August 14, 2014
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Rene Steinke's Friendswood is a suspenseful and lyrical novel set in a town beset by a environmental contamination, the rare book as readable as it is compelling and smart.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"A sharp, observant novel about the hard realities of challenging the status quo."
Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.
My new novel, Friendswood is set in the small Texas town where I grew up, and nearly all the music in this novel is country music. There's a theory that the music of your teen years marks you for life (something to do with the chemistry in a teenager's brain), and my teen years were spent mostly listening to Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris, Crystal Gayle, Tammy Wynette, Larry Gatlin, and Johnny Cash. As I was writing Friendswood, I was listening very much for the Texas idiom, and remembering what it felt like to live there, with songs like these playing in the background. My East Coast friends tease me a lot about my attachment this music, but I don't think I hear the songs the same way they do.
"Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings
The first time I heard this song, I was thirteen, sitting in the back of a carpool van, on the way home from softball practice. One of the mothers put the tape into the deck, and she and the other mother started singing along at the top of their lungs with their throaty, cigarette-rough voices. My mother only listened to classical music, and my parents' first date was a Dizzy Gillespie show, so I didn't know much country music, and I'd never heard any women sing like this before. Those two moms hooked on to the outlaw personas so naturally and joyfully, slapping their knees. It made a huge impression on me. It was the first time I became aware of this strain of toughness in Texas women, some DNA of cowboy spirit in the female culture. There's a moment in Friendswood when the main character, Lee, and her best friend sing like those women in the carpool van.
"He Stopped Loving Her Today," George Jones
This song is really sentimental, but it's so operatically sentimental, it becomes something else entirely, too. It has a grand cycle in its story, and a high passion at its center. Whenever I get off the plane and step back into Texas, I'm surprised by the elaborate flourishes in, for instance, hand-tooled, snakeskin cowboy boots, or silver, turquoise studded belt buckles, or snap shirts with pearl buttons. This song reminds me of that unabashed, earnest peacock love of display. I like the way this George Jones song transforms dejected, longstanding heartbreak into a point of honor. And honestly, I just love George Jones's magnificent voice.
"The Green River Below" (from High Ground), Tomi Lunsford
In the seven years I was at work on the novel, I became friends with the writer, Warren Denney, and his wife, Tomi Lunsford, who is the grand-niece of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, and part of a great dynasty of blue-grass/ old-time country musicians. In numerous late night conversations with Tomi and Warren, they told me dozens of stories about country music characters, (and Warren also taught me about football). But the times when I heard Tomi Lunsford sing live were the most inspirational for writing—her phrasing, the shades and gradations in her tone, her singular voice, "both hopeful and hard."
"Blue is My Heart," Holly Williams
The first play I ever saw was about the life story of Hank Williams Sr., who died at the age of 29, and in my high school years, Hank Williams, Jr. was always on the radio, so that dynasty looms large in my imagination. Holly Williams is the granddaughter of Hank Williams, and this song is from an album called The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams, with this unbelievable origin: In 2006, a janitor working for a publishing company in Nashville found in a dumpster, an old notebook with unfinished lyrics by Hank Williams, Sr. The publishing company gave the material to Bob Dylan, who, along with other artists, recorded some of these songs. I especially love this one, which Holly Williams sings perfectly. It takes the image of a blue sky (a wide, endless sky) and makes it full of despair.
"Waltz Across Texas," Ernest Tubb
The two-step (or the Texas waltz) was the first formal dance I ever learned, and, especially in the midst of the Texas shopping malls, billboards, and highways, it felt like something ancient passed down the generations. It was especially fun to two-step as a teenager at the all-ages dance halls, when most of the boys were too awkward to do any other kind of dancing. It took the pressure off. In Friendswood, teenaged Dex, becomes an expert, which makes him popular with the older ladies.
"There Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold my Body Down," Brother Claude Ely; "Ain't No Grave," Johnny Cash
When I grew up in Friendswood, my dad was a left-leaning Lutheran minister. The Lutheran hymns, while quite beautiful, tend to be reserved and stately, about as far away from "Ain't No Grave" as you can get. Brother Claude Ely was given this song, as the story goes, after he miraculously recovered from a deathly childhood illness, picked up the guitar and automatically knew how to play. Afterward, he became a Pentecostal evangelist, traveling the country. He was called "The Gospel Ranger." I find the joy in this song both heart lifting and a little bit scary, especially the image, "Well, meet me Jesus, meet me/ Meet me in the middle of the air." Johnny Cash's version is even darker and more frightening. Writing this novel, I was very interested in tracing the emotional lives of people who'd got (as they say in Texas) "old time religion," and I listened to both versions of this song again and again.
"Squalls," Matthew Steinke
My brother, Matt Steinke, has a one-man band called Octant. He has built by hand several robotic musical instruments (which look like something Duchamp might have made), and he orchestrates the instruments to play along with him and his guitar. "Squalls" was inspired by Friendswood, the town, and there's a plaintiveness in the harmonica and toy piano sound that reminds me of music from my youth. We lived in a subdivision that was very "Texas," built next to the oil fields, with a creek running through it that flooded every time there was a hurricane. I love the phrase in this song, "fish fly in a breath of sky."
"This World Can't Stand Long," Roy Acuff; "This World Can't Stand Long," Bob Dylan
When I first began writing Friendswood, I was obsessed with the idea that most people in America seem to believe that we are living in the "end times." As I started to write about a traumatized teenaged girl, Willa, I realized that she might actually wish for the end of the world as much as she feared it. When Roy Acuff sings this song, it's pretty cheerful—saying farewell to trouble and hate, hello to heaven. But when Dylan sings it, especially when he performed it just after 9/11, the song is a war protest, turning around those phrases and images, Dylan's dark, scratchy voice slowing the tempo to a creep. It's more of a prophetic warning than a wish. In Friendswood, I wanted to imagine feeling as if the Rapture is about to arrive, but at the same time I wanted the book to argue for the world, rather than against it. That tension, for me, is in these two versions of the song. For a while I considered "This World Can't Stand Long" as the title for the novel.
Rene Steinke and Friendswood links:
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