Memphis, however, is more pleasing. Ernie arrives at Sun Studio in the fall of 1956 with Pewee and two Gulfport musicians, Ernie Harvey and Leo Ladner. The vibe is laid-back, as Ernie
explains in a recorded interview unearthed from the Sun vaults: "You would just go in there and start picking around and playing around and first thing you know you was recording, you might be sitting on a vacuum cleaner or anything you could find to sit on,
but that's the way it was at Sun Studio back when Sam Phillips had it."
Like Pewee, Sam Phillips responds to the special quality of Ernie's voice, but note the date:
Phillips is busy, he's hit it big with Elvis Presley, and he's hooked on the new sounds, rock and roll and rockabilly, which Phillips describes as the merging of "a country man's song with a black man's rhythm''.
In 1957, Sun releases two sides by Chaffin, the country songs "Feelin' Low" and "Lonesome For My Baby" (both written by Pewee) on which he's backed by Harvey on steel guitar, Pewee on acoustic guitar, and Ladner on bass. The
songs are spare and elemental, just a few instruments buffering the clear, expressive vocals. Billboard: "Sun Records may have another big-time artist in Ernie Chaffin. He warbles in the earthy Presley groove, with plenty of feeling, interesting phrasing,
and spontaneous sounding vitality." Sales, however, are unremarkable.
Chaffin returns with the same gang to Sun for a session that yields "I'm Lonesome" and "Laughin'
and Jokin'" (both again written by Pewee). (Billboard describes "I'm Lonesome" as "an appealing chant.") I'm in bed reading when I first hear "I'm Lonesome''. Ernie's voice comes at me like a searchlight, bright and shimmery but also jarring. The human voice
conveys moods, but this one I can't figure out. Such a simple rhyme scheme (Feeling blue/Missing you), such an eerie sound. The dramatic shifts in register shouldn't work. The hint of ye olde Western should seem creaky. A minute or so into the song, he plunges
into a deep bowl of polysyllabic oh's. He goes: "oh, oh, oh, oh, oh" and then "low, woe, own, some." It's graceful and vibrating and then the voice tilts up again.
few more Sun sessions follow, but much of the material is unreleased. Chaffin's songs are engaging and warm, but it's hard-unkind, really-to imagine his polite rhythms and winsome croon competing with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis.
Suddenly, Sun has attitude, their ads are even cocky:
You think Sun ain't hot! Is New York big! Has a cat got a tail! Ernie's singing is earnest, like his name. He is
a romantic. He is married and, most likely, faithful. He is content, consistent. He is not an exhibitionist.
Sun tries to nudge Ernie toward rockabilly, but as Ernie
explains, "I'm a country boy and I sing country music and I just never did care to sing the rockabilly. I guess it probably would have been profitable if I had, but I didn't do it anyway''.
Phillips later says if he had devoted himself to country music, with "stylists" like Charlie Feathers and Ernie Chaffin, he "could have had a darn good country label." But late-1950s Phillips craves the sexy and illicit. Miscegenation.
When someone, say, drops your heart in a sink and grinds it through the garbage disposal, how do you react? One kind of person sticks her hand down the drain and drags out the moist muck
and then runs into the street, screaming murder, fingering culprits. Another kind of person stares down the drain, sorrowful, self-pitying, but allowing a smidgen of selfblame. This is the difference between rock and roll and country music. Rock and roll can
admit to pain but it tends to project it: Look at this crap I've been through, how it's made me tougher. Country sucks in the grief, accepting as a sponge: You dumped me, but I still think you're all right, and I am going to sit here and weep, okay? Rock is
obsidian; country is buttermilk. The genres overlap, but in essence they are like the eponymous characters in the Lydia Davis story "Head, Heart," attempting to persuade but unable to connect. Most of us favor one side or the other. If you are Manhattan, you
disdain the call of country bumpkins.
With Ernie, the country ballad, more mid-tempo than drawly, fits him. He isn't a melancholy person, but his songs dwell in a lonely
climate. "Pretty girls all around, and I'm the saddest guy in town," he sings, "because I'm lonesome for my baby." This is a sappy line, right? Still, the way he brings it out makes me shivery. I once was city, but Ernie confirms I'm also country.
Young writers are told to find their voice, but how do they recognize it? Does it stay fixed, like a parking spot you nose into every morning, or does it change and vanish? Ernie Chaffin
found his voice early on-or more likely it found him. He opened his mouth, in a church pew? a bassinet? a music class?, and the sound swept out. It probably pleased him, like a laugh turned liquid, like a cartoon.
When a woman hears a male singing, she becomes a magnetic opposite, the object. But sometimes, more rare, she becomes him. Ernie Chaffin brings you so close you're inside him looking out. It may be the Gulf of
Mexico you see, placid but seething with a violent past, more like jelly than surf, quivering.
Jimmy and Pewee, two of Ernie's best friends, kill themselves. Jimmy is
holding Chaffin's phone number in his hand when he is discovered, self-asphyxiated. Ernie's Avalon Jean dies of cancer. He remarries. His two kids grow up. Ernie, Jr., graduates from Southern Miss., Celonne is a schoolteacher. Father and kids sing gospel,
there are dozens of recordings in his son's possession. Ernie has a tractor and one day it rolls over on him, crushing him slowly. He is sixty-nine. He is pinned by thousands of pounds of machinery to Mississippi's rich, fertile soil. Do you know this is the
third wettest state in the country? The river, the rain, the wetlands, the floodplains.
You play his songs when you are driving, alone, in Arkansas: His voice is not
delicate, exactly, but it is unguarded: not right for parties. There are landscapes in the tunes, the steel guitar (Ernie Harvey) is prairie or seascape or moon, anywhere you consider the horizon as an extension of yourself or an equal. The voice cracks, deliberately,
or bends an octave; it makes you aware of tectonic shifts in the earth and how they travel through the layers of history to resolve in our bodies, unnoticed. He didn't sing at The Opry, a disappointment, but he was a regular on Louisiana Hayride, he was pals
with Elvis. Everyone liked him, he was cute and he was also unpretentious. He was a believer but his voice expresses finitude. Maybe he is telling you about death, which is either the ultimate lonesome or the end of all loneliness. This voice finds a hole
in you and swims inside it. For now, you are not divided.
day in early June something rather astonishing happened to me'', says Barbara Barnes. ''I always imagined that if I ever met Elvis Presley, it would be at night, Elvis being the nocturnal creature of legend. As it was, I was heading through the studio to my
little den, head down riffling through the day's mail, when I looked up and saw that I was within a foot of the back of a man in uniform. Sam, facing me, was deep in conversation with this figure. Sam stopped me ans said, ''Barbara, I would like you to meet
Elvis stuck out his hand and said, ''Glad to meet you, ma'am''. ''I managed to contain my surprise and asked Elvis if he were enjoying his visit home
from Fort Hood, and he said he was. We exchanged a couple of other pleasantries and I excused myself. I would have liked to talk with him some more, but the other part of my brain said it wasn't polite to intrude, especially with someone as constant prey as
Elvis'', Barbara said.
Barbara still fully took in what a beautiful sight to behold the real Elvis Presley was that day. He no longer fit the stereotype that had been
attributed to him, a sneering hillbilly cat with a pompadour, purple jacket, and teenager skin. Instead, they saw a fit and glowing specimen of manhood with a neat haircut and customtailored uniform that showed off his perfect physique. He looked me squarely
in the face in a sincere manner as he said he enjoyed meeting here. The papers were full of news about his leave, his skating parties, his gang of friends who went everywhere with him, his girlfriend Anita Wood. He was of endless interest to everyone in Memphis
and, judging from magazine covers they saw on newsstands, everywhere else, too.