James Brubaker is touring America and communing with dead musicians. The cross-country séance started when James visited his friend Dillon in West Virginia and stopped by the Rainbow Road, a small country bar along the WV-VA state line, and James conjured the ghost of Patsy Cline. Knowing the history of the bar, Dillon dared James to go into the women’s restroom, lock the door and turn off the lights, and sing “Walkin’ After Midnight” into the mirror. He did, and Cline appeared.
On the strength of his account of the experience, and the weight of the discussion that took place between spirit and flesh in that cramped bathroom, that being whether or not “Blue” was written by Bill Mack for Cline or not, James was able to procure a book deal with Random House under the stipulation that James would travel the United States and talk to its late national musical treasures. He would ask them questions and then transcribe and share their responses with the public at large. The title of this book, which will be designed and marketed as an expensive coffee table publication, is tentatively called The Specter Collection, a play on innovative music producer Phil Spector’s name, that being a homophone for “specter,” or another word for “ghost,” and that James is anthologizing interviews with the spirits of dead musicians, much in the same way record companies anthologize the music of late great artists.
On the first of June, after meticulously plotting the course for his research (a research project that would consist of many trips, this first leg focusing primarily on the south and the midwest), James piled into his Toyota Camry with a Wal-Mart-bought Ouija board and struck out from his home in southern Missouri to encounter the dead. The project, though, was failing from the beginning. James’ first stop was Okemah, Oklahoma, where he wished to talk with Woody Guthrie and get his take on the state of American politics. However, the legendary folk hero only wanted to rant about company man Tom Morrello and his use of Guthrie’s signature “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Afterward, James travelled to Lubbock, Texas, to converse with the spirit of Buddy Holly, but despite James’s best efforts in steering the conversation toward his prescribed questions, Holly deflected each, clearly having an axe to grind: Gary Busey’s portrayal of him in the 1983 film The Buddy Holly Story. (That Busey was nominated for an Academy Award did not sway Holly.)
After visiting New Orleans and having a rather contentious conversation with dead jazz greats King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton (the two were still arguing an eighty-five-year-old bar tab), James traveled up the Mississippi River to Memphis, Tennessee, to visit Sun Records, an institution in the history of American rock and roll. There, James hoped to commune with the spirits of Johnny Cash, BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, and, most importantly, Elvis Presley, in the hopes of salvaging his slowly sinking project.
James considered staying past close in order to conjure the dead musicians, slipping into the bathroom of Sun Records and hiding in the ventilation shafts like in a comedy caper, but after some reconnaissance, the plan proved faulty. Disappointed, James rented the community center across the street from Sun Records, hoping to speak to the multitudes of dead musicians there, each spirit having to take a number and wait their turn before finally meeting with the author. This was not ideal for James, though. Being across the street and not inside Sun Records limited his chances with the spirited greats. James believed that being outside Sun Records would only attract the outsiders, the peripheral spirits. He wanted and needed to be inside.
The following are excerpts from James Brubaker’s controversial Sun Records interviews, a session conducted using EVP, or electronic voice phenomenon.
James: Number 4!
Subject #4: Hey there.
James: Oh, hi. First, I want to say thanks for participating.
Subject #4: No problem.
James: So, you’ll have to forgive me. I don’t think I know who you are.
Subject #4: Ha. Of course. Name’s Pat. Pat Hare.
James: Thanks, Pat. So, what’s your claim to fame at Sun Records?
Subject #4: What’s my claim? Well, I recorded “Cotton Crop Blues” with James Cotton there.
James: Oh, James Cotton.
Subject #4: You know him, huh?
James: Yeah. He played with Muddy Waters.
Subject #4: Hmm. Well, some cat with Rolling Stone—yeah, even us dead folks still read the press—said my work with Cotton “anticipated elements of heavy metal.” But that’s—whatever, man. I just liked the raw sound of that distortion through the tubes, know what I’m sayin’?
James: Wow. I didn’t know that. Did you record any songs of your own at Sun?
Subject #4: Yeah, a cover of Doctor Clayton’s “I’m Gonna Murder My Baby” in ‘54.
James: Don’t think I’ve heard that one before. Here, let me write it down so I can give it a list—
Subject #4: And then I did it.
James: I’m sorry?
Subject #4: Murdered my baby. I murdered my baby.
Subject #4: Yeah, I was playin’ with Muddy Waters at the time—did you know I played with Muddy Waters too?—and I had myself a real bad drinkin’ problem. Real bad. Got into a fight with my girl one night, see, and I shot her dead.
Subject #4: And then I shot the police officer when he came to the house. Spent 16 years in prison. Died there in 1980.
James: Shit, man.
Subject #4: King, Wolf, all them cats just sang the blues. Hell, most of them boys at Sun were products, packages wrapped up by Sam himself. I actually lived it.
James: Hi. State your name for the record, please.
Subject #13: Carl Lee Perkins.
James: Thanks, Carl. Now—
Subject #13: Did you know I wrote “Blue Suede Shoes?”
James: Wait, what?
Subject #13: I said, did you know I wrote “Blue Suede Shoes?”
James: No, I thought—
Subject #13: Son of a... Presley. You thought Presley wrote it.
James. I mean, maybe? I don’t really know if I even kn—
Subject #13: I wrote it. I wrote the song in October ‘55. Recorded it in December and Phillips released the single in January ‘56—before that sumbitch Presley recorded it. You know what happened?
James: No… Man, it got really cold in here. Let me get my sweater.
Subject #13: Me and the boys in the band were on our way to New York, gonna perform “Blue Suede Shoes” on Perry Como’s TV show, but we were in a car accident. Stuart was driving that night. Poor guy drove all night. Dead tired. He fell asleep at the wheel and hit a truck. Our car took a couple rolls and into a ditch full of water, about a foot deep. I was flung from the car. Found a few yards away, face-down in that water. I woulda drowned if it weren’t for ol’ Fluke. He pulled me out. The driver of the truck Pinkham hit, he died, though. My brother Jay, too. I had some fractured vertebrae. A concussion, cuts and bruises to boot. Spent a hell of a lot of time in the hospital. Needless to say, we didn’t perform on Como’s show. Presley sent a get well card. His boys visited, but not him. Just the card. About two weeks later, still holed up from the wreck, you know what I saw? Presley performing “Blue Suede Shoes” on Milton Berle. Yeah, that television appearance. The one that put everybody up in a tizzy, him shaking those hips, moving them feet all about. From then on that song wasn’t mine no more. That song was his. The song was his.
James: I didn’t know that.
Subject #13: I was a member of the Million Dollar Quartet. Me, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Cash. And yet, somehow, no one seems to remember me. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, sometimes called the King of Rockabilly and all that, but Elvis. That guy, that car accident. Fate. I never stood a chance. No one did up against him.
James: I’m sorry.
Subject #13: See that guy over there?
James: Who is that?
Subject #13: You don’t know who he is?
Subject #13: Of course you don’t. That’s Malcolm Yelvington. Wanna know his story?
Subject #13: Malcolm is the unlucky bastard to have his first single released at the same time as Elvis’ first single. Ol’ Phillips was never a big fan of Malcolm. Saw potential, though. Gave him a shot. But when Elvis came along, no sir. Malcolm was left to the wayside. Phillips promoted “That’s All Right,” but not “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee.” Left Malcolm the chore of promoting his own single. And when Malcolm got fed up, he went to competitor Metro Records. But he hadda go by a different name: Mac Sales and the Esquire Trio. All on account he was still under contract with Sun—the very label that wouldn’t give him the time of day. You know what he did after that? He quit. He quit music.
James: And you two are?
Subject #23: Elsie Jo Miller.
Subject #24: Mildred Miller.
Subject #23 & #24: We’re the Miller Sisters.
James: You two were on Sun Records?
Subject #23: Yes, shortly.
James: Shortly? What happened?
Subject #23: Elvis.
James: I’m starting to see a theme here.
Subject #24: Sam liked us well enough, but we were too country. Music was moving to rockabilly at the time. Elvis’ first single hit stations the same week we recorded our session. And then nobody wanted country anymore. Because of that, Sam didn’t release much of our music. Couldn’t sell us, he said.
James: So what did you do?
Subject #24: We travelled around a bit. Played some fairs, some bars, but nothing ever really happened with us.
Subject #23: Gave up the act in 1960. How could we keep going?
James continued to research throughout the rest of June, visiting other cities, like Nashville and Chicago, before returning home to his cats the first week of July. He spent the next couple of weeks transcribing the interviews with the help of a few graduate assistants from the university where he teaches and plotting this next round of research: the west coast. He’ll start in San Francisco and work his way up to Seattle. Then, after completing that leg, he’ll tour the east coast, hoping to catch Patsy Cline again because it was such a pleasant conversation they had.
Around the time James returned to his home in Missouri, footage began to circulate from Graceland’s security cameras of a person—looking very much like James—standing at the gates and both flipping off and shaking their posterior in the direction of the estate. Authorities at Graceland could not identify the trespasser because of video distortion. Some online users, though, upon slowing down the footage, claimed to see the outlines of at least a dozen other figures around the trespasser, prompting many in the online community to believe the footage to feature ghosts. Graceland has not commented on this speculation.
For James Brubaker, on the occasion of his thirty-something birthday