found my dad.
In less than twenty-four hours THE SAD BALLAD OF PRESTON BLACK shows up in Amazon's Kindle Store. This is kind of a soft release because there'll be a few bugs to iron out--I'm afraid some the internal links won't work and a heading or two may be off-center. But it's what I've been working on for the last few years. And I'm damn proud of it. And I did it independently, without any hand holding. And this is the format my writing was meant to appear in.
A few years ago this type of freedom wasn't available to a writer, unless you were lucky enough to to have an editor at a small press who was willing to take risks with formats. I think seeing the kind of fun Mike Arnzen had with his Gorelets and Audiovile made me wonder what kind of sweetheart deal I'd have to get to be able to work in those formats. Now I don't have to wonder anymore.
As soon as I get my Kindle formatting straightened out I'm going to start recording the soundtrack to The Devil and Preston Black. I already have the guitar worked out for three songs, and have complete lyrics to one, have banjo and electric guitar parts and bass lines for a few more. I'm still looking for somebody to help me with drum tracks and I'm hoping a sexy violinist will show up to put finishing touches on everything. After I get the title track finished I'm going to complete the book trailer I started.
The cover is temporary, too. I put it together out of necessity, but have been talking to Jim Sherradin of Hatch Show Prints of Nashville, Tennessee about a proper cover. Hatch is a traditional print shop that does concert posters for the Ryman Auditorium and Grand Ole Opry. I'd love to visit them over the summer and see how it's done, and hopefully document part of the process.
You know, I dropped more than a few characters talking about the Big Six and the state of publishing and all that, so I'm not going to do it again here. But in a way I feel like I no longer have to do it here, or anywhere. The industry used to be the biggest obstacle to publication and I KNOW they vetted writers and I KNOW their goal was deliver to first-rate stories to readers. But somewhere along the way they became the enemy to writers like me--writers who's only platform was a love of storytelling and a masters degree. And there are a lot of us out there. We like the idea of not having to write to a marketing department or a demographic. We like the freedom of writing for ourselves and being able to get it out there without the hassle of toeing the line or trying to impress an agent.
Writing and publishing this book has been the most gratifying experience I've had since I typed my first Chapter One back in 1998 when we were living in a tiny apartment down in Orlando, Florida while working for The Mouse. The challenges I face are my own, but a community is starting to gel. I've met so many people going this route who are more than willing to help a brother out. (I'm looking at you, M Stephen Lukac. How many other writers can pick up writing advice at Shop 'n Save?)
I got goosebumps writing this. Every writer should be able to feel this way about their work. Now they can. I don't care if my mom's the only person in the world who ever reads my book, because it's out there like H1N1. And I didn't have to compromise or give away 80% to do it.
In 2011, this is what happy, successful writers looks like.