“down here in Tennessee”: An Interview with Drew Bratcher

Drew Bratcher grew up with country music. The music was as close to home as the smell of Sunday dinner, the feel of a first kiss or first injury, the taste of bourbon, the texture of cracked vinyl seats in a pickup truck, or the sight of a grandfather’s ear with a chunk missing. The sound of Randy Travis’s voice as he writes about in “The Whine,” the “heavy drinking and infidelity” in songs by honkytonk legend Lefty Frizzell, or Dolly Parton’s longing for home are all threaded through a fabric of family lineage and through the landscape north of Nashville. But it isn’t meeting Johnny Cash at the bank one day that centers Bratcher’s collection of memoir and music criticism, Bub: Essays From Just North of Nashville. No, it was Bub, Bratcher’s grandfather, and the old men who sat on the porch telling tales. Music acts as a lens from which to view personal circumstances. Whether it is riffing on what it means to be a country boy in my favorite essay, “A Taxonomy of Country Boys,” or when he finds unlikely guidance through Keith Whitley on how to travail days of early fatherhood with no money and no job, Bratcher’s writing shines the brightest when he pairs country music with the human experience. Every essay in this collection sings, makes you think in new ways, and draws the reader into a deeper appreciation of country music, of course, but the storytelling is wonderfully — and this is my highest compliment — human.

Drew Bratcher is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and received his MFA from the University of Iowa. His essays and journalism have appeared in the Oxford American, Paris Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Nowhere Magazine, Essay Daily, Garden & Gun, Image Journal, World War II, Military History Quarterly, Washingtonian, and others.     

Bub is a medley of sorts that combines memoir and music criticism in a measured tone and this sound clearly resonates when early fatherhood is paired with the music you write about. There is a lovely dissonance in “Unlikely Lullabies” where the Keith Whitley tune “I’m No Stranger to the Rain” acts as a ballast to the personal difficulties of adulthood. But it is not just in this essay, of course, the collection is sprinkled with fatherhood from the title track “Bub” through “The Ballad of Taylor and Drew,” and “Morning Waves.” I suppose I want you to talk to me about balance. How did you think through when and where to include memoir in relation to music?

What I think memoir can do is make art criticism more accessible. Whether or not readers have had experiences with a song like “I’m No Stranger” or have any kind of connection to Keith Whitley’s voice, they’ve had experiences with other songs, with other voices. Essays that come at art from a personal angle can become about more than just that one cultural artifact but also about how art moves us more generally. Likewise, I’ve found that art criticism can keep memoir from becoming too myopic and self-absorbed. It’s a way to get from the individual to the universal without sacrificing idiosyncrasy. Whatever the case, it’s important to establish credible frames of reference. You want books, like albums, to have integrity. In a collection having to do with coming of age in Nashville, regularly invoking country lyrics seemed both necessary and worthwhile. Predictable? I’ll give you that. But hopefully, my take on the music advances the critical conversation even as the memoiristic passages encourage people to tell their own stories. 

I have been thinking about how “fact” — loosely containing anything from advertisements on TV to visual art and, of course, information — can do so much work for essayists, especially in the way you describe above when you say, “as a way to get from the individual to the universal without sacrificing idiosyncrasy.” It is something I want my students to think about more these days because so many have the heart of essayists but have the hard-headed notion that essays must revolve around tragedy as opposed to letting your freak flag fly. Get dirty, I say, dig in there and find what you are scared to show others and make sure the sentences sing, baby, sing. I don’t have a question. I am that guy in the audience that wants to talk about myself for a moment. But maybe you have a response?

I’d love to be in your class. Here’s what I think: You have to use your material. “You write about the life that’s vividest” — as Mark Jarman put it in one of his poems — “And if that is your own, that is your subject.” Tragedy is a given. That’s the human experience — in one way or another, that’s the book we’re all adding chapters to. What’s interesting to me is that in the midst of all that tragedy, even and perhaps especially in tragedies far more accentuated than any I’ve known in my own life, there is still so much singing. Sometimes in the car, my kids will say something like, “Dad, you only listen to sad music.” To which I reply — and to which they rightly roll their eyes (can you imagine having me as a father?) — “There’s no such thing. Anything from which music can be made is not finally wretched.” What I’m saying is that I love art that advances a kind of stubborn ode, an eloquent appraisal, an articulate rave. No, I’m not always persuaded. More than persuasion, though, the upshot of such expression is the way it can model for us how to treasure some strange yet wonderful thing without delusion.

I often think about the intersection between family and music, between community and the cultural tastes that come to define us, partially at least, when we are coming of age. I loved how you introduced us to the mystery of country music in the first essay, “Bub,” so that when you talk about “The Taxonomy of Country Boys” or write about home in relation to Dolly Parton in “To Be Home Everywhere,” I feel the tug back to Bub’s porch in the summer. Was there more about place and home that you tried to include, but didn’t make the cut? Mom, Dad, friends…what are the outtakes?

The collection, read one way, is about growing up under the influence of stories and songs. But it’s also about how all of us bring to bear, in adulthood, the art and ideas we were exposed to as kids, about the way we use those things to help us get our bearings. I guess the essays that didn’t make the cut — there’s a doozy about herding buffaloes with my uncle — weren’t contributing so much to that discourse.

After the book went to the printer, I found some lyrics I’d written way back in high school —

All our dreams are taken
by that ole shade tree
Tell me we ain’t pagans
down here in Tennessee

Out back them boys is playing
barefooted as could be
Skin’s our only blanket
down here in Tennessee

Sermons ain’t as sacred
as when grandaddy speaks
Tales are tall and ancient
down here in Tennessee

Souls are for the saving
and so are recipes
Every meal’s a banquet
down here in Tennessee

Keep your fancy heaven
your castle by the sea
The heathen found a haven
down here in Tennessee

— and thought maybe they would have made for a fitting prologue. A lot of the themes in the book are already in those lines.

I feel the mourning for home in this collection, the inner compass that always points South. I moved away from Memphis in 2000, but still feel that city’s thrum in my nervous system. And I love all that is there in that thrum. Elvis is there, of course. Otis Redding and Stax. But so is Three Six Mafia and Eight Ball and MJG, His Hero is Gone, Lucero, and Oblivions. The map is drawn in sound. William Eggleston lived in a penthouse apartment above Overton Park. I knew that. Frank Lloyd Wright designed a few homes. I knew that, too. But it always comes back to the music. Part of me wonders if the sound of the city is what keeps me looking back, what allows Memphis to hold that hollowed namesake “Home.” Talk to me about what it means to leave a place physically but return to it in literature.

I loved the passages in your book, Meander Belt, about the music scene in Memphis. Growing up in Nashville, Memphis was a tantalizing mystery to me. But if you listen to country music for any length of time it will lead in that direction. Johnny Cash gets you to Sam Perkins and Elvis, and Elvis gets you to Junior Parker and Howlin’ Wolf. I can’t remember when I first heard Big Star, but that band helped me make sense of Pavement and a lot of 90s indie rock. What I mean to say is that when I saw the word “Memphis” on interstate signs or wherever, it conjured sounds instead of images, and music instead of the Pyramid or the Mississippi River.

But it was Memphis hip-hop that made the biggest impression. When I was 13 or 14 years old, I would tape-record the “Top 9 at 9” countdown on 92Q, the hip-hop station in Nashville. I listened to songs by Memphis artists like 8Ball & MJG and Gangsta Boo over and over until I had the lyrics, or what I could make of them (this was long before Genius), memorized. Man, I was dazzled, and totally scandalized, by those songs! But what I heard in southern rap had a lot in common with the country music I loved. It was about specific places. The artists had distinct personas (When I heard 8Ball rap, “Who is it? 8Ball, the exquisite / Don’t miss my exhibit / I’m about to rip it / apart,” I heard echoes of Loretta Lynn: “If you’re lookin’ at me, you’re lookin’ at country”). The songs often told stories. And the music was largely born out of struggle, which is to say there was something wary and weathered about it even at its most playful. There were major differences, for sure, complicated histories I hadn’t yet begun to grasp, but southern rap really did feel like a natural extension of my interest in country music. Honestly, the best country songs of the 90s were probably hip-hop songs, and I’m not talking about “Country Grammar.”

Was it Robert Penn Warren who said that every writer has a cocklebur up under the saddle, an itch, in other words, that they just keep on scratching? That’s one way to put it. John Berger writes in And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos about the rupture that occurs when the axis connecting the vertical and the horizontal, place and history, gets dismantled. Leaving home messes you up. But when your hometown produces music, like mine and yours do, that sound goes with you wherever you go, whether or not you want its company, and maybe you even hear it with greater clarity and understanding, if not always with greater appreciation, the farther you stray. Memory is the radio station with the longest range. At some point, if you’re a writer, chances are you’ll use that music as material.

Let’s talk sentences. I love your long, detail-oriented sentences. I am reminded of James Agee and his epic three pagers from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I can sense your desire to do the same in Bub, but there is restraint. Who were your models? How did you go about shaping your prose? Or maybe that is too staunch. When did you have the most fun shaping your prose?

It is always hazardous to break down your own writing — my capacity for self-delusion is endless — but it seems to me that the relative density and general shape of my sentences can be almost entirely explained by country music and journalism. I’m obsessed with writers like Tomas Tranströmer, Natalia Ginzburg, and, yes, James Agee, but my first texts, there’s no doubt about it, were country songs. And what do country lyrics value? Brevity, precision, emotion, catchiness. Likewise, the journalistic work I did for a long time forced me to be hyper-economical. Any word, let alone paragraph, that wasn’t essential to the story would be struck, no questions asked, so I learned to turn three sentences into one and how to find the fifteen necessary words within the thirty or forty.

I remember writing this one story about a bird illustrator for a magazine I worked for in DC. In the piece, I had a couple of sentences where I went for it. I tried to describe, as elegantly as possible, the flight of this one particular bird that the artist had recently spotted out on the reservoir in Georgetown. I was so proud of that passage, which, to my ear, sounded just right. When the galley came back, the editor had marked through both sentences in pencil. Out in the margin, he had written two words: “They fly.” I couldn’t believe that! But now I think it’s genius. I mean, when was the last time you wrote a memorable two-word sentence? “They endured.” “Jesus wept.” No, they’re not as rare as an Agee three-pager, but they’re not exactly common in literary prose.

I’m always aspiring to a lightness of touch, but if my long sentences are freighted, as you say, with detail that’s probably because I still feel the need, rightly or wrongly, whether out of conviction or fear, to justify every phrase and measure every single syllable. It’s an adaptation of expressive austerity to that most accommodating of forms, the essay. 

Bub: Essays from Just North of Nashville
By Drew Bratcher
The University of Iowa Press
Published November 2, 2022