Journalist's literary calling comes to fruition

David Williams’ novel, “Long Gone Daddies,” comes in addition to his career as sports editor of The Commercial Appeal.

David Williams’ novel, “Long Gone Daddies,” comes in addition to his career as sports editor of The Commercial Appeal.

Book cover Long Gone Daddies by David Williams

Book cover Long Gone Daddies by David Williams

Book signing

David Wesley Williams will read and sign copies of his new book, “Long Gone Daddies,” on Wednesday, 6 p.m., at The Booksellers at Laurelwood, 387 Perkins Ext. 901-683-9801.

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By now, the journalist David Williams is familiar to most Mid-Southerners. For the past 25 years, he’s been a staple of The Commercial Appeal’s sports and business pages, an award-winning enterprise reporter and editor.

But as David Wesley Williams, he’s become a promising new voice in Southern fiction.

Williams’ first novel, “Long Gone Daddies,” the story of a rough-hewn musical family set largely in Memphis — hits stores nationally on Tuesday; on Wednesday, he will celebrate its publication with a reading and signing at The Booksellers at Laurelwood.

For Williams, it’s the culmination of nearly 20 years of dogged effort; he finished the first draft of the book back in 1998. “I bought my car the same year, and it has 193,000 miles on it now,” says the 51 year-old author. “The book has about that kind of mileage, too.”

A native of Maysville, Ky., Williams graduated from Morehead State University before going on to stints at newspapers in his hometown and York, Pa. In 1988, Williams arrived in Memphis to work for The Commercial Appeal, where he wrote about sports and business and the intersection of the two; since 2008, Williams has been the sports editor.

Aside from sports and writing, Williams’ other abiding passion in life has been music. As a teenager, he fell under the sway of songsmiths and storytellers like Bob Dylan, John Prine and Elvis Costello. In Memphis, he started tracing back the history of his rock and punk favorites, immersing himself in pre- and postwar blues, country and rockabilly, and devouring roots music histories like Peter Guralnick’s trilogy, “Feel Like Going Home,” “Lost Highway” and “Sweet Soul Music.”

As a break from covering sports, Williams began imagining a story about life in a scuffling young band on the road. The project originally began as a contemporary novella, following the career and spiritual struggles of Luther Gaunt, the leader of a ’90s roots-rock outfit called the Long Gone Daddies.

When he finished his initial draft of the book in the late-’90s, Williams found an agent in Louisville who shopped the manuscript. “They tried for three years unsuccessfully. Then the head of the agency died. I got another agent; they tried another three years,” says Williams. “I kept getting nice rejections — people saying they liked the writing but weren’t sure they could sell it.”

Over that time, Williams’ story began to evolve. He started a regular routine, listening to music and writing early each morning before arriving in the office. “I think that helped me deal with work stress. That I had my own writing, that I had a couple hours every day to live in this other world.”

By the middle of the ’00s, Williams had expanded the book’s scope dramatically, turning it into a multigenerational narrative, starting with Luther Gaunt’s grandfather, Malcolm, a would-be singing star in the early 1950s pre-rock era. Williams says he was fascinated by that particular moment in music history.

“It was the time when Hank Williams had just died, but you hadn’t had the rise of Elvis yet,” Williams says. “It felt like American music was catching its breath, and people were wondering: what’s going to happen next?

“It’s around the time when Sam Phillips was looking for the white guy who could sing black, so I thought, let’s tell the grandfather’s story — make the grandfather the potential Elvis before Elvis.”

Williams spent several more years working, adding new characters (including cameos by historical figures like Phillips and a young Presley) and further revising the story. In the interim, Williams’ fiction was beginning to draw wider notice. In 2002, he won the Memphis Magazine short story contest. In more recent years, his work has appeared in Harper Perennial’s “Fifty-Two Stories,” The Pinch, The Common, and Night Train.

In 2011, he completed what he felt was the absolute final version of “Long Gone Daddies.” He was ready to give up on the book when North Carolina publisher John F. Blair was intrigued by the story and offered him a deal.

So far, the reviews have been fairly glowing. Publisher’s Weekly singled out the “delightful texture and rich depth in Williams’ fictional account of the early days of rock ’n’ roll.” Award-winning novelist Richard Bausch — with whom Williams studied in the Moss Workshop in Fiction at the University of Memphis — praised it as a “book full of wild music and generous imagining.” Veteran Rolling Stone journalist Parke Puterbaugh called it “a work of fiction that gets to core truths mere facts can’t convey—namely, what it is about the sound that leads a grown man to spend his life chasing it down blind alleys and back roads into countless smoky bars, juke joints, and recording studios.”

Williams’ eye for the nuances of family drama and rock-and-roll misanthropy is remarkably sharp — surprising, given that they’re a far cry from his own personal experiences. “I come from parents that were married 50 years, real salt-of-the-Earth people. My dad is a genuinely good man. When I sent him a copy of the book, I wrote in the dedication, ‘You were not an inspiration for the dads in this book,’” says Williams, laughing.

“If I drew from anything personally, it’s in the main character, Luther. Like him, I like to drink and cuss and enjoy the devil’s music but I also want to be a good person. He does, too, and struggles with it and worries he’s going to fail, but he still keeps trying.”

Williams’ next work, which he has completed, is a coming-of-age story set in the Delta called “The Very Last Night.” “I’m fairly certain it won’t take another 15 years to get the next book out into the world,” jokes Williams. “And regardless, since (‘Long Gone Daddies’) is out, I can die happily, now that I’ve accomplished my great goal.”

© 2013 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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