Many a white boy, from country or city, who dreams of music and the fast life under the bright lights, has felt the hard pull of the blues. The stark poetry of the lyrics in sorrowful ballads and the freight-train eros of the up-tempo songs threw a long, galvanizing arc from countless points on the map of the down-home South clear across to the British isles.
Think Mose Allison, fashioning his own signature of the Mississippi Delta. Think Tom Jones, the Welshman with that rolling baritone. Think Van Morrison, the Irish rocker with blues in his bloodstream who bolted out of gritty Belfast.
For a Southern music man from whom the blues called, vaulting across the racial lines was hard enough; finding a groove with a band that made the white kids dance into the early hours was tougher yet. In the case of Charles “Butch” Hornsby, late of Baton Rouge and St. Tammany Parish, the dream ran headlong into the seductive mountain we call alcohol.
In Dirtdobber Blues (LSU Press), a semi-fictionalized account of Hornsby’s life, Cyril Vetter, the Baton Rouge writer and producer, handles the hard push of artistic zeal as a midlife fall into the open arms of sobriety. Hornsby wasn’t an A-list musician, though the album that accompanies the novel showcases gruff lyrics and a soft touch on guitar to do his memory right.
This tale of fall and redemption is a love song to a high-fueled man who lit out of Baton Rouge for Los Angeles, pedal-to-the-floor, just in time for the hippie zeitgeist of the late 1960s. Certain of Hornsby’s songlines echo the aftershocks of self-pity.
Lord, I wrecked my car; I’m drunk on gin.
I’m so damned scatterbrained
I’m sky-high in Hollywood and rock bottom on Romaine.
Vetter knew Hornsby well to fashion dialogue and enter his subject’s psyche in a novel about real life. “Three joints, one beer stop, and, finally, a sweep through a liquor store in Tipton that yielded a fifth of Jack Daniels, a six-pack of Cokes, a quart of orange juice, a pint of Vodka, Hershey bars, some Slim Jims, and five bags of assorted chips. Tim and Butch consumed it all (sic).”
Hornsby’s crash from booze would’ve been uneventful in the annals of Louisiana culture, were it not for outsider-art he fashioned in his later years, scenes of bluesmen, prisoners, sheriffs and Indians captured in color plates interspersed through the text. The addictive impulses he couldn’t control finally stopped thanks to a good wife, Carol, who moored him as he got a lawn service going, became a father and found a faith to sustain him through sobriety.
Surgical polling for this column confirms that 74 percent of readers have a relative, friend or themselves who went through recovery. We have no data on the influence Jimmy Swaggart wielded on those who found the high road; that intervention in Hornsby’s redemptive struggle would capture any writer’s eye. In the mid-1980s, writes Vetter:
Butch went totally overboard. He wanted to go to Swaggart’s church twice on Sunday, to sundown service on Wednesday and to all the camp meetings and tent revivals that the Swaggarts conducted … Carol thought he was craving healing and peace and that he embraced the Swaggart message as a substitute for drinking. She didn’t care as long as he didn’t drink, but Butch did alienate a few people when he insisted on quoting Bible verses.
You can feel the tension building inside Butch as Swaggart’s scandal with the $35-an-hour hooker in that no-tell motel along Airline Highway spills onto the pages of the infidel The Times-Picayune and the sinful television stations of New Orleans in that fateful February of 1988. This scene in the novel features, opposite-page, Butch’s ghostly image of a bluesman in white face holding a long guitar, to the cutline, “Mommy, Look, The Man is Crying.” Hornsby struggles to keep clean after the fall of the preacher he adulated as a source of his recovery, discovering that virtue hath its own rewards.
Cyril Vetter produced Hornsby’s recordings in the 1970s with Don Chesson Jr. at Malaco Studios in Jackson, Miss. A friend through Butch’s roller-coaster life, Vetter pays final tribute in Dirtdobber Blues.
Jason Berry’s latest book Render Unto Rome: The secret life of money in the Catholic Church, will be released this month.