I was born in the middle of the woods near a coal-mining town in northern Alabama, and I grew up in church. Literally.
Seeing as everyone in my family had a role in the small Baptist congregation (deacon, Sunday School teacher, trustee, pianist, song-leader, grass-mower, cemetery committee) I was there every time the doors were open and many times when they weren’t. Often, I would spend more waking hours at church than at home, and the line between church members and family members seemed at times nonexistent.
The people were all solid, hard-working, gentle, God-fearing. And together, they would suffocate my heart almost dead. Seeing as these were the days of the Cuban missile crisis, I had regular nightmares that somehow conjoined a nuclear attack and the Second Coming of Christ, happening simultaneously in my back yard.
I say “almost dead” because I escaped. As I would write decades later in an essay, “The day I was old enough to move out, I ran from that narrow world into the welcoming arms of science and reason like a hostage greeting his rescuers.”
But, God, did I miss their music.
My mother, grandparents, and a neighbor had a gospel quartet that rehearsed in our living room, and they were in great demand to sing for funerals and homecomings, at our church and many others. My grandfather had a rich, untrained bass voice, and from the day my voice changed he would always nudge me in the pew during congregational hymns and whisper, “Help me sing bass, buddy…” My teenaged self would grimace and sing precisely loud enough to remain unheard by anyone except him.
I had said good riddance to the hellfire and brimstone. But for years afterward, the music ambushed me constantly. From the open doors of city churches as I walked the dogs. From distant radio stations in towns I drove through at night. From vinyl LPs, old and new. Doc Watson. Gram Parsons. Mahalia Jackson. Rosetta Tharpe. The Stanley Brothers.
For me, there are only three types of songs: (1) those I don’t care for, (2) those I enjoy listening to, and (3) those that fill me like oxygen and make me laugh and cry at the same time before I even realize what’s going on.
What brought this ancient history to my mind was finishing Alex Bledsoe’s new novel The Hum and the Shiver, which takes the familiar theme of traditional backwoods Southern music and makes it new and universal as only fine storytelling can do.
I would bet good money that the author sojourned in some dark places of the heart while writing it, but the result pays off with compound interest on the page.
As for my own apocalyptic childhood nightmares, the only way I was finally able to vanquish them was to write a fantasy novel (The Shining Shining Path, 1995) in which the second coming of Christ and a nuclear war take place simultaneously in my grandparents’ backyard.
In return for his gift of The Hum and the Shiver, I wish Bledsoe peaceful dreams. And if you’re a reader, I envy you the pleasure of reading it for the first time.