Hank & Muddy, an amazing novel just published by Perfect Crime Books, recounts a fictional meeting in July, 1952 between legendary bluesman Muddy Waters and Country music icon Hank Williams. This is GREAT book, capturing the spirits of both men and throwing them together in a hair-raising adventure in Shreveport, Louisiana.
I'll be posting my review of Hank & Muddy on Friday. But today I have something much better - an interview with author Stephen Mertz!
(P.S. If you missed yesterday's videos of Muddy doing "Got My Mojo Workin'" and Hank singing "Hey, Good Lookin'," you can check them out HERE.)
ME: First off, I’m insanely jealous of the very idea of this book. I wish I’d thought of it myself. What inspired you to bring these two guys together in a novel?
STEVE: I’m glad you liked it. If I knew where good ideas came from, I’d order up more of them! For me, this is one of those books that turned out pretty much the way I wanted it to while I was writing it. That’s a good feeling for a writer.
ME: Did you find any evidence that these ever really met?
STEVE: No but if they didn’t, they damn well should have. They were both around Shreveport at the same time. Hank was trying to salvage what was left of his career and get back on the radio. The Opry had let him go and he finally made it back onto the Louisiana Hayride out of Shreveport. Hank & Muddy takes place just before that. Muddy was touring Louisiana in July of that year. The story of Little Walter walking on the band in the middle of the tour is accurate.
ME: You must have done an amazing amount of research into their characters. Are there biographies you would particularly recommend?
STEVE: Actually, most of the “research” amounted to a lifetime of compulsively reading album liner notes and everything else I could find related to those two, and of course with the internet everything’s out there. Chet Flippo’s book on Hank is exhaustive and well written, as is the Sandra B. Tooze book on Muddy.
ME: Though I’m a longtime fan of both these singers, I knew absolutely nothing about their private lives. I’m impressed that you’ve pulled no punches here, delving into the dark side of each man’s character. Were you at all hesitant about taking us so far beyond their public personas?
STEVE: No, because that was my intention.
ME: I know that the members of Muddy’s band portrayed here (Little Walter, Elgin Evans and Jimmy Rogers) were real guys, and it was cool to see a brief appearance by John Lee Hooker. Were there any other real people in the book?
STEVE: A few. Tee Tot, the black street musician who taught a young Hank how to play guitar, is really one of the most unsung figures in American music. Tee Tot teaches this country boy how to play the blues, and years later those two strains come together in Elvis and the first generation of rockers. Hank’s mother and Audrey, his ex-wife and muse, are portrayed as realistically as I could render them from what I’d read. That also applies to a few cameos in the book like Billie Jean, Hank’s next and last wife, and Leonard Chess, who produced and recorded Muddy.
ME: Your handling of both Muddy and Hank is so masterful that I feel like I got to know - and like - the real men behind the songs. I’d love to see you write historical fiction about either or both. I’m thinking that would appeal to a whole different audience beyond the mystery field. Any chance of that?
STEVE: Thank you, Evan. I hope the critics are half as kind. I believe Hank & Muddy is the book that does reach beyond the mystery field. Earlier you referred to it as “a mystery novel,” and I certainly won’t object to it being so classified with so many of my colleagues in the mystery field. I’m pleased to be grouped with them, and I’m grateful to Perfect Crime Books for publishing the book. But Hank & Muddy is sub-titled “a novel.” Yes, there’s definitely a strong noir/whodunit vibe. I love that stuff. But at its heart Hank & Muddy is a character study of these men and their world, or worlds, and with this novel I’ve pretty much had my say on the subject. I hate writing the same book twice.
ME: I thought it was especially ballsy of you to tackle both men in first person, with alternating points of view. That had to be intimidating, but you pulled it off perfectly, and obviously had fun doing it. Was that a tough decision to make?
STEVE: I wanted Hank & Muddy to convey the cultural divide that separated them. The first person approach seemed the most even-handed way of showing that. And you’re right, it was fun doing my best to portray the rhythms of speech and thought that contrasted an urban bluesman with a down-home country boy. Actually, I met Muddy several times, backstage at gigs in the 1970s, which allowed me to at least get a sense of the man. As I was typing I was usually speaking the words aloud to myself in what I hoped was an approximation of what they sounded like.
ME: Would you care to list some of your favorite songs, albums, or CD collections by these guys?
STEVE: Hoo boy, that’s a tall order! The Complete Muddy Waters 1947-1967. It’s hard to find unless you want to download it but that’s the most comprehensive collection of Muddy, an out of print boxed set that a U.K. outfit called Charly did about 20 years ago. Hank’s career burned bright and ended much too soon, and nearly all of his recordings are readily available in a variety of collections. The work of both men from that period epitomizes the roots of what became rock & roll. I listen to that stuff all the time.
FRIDAY: THE REVIEW