Crossroads of Destiny
In the creative world of bestselling novelist Greg Iles, the ax is as mighty as the pen.
By Jim Beaugez | Photo: Rob Baylock
Sitting on the wide veranda of his French colonial manor outside Natchez, Mississippi, overlooking a verdant, pastoral landscape, author Greg Iles is holding one of his most prized guitars—a McCollum baritone acoustic. Iles acquired the instrument, which was one of late California luthier Lance McCollum’s personal six strings, after putting to rest his most recent New York Times Number 1 Bestseller thriller, Mississippi Blood. He admires McCollum’s handiwork—the gorgeous and haunting combination of ultra-rare Andaman padauk and Italian spruce tonewoods, the tasteful rosette, and machine heads that resemble a fleur de lis—but his eyes light up even more when he shifts to a 12-string baritone that the maker crafted for him a few years earlier.
“It’s even better than his personal guitar,” Iles says, head cocked with a slight, knowing smile. “When you string that thing as a six, it’s a playground that never existed anywhere. The sound is just from God.”
The manor is located deep in the Loess Hills east of the Mississippi River, well off the main highway to Natchez, amongst a canopy of hardwoods and Spanish moss that cloak the worn blacktop in shadows. Here, Iles finds solitude and inspiration to conjure the stories and characters who inhabit his fictional version of the region, from the centuries-old city’s antebellum mansions to secluded swamps and sloughs, and the ways in which their lives entangle. The bestselling novelist lets his characters inhabit a world every bit as nuanced as the tones in his favorite guitars. Since his debut thriller Spandau Phoenix hit the New York Times bestseller list in 1993, nearly all of his 16 novels have followed suit.
Although the world mostly knows Iles through his successful books—they’ve been published in no fewer than 20 languages—for years he dreamed of a career in music. His 40-acre estate is now home to a personal recording studio—a man cave stuffed with dozens of guitars, amplifiers and music-making ephemera where he blows off steam by indulging his first love. Iles played in acoustic groups throughout college, then shelved his diploma and hit the road with the band Frankly Scarlet, playing clubs and college towns throughout the Southeast armed with U2 and Led Zeppelin covers and a handful of original songs. During the first year of Iles’ first marriage and the final year of Frankly Scarlet, he was on the road 50 out of 52 weeks, the band making upward of $3,000 a gig. The grind took a toll on the group, though, and it all ended with a near-brawl after a New Year’s Eve gig in Mobile, Alabama.
“All we could play was, like, four originals because that’s the point we had gotten to,” he remembers. “We just had to do the show we were doing. I thought, This is going nowhere.”
Iles called his wife after the show and told her he was done with the gigging life. He admits his next ambition, becoming a bestselling novelist, was just as unlikely. Even though he hadn’t written since his final paper in college nearly a decade earlier, he gave himself a year to complete his first novel.
“When I look back from this side I often think what were the odds against that?” he ponders. “Man, they were about a billion to one.”
As a young child, Iles spent time abroad in Germany until his family settled in Natchez, where he hung around mostly older kids who turned him onto music. He initially gravitated toward the layered vocal harmonies and organic, acoustic stylings of Crosby, Stills and Nash and The Byrds. The playing of guitarists like Stephen Stills and Neil Young caught his ear, and once he pinned down the Martin D-28 herringbone as the source of the tones he loved so much, he saved money until he could buy one.
“My life regret is selling that Martin D-28,” he says. “I’ve missed that guitar my whole life.”
When Iles enrolled at Ole Miss, where he studied under literary great Willie Morris, his worldview expanded considerably. With the help of a friend, he discovered a Muscle Shoals, Alabama, session musician and songwriter named Mac McAnally, whose delicate fingerpicking and lyrical insight on cuts like “Opinion of Love” floored him.
One night Iles and his friends piled into a car for a two-hour drive to catch their new hero—the future eight-time CMA Musician of the Year, songwriter for Kenny Chesney and sideman to Jimmy Buffett—play an acoustic opening set for Louisiana’s La Roux. After they watched McAnally perform, they ditched the headliner’s set and found McAnally with his manager loading gear in the parking lot. When Iles and one of his buddies landed a ride with them, Iles broke the awkward silence by playing one of McAnally’s most difficult compositions, note for note, on a challenge from the manager.
“Mac told me I was the first guy to ever play his stuff to him like that, the real stuff,” Iles remembers. “So we start singing his songs, we start singing other songs, and Mac is singing while he’s driving. We’re hearing his voice bounce off that windshield, singing harmony.”
On the drive Iles also got to play McAnally’s personal guitar, a Martin D-45 with a slotted headstock. Over the next summer, Iles worked on a crew laying sewer pipe in a 14-foot hole to scrounge money for a D-45 of his own, which remains one of his favorite guitars.
“Once I played Mac’s D-45 in the van, I just had to have one,” he says. “I had to order mine from Martin, because they were rare even then. But the sound…it may be the best guitars ever made. They say it may be one of the loudest Martins ever made, too.”