As Guralnick writes about country singer Dick Curless, novelist Lee Smith and bluesman Skip James, he also writes about himself, offering insight into his upbringing and interview philosophy. The result is a book that’s both reportage and memoir. Guralnick spoke by phone recently from his home in West Newbury, Mass.
(This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Q: This story of Dick Curless is so involved, so detailed, so many words. And I'm thinking, can people write stories like this anymore?
A: Well, probably not. I mean, what I mean to say is I wrote it for myself. . . . As soon as I signed on to write the book, then it became the centerpiece of the book. And it was an opportunity to publish what in essence is a nonfiction novella. And I didn’t know where it was going to go. I mean, I should say when I started it, it went in many surprising directions for me, which were painful given how much I admired Dick and how inspired I’d been by our first extensive meeting, which was at [a recording session.] His astonishing composure, his ability to sort of lead and with confidence and with this spiritual ease . . . but never setting aside the experiences and the hard-won lessons that he had learned over the years, no matter how painful it might be to tell them.
Q: The reality is this was a guy who was deeply tortured, and it's hard to tell exactly when he quit drinking. But his issues went on almost through his entire adult life.
A: Well, he did speak to his life before he went into the Army. But coming back from Korea with what amounts to PTSD, whatever it was called then, and just never being able to adjust to the world that he came back to and having really no way to explain it and no one to explain it to you. No one who could fully grasp it. And he wasn’t using it as an excuse. He wasn’t saying, ‘Oh, this is the explanation for why I behaved badly.’ And so, what I tried to do in the story, in the chapter, was the same thing that I’ve tried to do in all the profiles, [which] was essentially to describe an experience. There isn’t a lesson in it, so much. It’s trying to be descriptive, not prescriptive, and to give a sense of the way life has been lived, whatever way that has been. The closest parallel was Charlie Rich. He just described a life of such displacement. And he described his alcoholism. He described his sense of guilt. He described his agoraphobia, how little he actually enjoyed going out and performing. . . . And when I wrote the chapter in “Feel Like Going Home,” I just thought, well, this is terrible — I’ll never see him again — because I had liked him so much. And then, after the book came out, I got a call from Charlie. He’s telling me that he had read it and it was painful, it was difficult, but it was the truth and that was what was important.
Q: You're also telling me that it doesn't matter how they feel ultimately, although you care. The main thing is that what you're writing has to be accurate and honest.
A: It does. I feel like the people that I’ve written about are people who are putting out hard truths, whether it’s Muddy Waters or Waylon Jennings or Charlie Rich or Howlin’ Wolf or Dick Curless. And they don’t shrink from the truth, for the most part.
Q: Your father, as you write, worked [as an oral surgeon] until he was about 101. You're 76. There is a feeling that this book is different; that you're sort of making sense of what you do and where it fits in. What does that mean, exactly?
A: This is not like hanging up my spikes or something. Right now I’ve got three writing projects which I’m focused on and, you know, who knows how long they’ll take.
Q: If you don't mind my asking, what are those three projects?
A: Well, one of them is the short stories. And they were inspired or suggested by my reading Dawn Powell. They parallel “My Home is Far Away,” which was kind of a treatment of growing up in Ohio. It suggested a way that you can deal with autobiographical material, factual material, but take off in different directions. It just gave me a whole new slant on how to approach these stories.
Q: What's the second project?
A: The second-part project is a collection of Colonel Parker’s letters, Elvis’s manager. That’s a good one. Which will give us a completely different picture of Colonel Parker than most people have, because the letters are so eloquent, so witty, also so smart and so to-the-point that they’re just fascinating. And then there’s a third book, which I don’t want to go into at all. I learned when I told both Sam Phillips and Colonel Parker the title of the first volume of my biography of Elvis, “Last Train to Memphis,” Sam got hugely indignant. “So what are you talking about? The last train? There’s going to be lots more trains. This isn’t the last train. You know, the future is looking bright ahead.” Then the Colonel says to me, “What are you talking about? We took the train down from Fort Monmouth or wherever it was that Elvis was discharged down to Memphis. And then we took the train from Nashville down to Florida to do the Frank Sinatra show. We took the bus back. You know, money doesn’t grow on trees.” So I thought, okay, that’s it. No more revelations along those lines.
Q: I think of this when I read your work and try to do my job. You connect so deeply with your subjects. Can this still happen? Can we sit with Taylor Swift or Sturgill Simpson the same way you sat with Skip James or Merle Haggard? Usually, publicists don't want you getting near a guy like Sturgill Simpson until an album is coming. And then you get half an hour during a day of interviews. To dig deep, you need more time.
A: I agree with you. The first time I met Merle Haggard, I went out to Reno. He was playing Harrah’s and the record company had set it up. The Red Sox were in the playoffs, I think, and I sat around for two or three days and he would not see me. And so, finally, I called up the record company in New York and I said, okay, I’m going home, you know, and not because I was affronted, but just because I’d rather watch the Red Sox than just hang around. And then I got to see him. And that was the chapter in “The Lost Highway” where he brings me into the bedroom with Bonnie Owens while they’re negotiating their divorce settlement.
Q: Are there still people who are sort of Peter Guralnick targets? People you would want to profile?
A: Brittany Howard. I don’t know her at all. But I’ve just been so moved by some of the stuff that she’s sung. Both in Alabama Shakes and on her own. And you mentioned Sturgill Simpson.
Q: Sturgill Simpson needs to be written about the right way.
A: He has not. But you know, I had made up my mind when I started on the Sam Phillips that I would never write another biography. Enough is enough. By the time I finished the Sam Phillips, I would have been writing biographies for 27 years. It’s like you’re living somebody else’s life day by day. And I loved it. I enjoyed every element of it. But I thought I had done enough of them. I wanted to do something else, but always lurking in the back of my mind — and this is both a joke and also serious — was the idea that one day the phone would ring and I would pick it up and it would be Merle Haggard. I mean, it’s not going to happen in a million years [Haggard died in 2016]. This is just sheer fantasy or nightmare, I’m not sure which, but it would be Merle. And he would say, “You know, Pete, I’ve read some of the stuff you’ve been writing lately and, you know, it’s not too bad.” And then there would be a 20- or 30-second pause. “I think we could really do something together.” And I could not have turned him down, had that happened.