Re: RARA-AVIS: Hard-boiled music and the Southern voice

From: Mark Sullivan (
Date: 13 Apr 2000

The current hardboiled music thread started when David White suggested that it would be nice if certain recent music-saturated novels could be released with CDs containing songs mentioned in the text. I'm in the middle of a book that would be a prime candidate for this approach, Crossroad Blues by Ace Atkins. (By the way, thanks to whoever mentioned this series when it was still in hardback, I made a note to pick it up when it hit paper, which it now has.)

The main character, Nick Travers, is a "tracker" of old bluesmen, their songs, stories and legends. This particular book revolves around various people searching for rumored recordings from a previously unknown recording session by blues giant Robert Johnson. It's a strong debut. It's also got me pulling out a bunch of my old blues records I haven't listened to in a long time, reacquainting myself with songs playing on Travers' car deck and the music of the bluesmen mentioned, particularly, Robert Johnson.

However, that's not really what I wanted to talk about here. Atkins writes in a "southern voice," for lack of a better description. As a matter of fact, it took me a little while to recognize this book as hardboiled due to this writing style. It made me see how much I take an urban feel and setting for granted in HB and noir. It made me realize that a few authors, Atkins, Woodrell and, especially, Lansdale, are creating a very viable alternative of, as Woodrell calls it, Country Noir.

All of these writers adopt a more leisurely pace in speech and plot development. I guess Barry Gifford and Fred Willard would also fit in here. There is a lot of good ol' boy camaraderie and joshin' around -- for instance, Hap and Leonard's ritual insults -- that sucker you into taking it as a nice surface happy, sunny southern world, until you are sucker-punched by the barely hidden evil (often having to do with racism) lurking not too far beneath this gentility. And very few of the protagonists in this genre are professionals in the traditional sense.

Just some preliminary thoughts on an intriguing subgenre I am beginning to notice.


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