Posts Tagged Johnny Cash
The Undercover Soundtrack is a series where I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative environment – perhaps to connect with a character, populate a mysterious place, or hold a moment still to explore its depths. This week my guest is essayist, playwright, journalist and novelist Victoria Dougherty @vicdougherty
Soundtrack by Johnny Cash, Frankie Laine, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks
I haven’t always been a die-hard country music fan.
Having grown up in Chicago, and subsequently moving to other cities like Prague and San Francisco, I was raised on a steady diet of screaming guitars, blues, a smattering of jazz, and the occasional hipster band.
Don’t get me wrong – I still love them all! They’ve been the soundtrack to some of the best times in my life and when a song like Jane’s Addiction’s Been Caught Stealing comes on the radio in my car, I go off like a firecracker – pounding my hands on the steering wheel and frightening my children.
It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s and actually moved to a rural area that country music made its way onto my radar. Then, like the wrong kind of man, it wormed its way into my heart, leaving The Clash, Bowie, countless British New Wave bands and Madonna lonely for play.
I’ve got to admit that a lot of my city slicker friends have found my new taste in music questionable. For the most part, country music to a city person runs neck in neck with elevator music and polkas when it comes to their listening pleasure.
And I used to be right there with them.
It took changing my habitat dramatically to inspire me to learn an entirely new repertoire of songs that have little to no relationship with the good ole days of my teens and 20s.
I slowed down, started working out of my home office, and found myself noticing how the breeze would blow through so many leaves on a summer evening that I’d swear I was listening to wind chimes. Without even meaning to, I got to know – intimately – the movement of sunlight throughout the day and the phases of the moon. I can’t sleep when the moon is full, I’ve learned, so I might as well put on something soft. Maybe Willie Nelson.
It was finally seeing what a holler really looked like, and hearing the truly terrifying shriek of a fox’s mating call. Driving on roads called 22 curves (and for good reason), drinking whiskey in a rocker on my front porch (yes, we really do that), or hearing my daughter say her dream car is a pick-up truck (not kidding here).
Still, all of those genteel country living experiences led me to water, but they didn’t make me drink. What did was my congenital love of a great story.
Because in country music, I’d found some of the best lyrical storytelling I’d ever heard, and it was not confined to the usual trilogy of sex, drugs and teen angst that can make great music, too, but gets a bit repetitive. And frankly, loses its oomph after you’ve had a kid or two.
Even some of the schlockiest country tunes tend to have very adult themes that present a complicated set of circumstances. Like a good book.
A country singer will warn you not to come home a drinkin’ with lovin’ on your mind, tell you to stand by your man, lament that if their phone still ain’t ringin’, they assume it still ain’t you. They teach you how to play the game of life through a game of cards, fall into a ring of fire, and go to Jackson, Mississippi looking for trouble of the extramarital variety. They sing about their daddies and their wayward loves, their friends, their problems, the mountains they grew up drinking in like moonshine. They take you this close to their face, till you can smell their breath.
And over the past decade – more than poetry, even more than reading fiction – country music has inspired the way I’ve constructed the personalities of some of my favorite fictional characters.
Johnny Cash’s Delia, A Boy Named Sue and Number 13 colluded to help me create a bulimic Hungarian assassin with a penchant for rich food and sadistic murder…and a heart for only one woman.
Excerpt from The Hungarian by Victoria Dougherty, coming this Summer:
He held the goblet up to Lily’s swollen lips and poured the wine into her mouth, massaging her throat – as if he were force-feeding a goose. She winced. Even with her eyes ringed in purple bruises she looked beautiful, and her torso, sadly, was still too sore to allow her to get up for a short dance. He’d longed to dance with her since the end of their first day together, but by then he already knew she wouldn’t be getting up for some time. It was a good thing he hadn’t marred her body very much. Gulyas knew how to inflict pain without the resulting unsightliness, but until Lily Tassos had come into his life, there had never been any point in keeping a would-be corpse in tip-top shape. A disfigured body, Gulyas believed, made a good statement in most cases. It let people know who they were dealing with.
Frankie Laine’s Wanted Man showed me how impulsivity and desire can spawn a fledgling outlaw.
Here’s what was inspired by it: The Bone Church. Dolly Parton’s Touch Your Woman guided my hand in writing a heartbreaking love scene between two characters about to face their doom in my novel Breath (coming 2018).
And Garth Brooks’s Friends in Low Places, about a regular guy who crashes his ex-girlfriend’s wedding to a high roller, always reminds me to give my characters a sense of humor – even amidst some of their most painful, cringy episodes. Here’s me telling a great story inspired by his song. Welcome to the Hotel Yalta.
These artists have taught me not to waste words and to tell a compelling story in the shortest amount of time possible, so as not to bore a reader with competing descriptions and over-wrought emotions. Time and again, they’ve reminded me that I don’t need a shoot-out or car chase or even a bunch of sex to put tension or excitement into a scene.
And they’ve shown me that having heart and brazen sentimentality can illustrate a powerful truth that kicks even the most cynical reader in the gut.
So, writers…and readers…next time you need to boost your imaginations, or just want to hear a great yarn – find your local country music station (I swear, even big cities have one), sit back, put your boots up and have a listen.
Victoria Dougherty is the author of The Bone Church, Welcome to the Hotel Yalta and the memoir Cold. She writes fiction, drama, and essays that revolve around lovers, killers, curses, and destinies. Her work has been published or profiled in the New York Times, USA Today, The International Herald Tribune, and elsewhere. Earlier in her career, while living in Prague, she co-founded Black Box Theater, translating, producing, and acting in several Czech plays.Her blog – COLD – features her short essays on faith, family, love, and writing fiction and was singled out by WordPress as one of their top recommended blogs by writers or about writing. Catch her on Facebook and on Twitter @vicdougherty
Pull on your boots. My guest this week had a radical change in music taste when she reached her 30s, and she hopes to convert you too – unless you’re already a fan of country. It started when she moved out of Chicago and found that the sensibilities of country singers were more in tune with her new environment. Not only that, she realised they were wry, witty storytellers, writing about characters complex enough to satisfy any novelist. Soon they were guiding the way her stories developed. So come and join a twangly, poignant chorus of Dolly Parton, Frankie Laine, Johnny Cash and Garth Brooks, all on the Undercover Soundtrack of Victoria Dougherty.
But I haven’t said when. I’m hoping to post as usual on Wednesday, but BT have mucked up my broadband and can’t promise they’ll have their wagons in order by then. So Victoria might be a day or two late. But she’s on her way. I guess life slows down when you’re in the country. See you soon.
Once a week I host a writer who uses music as part of their creative process – perhaps to tap into a character, populate a mysterious place, or explore the depths in a pivotal moment. This week’s post is by Carnegie Medal nominee Tanya Landman
Soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein, Ennio Morricone, Max Steiner, Bob Marley, Johnny Cash, Nina Simone, Etta James, Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, Billie Holiday
I don’t listen to music while I’m writing – I need total silence to concentrate – and I rarely play music in the house. It’s only when I’m driving that I stick on a CD (yes, I’m that old fashioned), and even then I often prefer silence. So why am I writing this blog? Because, when I was invited to, I realised how much music had contributed to the making of Buffalo Soldier.
Some books have a very long evolution. Strands of music, images and ideas that have been knocking around in your head for years eventually come together and form something new. Buffalo Soldier started with the Westerns that were constantly on TV and in the cinema when I was a child. I grew up wanting to be a cowboy. There were two particularly memorable movie themes that made me long for a horse, a hat, and the wide open range – Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven, and Ennio Morricone’s The Good the Bad and the Ugly.
Then there was Gone With the Wind. I was taken to see it for the first time when I was about 11 or 12 and was captivated by its epic scale and sweep. It was the first time I’d seen a heroine take charge of her own fate. I still find Tara’s theme by Max Steiner stirring, particularly when Scarlett vows never to be hungry again.
When I was growing up, the Wild West and the Deep South seemed worlds apart. I had no idea how closely connected they were until I was doing background reading for my book Apache and came across references to black soldiers. It was after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation – who were these guys and what were they doing in the west?
Further research led me to the buffalo soldiers. The Bob Marley song suddenly made sense. That lyric took on fresh importance.
Many of the men of the 9th and 10th US Cavalry were freed slaves in a world that had been turned on its head. They signed up and were sent to fight the Indian Wars. Freed men, fighting Native Americans? I was struck by the bitter irony of the situation and started reading everything I could get my hands on about slavery and the aftermath of the Civil War. In the car I started listening Nina Simone and Etta James, Paul Robeson and Louis Armstrong. Gospel music. Spirituals. And then I went back to Gone With the Wind. Gone With the Wind is a hugely problematic film, depicting a wildly romantic Old South where slavery is a benign institution, where field hands contentedly pick cotton and sing from pure happiness.
When I re-read the novel, the scene in which Big Sam starts singing Go Down Moses as he’s sent off to help fortify Atlanta against the advancing Yankee army snagged in my head. He’s clearly meant to be a faintly comic character and Scarlett fondly watches him go. Now, Margaret Mitchell was a gifted writer and she knew her Civil War history inside out yet she appears to have no idea about the significance of that particular song. A spiritual about the enslavement of God’s Chosen People. Didn’t she ever listen to the lyrics? Go Down Moses is linked to Nat Turner – organiser of one of the bloodiest slave revolts in US history. It was used as a rallying cry by Denmark Vesey when slaves rebelled in Charleston. Harriet Tubman used it as a code song when helping fellow slaves escape along the Underground Railroad. How could Margaret Mitchell not know this? Go Down Moses gave me an insight into a very blinkered view of history in which whites chose not to see what was happening under their noses. It also gave me a burning desire to tell the story of the Civil War from the other side.
Swing Low Sweet Chariot (sung here by Paul Robeson) was another song I listened to repeatedly and in fact it features in the book – the longing for a better place, to be taken from a world of misery and suffering and carried ‘home’ speaks volumes. It stirred my emotions and helped create mood and atmosphere. Way back in school when I was in the sixth form I was in a play, which featured I Shall Be Released (sung here by Nina Simone) and Change Gonna Come (Sam Cooke’s version here). The yearning, the terrible weariness you can feel in both songs, informed various characters’ emotional development and fed my writing. There’s one particular scene in Buffalo Soldier in which Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit was in my mind. So quiet, so passionate, so powerful – I can’t listen to it without feeling a chilling sense of horror. It makes me weep.
And finally – there’s one piece of music that runs all the way through Buffalo Soldier – Sam Hall. I was looking for something with a traditional feel and upbeat but also with a dark, violent undercurrent and a real sense of menace. Appropriately enough I heard the song first watching the 2011 Western Blackthorn with my children and tracked down the Johnny Cash version because the lyrics suited my purpose perfectly.
Tanya Landman is the award winning author of more than 30 books for children and young adults. Buffalo Soldier has been shortlisted for this year’s Carnegie Medal. Her website is here and you can find her on Facebook.