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Hemphill's return

Atlanta author Paul Hemphill calls on a kindred country spirit in his comeback bid



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Hemphill came into his own as a writer at the time Atlanta came into its own as a city. He became a street-prowling chronicler of life in a Southern town that was blooming into a major-league city.

"It was such a hectic, explosive time, and there was this huge transition from this nice little Southern residential, white-dominated downtown core city into something else entirely, and it happened in one decade," recalls novelist Anne Rivers Siddons, who was a freshman with Hemphill at Auburn and a writer at Atlanta magazine. "A lot of writers came to put a foot in the fire and became very good writers because there was so much to write about."

Atlanta had the good sense to integrate in a dignified fashion instead of unleashing the dogs like the folks back in Hemphill's native "Bombingham." Hemphill grew up, too, consciously rejecting his father's ranting about "Martin Luther Coon." On a visit home, he was sickened by it.

"This good man who once had been my hero, my 'king of the road,' now was eaten up by racism as though it was a cancer," he wrote later.

In the early 1960s, when he served in France with the Alabama Air National Guard, Hemphill worked with an interpreter who told him he should have been back home fighting segregation instead of preparing to fight the Russians. He saw enough of the world that he wanted nothing to do with the corrosive racism that crippled Birmingham.

"Anybody that says newspapers aren't staffed by liberals, they're crazy because they fucking are, you know?" Hemphill says. "I think just plain people who write, report, they've seen enough that if they're human, they've got to be liberal."

Hemphill, ironically, was lured to Atlanta in 1964 to write for the conservative Atlanta Times. The paper made a short-lived run at the Cox-owned Journal and Constitution. Its backers opposed the courageous columns denouncing racism by Constitution Publisher Ralph McGill. Hemphill idolized McGill, but his father called him "Rastus."

Hemphill jumped to the Journal just before the Times folded. He was a hit from the start.

"He was popular, I mean really, really popular," recalls Terry Kay, a former Journal colleague who's now a successful novelist and screenwriter.

Hemphill wrote columns from Vietnam as well as Manuel's. He knew he had a good thing going. "I had the most envied newspaper job in Atlanta, if not the South." But he wanted more. The rawboned Alabama boy won a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 1968. Before he went, McGill told him prophetically he would never be the same. Hemphill used the time at Harvard to write a book about the country music he listened to as a boy. He spent January 1969 in Nashville interviewing stars.

When he returned to the Journal, he toured the South for a series of columns, but soon wanted out of the relentless daily grind. His decision to leave the newspaper business was hastened by the suicide of one of his sportswriting mentors in Birmingham. A few weeks later, Hemphill got drunk at Emile's French Cafe in the Fairlie-Poplar district -- Atlanta's answer to the Algonquin Round Table in New York -- and wrote an abrupt resignation letter: "I'm quitting newspapers because I am sick." Then he went to Manuel's to drink more.

"I had hung around all-night eateries and gone to Vietnam and hitchhiked and lain around with hookers and shot pool with Minnesota Fats and sat in cool suburban dens with frustrated housewives," Hemphill wrote later. "And, yet, with the next column due by dawn, I had run out of gas."

A few months later, he published his country music book, The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music.

The Chicago Sun-Times called it "the best book ever written about country music." At the age of 34, Paul Hemphill had made it to the big leagues.

"The Nashville Sound had been blessed from the start -- right book, right author, right editor, right time -- and when it came out in the spring of '70, I had every reason to think it would always be like this," he wrote in 1993.

But it wasn't like that again. Not even close. The first book sold 75,000 copies in hardback. During the next 35 years, Hemphill wrote 14 more books, including four novels. But even though critics praised his work, he never recaptured the early success.

His most recent novel, Nobody's Hero, sold only 800 copies. In 2003, in the ultimate indignity, the Atlanta Press Club didn't invite him to its annual holiday authors' party.

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