March Read of the Month: “Old Country Fiddle,” by Heath Dollar

Health Dollar (photo by Martina Milerova)

Reviewed by Adam Van Winkle

Old Country Fiddle is certainly an appropriate title for Heath Dollar’s new short story collection from Red Dirt Press.  Though, those familiar with some of Dollar’s previous stories will recognize the setting, fictional Waylon County, out in the land of the accordion, Texas Hill Country.

Those familiar with the Texas Hill Country will recognize some staples:  kolaches, Czech-Tex and German-Tex culture, and old time gospel and country music.

The latter is probably the thing that makes me smile most in this collection: you’ll find references to Patsy Cline, Jean Shepard, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and there’s even a flag salesman selling a flag featuring the head of Willie Nelson.  While “Honkytonking with the Silver Strings” is the story you’ll find the vintage country sound most front and center, it seems every story in Old Country Fiddle is steeped in a worn country voice.

Beyond the soundtrack, characters in this collection are uncompromising, absolute, and surprising in their resolution.  Dollar has a way of unleashing this on the reader in sudden turns that are stunning: “Cora Mae, in fact, disliked playing piano so much that, in an act of clear-eyed pragmatism, she had cut the tips of all her fingers with her father’s pocketknife to avoid having to practice” (see “Third Fiddle”).

Getting to know Cora Mae and Prairie Dog and Audrey Hepburn (named for but not the film star) and Earl Todd and Byron Herblight, I kept thinking of Guy Clark tunes, how characters in them feel familiarmbut never stereotypical, and at the same time unexpected.  I think one mark of a good Southern fiction writer is the ability to create wild characters who exude all the mythopoeia that goes with Southern culture without making them corny or predictable.  Dollar nails that here with authentic voice.

I laughed reading this collection too.  I grew up in Texas, where food festivals abound.  My hometown had the Peanut Festival every year, and Dollar rattling off food festivals—East Texas Yamboree, Texas Onion Fest, Krasna Lipa Kolache Festival—in “The Kolache Contest” made me chuckle.  To boot, his names for eateries are witty and droll: Austin’s “Biscuits and Groovy” and the more rural diner, “Wailin’ Biscuit Café.”

As Dollar has family in the German Texas town of Fredericksburg, and has lived in the Czech Republic along with his native Texas (from Townes van Zandt territory, Fort Worth), it’s no surprise that he seamlessly sews the dialogue of the rural Texas Hill country with Octoberfest beer and pretzels and Czech language in Old Country Fiddle.

This collection from Red Dirt Press is a winner, one to keep on a shelf with your favorite old country albums.  Each story, each character will stick with you long after you’ve put it down.

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