Conference for The Book: 29th annual event featured ‘double threat’ artists

Published 11:00 am Saturday, April 1, 2023

The 29th annual Oxford Conference for the Book was in full swing this week, running Wednesday to Friday, March 29-31. Spirits were high for a special Thacker Mountain Radio broadcast from the spacious lobby of The Graduate Hotel near the Square, as a lively crowd gathered to cap off a long day of book-related events.

Thacker Mountain Radio broadcasts a weekly one-hour program, mainly featuring literary and musical artists, statewide throughout Missipppi and Alabama, and also with affiliates in Memphis, Chattanooga, Knoxville – and recently added, Taos, N.M.

The impromptu theme of the program was “writers who play music,” said longtime show host Rick Dees to the near-capacity crowd, since multiple authors in the lineup also happen to be very accomplished musicians.

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“It’s a grand tradition,” said Dees, with regards to someone embracing a knack for both artistic fields, and the program’s history of hosting authors who are also musicians.

Some ‘double threats’ in the past have included Kathy Valentine from the popular ‘80s band The Go-Go’s, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, Willy Vlautin, Kinky Friedman, and Mississippi blues legend Bobby Rush.

A local favorite musician, Tyler Kieth, who has 14 album releases under his belt, was the first of three Thacker guests to share their gift for storytelling with the all-ages, diverse audience.

After accompanying himself on electric guitar for a brief, high energy solo set, featuring an original, title track from his latest album, “Hell To Pay,” Keith read the prologue from his debut novel, “The Mark of Cain.”

His story takes place in the panhandle of Florida, where Keith lived before moving to Oxford to attend Ole Miss, and begins with a gritty, rich description of his native Holmes County, which he paints as “a mean place” and “a hard place.”

Keith was followed by another seasoned musician and author of several novels, Nic Brown, whose story collection “Floodmarkers” was selected as an Editors’ Choice by The New York Times Book Review.

Brown talked about growing up as a working drummer in his hometown of Greensboro, N.C., then eventually achieving commercial success, while always maintaining the will to eventually pursue his longer-term goal of becoming more focused on writing.

Brown’s latest release, a memoir titled “Bang Bang Crash,” looks back at numerous comical events and shareable memories from his early days as a musician in N.C. and then New York City, and embraces his inner quest to break away from mounting success as a drummer to be able to grow more as a writer.

Brown had the audience engaged as he talked about his mentor and drum instructor, Pete, an older Black man in his hometown who taught him the ropes about both jazz music and life, and became a seminal figure in his development as a musician and human being.

He read from his memoir, a segment that likens his music career to “a baseball player who gets called up for a few seasons on a sub-par team.“ Brown continued: “The topic of my past as a musician lingers though, like a mist.”

Of local relevance, among Brown’;s many accomplishments in both fields, were his once serving as the Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University.

The evening’s lineup was capped off by country blues guitarist-singer Charlie Parr, who plucked a resonator guitar that conjured Mississippi musicians of the golden age of the blues, like Charley Patton and Son House.

Book signings followed the live radio broadcast and the festival continued on Friday with another exciting schedule of events. These included one called “The Violent Circle: The Art of Crime Fiction,” with guests S.A. Cosby, Megan Abbott, and Eli Cranor in conversation with local author Ace Atkins.

There was also a 4 p.m. presentation to the winners of the Willie Morris Awards in Southern Writing, and afterwards a celebration, both taking place at Off Square Books.