The music section of Clyde Edgerton's curriculum vitae would properly include these entries: recorded and released several CDs, performed music on The Today Show, inspired the song "Floatplane Notebooks" by rock band Jolene and raised a daughter who's now in a popular North Carolina band.
"I was writing songs before I was writing fiction," says the Durham-born novelist, the recipient of five Notable Book awards from The New York Times. Thus, with that history in music and his continued activity in musical circles, the grand slam above isn't exactly unexpected in Edgerton's case.
But it is rare, if not unprecedented, in his field: He's not a toe-dipper like Carl Hiaasen and Thomas McGuane, a pair of authors who co-wrote a song or two with Warren Zevon. And he's not on the roster of the author-stocked Rock Bottom Remainders, a band that exists as folly. Member Dave Barry once described the Remainders as "playing music as well as Metallica writes novels." Nope, music is more than a one-off for Edgerton, and while it is a barrel of fun, it's not merely a lark. You can hear that much just by listening to him accompany Larry Brown, his friend and fellow music lover, on the recording of "Don't Let the Door" that closes Just One More, 2007's various-artists tribute to the late novelist.
"He plays music because he likes to play music," says Edgerton's daughter Catherine, co-founder with Kym Register of Durham folk explorers Midtown Dickens. "And he writes because he likes to write."
Catherine recalls a childhood with instruments everywhere, including her grandmother's piano— the one she learned to play on, the same one her father learned on before (and the same one that's now a centerpiece at Durham community space and venue Bull City Headquarters). She remembers a Ray Charles tape of her dad's that was a first favorite of hers and how there was always a lot of front-porch picking after her dad taught himself how to play banjo. He even handed her a harmonica. "He said I could have it if I learned to play 'Turkey in the Straw.'"
Clyde Edgerton's musical exploits aren't, however, confined to the front porch. He claims a bona fide discography. There's the Walking Across Egypt album, with readings from his novels Raney and Walking Across Egypt, as well as songs from the Tarwater Band, featuring Edgerton, his then-wife (and Catherine's mother) Susan and Red Clay Rambler Jim Watson. There's The Devil's Dream, with the Tarwater Band offering original tunes related to the Lee Smith novel of the same name.
More recently, Edgerton's collaborated with fellow North Carolinian Mike Craver, who, in addition to his solo work, is known for his early membership in the Red Clay Ramblers and, these days, the group Craver, Hicks, Watson and Newberry. The pair first put the Edgerton novel Lunch at the Piccadilly to music. They recently finished a project based on Edgerton's latest work, The Bible Salesman.
Edgerton doesn't just put his books to music, though. It's a conscious symbiosis, where music first finds its way into the text. The Bible Salesman's protagonist once played alongside Roy Acuff, and there's a blues singer in The Floatplane Notebooks. The songwriter in Lunch at the Piccadilly is only penning some songs Edgerton had just written for himself. And in his upcoming The Night Train, music, explains Edgerton, "is almost a character."
Edgerton loves to talk about music, too. In August 2008, an Edgerton-authored playlist was featured in "Living With Music" in The New York Times Paper Cuts blog. That gave him the chance to wax rhapsodic about performances ranging from Randy Newman's "You Can Leave Your Hat On" and James Brown's blistering "I Don't Mind" to the Bob Dylan-Ralph Stanley pairing on "The Lonesome River" and a pure-voiced take on the Carter Family's "Are You Tired of Me My Darling" by Craver.
And last week, talking about common threads between his favorite musicians and favorite authors, his response illustrated why it's unfair for other music-journalism dabblers to have to compete with award-winning authors.
"I would say that Flannery O'Connor is acoustic rather than electric, and that ties her up with my enjoyment of acoustic music. She may be somewhat related to the Carter Family's music," he writes. "And I'd say that Leon Russell in Hank Wilson's Back, one of my favorite albums, reminds me of Larry Brown somehow—mostly the song topics. I suppose Ry Cooder and Lewis Nordan fit.
"Tom Waits and Oscar Peterson and Ray Charles and James Brown and Randy Newman sort of all together match up with Cormac McCarthy—if you throw in Stravinsky. John Prine takes me to Modern Baptists by James Wilcox and Norwood by Charles Portis, but I don't know why exactly."
Music will bring Edgerton, a creative writing teacher at University of North Carolina-Wilmington these days, back to Durham on May 22. He and Craver are uniting for a house concert—the last event of the season for the Learned Place series—with an emphasis on The Bible Salesman. It's appropriate for the pair to bring the music back into a house, since that's where it began.
"We spent about three days at a beach house putting together the first draft and then three more to record it," says Edgerton. Their Lunch at the Piccadilly collaboration took almost two years and a bunch of back-and-forth via e-mail. This one was much different. "We recorded in a bedroom of the beach house with mattresses and pillows lining the walls to help with the sound."
Despite the setting, the process wasn't entirely a day or six at the beach.
"We recorded it New Year's Eve, just the two of us," offers Craver. "In the middle of the first act, the heater cut on, and we had to shut that down to redo those tracks and continue. Then a big windstorm came up and rocked the windows, but somehow we got through it." Craver took the recording home, did a few overdubs and a little bit of cleanup and released the CD on his Fabulous Sapsucker label—complete with a couple of Edgerton's car paintings.
For the house concert, Edgerton and Craver will present what the latter refers to as the "Reader's Theatre version" of The Bible Salesman. "We do all the characters, me and Clyde and our battery of musical weapons: banjo, mandolin, piano, guitar," says Craver. "Clyde is a great impersonator of his characters, and he loves hamming it up. He's a natural at that, and nobody can do 'Southern' like him."
So would Clyde Edgerton rather be a musician or a writer? Or, in light of Craver's description, an actor? A trick question, his daughter, Catherine, reasons: "I think he wants to be a painter now."