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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