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June 14, 2017

Book Notes - Don Lee "Lonesome Lies Before Us"

Lonesome Lies Before Us

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Don Lee's novel Lonesome Lies Before Us lyrically examines the intersections of heartbreak and art.

The Washington Post wrote of the book:

"If Lonesome Lies Before Us isn’t the best American novel of the year, it’s one of the most American American novels. It's intensely concerned with the civic institutions that shape everyday lives, and with who’s affected when they disappear. That's too much weight for the average country song to bear, but Lee’s novel carries it just fine."

In his own words, here is Don Lee's Book Notes music playlist for his novel Lonesome Lies Before Us:

My new novel, Lonesome Lies Before Us, is about an alt-country singer-songwriter who never quite made it. He's now working as a carpet layer in a small California town called Rosarita Bay. He's losing his hearing to Ménière's disease, and he wants to self-release one last album.

I listen to a lot of alt-country music in general (referred to these days as Americana or roots), and while I wrote the novel, I had music playing in continuous rotation—mostly albums by men, as I was looking for models and inspiration for my protagonist.

"Just to Know What You've been Dreaming" by Will Johnson

Will Johnson was the frontman for the band Centro-matic, and is mostly playing solo now. His latest album is Hatteras Night, A Good Luck Charm. The solo acoustic version of this song—filled with yearning and melancholy—is the reason why I ended up approaching Johnson for help with the lyrics of the songs in the book. I cold-emailed him, not really expecting that he would respond. I was thrilled when he did. I was even more delighted with what he did with the book's songs.

"What's Up Is Down" by Doug Paisley

This is a knockout of a song that features The Band's Garth Hudson playing the piano, but I think what I admire most is Doug Paisley's clear, fluid acoustic guitar playing. He has sort of a bluegrass flatpicking technique, and plays a 1954 Martin D-28 that's left-handed, which is rare to find.

"Me Wanting You" by John Fullbright

Here's another really good acoustic guitar player (I think he plays a Martin D-18), John Fullbright. He uses a thumbpick, interestingly. He's 29 now but still looks like a baby. He's from a little town in Oklahoma called Bearden with less than 150 residents, and its only claim to fame is its proximity to Okemah, Woody Guthrie's birthplace. There's a lot Guthrie's populism in Fullbright's songs.

"Love Don't Let Me Down" by Hayes Carll

I love the acoustic version of this song that Hayes Carll performs as a duet with his girlfriend, Allison Moorer. Everything about Carll—his looks, his voice—says weary. The song's from his album Lovers and Leavers, produced by Joe Henry.

"Cherokee" by John Moreland

John Moreland's another Oklahoma singer-songwriter who plays a Martin (000-18). He's got a deep boomer of a voice. How can you not love a guy who says about his first album: "When I was writing that record, I was like, 'I want to wreck people. I'm going to make all these motherfuckers cry.' "

"Watch Over Us" by The Lone Bellow

This band sounds like they're from the South, but they're from Brooklyn. I love the trio's harmonies, especially in this song, a gut-wrencher. They ask themselves a good question during their songwriting process: "Is this going to be worth singing every night?"

"Clover Tune" by Mandolin Orange

The duo of Andrew Marlin (guitar, mandolin) and Emily Frantz (violin, guitar) was formed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 2009, and they've produced four standout albums, the most ambitious being a double LP called Haste Make/Hard Hearted Stranger, on which "Clover Tune" appears. Their music has a bluegrass tilt to it, and it's extremely listenable.

"Mutineer" by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires

After leaving the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell has established a stellar solo career, with three solid albums in row. This song, though, appears on a digital-only two-song EP, Sea Songs, featuring covers of Lykke Li's "I Follow Rivers" and Warren Zevon's "Mutineer." Instead of with his band, the 400 Unit, Isbell is accompanied only by his wife, Amanda Shires, on vocals and fiddle, and the result is intimate and romantic.

"Hold On Magnolia" by Songs: Ohia

This is a traditional gospel song, but oh, man, does Jason Molina put some hurt in it, making it one of the saddest, heartfelt things I've ever heard. Of course the tragedy of Molina's life, dying at 39 of alcohol abuse–related organ failure, colors everything about his music now.

"Inn Town" by Whiskeytown

Uncle Tupelo is widely credited as the progenitor of alt-country, but I think Whiskeytown, which Ryan Adams formed in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1994, was equally influential. The band released three albums together, and Strangers Almanac was as brilliant as they come. My novel arose largely because I read that Adams had contracted Ménière's disease and had believed for a couple of years that he'd have to quit music altogether.

Don Lee and Lonesome Lies Before Us links:

excerpt from the book
video trailer for the book

Kirkus Reviews review
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel review
Paste review
Shelf Awareness review
Washington Post review

Booklist interview with the author
Interview magazine interview with the author
Narrative interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
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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