June 23, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
With American Masculine, Shann Ray has earned comparison to Cormac McCarthy, but this collection of stories largely set in Montana forges its own literary path with its unforgettable characters and strong, elegant prose.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the collection:
"Ray's collection has an unsettling power as his roughened characters incrementally come to terms with their humanity, fallibility and their realized capacity for atonement."
Marry a musician, like I did, and your house gets transformed. When you step through the front door get ready to move. Family dance night is on! In fact, nearly every night of the week it's on, and all it takes is a few people and of course the music pumped up enough to take the roof off. Participant number one, my wife Jennifer who dances like a wild celestial being. Dancer number 2 is my daughter Natalya (14), an ethereal young woman who seems to perform her own ballet. Dancer 3 is my daughter Ariana (9), the soul of rock and roll, and not afraid to shake it until you break it. And dancer 4 is my daughter Isabella (6), like a magic mix of mermaid, exotic bird, and a friendly small animal such as a baby cheetah. Number 5 is you, welcome, and come on in and get your dance shoes on, but more importantly your moves. Shake it one time and do us up solid!
The following songs all hit the turntable on dance night. And yes, they are selected, each one, for some element, slant though it may be, of the stories in American Masculine. The collection is set in Montana, the characters walk the backbone of the world and look up at the great vault of sky and consider heart and soul, violence and peace, the sacred and the profane. These people are often people like us who fall among the ruins of their own darkly personal failures. And sometimes in that place they find the graceful touch of a loved one.
Alright, get in line now. First person starts and we all follow.
Do what they do!
Do it right, with some super-funk rhythms and a smile!
Dance around the house like your blood is made of fire!
Last of all, don't be afraid to sweat and when it's your turn and we look your way to lead us-go crazy.
1. "Tiny Light" by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
Front woman for a fusion of rock and soul and rootsy folk, Grace Potter leads a seasoned group of musicians with her vocal command, wild belting, and vocal artistry that sometimes borders on things fierce and otherworldly. The song "Tiny Light" is a mirror of the crucible Ben Killsnight and Sadie face in the first story in American Masculine, called "How We Fall." Grace Potter starts with a raspy edge and jumps up and finally flies as the song rises to a pinnacle of tension and release. In "How We Fall," Ben and Sadie become archetypes of the driving lyrics that form the final apex of "Tiny Light": "Give me love and only love and we will see it shining from above... I see a tiny light but it's not going to shine without a fight." Strong for nearly a decade already, but new to the nation due to their recent release, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals deliver lithe muscular songs that take us to the top of the mountain, to a new vista of clarity and understanding.
2. "I Ain't New to This" by Leela James
Leela James can scream, and make you want your mother and every other good thing in life. You hear that ragged boneyard tonality in her voice and you won't ever be afraid again. She'll ferry you across that stream like an angel of light. This song's ethos is one to hold close when you read "The Great Divide," the second story of AM's ten. The story is a tribute to the masters of narrative fiction who have written the West and Montana and made it burn and witnessed the patient irrevocable vitality the land embodies after the great fires have devastated the world: Louise Erdrich, Claire Davis, N. Scott Momaday, Leslie M. Silko, A.B. Guthrie, Wallace Stegner, Kim Barnes, Richard Ford, Sandra Alcosser, Melissa Kwasny, Bill Kittredge, Annick Smith, and Sherman Alexie.
3. "Poetics of Sound" by Miles Davis
Take the whole album, and don't doubt the fact that the intimate heart of life is where you belong. Miles Davis captures the hunger, the desire, the latent holy will to meaning we all carry around in the vessel of our bodies. He takes it all and points his head to the sky and blows silver notes from a silver horn and sweat runs down his face and he blows up the world of violence and harm and helps us discover again just how beautiful it is to be reassembled, more lovely than before, even after we've shattered ourselves and all those around us. "Poetics of Sound" is an underline, quiet and soulful and evocative, beneath story 3 of AM, a hard bright narrative entitled "Three From Montana."
4. "Turn it Over and Overall Junction" by Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughan
The older giant Albert King talks to white lightning Stevie Ray Vaughan like he'd talk to a beloved son, and we hear that music of love and care in King's voice, and respect and humility in the voice of Vaughan and we remember what it's like to be loved, and loved well... and I'll tell you right now, those two take some real blues and make each other ascend up the staircase to the top. They carry us with them on their backs and we go for a ride like children of a new day. Listen to this one-two by two blues greats, and know they both died too soon, and take love with you when you read the fourth story of AM, the father-daughter poem of love and loss entitled" Rodin's The Hand of God."
5. "Hold Us Together" by Matt Maher
This blue-eyed soul anthem from spirit-based rocker Matt Maher reminds me of the kind of mercy we receive from our mothers and fathers when they are good and true and aligned with the reality of a well-lived life. Certainly we sometimes suffer, and deeply, from the indent of the mother-loss and father-loss and sister-loss and brother-loss in our lives. Maher takes us back to that place of humble awe at the drive and torque that breaks us open and gives us a chance to mourn and grieve and stand again, hand in hand with people who help us rise. The fifth story of AM, "When We Rise," echoes Maher's well earned sentiment: "Love will hold us together, we will be our brother's keeper, and the whole world will know we are not alone."
6. "Fell On Black Days" by Soundgarden
Soundgarden's Chris Cornell churns out vocals from the heart of man, dark and full of gasoline, and into that darkness he drops a match and from there the flame lights the landscape like a midnight sun. In "Mrs. Secrest," the sixth story of AM, men vie for the heart of Tori Secrest, a woman whose sexual voltage is a thing she hides behind, unwilling to face the terror of a mother and father who lived empty of each other in the same home her whole life. When she sets her face like a flint to build her own new world, she discovers something in the wreckage of the old, and there in the Black Days between her and her husband Shannon, the child they brought to the world is a deep wealth they hold between them, perhaps rich enough to shed new light on the spiritual poverty they encounter in one another.
7. "Hunger Strike" by Temple of the Dog
Cornell rides again, this time with Seattle grunge mate, as yet undiscovered pre-Pearl Jam Eddie Vedder. Cornell's gorgeous and emotionally gravid singing and songwriting, a tribute to Mother Love Bone and an elegy to MLB's late Andrew Wood, results in pure vintage hard rock on this singular invention appropriately named Temple of the Dog. "Hunger Strike" is reminiscent of the human hand and skull, skin bare to the bone, and the urns and ashen remains of countless loved ones we carry around silent and invisible, even when those loved ones are sometimes still alive and secretly haunting our existence. In the Half-Light, the seventh story of AM, speaks to the oven-like burn of a father whose chaos burdens his grown son to the point of self-annihilation. The tonal grays and blacks of Cornell and Vedder in "Hunger Strike," laced by high register vocals that enter the composition like pre-dawn light, speak to the narrative movements of father and son as they meet one another again after years of desolation.
8. "I Can't Hold Back" by Survivor
Quiet sleeper of the vocal driven bands of three decades ago, Survivor still amazes young and old with a style that is certainly sentimental, but also something more. There is a unifying presence below the vocals, a humanity that is not afraid of the light, not afraid to change the death mask of cynicism into a face of hope, and affirm something larger than ourselves, even as we know the world is constantly being broken apart by the terrifying emptiness that is the result of our relational failures. Survivor's melodic gem "I Can't Hold Back" provides a backdrop to the hard realities of white boy Zeb Sindelar and Northern Cheyenne girl Sara Runs Too Far as they struggle to bring new life into the world in "The Dark Between Them," the eighth story of AM.
9. "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning" by Sister Rosetta Tharpe
With a powerful style influenced by the blues, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is vibrant in her embrace of song that crossed new frontiers and generated greater emancipation for all souls locked in a spiral of darkness. From spiritual holiness conventions to night clubs, from the sanctified gospel circuit to the theaters, Rosetta rose to become one of the most beloved singers of her generation. She obliterated race boundaries with her brave vocal and guitar stylings and her prodigious talents. When reading "The Way Home," the ninth story of AM, play "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning" and let Rosetta's profound and visceral grasp of the spiritual realm be a resonant soundtrack to the resolution Nathan Bellastar seeks in his life and family.
10. "When Love Comes to Town" by Bono, B.B. King and U2
In literature as in music we all have our beloved mentors on whom we gaze in awe on their body of work. For me, one of these is Claire Davis, whose incomparable short story masterpiece "Labors of the Heart" is imprinted on my literary soul like the handiwork of a branding iron. Her story, a Best American selection, has traveled the globe and found a home in the heart of many. When Claire agreed to write some lines for the back cover of American Masculine, I felt such gratitude I wanted to shout to the sky. The sheer vocal power of B.B. King and Bono on the U2 song "When Love Comes to Town" stands as an answer to the darkness of the age. The tenth and final story of AM, called "The Miracles of Vincent van Gogh," is about this very love-the love that comes to town and makes us want to "jump that train" and "catch that flame." With B.B. and Bono all we can do is turn the volume all the way up and experience the velocity of music past and present as it becomes an immutable voice for the future. Claire Davis' words on American Masculine leave me with the vivid and resonant verve I feel when my three daughters and my wife and I dance until we drop, to the scorching fire of "When Love Comes to Town": "I am reminded once again," Claire wrote, "of what it means to encounter genuine grace." Thanks Claire, and thanks B.B. and Bono, for taking us into that fiercely elegant encounter with fire from which we emerge on the wings of a whirlwind and soar like eagles emblazoned in gold.
Shann Ray and American Masculine links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists