“Rick Bragg? Who is he?” my husband Steve asked, as though I were inviting him to a séance with Dracula. Even my assurance that he was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist that we read monthly in Southern Living didn’t really impress him. But he agreed to go, primarily to humor me.
Rick Bragg is a pretty unassuming fellow from Fairhope, Alabama, who looks like he’d go with the tv show “Diners, Dives, and Drive-Ins.” He speaks with poor grammar and an Alabama accent to emphasize that he’s still connected to his roots. His mother was a driving force in his life. He talks a lot about her and his two brothers: Sam older, Mark younger. He began by saying that speaking is easier than writing but not easier than roofing. That set the tone for his theme which was, roughly, that he is the odd man out in a family that works with their hands instead of words and ideas. For example, when he offered to bush-hog, his brother Sam refused, saying, “Ricky, you type for a livin’.”
He said he considers Kentuckians “honorary Southerners,” which showed that he knew Kentucky did not secede with the other Southern states but still is Southern in spirit. I appreciated that acknowledgment.
A lovely young woman was signing for the benefit of some deaf people in the audience. He said, “I’ve just gotta ask. Are you signin’ with my accent?”
He uses as many similes and metaphors in his speaking as in his writing. Talking about his uncle, he said, “He had cheekbones so sharp you could cut bologna on them.” Now there’s a word picture!
He told about being called to write a book and saying that the only book he’d ever wanted to write was one about his mother. He called his mother to get her permission and she said, “It’ll be all right, son. Ain’t nobody gonna read it.” That got a good laugh, since it’s sold over a million copies since it was written in 1998. And his mother is still going strong. He said most of his social life is taking her to the doctor. Many of us could relate to that.
He also told about a reporter who interviewed his mother and asked what the best day of her life was. He expected it to have something to do with his success, but she said, “The day my first son was born.” She added, “I never had a doll, and here was this perfect little baby, Sam.” She talked to him all night when she first brought him home. Rick Bragg is a master at self-deprecation.
My favorite part was when he talked about having on his shoulders not an angel and a devil but instead “Hope and Optimism” on one shoulder and “Regret” on the other. He gave examples of times when either prevailed over the other. Again, his audience connected to that.
I read his book, All Over But the Shoutin’, after getting it for a Christmas gift years ago. Under where my sister-in-law had written, “Merry Christmas, Lanita! Love, Larry and Nancy, 2008,” Rick Bragg wrote, “…and again in 2015, Rick Bragg.” I enjoyed talking to him. I’ve gotten autographs from many authors and he is one of a handful that actually looked at me, said “Hello,” and shook my hand. (In contrast, author AL had it announced that she had time only to write a name, and that was certainly all she did, hardly looking up to be sure she was writing it for a real person.)
Though his last name is Bragg, he did not. He could have named all the books he’s written and prizes he’s received and glory he’s gotten, but instead he talked about down-home things, country things, people that work with their hands. He said he’s a little embarrassed at how easy his life has been because of the kind of men he comes from, men who have blast furnace scars.