Dirtdobber Blues – Book review

Cyril E. Vetter has teamed up with LSU Press to bring out both print and e-book editions of Dirtdobber Blues, Vetter’s work of “faction,” a fictionalized account of his friend Butch Hornsby’s life. Vetter expresses his opinion that Hornsby was never as commercially successful as he should have been—as a singer or artist—and this multimedia project serves to bring Hornsby’s creativity to a wider audience than he enjoyed in his lifetime.

Both versions of the book offer short fascinating scenes in Hornsby’s life that are interspersed with Philip Gould’s photographs of Hornsby’s art pieces, photographs of the artist himself and recordings of Hornsby’s songs. Some of the music was recorded by Hornsby in the 1970s, but most songs are more recent covers performed by Will Kimbrough and Duke Bardwell, Hornsby’s friend and bass player for Elvis.

Bardwell and Vetter both appear as characters in the book, as do Hornsby’s wife and children. Vetter writes himself into his own narrative as Cy, the producer of Hornsby’s session at Malaco Studios in the 1970s and one of the people trying to keep Hornsby on track, despite his every attempt to derail himself.

While Hornsby is depicted as a largely reformed alcoholic and family man in his later life, the scenes in which he is drunk, abrasive and violent tend to be more vivid than any tales of his softer side. Vetter acknowledges in the preface that he attempted not to varnish Hornsby in a false patina of nostalgia, but “re-create the complicated, nuanced, talented, funny, tragic, lovable character he was.”

Behind the scenes of the main story is an interesting depiction of Baton Rouge life in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A lot, it seems, has changed. A who’s who of the music world makes brief cameos in the text, including Randy Jackson, Hank Williams Jr. and producer James Stroud.

The book is a fascinating object in itself that includes the text, lyrics and sheet music for Hornsby’s music as well as the CD that Vetter encourages readers to listen to as they read. dirtdobberblues.com