The Orange Country Register Reviews Dirtdobber Blues

October 21st, 2011, 3:55 pm

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Butch Hornsby never made it big in the music biz, though many felt he could have if not for a booze-fueled tendency to drive his career off the road every time it looked like success was almost in sight. So it’s fair to look at the labor and love that author Cyril E. Vetter put into “Dirtdobber Blues,” a novel based on the life of the late Louisiana singer-songwriter, and wonder why? After all, this isn’t just a book. It comes illustrated with color images of the folk art Hornsby made later in life, sheet music for his music, and a compact disc of his songs, some Hornsby’s original recordings, others new versions by singer-songwriter Will Kimbrough. The answer is simple, Vetter says. If you met Hornsby just a little bit, or if you heard the poetic beauty of his songs, you never ever forgot him or the music. “I think the inspiration for it is because his music stayed with me for 40 years,” says Vetter, who met Hornsby in the ’60s at Louisiana State University when Hornsby started hanging out whenever Vetter’s band, the Greek Fountains, played. “I still hum ‘I Ain’t No Chauffeur (But I Can Hold It In the Road)’ and some of his other songs. “And I always felt his life was sort of prototypical,” he says. “Everybody has a guy like this in their life, who has the looks and the talent and everything, but just can’t keep it between the ditches. I felt it was a story that would resonate beyond Butch and south Louisiana and Los Angeles.” The novel, which is available at the House of Blues in Anaheim in addition to the usual booksellers, is just a few facts shy of the truth, Vetter says. “I really felt like most of the things Butch did in real life were colorful enough to carry a narrative, but I didn’t want it to be a biography,” he says. “I wanted to take some liberties with the genre and make up some characters and put in some scenes that are based on real life but didn’t’ actually happy the way I wrote it. “It’s sort of a genre-expanding way to do it, that I felt would give me the most freedom to A, have fun writing it, and B, tell Butch’s story in a way that ultimately made him out to be a sympathetic character.”   And so the book follows Hornsby’s life more or less as it happened. Growing up in rural Louisiana and learning to play the guitar. Charming the ladies only to mess up with them after all his hardcore drinking, vodka shots and Miller High Life chasers. Heading out to Hollywood to try to get a record deal, which he eventually does (for an album Vetter produced) only to see it shelved amid turmoil at the record label. Out of curiosity we asked Vetter of the veracity of a few stories he included. Did Hornsby really blow a paycheck on a cab ride from L.A. to Fresno just to get a friend’s beloved guitar out of hock? He did. Did he really give Vetter his $15,000 album advance for safekeeping, only to get drunk that night and break in to steal it back? True story. “It was not a stretch to make him a character,” Vetter says, laughing as we talked about anecdotes in the book. “If anything it was a stretch to tone him down a little bit, make him more human.” Vetter says he started work on the project four years ago, meeting with Hornsby’s wife Carol, with whom he raised two stepdaughters, three sons and a daughter, and who stuck with him through the worst days of his drinking and the later days of the leukemia that eventually claimed his life in 2004. “She really saved his life,” Vetter says. “I used to kid my daughter, who works with me, that if we ever do any publicity for this book the tagline is going to be, ‘Every woman thinks she can fix a flawed man. This one did.’” From the beginning, Vetter says he wanted “Dirtdobber Blues” (the name taken from the title of a Hornsby song) to be a multimedia project. “I wanted to do it because I think it fills out the portrait of the character, to have his art represented there, to have his music represented there,” he says. “I’m also kind of a tech geek, and I wanted to do it for the new tablet readers. If you download the e-book on an iPad the music plays, it’s embedded in the text, and you can double-tap the art pieces so you can see the detail.” Vetter also spent time this summer in Los Angeles, working on one more element of Hornsby’s story, a hoped-for “Dirtdobber Blues” movie adaptation. “I want to find an A-list actor who wants to be a rock ‘n’ roller,” he says. “We’ve done the screenplay. There’s no point in having a vision if it’s not a big one.” By the end of his life, Hornsby had found peace, Vetter says, as an iron worker who sometimes dabbled in music, and as a man surrounded by a wife and family who loved him despite any flaws. As for why he never made the most of his abilities, that’s something that Vetter says he still wonders about. “That’s a tough one,” he says. “I’ve had that conversation with Carol and it was my opinion that he was afraid to be successful. She thought that his childhood was so toxic that it made him incapable of concentrating and staying focused. “But I don’t know. Why people with talent squander it is, you know, an age-old question.” Cyril Vetter produced Butch Hornsby’s album in the mid-1970s, and while sound recordings and video of Hornsby are rare, Vetter provided this previously unavailable clip to the Orange County Register to gave a flavor of Hornsby live on stage. In the video below, Hornsby sings his song “Rock Bottom On Romaine (St.),” a song he wrote about on living on that street in Hollywood while struggling to make it in the music industry. (And as a bonus, you’ll find three covers of Hornsby songs embedded under the phrase “his other songs” in the fourth paragraph of this story.)

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