It’s been four years since Col. Bruce Hampton laid down on Atlanta’s Fox Theatre stage and left this particular planet. On May 1st, 2017, celebrating his 70th birthday surrounded by a musical family he’d inspired and mentored as well as a capacity crowd of supporters, Col. Bruce succumbed to a heart attack during a performance of one of his favorite songs, Bobby Bland’s “Turn On Your Love Light”. Call it poetic, consider it a work, find the humor, or wallow in the heartbreak, whatever you need to feel, feel it… But admit that you couldn’t imagine it happening any other way. In his new book, The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography, author Jerry Grillo dives face-first into the legend of one of Georgia music’s most (if not the most) eccentric and prolific progenitors, delving into a life often cloaked in absurdity but indefinable in its reach across generations of artists and admirers. Jerry Grillo will be signing copies of his new book in person at Gallery West from 5pm to 8pm on First Friday, May 7th in Downtown Macon.
AI- You were friends with Col. Bruce before you started writing this book. How did you two meet? Had you been a fan?
JG- Well, here’s how we met. I would say it was accidental, Bruce would probably say there are no accidents. It felt accidental. I live up in Sautee Nacoochee, Georgia, which is up near Helen, basically. We used to have a music festival up here, a little two-day thing called the Sautee Jamboree. Bruce, through Jeff Mosier, who had played at the festival and played a number of events here, came up to play and I got to meet him that way. I’ve been a journalist most of my life– or at least half of it anyway– [but] I wasn’t a music journalist or anything like that. And honestly, I was not a Col. Bruce fan. I didn’t not like him, I just didn’t know enough about him. I hadn’t heard much of his stuff since Music to Eat, and when I heard it, it was in the late ’70s. I was in high school and I thought it was cool and some of it was scary and I just kinda filed it away. Just went on with my life. I was a sportswriter for a while and a business writer and met Bruce at the festival, really dug him. We really connected over sports trivia believe it or not! I mean, obviously, I was there volunteering to help him as a musician and doing my part for my community here– and getting free tickets to the show, to see this great music– and through all of that, I got to meet him and know him.
After a few years of really gettin’ to know him a little bit, I got the courage to ask him. I’d been looking for a project, actually. I’d been wanting to write a book specifically, and I wasn’t sure [about] what. I love biographies, always read them. Hell, as a journalist, I wrote a ton of ’em just in newspapers and magazines! And I thought, “How cool would it be to write a really long article about somebody I’m really interested in and like– and that was Bruce! And of course, the more I got to know him, the more I dug into his music. I’ve always loved music. It’s just, for some reason, our paths never really crossed. I guess I was into jazz, and it’s funny, bluegrass, and the more I got to know about Bruce and his music, God, the more I loved it! And the more I was sold on him as a bandleader!
When it comes to a character like Col. Bruce, how do you even begin? Where did you start in tryin’ to capture his story?
Well, the best thing I could do was blame other people! And so that’s the approach I took! I tried to take the approach of blaming others! But seriously, half-seriously, that’s a great question. I was scared to ask him to do this project for that very reason. ‘Cause I’d gotten to know enough of him, and like you said, you called him a character and he was! The Colonel was kind of his character, right? And Bruce was different. Bruce Hampton versus Col. Bruce Hampton. I think a lot of people will tell you they were two different people like, I guess, with a lot of performers. But yes and no. I mean, Bruce was very much himself on stage and himself was a character! He was a funny, mysterious person who liked having an air of mystery and keeping things light, and keeping people laughing. It’s a big subject! So I seriously, half-seriously realized early on, I’m gonna have to ask a lot of people, a lot of questions!
I only knew Bruce since about 2007, and I started this in 2011, the project itself. That’s when I asked his permission to write the book, and I’ve worked on it from 2011 to 2019 when I turned in the manuscript. I probably spent about a year to two years of solid writing. But a lot of it was, like I said, gathering up the stories from other people whom I could blame later for their recollections! But that was very helpful because it brought a lot of different perspectives. Bruce would tell you one thing five different ways (laughs) and then you’d hear these other stories! And that made it fun. That made it fun where it was like, “Alright, let’s talk about some of the mythocracy and some of the truth and meet somewhere in the middle!” (Laughs)
I wanted to ask about that special challenge ’cause when it comes to Col. Bruce, his reach, his range with people is just so vast. And when you take into account band members, friends, family, what was it like calling people up, goin’, “I’m writin’ a book about Col. Bruce.” Were they like, “Oh, have I got a story for you!” Or were people reluctant to dive into that?
Brother, you hit the nail on the head with the first one! I’d say about 88 1/3 percent said that exact thing. “Oh, man, where do I start?” Or, “Let me tell you about the time…” It might be a specific thing. Sometimes Bruce would say, “Call Billy Kreutzmann, you know, the drummer for the Grateful Dead?” Yeah, Bruce, I know who he is! And he’s like, “Well, he’s in Hawaii, so you’ll have to call him at one in the morning our time just cause he doesn’t really get goin’ until nine or ten at night. Ask him about this!” And I would do that. Sometimes the conversation would lead to vastly different worlds in different places– and sometimes even better things!
Probably on some level, Bruce knew that. And then sometimes it would be just specifically what Bruce was talking about, “He’ll know this story and he can really tell it better than me.” And then, BOOM, somebody would have the story! It was across the board! There were a few people who were like, “Um, I wasn’t his friend. I don’t want to talk about it.” Not many. Most people got it, I think. Most people were like, “Yeah, Bruce was a storyteller and I’d be glad to. Here’s my story.” I probably contacted about 150 people and I quoted 90 in the book. I think there’s 90 different people quoted. I actually went back and counted at some point. Either like 89 to 94 are quoted, but I reached out to and talk to about 150. The vast majority had that response that you first alluded to. Some were, “Oh, I don’t know where to begin…” Very few were, “No, I’d rather not.”
Was there anybody that you wanted to talk to that you weren’t able to?
Actually, there were! There were a couple that I wanted to talk to that didn’t want to talk for one reason or another, not many, and some, because they were just so hard to reach. Like Phish. I was looking at some of the stuff you guys do. I love your website and the fact that you’ve got like an online music mag and a radio station together there is very cool to me. But you know how hard it could be to reach some artists.
Sometimes you have to go through their media people, their press person, what we used to call an advance man back in the old days. And that wasn’t always easy. There’s only one member of Phish quoted in the book that I could interview and that was Mike Gordon. He made himself available ’cause he’s an avuncular guy, he’s a nice guy. Bruce gave me the number of a couple of them and he was the one who responded. I would go through management for some. Widespread Panic was very approachable. I wanted to speak with Widespread Panic because they were very influenced by Bruce and [Aquarium Rescue Unit]. They were all reachable. Everybody in ARU was reachable except for one person who just for one reason or another would not return calls. I won’t even mention the person. He’s a great guy that I think is just one of those people that it was like it probably didn’t register. You know, “Oh, I’ll see him backstage,” or whatever. And I think where this person is quoted in the book is probably where I got him backstage for five minutes or something. We didn’t have like a sit-down interview. But everybody from ARU is quoted and I did have a chance to speak with them. So almost everybody, I have to say. Everybody that mattered is included. But there were a few that I wanted to reach that I just simply couldn’t. And of course, some people who have died, right? You can’t get them! But oh, man, I would maybe given the tip of my finger to talk to some of those people just because they’re real heroes!
With a lot of artists, when you start to dig into their lives, into their loves, and their influences and you get into the legend, oftentimes, I find, that you start chronicling a period of time also, or an era or a scene just as much as you do the individual. Is that something that you experienced with this book?
I did! I actually did! It’s funny. I had to balance the focus in the book because I really could’ve made this a much more sprawling… If trees grew on trees, you know? I didn’t want to kill too many trees! But that not being up to me as well. I did go after a publisher. I didn’t want to publish it myself. I wanted to do the traditional “get somebody else to foot the bill.” I reached out to University of Georgia Press because they’re a respected publisher mostly known for scholarly kind of books, but they also, in recent years started a series of books that they do within their catalog called Music of the American South. In that grouping, I think this is the sixth, which is perfect because six was like, Bruce’s magic number! But I think it’s the sixth book in that series, Music of the American South, in the UGA Press catalog, which I’m kind of proud of that. I specifically reached out to them because there’s a real connection with Col. Bruce and University of Georgia ’cause Bruce’s grandfather was the UGA football coach, like a hundred years ago, literally. He was a great coach! That was one of those stories that we used to think, “Ah, Bruce was just tellin’ a tall tale or mythocracy!” But it was totally, totally true. It was even truer than he knew! There was more weird shit about his grandfather than even Bruce either would tell or knew!
But UGA Press had a word limit. When they gave me a contract, they asked me to give them a word limit, and I had not written a book before. I did a little research and I guessed so many words for so many pages and whatever, and I was aiming for 200 pages. In the end, it could have easily been a 400-page book that got into way more of the scene. But it does get into some of the scene. I heard back from a few people who have read it that they learned a lot about what Atlanta was like during the days of the Hampton Grease Band. Little things like that. So I definitely try to touch on that and offer some scenes that try to show rather than tell what a particular scene was like, Bruce’s scene.
I would love to have gone into more though. Really spent some ink on talkin’ about The Strip in Atlanta, which I don’t know if you know about that. This is like a little neighborhood in Atlanta that was kinda like a mini Haight-Ashbury. I wasn’t in Atlanta at that time anyway and would have probably been too young to enjoy that scene, but it was a lot of fun learning about that. I couldn’t not learn about this stuff! I’m old enough, but young enough, right? I’m 60. So I’m definitely old enough, but young enough not to really remember what a lot was happening in the ’60s. Too little. So this was fun to go back and really learn about that. And even the ’70s, I was a young kid and then a teenager and I didn’t know a lot about what was happening. It was a great experience. It was an education for me. A really fun education where I could be graded on the curve (laughs)!
I was gonna ask this a little bit later, but since you bring that part of it up, that to me seems like it would also make for a very fun book or project– writing about that particular scene in that era in Atlanta music.
The late ’60s in Atlanta? People who were there will tell you they knew all about it. It seems familiar, but for a lot of us who weren’t familiar with it, it would be interesting to say and to consider that there was a lot goin’ on, even though it doesn’t seem like it. It was in a small way. Like Bruce’s band, the Hampton Grease Band. And I say, Bruce’s band ’cause he was in it. I wanna be clear, he was not the leader of the Hampton Grease Band. It did have his name, he was the frontman, and a lot of people assumed that he was like the leader of the band because all these years later we know Bruce Hampton more than we know of anybody else in the band, whether that’s right or wrong for people for whom that’s a very sensitive thing. But that aside, I think Bruce’s name is the one that’s most known because he was it was the Hampton Grease Band.
Well, that band was a real touchstone for Atlanta music– and music in general! They were way ahead of their time. Their fame is in some ways still evolving. There’ve been some interesting stories that have come out. There’s a fellow who wrote a story back, I want to say December or January, and it was this epic piece about the Hampton Grease Band on a website called the Aquarium Drunkard, if you’re familiar with that site.
I am not. But I’m gonna check it out when we’re done.
Aaron, you’ll love it, man! It depends on how much you want to dive into it, but I enjoyed it. It was a great piece on the Hampton Grease Band by a writer named Jesse Jarnow. After I read it, my manuscript was already being printed at that time, but I wrote to him. I said, “Damn it! Why didn’t you write this like a year or two ago when I was still writing my book! This would have been like my main source!” ‘Cause it’s the best thing I’ve read about the Hampton Grease Band by far! And when you brought up that would be an interesting time, if anybody can write a book about that time and has already started on it, it might be Jesse. I don’t know. He’s not even from Atlanta. I think he’s in New York. I don’t know him very well. We’ve just exchanged some emails. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesse or somebody churns out a book at some point that focuses on the Hampton Grease Band and how they started a movement in Atlanta. Because they did!
They started free concerts in Piedmont Park that brought the Allman Brothers up! Macon’s Allman Brothers made it big in Atlanta in part due to the Grease Band. It’s talked about in the book where one of the founding members of the Grease Band, Glenn Phillips, saw an outlet in one of the park pavilions and said, “I wonder if this is live,” and he brought back a clock radio to test it. And it was live! The next weekend, the Grease Band brought their instruments and plugged in and put on a free show, and that kind of started a movement in Atlanta of free shows in Piedmont park. The Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, and some others were part of that as the next couple of years transpired.
Let’s talk about the ultimate, the night that the Colonel passed. You were there. I read an interview you did– you’d actually shown up and had pages of the book to share with him that day? How did you originally plan to end the book?
(Laughs) That is a great question! In fact, I don’t think I had written this yet, but it was something that Bruce and I had discussed just sort of faintly. He wanted this book to happen, but he was like, “I don’t wanna do it. It’s your book.” I told him, “I’m gonna deal with this like a journalist and a biographer. Of course, you’re my friend…” He knew I wasn’t out to like do a gotcha kind of biography, but by the same token, I wanted to write about stuff he didn’t always want to talk about. But that didn’t mean don’t talk about it. For example, if you ask Bruce sometimes about his songs, “Where did that song come from?” He might say, “Oh, Zambi did it.” He just didn’t always want to get into the story behind his art– like a lot of artists. Sometimes he would write, but a lot of things he’d say, “Ask ‘so n’ so’. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Initially, I was gonna end it with a forward-looking piece and a quote from him. At that point, I have to tell you, Aaron, after Bruce died, I actually did get a lot more material that I wasn’t planning to get. Because it just changed the tone of everything! But before Bruce died, the plan was to end it with a quote from him. There was something he had said to me some years earlier. I’m really paraphrasing, but it was like, “Name another artist who plays out 40 weekends a year besides me?” I think at the time he mentioned Zac Brown, the big country artist. I guess Zac was playing a lot or something, and Bruce was like, “You name another artist and band besides mine and Zac Brown’s that’s playing out 40 weekends a year– and I’m doin’ it at 65!” He was really proud of it, and that was gonna be the piece I was gonna end at. We’d already talked about how he wanted to, “I’ll play until I’m 80 or 90!” He had already talked about, “I’ll play until I drop dead on stage!” All of that was part of what I was outlining. The pages I had to give him didn’t cover that. The pages I had to give him was like an introduction, some band stuff, like middle of the book stuff. In fact, very little of it made it into the final manuscript. Some of it did, and I don’t have a number, but I would say of the 75 pages, maybe 35, you know, half of them or so are in the book in some form. But yeah, that night totally changed, of course, how it would end! And how the book began too! I actually touch on it in the introduction. I touch on what happened that night, just to help bring people in and then really cover it in the last chapter.
I have to ask this one. You said there were things that he didn’t want to talk about. Do you think that he had concerns over a book being published about him? Not because he was worried that people would find out something salacious or dastardly, but that he might’ve been concerned that people would see past the character that he wanted them to see?
That’s a good question. And I really don’t know. I do think that when I say there were things he didn’t want to talk about, he was very open about that. Like in other words, I’ll give you an example, I asked him about a band member that he’d had a falling out with from one of his many bands. And he said, “I’d rather not talk about it because if I can’t say anything nice…” I’m paraphrasing, but that was his message, “I just don’t want to go there. If you want to reach out to him, go ahead, but I’d rather not waste any time on it.” And I understood that because he was still hurt by this particular person or incident.
There were two incidents, actually, two people in particular that he wouldn’t talk about. I might’ve asked the question, like, “What did you think of? Tell me about this person, style of music, or whatever.” He just didn’t want to go there. He wouldn’t say anything ugly, but he just wouldn’t go there. That’s really what I’m talking about. But maybe even the first page of the first chapter, we talk about how Bruce was great at using sleight of hand, his own funny and very, very real humor to sometimes change the subject. Maybe we were talking about his mom or something like that, and he’d tell you just a little bit. Sometimes if it’s a painful subject, we don’t always want to talk about it, and he was concerned with other people’s feelings. He wanted to be sensitive to that, family, and so on. He was very much a gentleman. I will say that one of the things about Bruce was there was a part of him that was a classic Southern gentleman. Does that make any sense? There really was! He wasn’t gonna talk about things that were uncomfortable to him. He’d rather shift the focus to something that made people laugh. That was just who he was. That’s what made him comfortable.
A few people talked about that in the book. I didn’t wanna just put my 2 cents in there. It would be easy for me to say, “This is what I’ve observed,” but that would be a hell of a boring book! It really helped to talk with a lot of people who knew Bruce, including people who knew him for 50, 60 years, who could say, “Oh yeah, sometimes Bruce would change the subject by tellin’ some funny story or a joke because he didn’t want to talk about that!” It didn’t interest him or it was maybe a painful memory and he just didn’t like going there. He’d rather keep it light.
Bruce’s famous quote– to me, it was famous– was “I’d rather have a room full of people laugh at something I said than know what the weight of an onion in Idaho is.” I don’t know why he picked onion instead of potato, but he did! His point again being he loved being a performer and entertaining and putting spirit in the room. I heard him say that the big thing was putting spirit in the room, but I also heard him say putting joy in the room. Those were two of his big goals in his work as an artist. I think it also was a big part of who he was as a person. Around the lunch table and just shooting the shit with him, he tried to keep it light. Not that he wouldn’t talk about tough things. Sometimes he would. And then sometimes he would say, “This is off the record.”
I have to say, I’ve interviewed in my career hundreds of people. Hundreds! And certainly, I don’t call myself a music writer by any stretch, but I certainly interviewed, at this point anyway, a whole bunch for this book! But a lot of people from all walks of life, all kinds of businesses, sports, politics– you name it, I’ve interviewed them. Bruce fits right in, in terms of being a regular guy with the exception that he was just incredibly creative, could keep your interest. Interviewing Bruce was more interesting than interviewing an accountant, right? But he used to joke, “I probably should have been an accountant!” ‘Cause I think he was basically shy. And I think he’d be the first one to tell you that. Like a lot of performers and artists you and I have met who are shy, but one of their outlets is to perform.
Well, it’s the safest place in the world behind a guitar!
That’s it, right? That’s a safe place! And it was for Bruce! Even when he didn’t play it very well, he didn’t care! He left the ego at the door, as he said. Certainly, he had an ego like every performer just to get on stage, but his whole thing was, “Leave your ego at the door. We don’t want to see that. We want to see as close to an honest performance as we can in that moment.” That’s what he was asking his musicians. I thought that was really a cool thing, a charming thing. Even putting on a performance, you want to be authentic. As a professional audience member, I want that too! I want that to come across. I don’t want bullshit! Not that a person can’t fool me, but if you’re gonna fool me, you better be good at it! Show me some authenticity that I’ll buy. He tried to do that, I think. But without the bullshit. But of course, you and I know Bruce could tell a good bullshit story as well as anybody! Better than most!