“I’m a long gone daddy—I don’t need you anyhow.” That line from the classic Hank Williams song is the unspoken credo of the Gaunts, three generations of hard-living, woman-leaving, dream-chasing musicians whose stories are told in Long Gone Daddies, a debut novel by Memphis writer David Wesley Williams. A coming-of-age story, pilgrimage tale, and homage to the city of Memphis, the novel is narrated by young Luther Gaunt (son of John, grandson of Malcolm) with a spare lyricism that swings from sly humor to despair with the gutsy style of a great blues song. Driven by the same stubborn wanderlust that cursed his forebears, Luther travels up and down the country in search of inspiration and romance, and in the process he traces the footsteps of a slew of musical long-gone daddies, from Robert Johnson to Elvis.
“My daddy told me a good many things, for never being around much,” says Luther. John’s stories of the road, his “songs of sweet evil and blue ruckus,” and his tales of his own father, Malcolm, spark Luther’s desire to follow the family vocation. John roams, in the way of all bad-boy musicians, but when he’s home he plays for his son on Malcolm’s beautiful Cassandra guitar. The guitar is a sacred relic, all that’s left of the eldest Gaunt, who met some mysterious, unspeakable end on the very day in 1953 when he was to play for legendary Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis. After John and the guitar disappear for good from the family’s drab home in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Luther pieces together Malcolm’s full story. Years go by, and one day the guitar arrives in the mail from Memphis, along with a letter from the still mysteriously AWOL John. With “Cassie” in hand, Luther finally hits the road himself, eventually joining with some other wandering souls and forming a band called (what else?) the Long Gone Daddies.
Since Orpheus ran afoul of the Maenads, musicians have famously had trouble with women. Sure enough, bad girls bring on most of the serious trouble in Long Gone Daddies. For Luther, danger arrives in the person of Delia, a woman with “eyes like blue neon as seen through pouring rain” and a rose tattoo on her thigh. Delia joins the band, sort of, but she has ambitions far beyond playing in honky-tonks, and although she’s nominally attached to Luther’s bandmate Jimmy Lee, she’s not above deploying the tattoo on someone else. Misbehavior and conflict ensue, the band breaks up, and Luther, like his father and grandfather before him, misses his chance at fame and fortune.
The gods of the Gaunt musical pantheon—Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Elvis, Carl Perkins, et al.— hover over the action throughout Long Gone Daddies. Luther invokes them with virtually every other breath, and when he finds himself alone in Memphis after the breakup, he makes pilgrimages to Graceland and to the grave of bluesman Furry Lewis. His devotion turns to evangelizing when he meets Ida Queen, a young black woman who regards the city, with all its musical ghosts, as “a funeral parlor with a gift shop.” Determined to reeducate her, he tells her tales of Bukka White and B.B King, and declares that Memphis is “the great lost city of sound.”
Just when it seems the narrative is in danger of devolving into an ethnomusicology lecture, Long Gone Daddies delivers a major surprise that pulls it back into the passionate world of the Gaunt family. Luther winds up having a touching phone conversation with his long-suffering mother back in Scranton, who explains Luther to himself as perhaps only the grass widow of a musician could. “You’re a musician and doing what musicians do,” she says. “They can’t sit too long. They have to go out and scour the land for those songs. They have to seek inspiration and a crowd to hear them. They have to drink from life.”
It’s a sweet description of what is in reality a hard existence, but as Luther is later reminded in a bitter coda to his particular song of the road, there are worse fates than obscurity. In the world of Long Gone Daddies, the quest is the goal. Love and money are all secondary to the songs, and the music exists for its own beautiful sake. “It’s all we know,” says Luther. “It’s what we do.”
[This review appeared originally on March 4, 2013.]
David Wesley Williams will appear at the twenty-fifth annual Southern Festival of Books, held in Nashville October 11-13. All festival events are free and open to the public.