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September 30, 2014

Book Notes - Kim Zupan "The Ploughmen"

The Ploughmen

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.

Kim Zupan's The Ploughmen is an impressive debut, a magnificently dark novel that evocatively depicts the modern American West.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"A fascinating first novel that examines the complexities of two men, opposites in every way, whose lives nevertheless intertwine. With such a strong debut, Zupan’s literary future looks exceptionally promising."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.


In his own words, here is Kim Zupan's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel The Ploughmen:


I kept the proverbial wolves from the door for years working as a carpenter. On the job I could not abide music, too often heavy metal blaring from the radios of subcontractors. The din of snarling skilsaws and hammering was the only music I could think in. It was appropriate to the moment. And in my office now, I really require silence; the faintest strain of classical music from another room is a distraction—an embarrassing admission, as my level of concentration would seem as fragile as a dry leaf, ready to disintegrate in a breeze. But music is important to me and the songs listed below, in the frequent and too-long interludes between bouts of writing The Ploughmen, acted almost like placeholders, helping me get my head back in the game when I could finally sit at the desk again.

When I mentioned to my youngest daughter, with some embarrassment, some of the old songs I intended to list, she said, "Dad, I love those songs," which leads me to conclude that I'm either hipper than I thought (unlikely) or I've succeeded in infecting her with antique sensibilities (almost certainly).

Ricky Skaggs (and Boone Creek): "In The Pines"
In my younger, rodeo days I listened to a good deal of country music late at night on long stretches of empty highway, but that music is almost entirely gone from us now: early Merle, George Jones, Johnny Rodriguez, Loretta Lynn, Charlie Pride. Much of what passes for country western music today is execrable stuff—a hybrid of bad country and worse rock and roll. I'd sooner listen to the squalls of a run-over cat. And the hats those guys wear—good Lord. But I digress.

While country has veered alarmingly toward a kind of featurelessness, bluegrass has remained pure and tied to its outland roots. Its quintessential form is the High Lonesome sound—lyrical, heartrending and mournful. If any one form of music inspires me it is the High Lonesome and if I can somehow get it on the page, I feel I've done good work. This cut is one of dozens from Skaggs that could be background music for The Ploughmen. ("Little girl, little girl, what have I done to make you treat me so?") His voice ranges from coyote to meadowlark to far-off train whistle and he can play almost anything with strings.

The Church Sisters: "Bury Me Beneath the Willow"
Burials—all, one might say, informal—play a role in the novel and this bluegrass classic comes to mind when I imagine these secret internments. It's been performed and recorded by many artists over the years but this rendition by the Church Sisters, young women with voices like angels sent down to bear someone up to heaven, makes the hair on my arms stand up.

Jose Feliciano: "La Copa Rota"
My Spanish at one time was passable but has atrophied to nearly nothing from lack of use. So I was forced to Google a translation of La Copa Rota. Some of the English seems odd and unwieldy but it hardly matters—the heartbreak of loss is telegraphed in this song regardless of language. The last line reads: "I want to bleed drop by drop the poison of her love." Not a thing wrong with that in translation. You'd kill for a line like that.

Wayne Hancock: "Thunderstorms and Neon Signs"
Wayne "The Train" Hancock is an unapologetic country throwback with a lot of twang and weeping steel. I listened to this song and disc unendingly for a while. It conjures the same kind of train whistle-in-the-night lonesomeness of the best High Lonesome bluegrass. One of the novel's characters, John Gload, drives through the vast empty night with bloody hands, listening to music coming faint and static-y through the radio speakers of his Oldsmobile. I imagined him listening to Wayne the Train, drumming his fingers on the wheel.

Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle: "Summer Wind"
I'm so enamored of the brass arrangements of Nelson Riddle, particularly on this disc (Strangers in the Night) that I'll sometimes tune out Frank (who's voice was an astounding instrument but he was, by most accounts, a total shitweasel) and concentrate on the layers of trumpet and trombone and sax. I've been taken with this song since I first heard it on the soundtrack of the terrific early Mickey Rourke flick The Pope of Greenwich Village. It always provokes in me a feeling of melancholy, not only because it speaks of the end of a romance, but also the end of summer, which for years has signaled for me the terminus of an all-too short period of writing and the beginning of Montana's slow ineluctable slide toward brutal winter.

James Taylor: "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight"
This brief beautiful masterpiece of longing and regret features a short perfect sax riff by the great jazz tenor sax player Michael Brecker.

Bonnie Raitt: "Too Soon To Tell"
Some years ago I drove to from Missoula to the central part of the state to do some "visual research" for the book and on the three hour drive I listened over and over to Bonnie Riatt's Nick of Time. It was the fall of the year in the Missouri River breaks under a low grey sky and this song, a touching lament about being cast aside for a new love, found me, even with my wife and kids waiting at home, feeling very much alone in the universe. But it was a productive loneliness and helped me begin to get at the place where Millimaki, the young deputy abandoned by his wife, would have to dwell.

Susan Tedeschi: "Can't Sleep At Night"
Sleeplessness afflicts the two primary characters in the book, and is a kinship they share. It can be an awful thing, coloring even daylight a darker shade and leaving you unable to shut down the mechanism inside your head. This cut by the extraordinary Susan Tedeschi really gets at the ruinous effects of insomnia on a vulnerable soul. Her voice, which can swing from raw and raucous to tender as a child's touch in a heartbeat, just knocks me out.

Guy Clark: "That Old Time Feeling"
It's hard to imagine any writer— poet, fiction writer, lyricist—bleeding Weltschmerz onto the page more exquisitely than Guy Clark. This cut, like all of his songs, is poetry of the highest order. Here, that old time feeling "draws circles around the block, like old women with no children, holding hands with the clock" and like "the old wino praying he can make it ‘til it's dark." As in the best of fiction, his songs tell a wonderful story with vivid and elegiac prose, line after line through his entire songlist that would make a writer of fiction weep with admiration and, frankly, envy.


Kim Zupan and The Ploughmen links:

the author's website
the book's website
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

BookPage review
Library Journal review
NPR Books review


also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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