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  Featured Historical Fiction Author  

For the Love of Country
An Interview of H. Greeley Thornhill

by Joyce Dixon

  Photo by Reflections of Crossville, TN    

H. Greeley Thornhill has been involved in the business of music since his middle teens.  He co-wrote his first song at age sixteen.  In 1966, the songwriter moved his family to Nashville to join others peddling their songs to the music industry.  Thornhill became interested in the recording studio side of the business, and soon built his own studio, where he continued to write songs and produce records.  In 1979, he decided to leave the music business and moved to Crossville, Tennessee.  But the "love of country music" called to him again -- this time in the form of an historical novel. 

Thornhill's novel follows two young men from Holly Ridge, Louisiana from playing guitar on the front porch at home, to days on the road as a band, and finally to Nashville.  The story is told against country music's timeline with noted personalities and the changes in the industry.  There is also the backdrop of America, family, and tradition.  As Thornhill wrote the lyrics for the songs within the novel, the songs came to life musically.  He produced thirteen of the fifteen songs lyrics included in the storyline, and the book may be ordered with that CD.  Like the characters in his novel who were driven to follow the music, Thornhill has written this book -- For the Love of Country.

This once red-headed country musician is known as "Rusty" by friends and those in the industry.  His legal name is Horace Greeley Thornhill.  He is the second of that line.  Though he doesn't know why his grandfather named his father "Horace Greeley," it may be his grandfather respected the son of a New England farmer and day laborer who went on to become editor of The New Yorker and founder of The New York Tribune.  For a writer, that would be a powerful name to grow in to -- kind of like Johnny Cash's "A Boy named Sue."  H. Greeley Thornhill said "the name didn't influence my destiny, at least consciously.  I never dreamed I would write books.  I only dreamed of writing songs."

Your focus is on traditional country music, which has roots in the Celtic rhythms of Appalachia.  How is this America's first music?  How does the mountain music follow narrative traditions that carry the history of the people and country?   

The Scots/Irish who brought the fiddle and the style, also brought strength of character and a love of the music that was so embedded in their persona that to take away the music was to take away the person.  That kind of power just had to influence America's course. 

Coming from Louisiana, how did your music and instrument choice lean toward traditional country instead of Cajun, Dixieland, Blues or Western Swing?  What were your influences?  

I was raised in North Louisiana, where minimal Cajun and Western Swing influence was felt.  I never heard the Blues until my musical choices had already been made.  From the time I could crawl, I listened to our little disemboweled radio that had no case and whose batteries were far larger than the functional part of the radio. The speaker was attached by the wires, only.  The Grand Old Opry was always our Saturday night musical fare.  I was deeply influenced by Roy Acuff, The Stanley Brothers, Ernest Tubb, and others.  Also, there were a lot of Jimmie Rodgers records still being played at that time. 

Jimmie Rodgers was a country music phenomenon as much as a legend.  How did his music speak to the common man?  

His music was as raw as life was at that time.  He never shied away from the truth.  The truth of that is in his song, "I Got Them Old TB Blues."  Even the subject of his own impending demise was grist for his musical mill.  People weren't as afraid of the truth, or death, in his day as they now seem to be. 

How is Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry the Mecca of country music?   

Nashville is considered the Mecca of country music because of the Grand Ole Opry.  The Grand Ole Opry thrived because it had major bucks behind it (insurance) with which to promote the venue nationally.  It was networked just as television is now networked.  Since it was the most widely distributed, it was almost natural for it to assume the preeminent position. 

Why are some performers turned away (Elvis was turned down at the Opry)? 

When Elvis auditioned for the Opry, drums and the electric bass were not considered appropriate, not even to mention swiveling hips.  Taking two instruments away would have probably wiped out two thirds of Elvis's band.  Remember, at that time, Roy Acuff was still considered "cool." 

How did radio shows like Louisiana Hayride, Grand Ole Opry, etc. make or break performers?  Where is the best place for a country performer to break out today?  

In the old days, there were no studio bands.  Each band had a signature sound.  If a band was received enthusiastically by a live audience, the record labels took note of that and often signed such artists because their sound came with their voice.  In those days, talent scouts combed the country for the next "discovery."  Back then, the record labels released records and let the public accept or reject the act with their collective pocketbook.  Today, the consumer is force-fed what the executives and the consultants decide they ought to hear.  Often, these people don't know beans about country music.  Sadly, no such break out venue exists as in the old days.

What instruments do you play? Who were the musicians in your family? 

I'm the only one in my family who became musical.  I was obsessed from an early age.  When I was 13, I learned guitar on my own, by ear, when my older brother bought a cheap little guitar, and played it until his fingers bled, then gave it to me.  My fingers also bled, but I was possessed and persevered until I could manage the requisite three chord song.  I play both guitar and bass respectably and can play almost any instrument in the studio, given enough time.

Larry was a tortured character in your novel.  He was a gifted composer and arranger.  When his music drew him to perform in honky tonks, his minister father kicked him out of the church and the family.  How do musicians deal with the inner battle of fundamentalist upbringing and the call of performing non-church music? 

In times past, musicians brought up in a fundamentally religious setting often found the call of secular music impossible to resist.  For the country musician, the honky tonk was often the only secular alternative to the religious venue.  Many broke out long enough to achieve fame but not long enough to break the shackles of guilt. Over the years, numerous people who have achieved notable success, have been called back home with the accusation that they have "back-slid."  In Larry's case, he helped pioneer the gospel rock venue, which fulfilled his need to expand his musical horizons.  This, of course, reflects the course of history.

How does life on the road cause musicians to age prematurely and often turn to drugs to meet the demands? 

The sidemen in particular suffer because of the lack of rest.  They often play a dance or concert then leave for another play date hundreds of miles away that is booked for the next evening.  Hank Williams and most of the other pioneers traveled in touring cars, a scaled down version of the limousine.  They not only had to carry all their instruments, but song books, etc.  I have personally known sidemen who aged at least twenty years within the span of ten.  When musicians arrive at the concert or dance hall, they are expected to perform as if they've had plenty of rest.  For some, the only way to put up that kind of front that is with aid of stimulants.  People have died as a result of that kind of dedication.  Many have gotten old before their time.

Throughout your book you express the emotion of the music as a compulsive need for the musician.  This is also the driving force behind writers.  Do you feel the need to create sometimes takes first place in ones life over everything -- and those who try to have it all suffer?

I think the unfortunates, who marry those of us who are driven, suffer more than we do.  But we do suffer through their pain.  Regarding the compulsion, I think it must be genetic.  The true writer, or creator of anything, knows they have no choice, like breathing.

Songwriters like print writers have to learn to deal with rejection.  What advice about rejection would you give those entering these professions?  How do you turn rejection into a positive experience? 

Each rejection is just one step closer to an acceptance, assuming quality is in evidence.

How has there been a revolution in country music?  Has it become over-produced? 

The so-called revolution is a result of attrition.  As bona fide country people die off, their offspring replace them.  The offspring have by and large been raised with and by television, which has leveled the intellectual playing field and robbed even the country children of their work-ethic birthright.  Old country music was inextricably linked to the work ethic.  Much of the country music heard today is really under-produced rock and roll, but over produced as country.  Given that country music has always reflected the collective country persona, one is forced to deduce that what now passes for country still performs that function.  Whether that is good or bad, shallow or deep, must be decided by the individual consumer.  In any case, how many would stay away from country music of today, if the only thing left was rock and roll, rap, and R&B?

How does country music reflect the changing mood of America?  What changes has it taken since September 11, 2001?  How does country music fill an emotional void? 

It is often difficult to tell if the politics effects the music, or the music effects the politics.  Regarding 9/11, I believe many people have taken stock and are more serious about who they are.  There are some firm statements embedded in the newer records.  Toby Keith's new record, "Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue” is one example.  Still, I think "O Brother Where Art Thou" has had more of an effect on contemporary music than 9/11.

Toby Keith, Alan Jackson, Charlie Daniels, Aaron Tippin and others came out with hard hitting American songs after September 11, 2001.  How do these songs express the emotions of the working class, but are not politically correct enough to perform this past Fourth of July when many of these performers were scratched from nationally televised events? 

To answer the last part, politically correctness was invented by an astute politician to effectively disenfranchise the opposing party.  It is a concept that is only valid if one believes that an opposing opinion is patently incorrect. It is surprising how many people bought into the concept without an examination.  Regarding the first part, could it be that 9/11 has stirred many out of their lethargy.  Perhaps they always agreed with a more conservative point of view but were cowered by the possibility of being labeled politically incorrect?

How does country music reflect America’s mood? 

More than a mood, perhaps it reflects our culture.  And, given that virtually all the songs are now "love songs," one wonders if that's the only thing Americans think about.  If so, then America must be "In The Mood For Love."  I personally wonder where all the story songs have gone.  Perhaps if Toby Keith had offered to sing a sweet love song, he might have fit more readily in the box that Peter Jennings tried to place him.

Your book comes with a CD of original music based on the songs mentioned in For the Love of Country.  What has been the reception of the book/CD combo by readers so far?

The book and CD have just been released but the people who've read and listened have overwhelmingly approved.  As you know, a major ad campaign is just now getting under way.  I'm hopeful that, as people begin to realize the work is not pulp, they'll embrace it as literature and serious country music.

Your next book is The Four Horsemen and will include a CD as well.  What is the book about? 

"The Four Horsemen" is autobiographical.  It's about my three brothers and me and covers about fifteen years.  It has poetry in the beginning of each chapter and will also have a CD of at least twelve songs, which I am currently in the process of writing.  Tentative release is planned for the first part of next year.  Advance readers give the work high marks.  It embodies the rowdiness that one would expect from four, shall we say, inventive young men, whose adventures seem limitless.  I'm happy to say the book makes people laugh out loud.  It begins just prior to WWII and ends just as the Korean Conflict is drawing to a close.

If the original Horace Greeley is know for  “go west young men," what would your empowering statement to a generation be?   

I would advise the young to embrace the all encompassing, irrefutable TRUTH.  That is the only place they'll find themselves.  All else is false. 

For the Love of Country
Lytle & Thorne, 2001
ISBN: 0-9715962-1-2

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© 2002, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved