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May 15, 2018

Kevin Powers' Playlist for His Novel "A Shout in the Ruins"

A Shout in the Ruins

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

Kevin Powers' A Shout in the Ruins is an epic Civil War novel that spans over 100 years.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"With a complex structure reminiscent of Faulkner, Powers adroitly weaves his narrative threads together with subtle connections that reinforce his themes of longing for coherence and the continuing effect of the past on the present. An impressive novel of slavery, destruction, and the arduous difficulties of love."

In his own words, here is Kevin Powers' Book Notes music playlist for his novel A Shout in the Ruins:

Largehearted Boy describes itself as a literature and music website that explores that spot in the Venn diagram where the two arts overlap. I must admit that this territory still feels somewhat shrouded in mystery to me, despite the fact that I spend quite a large number of my waking hours in it. I don’t know if I can say exactly how or why certain songs seem to develop a relationship with the stuff I write. It’s almost always unintentional. I very rarely listen to music while I’m writing, and I don’t often think of a soundtrack for individual scenes or a project as a whole. The only logical conclusion I can come to is that the overlap between the music I love and the stories I try to tell depends on many more variables than I’m aware of. But one thing seems certain: my ideal outcome as a writer is to make a reader feel something, and there a few more effective delivery systems for making someone feel than hearing a great song. The below are songs that really hit me in the gut in one way or another over the last several years as I worked on A Shout in the Ruins. Some of them felt immediately evocative of the places in which the story is set. Others woke some set of emotions that I was trying to access in the story. Others still simply found me when I needed to hear them.

Webb Pierce, Slowly

This is the only song mentioned by name in the book. It plays in the first meeting between two important characters, and for a couple of reasons I decided this was the only song that should be playing. One, it was a big hit right around the period the scene is set, and I felt it was highly likely that a teenager (Lottie) would have heard it, especially one who lived far away from a major urban center. This song is one of the first to prominently feature the pedal steel guitar, an instrument I deeply love, and were you to travel any meaningful distance from any major urban center even today, I suspect the odds are pretty good that you’d encounter the notes of a pedal steel before too much time passed. Secondly, it’s a love song, maybe even a great one, and if there’s a question this book is asking, it’s how love endures in a world so full of ugliness and hardship. Is that directly on the nose? Probably. Do I care? Not particularly.

Brandi Carlile, The Joke

Confession time: I only heard this song for the first time a month or so ago, a point at which my book was already finished. But I don’t want to make list of songs without putting this one on it, so let me just say that in that short amount of time this song has become a touchstone for what I think great art can do. On more than one occasion I have put it on repeat and let it play over and over no fewer than ten times in a row. The whole album is incredible. I recently made the six-hour drive from Denver to Sheridan, Wyoming while listening to nothing else, and I swear to God, when I got where I was going I stayed in the car until the album finished again.

Rhiannon Giddens, Wayfaring Stranger

I have been a fan of Rhiannon Giddens since I first heard the Carolina Chocolate Drops a few years back. Outside of my normal writing process described above, and due to the historical setting of much of my new book, I spent a fair amount of time listening to old-time music on the internet while doing research. Sometimes (actually many times) that turned into listening to nothing but Rhiannon Giddens. Her rendition of this song is unparalleled. Accompanied by an accordionist, and playing a fretless banjo, her voice will take you to a place outside of time. That she is a genius and a national treasure has been testified to by people with more knowledge on the subject of music than me, but I’m pretty damn sure they’re right.

Jason Isbell, Cover Me Up

I could have put any number of songs by Jason Isbell on this list. When it comes down to it, he’s probably my favorite writer working today in any medium. The fact that he can also do what he does with his voice on the chorus of this song puts him in another category entirely. Listening to this song makes it clear to me that gratitude is the response I want to have to living in a world where one can love and be loved, however rarely or briefly that possibility exists for most of us.

The Commodores, This Is Your Life

I can’t think of many songs that combine such extraordinary musicianship, complexity of composition, and moral clarity in their lyrics. When I’m at my most ambitious, this marriage of complexity and clarity is what I’m trying to achieve as a writer. This song sets the bar pretty damn high.

The Commodores, Sail On

By the way, did you know The Commodores also performed one of the great country songs of all time? Me neither. I’m pretty sure Lionel Richie could have been one of the best country singer-songwriters of all time whenever he felt like it, along with all the other kinds of music he was better at making than just about everyone else. Truly a legend.

Steve Earle, Guitar Town

I feel like Billy Rivers, a secondary character in the book, would have loved this song. He and I have some other traits in common, so I guess I can say that with some authority. I have also, at various points in my life, had a two-pack habit and a motel tan.

James Carr, The Dark End of the Street

This song reliably gives me chills every time I listen to it, and I would have to guess I’ve heard it several hundred times already. James Carr’s voice was capable of encompassing and expressing such an enormous depth and breadth of feeling, and the way he captures the difficult combination of sorrow, desire, and regret on this song is truly profound.

Blind Faith, Can’t Find My Way Home

There’s something about Steve Winwood’s voice on this song that I just can’t shake. In other news, there’s a weird bootleg jam session cover of this on YouTube sung by Bonnie Raitt. After a couple minutes of chatter her voice comes in and it is otherworldly.

Blaze Foley, Clay Pigeons

This one just about sums it up for me. Beginnings and endings and most of what goes in between.

P.S. If for some reason at the end of my little spiel here you find yourself thinking, “Well, maybe I’ll check out this guy’s book, but also I’m really curious about that new Brandi Carlile album and I can only afford to buy one or the other,” just go ahead and buy the record. I’ll understand.

Kevin Powers and A Shout in the Ruins links:

the author's website

BookPage review
Guardian review
Kirkus review
London Times review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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