September 1, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Hannah Gerson's novel Home Field is a poignant debut.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"A moving all-American family saga; fiction's answer to Friday Night Lights."
When I was about halfway through Home Field, I found myself drawn to country music for the first time in my life. I grew up in a small town in western Maryland where if you didn't like country, you were out of luck, because it was the default soundtrack in every store, at every party or picnic, and of course at football games. With the exception of a few old time singers like Patsy Cline, I hated pretty much all of it. My favorite band back then was R.E.M., who hail from the south and were actually quite influenced by country sounds—but that wasn't something I could appreciate at the time.
My newfound love for contemporary country started after I discovered Jason Isbell's perfect album, Southeastern. It was released the summer of 2013, but I didn't hear about it until the winter of 2014, when one of the album's songs, "Elephant", was included in a "best songs of the year" round-up. At that time, I was a little more than halfway through Home Field and I felt like I was finally hitting my stride, especially in terms of pacing, vocabulary, and diction. I was going for prose that was simple and emotional, and even borderline cliché—like a country music song, I now realize. It makes sense, in retrospect, that I was drawn to the genre.
"Relatively Easy" – Jason Isbell
Isbell wrote Southeastern in his early thirties after getting sober. It's an album about changing your life and forgiving the past, and that's what I was trying to write about, too. Isbell is a great lyrist and I chose this song because it hits upon many of themes in Home Field and includes this quick yet lovely sketch of a friend lost to suicide: Remember when he was still a proud man?/A vandal's smile, a baseball in his right hand/Nothing but the blue sky in his eye.
"My Sweet Annette" – Drive-By Truckers
Before Jason Isbell struck out on his own, he was in the Drive-By Truckers, where he wrote and performed some of his first songs. I got into the Drive-By Truckers through Isbell, but quickly became a fan of Patterson Hood, who writes many of their songs and is the lead singer. This is a Hood song about a jilted bride, told from the perspective of the unfaithful groom.
"Merry Go 'Round" – Kacey Musgraves
The wordplay in this song (and in many of Musgraves lyrics) is so country, so corny, and so clever: Mama's hooked on Mary Kay/Brother's hooked on Mary Jane/Daddy's hooked on Mary two doors down/Mary, Mary quite contrary/We get bored, so, we get married. This one of my favorite songs from an album that's full of sweet and melancholy tunes about the nature of small town life.
"King of the Road" – R.E.M.
I was a huge R.E.M. fan in high school and this somewhat ironic cover of the Roger Miller classic comes from an album of rarities, Dead Letter Office. Michael Stipe has a great voice for country; he can wail and rasp with the best of them, and this version is really fun to sing along with.
"Daddy Sang Bass" – Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Mother Maybelle Carter, The Carter Sisters, The Statler Brothers
"Will The Circle Be Unbroken?" became very meaningful for me in my early twenties, after the death of my mother. I bought a bunch of different versions online, and when Spotify came along, it was one of the first songs I took a deep dive into, listening to as many variations as I could find. "Daddy Sang Bass" takes its chorus from "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?" and is a slightly more upbeat version of the song.
"Hurtin‘ on the Bottle" – Margo Price
"Goddamn Lonely Love" – Drive-By Truckers
"Whiskey and You" – Chris Stapleton
"Ol‘ Milwaukee's Best" – Adam Carroll
Is there anything more country than a song about drowning your sorrows? This quartet of drinking songs will suit any mood. The first two are perfect for belting out after you've had a few, the third one will make you cry after you've had a few too many, and the fourth will make you laugh through your hangover.
"KMAG YOYO" – Hayes Carll
I love the way country music lyricists are not afraid to pack a lot of story into a song. "KMAG YOYO" (an acronym that stands for "Kiss my ass, guys, you're on your own") is about a teenage soldier who gets in over his head in Iraq and ends up in outer space.
"River Bank" – Brad Paisley
"River Bank" is so much like the kind of country music I used to disdain in high school, that I'm not sure I can defend it. But I love listening to it on hot summer days. Something about it makes the heat more bearable.
"Workin‘ Women Blues" – Valerie June
I love the horns on this song, and I love June's eerie old-beyond-her-years voice. But most of all I love the lyrics: I been workin‘ like a man, y'all/I been workin‘ all my life . . . Lord, you know that I am ready/for my sugar, my sugar daddy . . .
"Crazy" – Patsy Cline
I got into Patsy Cline in my early teens after watching the biopic, Sweet Dreams, which was shot in Martinsburg, West Virginia, quite close to where I grew up. (I'm pretty sure that's why I watched the movie in the first place.) Once I heard Cline's voice, I was hooked, and I bought a cassette of her greatest hits. Listening to it, I was always torn between the desire to sing along or to just listen and melt into Cline's deliciously emotional phrasing. "Crazy" is her signature song, and it was written by Willie Nelson before he was very well known.
"Always on my Mind" – Willie Nelson
This is one of my favorite Willie Nelson songs. He's a sneakily good singer. There's something so conversational and relaxed about the way he delivers his lyrics that you don't realize how perfectly his timing is. I saw him play at Radio City a couple of years ago, and he played all his hits, one after another, five or six in a row without taking a break. It was an exhilarating show.
"Angel From Montgomery" – Bonnie Raitt and John Prine
This is probably the first country song I really fell for, though I didn't really think of it as one. I first heard it in my early teens, when my sister played it for me. How could you not fall for its opening lyrics? I am old woman/named after my mother/the old man is another/the child has grown old. These could be the opening lines to a great novel, and there is something epic about the emotion and imagery in this song. The closing lyrics are fairly perfect, too: To believe in this livin‘. . . is such a hard way to go.
Hannah Gersen and Home Field links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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
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