Cover Story: Hemphill’s return

Atlanta author Paul Hemphill calls on a kindred country spirit in his comeback bid

Paul Hemphill lifts the chewed-up piece of Nicorette gum out of his mouth and sticks it in a paper napkin. This is a man who used to fire up 20 of those mean little nonfiltered Camels a day and now he chews pellets of doped-up gum. It is an indignity.

Hemphill is at Manuel’s Tavern on a Tuesday night — government-in-exile night — with Democratic politicos, cops and ex-newspapermen. He’s at a big round table with his wife, Susan Percy, and a circle of friends. They’re passing around an early copy of his new book, Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams. They’re all pulling for it to be a hit.</
Hemphill is 69, recovering from a stroke, his face pale and gaunt. But you look at the book cover and then at him. You can see a bit of the late Hank Williams in his new biographer. The resemblance is uncanny: Two boys rising up out of blue-collar Alabama, born 13 years apart, both with big ears, both 6-1, 150 pounds, with a tendency to shrink into the 130s when the booze kicked in. And, boy, did the booze kick in.</
Both with the same sensitivity deep down.</
“We can hurt easily,” Hemphill says.</
The greatest bond of all may be the way both of them cut right to the bone as artists. Williams did it with “three chords and the truth.” Hemphill explores the South and his own moody Celtic soul with stripped-down prose that has the kick of a mule.</
“Life, I have determined, is a pisser,” he wrote years ago. “‘I’ll never get out of this world alive’ is the way Hank Williams put it.”</
Curtis McBride brings Hemphill’s dinner, a Manuel’s Burger. McBride has been serving him burgers and iced tea since the days when Manuel Maloof himself hovered over Hemphill like a nurse, making sure he didn’t take that first drink.</
Hemphill examines the 6 ounces of meat.</
“It looks like a hockey puck,” he says. But he doesn’t mean it. Hell, he loves the place. He put Manuel’s Tavern on the map. He’s part of the DNA, like the John F. Kennedy portrait behind the bar.</
Hemphill has been walking through the worn wooden doors into Manuel’s dark cavern for 40 years, since he was the new kid who took the town by storm, a long-haul truck driver’s son from Birmingham who became the star columnist for the Atlanta Journal, the old afternoon paper.</
Six days a week, in a column stripped down the left-hand side of page 2, he churned out 1,000 words of human drama. He wrote about the kind of folks a friend once called “those Southern creatures”: truck drivers, sheriffs, baseball bums, bootleggers, country singers, evangelists and stock car drivers.</
Hemphill was 29 by then — the same age at which Williams died. He’d already given up his dream of playing professional baseball. That ended after five days with the Class D Graceville, Fla., Oilers, when the manager said, “I gotta let the kid go.” It was the first of many turning points in a life that would begin to sound like a Hank Williams song.</
Hemphill salvaged his pride by playing semi-pro ball in Kansas. He was a good-fielding second baseman who couldn’t hit but still drove in runs.</
“I was a buntin’ son of a bitch,” he says. “With two outs and a man on third and two strikes on me, I’d get the bunt sign. I’d drop it. He would score.”</
He found his way to Auburn University, where a professor told him he had the makings of a writer. He started writing about sports. But a New York columnist soon caught his eye.</
Jimmy Breslin was writing a new kind of column for the New York Herald-Tribune. “In a thousand words or less, Breslin was writing close to literature: sharp vignettes with a beginning and a middle and an end, vivid slices of life from the streets of New York,” Hemphill explained in his 1993 memoir, Leaving Birmingham.</
It was called “new journalism” and Hemphill wanted in on the action. After newspaper jobs in Birmingham, Augusta and Tampa, he found his way to Atlanta and the news pages. Finally, he was hitting home runs, but with a typewriter instead of a bat. Paul Hemphill soon became known as the Jimmy Breslin of the South.</
His stuff resonates today. John Schulian, a newspaper columnist-turned-TV writer, included one of Hemphill’s columns in his literary journalism class at the University of Utah last year. The column was “Welcome home, Billy Goad,” which Hemphill wrote about an early casualty from the Vietnam War. Before dawn, he went out to the airport to watch Goad’s arrival: “You could see the crate in the dim overhead light. It was a rectangular pine box, battleship gray, with one brass handle on each end and two on each side. Stenciled on one end was the name SSGT. GOAD, BILLY E. A white card said ‘HEAD — KEEP THIS END HIGH.’”</
Hemphill came into his own as a writer at the time Atlanta came into its own as a city. He became a street-prowling chronicler of life in a Southern town that was blooming into a major-league city.</
“It was such a hectic, explosive time, and there was this huge transition from this nice little Southern residential, white-dominated downtown core city into something else entirely, and it happened in one decade,” recalls novelist Anne Rivers Siddons, who was a freshman with Hemphill at Auburn and a writer at Atlanta magazine. “A lot of writers came to put a foot in the fire and became very good writers because there was so much to write about.”</
Atlanta had the good sense to integrate in a dignified fashion instead of unleashing the dogs like the folks back in Hemphill’s native “Bombingham.” Hemphill grew up, too, consciously rejecting his father’s ranting about “Martin Luther Coon.” On a visit home, he was sickened by it.</
“This good man who once had been my hero, my ‘king of the road,’ now was eaten up by racism as though it was a cancer,” he wrote later.</
In the early 1960s, when he served in France with the Alabama Air National Guard, Hemphill worked with an interpreter who told him he should have been back home fighting segregation instead of preparing to fight the Russians. He saw enough of the world that he wanted nothing to do with the corrosive racism that crippled Birmingham.</
“Anybody that says newspapers aren’t staffed by liberals, they’re crazy because they fucking are, you know?” Hemphill says. “I think just plain people who write, report, they’ve seen enough that if they’re human, they’ve got to be liberal.”</
Hemphill, ironically, was lured to Atlanta in 1964 to write for the conservative Atlanta Times. The paper made a short-lived run at the Cox-owned Journal and Constitution. Its backers opposed the courageous columns denouncing racism by Constitution Publisher Ralph McGill. Hemphill idolized McGill, but his father called him “Rastus.”</
Hemphill jumped to the Journal just before the Times folded. He was a hit from the start.</
“He was popular, I mean really, really popular,” recalls Terry Kay, a former Journal colleague who’s now a successful novelist and screenwriter.</
Hemphill wrote columns from Vietnam as well as Manuel’s. He knew he had a good thing going. “I had the most envied newspaper job in Atlanta, if not the South.” But he wanted more. The rawboned Alabama boy won a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 1968. Before he went, McGill told him prophetically he would never be the same. Hemphill used the time at Harvard to write a book about the country music he listened to as a boy. He spent January 1969 in Nashville interviewing stars.</
When he returned to the Journal, he toured the South for a series of columns, but soon wanted out of the relentless daily grind. His decision to leave the newspaper business was hastened by the suicide of one of his sportswriting mentors in Birmingham. A few weeks later, Hemphill got drunk at Emile’s French Cafe in the Fairlie-Poplar district — Atlanta’s answer to the Algonquin Round Table in New York — and wrote an abrupt resignation letter: “I’m quitting newspapers because I am sick.” Then he went to Manuel’s to drink more.</
“I had hung around all-night eateries and gone to Vietnam and hitchhiked and lain around with hookers and shot pool with Minnesota Fats and sat in cool suburban dens with frustrated housewives,” Hemphill wrote later. “And, yet, with the next column due by dawn, I had run out of gas.”</
A few months later, he published his country music book, The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music.</
The Chicago Sun-Times called it “the best book ever written about country music.” At the age of 34, Paul Hemphill had made it to the big leagues.</
“The Nashville Sound had been blessed from the start — right book, right author, right editor, right time — and when it came out in the spring of ‘70, I had every reason to think it would always be like this,” he wrote in 1993.</
But it wasn’t like that again. Not even close. The first book sold 75,000 copies in hardback. During the next 35 years, Hemphill wrote 14 more books, including four novels. But even though critics praised his work, he never recaptured the early success.</
His most recent novel, Nobody’s Hero, sold only 800 copies. In 2003, in the ultimate indignity, the Atlanta Press Club didn’t invite him to its annual holiday authors’ party.</
Atlanta had forgotten Paul Hemphill.</
And, Jesus, did it hurt.</
With the first book’s success, Hemphill and his first wife, Susan, moved to St. Simons Island with their three children, David, Lisa and Molly. He wrote for major magazines, but the marriage began to fall apart. “I was writing books, but I was married to a woman who, to my knowledge, had never finished reading one,” Hemphill wrote. They divorced and his ex-wife took the kids back to Birmingham.</
Hemphill began to drift. His drinking got worse. In 1975, he was teaching a night class in Tallahassee. One of his students was a Florida state employee, a young woman from Atlanta who remembered that Hemphill not only was quite a writer, but was also quite cute. When Hemphill took a column-writing job with the San Francisco Examiner, the student, Susan Percy, followed. They were married and this fall will celebrate their 29th anniversary. They have one daughter, Martha.</
In San Francisco, Hemphill clashed with Publisher Reg Murphy, former editor of the Constitution, over Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign — Hemphill was for him, Murphy was not. Hemphill quit again. He turned down a sports column job in Chicago that was offered by a young Sun-Times sports editor, Lewis Grizzard, who soon returned to Atlanta to become a Southern folk hero as a humorist before his death at age 47.</
Hemphill and Percy moved back to Atlanta, where Percy got her journalism career on track. She became a writer and editor at Atlanta magazine. Today, she’s the editor of Georgia Trend, a monthly business magazine. When they arrived from San Francisco, they hoped for success with Hemphill’s first novel, Long Gone, a minor-league baseball story that won a glowing review in the New York Times. In Newsweek, Pete Axthelm said, “Hemphill bears comparison to Faulkner in his lighter moods.”</
One day, Hemphill was mowing the yard when Percy called out that he had a phone call. “I thought it was Al Braselton, my friend who did great impersonations. He said, ‘Paul, this is Dustin Hoffman.’ I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ And I slammed the fucking phone on him. I went back out in the yard. And Susan comes up and says, ‘You’ve got another phone call and it may be the same guy.’ I said ‘OK.’ I started in and he said, ‘Wait, wait! This is me, this is Dustin Hoffman. Really.”</
Hoffman wanted to play Stud Cantrell, the manager in Long Gone. Hemphill was ecstatic. If Hoffman made a successful movie based on the story, book sales might go through the roof. But then he learned his first important lesson about Hollywood: “You’ve got to get the screenplay. It better be good.”</
Unfortunately, the screenplay by a Hollywood writer wasn’t good enough for Hoffman, who went on to do Tootsie instead.

Eight years later, the book became a made-for-TV HBO movie starring William L. Petersen and Virginia Madsen. Newsday called it “one of the best sports movies ever made.”</
Hemphill ran into the same roller-coaster of emotion with his next two novels.</
Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme struck out with a screenplay for The Sixkiller Chronicles and two-time-Oscar-winner Ring Lardner Jr. failed to sell his screenplay of King of the Road, Hemphill’s novel based on his father.</
Of all people, Hemphill could relate to the disappointment Hank Williams must have felt when few people appreciated the most beautiful song he ever wrote, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”</
“[T}he marvelously poetic dirge that Hank himself would call the favorite of all the songs he wrote” ended up on the B-side of a record, Hemphill writes. “[[T]he best it ever did on the charts was No. 43, in 1966, more than a dozen years after Hank’s death.”</
In the ’90s, Hemphill kept returning to nonfiction despite the advice of his old friend Terry Kay. Hemphill wrote about racism in Birmingham and Little River, Ala., about baseball and stock car racing.</
“I’ve been telling him for years and years and years, ‘Paul, for God’s sake, write fiction, write fiction, write fiction,’” Kay says. “But I think he feels more comfortable with nonfiction.”</
Hemphill protests that “fiction is so fickle. You can’t make a living at it. When you present a proposal in nonfiction to a publisher, that’s easier. The publisher can put their finger on it.”</
With all his ups and downs, Hemphill never bothered seeing a therapist. He used his keyboard as his couch. His breakthrough with introspective writing came with a New York Times Sunday Magazine piece about his relationship with his father. He called it an emotional “bloodletting.” When the article came out, his parents bought every copy of the Times they could find and burned them in a backyard bonfire.</
For his seventh book, Me and the Boy, he tried to exorcise two demons at once — repairing his relationship with his son, David, and beating the booze. He walked the Appalachian Trail with David, who had flunked out of the University of the South. They hiked 1,000 miles before the old ballplayer’s knees gave out.</
At the end of the book, Hemphill shares an exchange of letters between him and David. David told him how much he had needed Hemphill as his father.</
Hemphill wrote back: “It’s going to take about 120,000 words for me to say it to the world in great flowery gut-wrenching detail ... but I can state it to you in one simple declarative sentence. I love you more than anybody or anything in the world. ... What I feel for you is not ‘responsibility.’ It’s love.”</
He hoped David would get back on track. But today, at 40, David is serving a term in federal prison in Arkansas. “Guns and drugs,” Hemphill laments. He explains that David was arrested in Alabama, under the influence of marijuana and in possession of several guns. He hopes his son will be released next summer.</
Hemphill has come to grips with sadness. It is the root of his art.</
“[M]ost of my best writing is ultimately sad,” he wrote in the foreword to his second collection of columns, Too Old to Cry. “It is about lost dreams and excess baggage and divorce, whiskey, suicide, killing, and general unhappiness: a boy who died in my arms, in a bomb crater, while I wrote in Vietnam; an old lady who simply died of loneliness; a young couple with a child, stranded in a bus station; a pathetic kid from Tennessee who messed up a bank robbery in San Francisco.”</
His walk on the trail didn’t cure his problem with the booze overnight, either. The low point of his drinking, he says, was “7 o’clock in the morning, my vodka and my orange juice before anybody else got up.”</
Percy agrees.</
“There was a point where I could hear the top of a vodka bottle being unscrewed from 50 feet,” she says. “I still have a tightening sensation in the back of my neck that I associate with hearing that sound.”</
She threw Hemphill out of the house on Thanksgiving 1984.</
“I didn’t like Paul when he drank and I didn’t like me when he drank,” Percy says.</
Hemphill had always been contemptuous of Alcoholics Anonymous, but after a few nights on friends’ couches, he decided to try it. He and Percy reconciled. He cobbled together a year of sobriety in AA and, to celebrate, started drinking again.</
“Nine o’clock the next morning, I’m waiting for them to open the doors for my favorite liquor store in Little Five Points,” he says. “When I got over that one, I said, ‘Fuck it, it’s my turn. I have to do it myself. I can’t lean on them anymore.’”</
He quit on his own and hasn’t had a drink in 20 years. He credits Percy with saving his life. “She anchors me, you know? She loved me and she hung in there, but I tell you, I pushed her to the limit.”</
One of Hemphill’s biggest mistakes was firing his first literary agent, Sterling Lord, who also represented Jack Kerouac. About 10 years ago, when Lord was in his 70s, Hemphill felt the agent was too old and let him go.</
“I found out there be monsters out there,” Hemphill says. “Horrible things happened.” He found modest success with nonfiction books, but his new agent wasn’t able to sell his fourth novel, Nobody’s Hero. It was finally published by a small Alabama house. After it sold only 800 copies, Hemphill broke down and wrote to Lord, still active in his 80s, who took him back.</
Hemphill mentioned that he’d always been interested in writing a book about Hank Williams. Within weeks, Lord got him a deal with Viking. Hemphill found a trove of information in Nashville. Then he wove his own story around the biography.</
The book starts out in 1949, with the 13-year-old Hemphill on the road with his father, roaring through the mountains in the truck, listening to “that Lovesick Boy” on the radio.</
“Daddy leaned over to turn up the volume so we could hear the pained yodel and the whining steel guitar that echoed his nasal wail. Hank sang like a hurt animal. They were the loneliest sounds we had ever heard,” Hemphill wrote.</
Like a soul brother, he examines Williams’ alcoholism, which hastened the singer’s untimely death.</
“An alcoholic, in his determination, is one of the smartest people in the world,” Hemphill says. “Nothing is going to stand between him and the next drink of whiskey and I certainly know that feeling, and you know you’re screwing up everything and you can’t help yourself. You’ve got to have a drink.”</
Lord has all the right things happening with the book. He’s sold the rights to Lovesick Blues in the United Kingdom, for a large-type edition and for an audio book. Booklist called it “The finest work of literature about Williams yet written.” The AJC review said Hemphill’s book is as “exhilarating” as Williams’ music.</
The hoopla has led Atlanta’s Everthemore Books, an imprint of A Capella Books in Little Five Points, to publish a new edition of The Nashville Sound. For Hemphill, the heightened interest is like the good old days.</
“He’s very hopeful and optimistic,” Percy says, “but in the back of his mind, he’s thinking, ‘Oh, man, is this all not going to turn out as wonderfully well as I want it to?’ He’s been writing really well for a long time and I think he would like some outside validation, from somebody besides his wife and good friends, that he writes wonderfully.”</
Hemphill is struggling to recover from the stroke that felled him on St. Patrick’s Day. He’s dragging two fingers on his left hand when he types and having trouble with balance when he walks.</
The worst thing is that the stroke took his spirit.</
“I have the fear that the Hank book is the last serious book I’ll ever write,” he says. “But I don’t know. You never know. I don’t get pissed off at anything anymore and part of that is age, I guess. I don’t know. The spirit is just not there.”</
But he’s already working on his next book, a history of Auburn football.</
“He’s a writer,” Percy says. “That’s what he does.”</
Click here to read an excerpt from the epilogue of Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams by Paul Hemphill.</
Senior Editor Doug Monroe started reading Paul Hemphill in the Journal in 1965. He can be reached at For more about Hemphill, see