Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

“If Trouble Don't Kill Me: A Family's Story of Brotherhood, War, and Bluegrass” by Ralph Berrier, Jr. (Crown)

The Hall Twins, Clayton and Saford, were never famous country musicians. Successful sidemen, yes. Regionally popular radio performers, yes. They even made a few records. But you won't find much, if any, information about the Hall brothers in standard country-music histories. But this by no means implies they did not have interesting stories to tell, stories which would no doubt have been lost to posterity had Clayton Hall's grandson, Ralph Berrier, Jr., not become a journalist in Roanoke, VA, with an interest in his state's musical heritage.

The historical role played by the Halls was by no means an insignificant one. They were present at the end of the old-time string-band tradition, they contributed to the transition period between the country music of the 1930's and that of the '40's, and they helped usher in the beginnings of bluegrass. Their greatest success came in the years immediately preceding World War II, as members of Roy Hall (no relation to the Twins) and his Blue Ridge Entertainers, the top radio and live-performance country-music ensemble in the Roanoke area, a band perhaps best remembered as an early outlet for the fiddling talents of Tommy Magness, known for his work with Bill Monroe and Reno and Smiley. But this is the middle of the story, a very important segment of the Hall Twins' story, to be sure, but not necessarily the most interesting part. But that may be because life was actually going well for the Twins, for once.

But the Halls' story is grandson Ralph's to tell. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the stories of grandfather Clayton and great uncle Saford are Berrier’s to retell. And retell them he does, superbly, with a journalist's fine eye for detail, a reporter's skill for getting to the heart of matters, and a storyteller's art for building any given section of his tale to its conclusion. This is nonfiction, but it reads as swiftly and in as engrossing a manner as a novel.

The story actually begins with a look at the Halls' grandmother and mother, two fascinating Appalachian women from an area in the Blue Ridge Mountain county of Patrick, located in Virginia, close to North Carolina, but, as Berrier points out, not especially highly regarded by either state. Their existence, as well as that of Clayton and Saford Hall and their many siblings, might best be described as “marginal”. It was a life filled with hard poverty, easy violence, illicit sex, and strong religion (in the Halls’ case, the Moravian church). The only way out was to head to the nearby city of Bassett and work long, grueling hours for little pay in a furniture factory.

But the Halls had a way out of the furniture plant - music. They learned to play every stringed instrument used in the country music of the day (Saford in particular became a much-admired fiddler), their vocal harmonies were twin-close, and their repertoire expanded beyond Appalachia to incorporate the Western songs they heard in singing-cowboy movies. Berrier chronicles their adventures, onstage and off, as local stars, making it sound like a pretty darn good life for a couple rascally 20-year-old guys coming out of a difficult childhood.

Then came World War II, and life would never be the same for either Hall twin again. Saford entered the fray first first, and was sent to fight Nazis and Fascists, in Africa and Europe. Clayton eventually wound up in the Pacific Theater, most notably the Philippines, where he fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. The recounting of their varied and often harrowing experiences is the centerpiece of the book, as two country boys from The Hollow - who had gotten into their share of minor scrapes and fights, but who had rarely stooped to harsh brutality - now found themselves in a position where violence, bloodshed, turbulence, and sudden death were constant companions. While this hardly puts the Halls into unique positions during wartime, their tales of extreme duress, of common, ordinary men in uncommon, extraordinary situations, of killing and being killed, are told by their grandson with a fervor and a power missing from the dry descriptions of official military history. To be sure, there is the possibility that the Halls may have embellished their reminiscences a bit, but their tales resonate as emotionally true. Berrier has insured that his narrative is fleshed out believably by interviewing other people who were there.

After the war, the Hall Twins attempted to pick up their musical careers where they left off. But Roy Hall was dead and Tommy Magness had turned into a hopeless alcoholic. The twins went their separate ways, the qualities that had made them a special pair slipping away until they became ordinary, everyday working people. Nevertheless, in their last years, they found themselves becoming popular local entertainers again, adding a dash of color to what one might have expected to be the drab final years of two aging ex-soldiers.

Clayton and Saford Hall may never have become as famous as their talents and ambitions might have taken them, if only World War II had not intervened. Even so, they emerge as two very memorable characters. Their grandson has done them proud by telling their stories with flair, understanding, and a great deal of fine writing. What’s more, this is a book which may be profitably and enjoyably read by anyone, regardless of whether they have any interest in old-time country music or not. This is one fascinating book, and I recommend it unreservedly.

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