Book review: ‘If Trouble Don’t Kill Me’ by Ralph Berrier Jr.
If Trouble Don’t Kill Me
A Family’s Story of Brotherhood, War, and Bluegrass
Ralph Berrier Jr.
Crown: 304 pp., $25
We’re all familiar with the standard musician biography: down-and-out upbringing, often involving the death of — or at least fierce competition with — a sibling, followed by a lucky break, unprecedented fame, substance abuse, a tragic flaw, a fall from grace and, eventually, redemption. In “If Trouble Don’t Kill Me: A Family’s Story of Brotherhood, War, and Bluegrass,” Ralph Berrier Jr., a reporter for the Roanoke Times in Virginia, hits most of these points but also manages to achieve something fresh. This biography of Berrier’s grandfather and his grandfather’s twin brother reads almost like two books: a folksy, vibrant tale of two bluegrass prodigies and a fairly gripping narrative of the ground wars in Europe and the South Pacific.
Clayton and Saford Hall came of age in The Hollow, Va., in the years before World War II. Berrier makes a big deal out of the fact that the twins are “bastards,” repeating and repeating the word. However, the social dynamic he describes — generations of poor women raising children without husbands — is more complex than the slur implies. When not frying up pig parts at midnight for “a passel of hungry children,” the twins’ female relatives often served as medicine women and midwives for their neighbors. (As young children, the brothers also “lapped up music like it was plates of hog jowl and pintos.”)
The tone and style of the book take some getting used to. It initially seems like Berrier is putting on an act with his strained metaphors (a school music competition resembles a “hillbilly Lollapalooza”) and Forrest Gump-like voiceover: “Saford was born first. That much I know ....” He sometimes goes for the witty comment and falls short of sense: “He lived enough adventure to fill two lives, so it’s a good thing he had a twin.” Berrier wants to be our friend, and occasionally he tries a little too hard. He tells us what “I want you know about” and that this is “how I heard it” or this is “the greatest story ever,” undermining the trust we should have in a biographer.
However, after Berrier gets into the story he’s telling — that of two brothers who rose quickly through the radio-centered mid-Atlantic music business of the 1930s, becoming country music stars before there was “country music” — the pretense drops away. Berrier describes a community where music is everywhere — an idealized time and place where children play banjos after school with their friends. The scene describing the first time the Hall boys saw a record played on the “singing cabinet” is rendered with the kind of awe you could imagine them feeling. It’s clear Berrier has done his homework: The brothers’ early cross-dressing comedy stage shows are carefully re-created. A “comic” routine about swallowing a rat is particularly revolting.
When the Hall twins are rescued from furniture factory drudge work by Roy Hall (no relation) and asked to join the Blue Ridge Entertainers, they move to Roanoke to perform daily on the radio with Dr Pepper as their sponsor. The band was “a sweet mix of blues-laced mountain music and country swing.” Dr Pepper paid each musician $25 a week in return for almost constant between-song pitching: “It’s refreshing and, with its pure blend of fruit juices, it’ll keep you wide awake.” The drink was even touted to prevent colds. Berrier has a flair for detail, from the fact that rent in Bassett, Va., in 1937 averaged $3 a month to how the Blue Ridge Entertainers would get people to come to their shows by promising “A bedspread for the prettiest girl. A cake of soap for the ugliest man.”
The twins faced their first separation at the hands of Uncle Sam. Both were drafted and sent to fight for the Allies, Saford to North Africa and Europe, Clayton to the South Pacific. Berrier drops the twang and directly recounts the war stories he heard throughout his childhood and in recorded interviews. He inhabits the twins’ experiences so fully that one begins to feel that great storytelling runs in their blood. Clayton’s missions in the Philippines and Okinawa will be especially interesting to those readers more familiar with the European front.
Berrier’s relatives are lovingly yet honestly portrayed, and he makes the case for their biography as relevant to a larger audience than bluegrass enthusiasts and war history buffs. While the Hall brothers managed to escape substance abuse problems — those were reserved for supporting cast members like fiddle impresario Tommy Magness — they encountered an even more tragic problem upon their return from the war: obscurity. “This was their lot in life now: work long hours, feed and clothe their families, play a little music on the side, repeat.” It is understandable that Berrier skips quickly over the second half of the twins’ lives — full of frustrated starts, failed marriages and illness but also reunion and yes, redemption — preferring to send them offstage to applause in their final incarnation as the Hall Twins and the Westerners.
Daley is a Los Angeles-based writer.
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