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Paul Hemphill

Writer's focus was the Deep South

July 14, 2009|Times Staff and Wire Reports

Paul Hemphill, 73, a journalist and novelist who wrote about sports, country music and the haunted legacy of the South, died Saturday of oral cancer at a hospice in Atlanta.

In the 1960s, before he turned to writing books, Hemphill was a much admired newspaper columnist in Atlanta and was sometimes called the Jimmy Breslin of the South. He left newspapers behind in 1970 when he wrote a best-selling book about country music, "The Nashville Sound: Bright Lights and Country Music," but he never quite recaptured his early success.

The son of a long-distance trucker, Hemphill grew up in Birmingham, Ala. He graduated from Auburn University in Alabama and worked as a newspaper reporter in Alabama, Georgia and Florida before moving to Atlanta in 1964. He wrote a column six days a week for the Atlanta Journal. He later worked briefly for the San Francisco Examiner.

He burned many of the bridges to his hometown with his 1993 memoir, "Leaving Birmingham," which exposed his father's racist leanings and showed little mercy for the city's pieties. But in novels, memoirs and journalism, he kept returning to the world of the blue-collar South, showing a great knack for capturing its speech, sorrows and pathos.

"Most of my best writing is ultimately sad," he wrote in the introduction to a 1981 collection of journalism, "Too Old to Cry." "It is about lost dreams and excess baggage and divorce, whiskey, suicide, killing, and general unhappiness."

Among his other works are "The Heart of the Game: The Education of a Minor League Ballplayer," a 1996 book reviewing a single baseball season; "The Ballad of Little River," a 2000 nonfiction account of aimless, disillusioned white youths from Alabama who went to prison for setting fire to a black church; and "Lovesick Blues," a well-received 2005 biography of a fellow Alabaman, singer-songwriter Hank Williams.


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