Readin’ Rick

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Back when I was in college I played the guitar.
There was nothing unique about this.  It was the 60’s and just about anyone who could cobble together a few chords played guitar. It was a great way to meet girls, and some folks said I was pretty good.  I believed them.
Until one evening I went to hear Doc Watson pick and sing. By the time the first set was over, I knew what a real guitar player was and knew I wasn’t one.
I came away from that experience with the certain knowledge of where I stood in the ranks of pickers.
I get much the same feeling when I read Rick Bragg.
I just finished his latest, “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story,” and once again I am reminded of where I rank, though this time it is among writers.
What I want to do is tell you of the joy I get from reading Rick and express my admiration for how he takes words and makes you understand things. Or even better, reminds you of what you understand already but just haven’t thought about it that way.
He did that in an earlier book, “The Prince of Frogtown,” in which he described the men of his youth. There they were, standing around under a chinaberry tree, “capable men who fixed their own cars, patched their own water lines and laid their own bricks, “so what did it matter if there was “not one necktie or day of college between them.”
Reading that I thought “Dang, there are people who write books on those folks and don’t describe them as well as Rick does in one sentence.”
Bragg’s books are full of such observations, little gems that, more than anything else, explain.
His dedication in Jerry Lee Lewis is a good example.
“To anyone who ever danced in their socks.” Reading that, I knew who he was writing it for.
More than a biography, or autobiography, or something in between, “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story” is a history of an era.  It was a fine time to be young. Bragg might not have been there himself, but he knows what it was all about.
At the center was Jerry Lee, a complex man living in chaotic times. Bragg and Lewis do not try to simplify this, sanitize it for readers with delicate sensibilities. Nor do Rick and Jerry Lee try to turn the story into some sort of morality play, all about sin and redemption.
What Bragg does, and through interview after interview gets Lewis to do, is tell how a God-fearing, talented, ambitious man was as addicted to performing as surely as he was addicted, off and on, to pills, liquor, violence, and women.
Together they, Bragg and Lewis, tell the story so well that you come away convinced that it was more than appropriate, that it was simple justice, that in 1986, Lewis would be in the first class inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Little wonder that when I finished I swore off book writing, at least for a while.
Meanwhile, for those of you who never did dance in your socks, who only knew of Lewis in his later incarnation as an award winning country artist, if you knew of him at all, this book will send you scurrying to the Internet, where you can find the rocker when he was young and as full of himself as a puppy.
Listen to him long enough and I bet you will want to take your shoes off and dance.
It is that kind of book.
Rick Bragg is that kind of a writer.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University.     He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

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