Journalist, Novelist Rooted in the South

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 13, 2009

Paul Hemphill, a journalist and novelist who wrote about sports, country music and the haunted legacy of the South, died July 11 of oral cancer at a hospice in Atlanta. He was 73.

In the 1960s, before he turned to writing books, Mr. Hemphill was a much admired newspaper columnist in Atlanta and was sometimes called the Jimmy Breslin of the South. He left newspapers behind in 1970, when he wrote a best-selling book about country music, "The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music," but he never quite recaptured his early success.

His 15 books seldom reached the bestseller lists, and he had poor luck getting them made into films, but he was widely regarded as one of the most lyrical and sensitive writers about the South, where he lived most of his life.

"I'm the son of a Birmingham trucker, and I have no business -- or interest -- in writing about any other part of the country," he told the Birmingham Weekly newspaper in 2005.

Mr. Hemphill burned many of the bridges to his home town with his 1993 memoir, "Leaving Birmingham," which exposed his father's racist leanings and showed little mercy for the city's pieties. But in novels, memoirs and journalism, he kept returning to the world of the blue-collar South, showing a great knack for capturing its speech, sorrows and pathos.

"Most of my best writing is ultimately sad," he wrote in the introduction to a 1981 collection of journalism, "Too Old to Cry." "It is about lost dreams and excess baggage and divorce, whiskey, suicide, killing, and general unhappiness."

He sometimes took risks in reporting his richly nuanced tales, particularly when he was writing "The Ballad of Little River," a nonfiction account of aimless, disillusioned white youths from Alabama who went to prison for setting fire to a black church.

In his book, he described the arsonists as "sons and daughters of dysfunctional families, kids with few hopes and dreams beyond finding some menial job or marrying within the clan, kids who had not even been given a road map about how to live a noble life."

After living for six months in the rural Alabama backwater, which he said was little changed from the 1940s, Mr. Hemphill knew it was time to go when he found all four tires of his car punctured.

"What Mr. Hemphill succeeds in doing in his casual, understated, almost aw-shucks way," critic Richard Bernstein wrote in the New York Times, "is get under the skin of troubled community."

Paul James Hemphill was born Feb. 18, 1936, in Birmingham. As a young man, he spent one week in the lowest of the minor leagues as an aspiring baseball player before being released. His Web site dryly notes, "The greatest influence on Paul Hemphill's life was the minor-league baseball manager who released him one week into spring training, forcing him to college."

He graduated from Auburn University in Alabama and worked as a newspaper reporter in Alabama, Georgia and Florida before moving to Atlanta in 1964. He wrote a column six days a week for the Atlanta Journal, modeling his work after Breslin's.

Breslin's "taut 1,000-word human dramas were literature, right there in the newspaper, and that's what I wanted to do," Mr. Hemphill wrote in "Leaving Birmingham."

After winning a Nieman fellowship to Harvard University in 1968, Mr. Hemphill wrote his book on country music and embarked on a career as a freelance writer. He had a brief sojourn at a San Francisco newspaper in the 1970s before returning to Atlanta, where he lived the rest of his life.

He wrote about his drinking problem and his troubled relationship with his son in the 1986 memoir, "Me and the Boy: Journey of Discovery -- Father and Son on the Appalachian Trail."

He capped his career in 2005 with another ode to country music, "Lovesick Blues," a well-received biography of a fellow Alabaman, singer-songwriter Hank Williams.

"Onstage and in the studio, he was doing what came naturally: desperately telling the story of his life, which kept getting worse," he wrote.

His marriage to Susan Milliage Olive ended in divorce.

Survivors include his second wife, Susan Percy of Atlanta; three children from his first marriage; a daughter from his second marriage; and six grandchildren.

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