A Friend of Mine Has a Book Out and It’s Good

A legendary guitarist, singer/songwriter and bandleader, Col. Bruce Hampton is known as a musician’s musician, the ultimate compliment for someone who knows his art inside and out and inspires others just by stepping on stage.

So it’s only fitting that his biographer, my northeast Georgia friend Jerry Grillo, is a writer’s writer. It shows on every page of this outstanding work, The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography.

Accolades from near and far

No wonder the University of Georgia Press published the book last year as part of its series on the music of the American South.

No wonder the Georgia Writers Association has nominated Jerry for its 2022 Georgia Author of the Year Award, along with such names as John Lewis, Stacey Abrams and Karin Slaughter.

And no wonder noted actor and musician Billy Bob Thornton has a blurb on the biography’s cover, praising Jerry for loving and understanding “the magic, the talent, and the importance” of Col. Bruce.

A challenging subject handled with maturity, skill

A writer and editor for nearly 30 years for a wide range of publications on topics as diverse as nanotechnology and baseball (the subject on which he bonded with Hampton, who was playing an outdoor music festival near Jerry’s home when the two met), Jerry is amazingly gifted, funny, insightful and precise. It’s a joy to watch him unleash the full power of his talent, experience and wit on the subject of Hampton, one of the most influential performing artists in southern rock music.

A legend who even died a legendary death—while jamming on stage at an Atlanta concert celebrating his 70th birthday in 2017—Col. Bruce is not an easy subject to tackle, but tackle him Jerry does … and wrestles him to the ground, clearly differentiating folklore from fact in Hampton’s story. What emerges is a razor-sharp portrait of the man, warts and all. Yet Jerry never attempts to psychoanalyze him.

With a journalist’s pinpoint accuracy and insight, and a creative writer’s knack for stunning, spot-on descriptions, he presents Hampton for what he is—an enigma, a supremely talented musician who didn’t want to be a star with his on-stage frown, his dislike of the road and his frequently food-stained clothing. Who seemed to channel another universe with his knack for guessing the birthdates of new acquaintances and for creating music unlike anything anyone had heard. Who was sober all his life but created often frenzied, surrealistic music that you’d swear originated in a drug-induced, booze-drenched dream.

Known as the godfather of the jam band scene, Col. Bruce was tuned in to something that no one else was privy to. As Jerry describes him, he either awed you, made you laugh or scared you to death—or maybe all three. And the highs and lows? From creating one of the worst-selling albums ever in 1971 to assembling the Aquarium Rescue Unit (ARU) in the 1990s, a group of virtuoso musicians that many say was the greatest band ever, Jerry covers all of them in this rich and entertaining book.

Writing about ‘a unicorn … there wasn’t anybody else like him’

If music is a joyful noise, as many described Hampton’s work, reading Jerry’s prose is a joy, too.

Here’s Jerry’s description of the ARU at its peak in the 1990s: “But now they were entering their prime, a six-piece unnatural force, spinning rhythm and melody from a spool of intertwined jazz, blues, gospel, funk, rock, bluegrass, and country notes and tones. Their music was something apart from ABABACD song structure, something agile, or hieroglyphical, something southern fried, mashed, and infectious.” Listen to the music and you’ll find the description perfect.

Here’s Jerry’s description of Hampton’s power to lead great musicians to new territory: “Bruce used to emphasize putting away the library of licks—bury the predictable ways, let go, get broken, rebuild, become unhinged, and unleash chaos.”

Here’s Jerry capturing Bruce’s unique persona: “There was a natural touch of Mark Twain to Bruce Hampton, who was well versed (and well practiced) in the southern tradition of telling tales, and full of shameless bluster. He always said laughter was better than crying, so the public Bruce—Colonel Bruce—angled his intentions accordingly. Actually, so did the private Bruce much of the time. This was a man whose company was a pleasure whether he was holding court at a crowded lunch table or in a greenroom, or one on one in his ‘den’ while he picked at a guitar.”

Good Lord! That is gorgeous writing, Jerry.

Like any good journalist, he knows when to step back and let other people speak. Here’s Jerry letting other people describe Hampton’s magic, in this case, Billy Bob Thornton, who cast Hampton in his great 1996 movie, Sling Blade. “You know, I always said Bruce was like a unicorn. There wasn’t anybody else like him, not even close.”

True confession time

As much as I enjoyed reading this book, I have to confess that I probably would never have picked it up had a friend not written it. Jam bands have never really been my thing. But I kept a notebook and my Pandora app handy while I read it—and enjoyed exploring Hampton’s music.

One of the earliest works, “Halifax,” from the album “Music to Eat,” is a wonderful, wacky introduction, an ahead-of-its-time piece that a Rolling Stone editor described as “a monumental piece of surrealism” whose lyrics are drawn from a randomly selected encyclopedia entry about the Nova Scotia capital. Anything by ARU is stunning. Try “Time Is Free,” especially the phantasmagoria of riffs about halfway through, or the implicit wit in “Basically Frightened,” or the plain old funkiness of “Yield Not to Temptation.”

And Hampton’s live performance of Cream’s classic “I’m So Glad” makes me smile. I love his voice, too—deep, growly, the voice of the essential uber-masculine southern male. Sexy? Yes … well, maybe without the mustard-stained T-shirt.

An eye-opener and ear-opener

I didn’t like Gustav Mahler when I first heard his music. Now, his 2nd Symphony makes me cry. Some of the music of Sondheim—my number one favorite song composer and lyricist—put me off when I first heard it, too. Sweeney Todd and that infernal whistle? Yikes!

But I’ve learned that with music, strange doesn’t always mean bad. In fact, just the opposite. That’s the lesson Col. Bruce—and Jerry’s wonderful book—underscored for me. It opened my ears to something new.

Hanging with musicians myself from time to time, I had heard about Col. Bruce Hampton for many years, long before his well-publicized—and untimely—death. Jerry’s book helped me see what all the fuss is about.

Thanks, Jerry, for a great read.

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