Recent novel recognized as a ‘Best Indie Book of 2022’
Melvin Litton, local author and musician, walks his German shepherd, Jack, through the Barker neighborhood every evening.
Tall and slender with salt and pepper hair — mostly salt these days — Litton, 72, might be shaping sentences in his head or exploring literary ideas as he walks, eager to scrawl them onto his sketch pad once he’s home again.
A retired carpenter, Litton has published five novels, with another forthcoming, and two books of poetry. His recent novel, “King Harvest,” part of his Kansas Murder Trilogy, was named one of Kirkus Reviews’ Best Indie Books of 2022 this week.
Litton’s response to the accolade is a growing hope that it will strengthen his chances of securing a high-powered literary agent. And maybe that could help his books land in the hands of more readers. But he’s had a New York City agent before, and he knows not even that can guarantee book sales.
But that’s OK. Litton neither craves nor savors recognition, chasing the muse for pure pleasure and effort.
As a writer, he is reclusive and obsessive: he writes in an upstairs office during daylight hours, immersed in word choices and plot construction until he places the last period onto the last sentence — which he hand-scrawls in tiny letters onto sketch pads. He has no smartphone, and the laptop he uses to type his drafts has no internet.
The trill of the landline phone occasionally travels through the house.
“My wife answers most of those while I stay hunkered in my room,” he says.
As a musician, he is gregarious, energetic and lively. Playing “rawhide rock n’ country blues,” Litton is the host and opening act to the monthly Gothic Cowboy Review, a platform he started in Lawrence almost a decade ago so local musicians could debut new material or revive the old in front of other interested artists.
“You got to have a rodeo. I have my rodeo coming up, you know? It’s my rodeo,” Litton says of the Review. “We have a good sound. And it’s always a good time. And friends come and it’s just, it’s like your own party. People are invited, strangers can drop in.”
The moniker for the monthly roundup comes from Litton’s solo name, Gothic Cowboy, which he created in his early 20s. He also performs in a group called the Border Band.
Jake Mandrell, lead singer for a local band called Outlaw Jake, recalls seeing Litton perform as part of the Border Band at the Jazzhaus nearly 20 years ago.
Mandrell was about 20, not old enough to drink, there for the music. And indeed, Litton’s performance cast a spell upon him that lingers to this day.
“I always felt like I was the only person in my age group who appreciated that kind of music, so to find Melvin was like finding somebody on a lost desert island — human contact,” Mandrell says. “Melvin is like if Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen somehow shared DNA. Melvin exudes what that genre of music is about — that working class individual. He’s just so authentically the real deal.”
One of five kids, Litton started out in a Kansas farmhouse 3 miles northwest of Burr Oak, which had 505 inhabitants the year he was born.
In his poem “Harvest,” Litton provides a glimpse of his earliest moments:
“Of my first memories I nap on a gunny sack
lain over a wheat-stubble mattress, curled up
against a crock jar filled with cistern water
to slake the dust-cough and chaff-thirst in
my father’s throat, his face blistered by
tractor exhaust …
I was brand-new that day, fresh as winnowed
straw, pure as the flame from a blue-tip match …”
Litton grew up without TV. On the floor were stacks of books and graded primers called the McGuffey Readers that his mother and older sisters had rescued from the little red schoolhouse down the road before Litton was born.
His sisters would read the Bobbsey Twins to him. And they had a collection of encyclopedias with images of a little boy and a jet and an exploding atomic bomb that Litton can recall to this day.
His father, Ralph, a tenant farmer, played harmonica and sang for the family as entertainment. He would sing a cappella in the family home at Christmastime.
“I don’t have what I’d call a good voice. He had a fine voice,” Litton says, stretching out the word for emphasis.
They had a wood stove for heat, kerosene lamps for light and a cistern to catch rainwater for drinking. Though it was the 1950s, Litton was living the life of the generation that preceded him.
When Litton was 6, his father died. His mother, Neva, moved the children to a nearby town called Beloit. With an education from a Colorado business school, she worked as a secretary and a cottage parent at the girls reformatory, raising Litton and his four siblings on her own.
Litton can’t quite pinpoint when his aspiration to become a writer took root.
“You know all the things in grade school — check out a book and read so many, and (I’d) just fake all those, truly, to be honest. School was something to endure,” Litton says. “I was there to be ornery or maybe make a remark or something.”
His first creative act was mimicking the coyotes across the creek. Listening to tales of drifters and outlaws on Bob Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding” album as a teen, he paid attention.
“His folksy-rootsy ballads and wry outlook caught my ear, and fit my fancy,” he says.
‘Songs are the common man’s literature’
At age 18, he entered the United States Air Force Academy, but emerged a year later wanting to be a writer, not a pilot.
“I had a good English teacher there at the Academy, and we covered … the three great 20th century American authors, Hemingway and Faulkner and Steinbeck,” Litton says. “I really started coming alive.”
They read William Faulkner’s “Light in August” — and its words, “Memory believes before knowing remembers.”
“And I liked it,” Litton says. “It engaged me in a whole ‘nother way than aspirations of flying jets or helping explore space.”
When Litton left the academy, he bought a guitar from a pawn shop, but wasn’t serious about music — yet. He took a spring semester at KU in 1968, where he met his wife, Debra, the following fall.
“I fell in love with her at first wink and it only deepened thereafter,” he says.
They married less than a year later, have two adult sons, and are happy to this day.
In the early years, Litton and his family moved some 25 times before making their home in Lawrence in 1977.
Part of their wandering stemmed from Litton’s desire to make it as a musician.
As a young carpenter, he wrote lyrics while he worked, then sang songs at night in bars and taverns. He would “share them with fellow workers, for songs are the common man’s literature,” Litton writes in an essay called “Thirty Year Summer” — the concluding piece in his short-story collection, “Son of Eve.”
Laboring as a construction worker, he’d scribble song lyrics on torn-open nail sacks. He had “delusions of grandeur” of making it in Austin as a musician but he stayed only a week, knowing no one would hire him for labor because he wasn’t in the union.
By the mid ‘80s, he accepted the fact that his dreams of making it as a musician were languishing. But then another creative pursuit came to the forefront: his desire to write.
“Laid off one winter I wrote a song — but words, scenes, and characters continued to spill forth like rummage from an old trunk,” Litton writes in “Thirty Year Summer.”
During layoffs, Litton would write constantly.
“I would really just go at it mad — 12 to 14 hours. I mean, till my head was just leaden,” he says. “I worked construction because it helped me write; it helped me write because it’s purely physical.”
He had his first book published in 1993.
“I’m inspired by seeing Melvin chip away at his thing for as many years as he has and still have a passion for doing it,” Mandrell says. “And he’s so disciplined.”
Sanctuary for songwriters
Retired from labor, Litton writes daily as though it’s his job. Music is still a lively passion. He revived his musical ambitions in 2000, starting the Border Band, which was well received regionally.
And every month, he plays at his Gothic Cowboy Review held at Kaw Valley Public House. (Catch the next show on Jan. 1.)
“I wanted something that was just a sanctuary for songwriters,” Litton says. “I invite them or they’re referred strongly by someone. It’s not an open mic.”
Through the years, Litton has sort of collected local musicians. Take, for instance, Hugh Campbell, 33.
One evening 15 years ago, Litton was walking Jack through an alley on Barker Street when he heard the sounds of guitar coming from a backyard. He stopped and listened.
“You’re good,” Litton said, and a fast friendship was forged.
“He’s been my musical mentor for a long time,” Campbell says. “He’s been one of my best friends. He’s also been the best father figure I’ve ever had, because I didn’t grow up with a father. And he pushed me pretty hard a few times, you know? That was because he saw there was more. … I still to this day try to learn songs and other ways of singing to try to blow his mind.”
Campbell believes the Gothic Cowboy Review fuels Litton’s creative spirit.
“There’s always a hidden gem or two — and that’s what Melvin really does. … Obviously the Gothic Cowboy is for everyone, but at the end of the day I think it’s for Melvin. Melvin likes to hear the creativity of people,” Campbell says. “He likes hearing people’s songs. If he puts you on there as a usual, it’s because he wants to hear you.”
Megan Luttrell, a professional Americana singer who has traveled the country performing, says Litton would soften her nerves and cheer her on before she performed at the Gothic Cowboy Review seven years ago.
“I was very nervous. From the moment I met him he was incredibly encouraging and excited. He was always revving me up,” she says. “Anytime I play and that man is there, he makes me feel like I am just a rockstar. He is an incredible musician himself, but he’s an incredible mentor to young musicians in Lawrence.”
Having latched onto Litton nearly 20 years ago, Mandrell agrees.
“I just can’t overstate how much he’s been very impactful and very important to my art, my creative process,” Mandrell says. “He does take a real interest in who you are, what you do outside of this, the material that makes up the fabric of your art. He deep dives into who you are as a person.”
Litton, in his early seventies now, remains refreshingly boyish. His energy and enthusiasm and passion can take you aback — doesn’t passion wane as you age?
Litton is here to debunk that myth. His passion is a well-stoked fire that he has no intention of letting die out.
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Chansi Long (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from July 2022 through August 2023. Read more of her work for the Times here.