Sam Burnham, Curator
(This is a review of one volume of a two volume set. The two volumes were released separately. For the review of Volume Two, click here.)
So I'm a little slow to the race on this one. Georgia writer James Calemine is a recent discovery for me but he has quickly won me over as a friend of ABG. That being said, I want to assure you that this isn't going to be a mere friendly love fest of a review for his books (a Volume Two post is coming soon). I want to give y'all a fair look into this volume and see if it fits your taste.
Insured Beyond the Grave: Volume One was released last year by Snake Nation Press. It is a "collection of published essays, interviews and dispatches" that needed to be broken into two pieces in order to not overwhelm readers with an overdose of topics, people, and stories. While I found the work to be fascinating, I can promise that a delayed release dosage was best for all involved - writer, publisher, and reader.
It's gritty. Calemine gives us a vivid picture of the underbelly of entertainment - singers, producers, managers, writers, publishers - and all of the darkness that lies in the shade of the beast. For all the glitz and glamour the general public believes represents the entertainment industry, there is also an element of darkness, the personal demons and struggles, dirty, or at least unsavory, deals, lawsuits, busted relationships, and broken people.
But it isn't all doom and gloom. As you get to know the people, you come to appreciate them. But you get to appreciate them for who and what they really are, not just the polished and spotlighted versions of them from promotional materials. That's the beauty of the book's candid nature. It's raw and it's real. It puts you in a chair in the room where the stories happened. You feel like a present observer, not some anonymous voyeur. You find yourself forming opinions about people based on the information you receive. But the work isn't skewed or biased for or against anyone. It seems fair and honest. The reader is at liberty to form conclusions for themselves.
Throughout these pages you see the people and places that have built the collective history of the industry. He includes many names and faces that I knew were important but lacked the understanding to connect all the dots. There are recordings at Sun Studios as well as in Muscle Shoals. Stanley Booth, Jim Dickinson, and Col Bruce Hampton make appearances. He discusses Townes Van Zandt and The Georgia Sea Island Singers. The bands include The Rolling Stones, The Dixie Flyers, Otis Redding. He gives first hand accounts of people who were there when the magic happened. Stanley Booth being in the room when Otis Redding recorded Sitting on the Dock of the Bay just two days before Redding lost his life in a plane crash - that is one part that really grabbed me. Calamine also gives some insight into the Hunter S. Thompson tapes. Thompson's suicide came just nine days before he was scheduled to give an interview with Calemine.
Calemine's interview style is enjoyable. Again, the grittiness. He gets into the subject, fully immersed as the writer. He's not just relaying you information that he has read about. This is that "epignosis" that the Greeks talked about: that experiential knowledge of a topic that comes from seeing something firsthand, coming to know the people involved, and truly understanding their story. He has gone to extra mile to make us second hand sources rather than just a cog in the rumor mill.
As a bit of lagniappe, he includes throughout the book pictures of the past - old barns, old cars, Sun Studios, signs from old restaurants and dive bars and roadside motels. If you enjoy our Instagram feed, you'll love these photos. Even when they don't match the subject completely they still blend in well and give you that feeling of a rusted nostalgia. Like the subjects of the book, the subjects of the photos have been aged and weathered by experience and the passage of time. Some have survived longer than others. All have a story to tell.
This volume has left me with a curiosity for Volume Two. Fortunately, my copy arrived this weekend and I'll be diving into it shortly.
Get your copy from James Calemine or Snake Nation Press
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire