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July 27, 2018

Caleb Johnson's Playlist for His Novel "Treeborne"


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

Caleb Johnson's novel Treeborne is a remarkable debut strongly rooted in place.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"In his debut novel, Johnson has conjured a stunning account of the Treeborne family of Elberta, Alabama, creating an immersive sense of both time and place as he probes the memories and resentments that linger among the town's residents over the course of decades...Majestic in scope, jam-packed with revelations and a touch of the fantastical, Treeborne is an enthralling story about what binds people together and breaks them apart."

In his own words, here is Caleb Johnson's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Treeborne:

Treeborne is a novel about memory and place. In the rural South especially, these notions are often bound up with song. Gathering to sing is how we remember, how we tell stories, how we mark important occasions, and, just as importantly, it’s how we entertain ourselves – be it on porches or in churches. While Treeborne takes place across three different timelines, the songs on this playlist are not constrained by the novel’s chronology. Rather they seek to capture an emotional truth conjured when folks come together in voice.

“The Great Speckled Bird” Roy Acuff

A retired judge and his wife used to perform this song every year during a community supper held in my hometown of Arley, Alabama. Along with the buck dancing competition, their turn onstage was the evening’s main attraction. I made “The Great Speckled Bird” a favorite song of Maybelle, the matriarch of the Treeborne family, and I’d often listen to the Roy Acuff version while getting ready to write each morning.

“Girl in the Holler” Leo “Bud” Welch

I imagine this song playing the first time Hugh Treeborne lays eyes on Maybelle. Lyrically speaking, this would be a song of unrequited love if Welch – almost chanting over a dirty guitar lick that unwinds like a spring from a busted mattress – didn’t sound so damn sure his girl in the holler would come around to wanting him back.

“Love Lifted Me” The Florida Boys

This was my favorite hymn when I was a kid. I still remember standing on the pew and belting it at the top of my lungs. This version is more up-tempo than how we sang it in church, and how Lyle Crews sings it in the novel. “Love Lifted Me” is a song of salvation—something Lyle longs for and hunts in places where none can likely be found.

“Higher Ground” Iris DeMent

I chose this song because it features DeMent’s mother on vocals. DeMent begins the recording by saying, “No voice has inspired me more than my mother’s. She showed me that music is a pathway to higher ground.” At the heart of Treeborne is the relationships between daughters and mothers. I love hearing DeMent in harmony with hers on this recording.

“Act Naturally” Buck Owens

Tammy Treeborne Ragsdale, daughter of Maybelle, dreams of going off to Hollywood—and she ain’t bashful about telling folks. I believe she’d enjoy the bravado and playfulness when Owens sings, “They’re gonna put me in the movies. They’re gonna make a big star out of me.” Probably just as much as she’d enjoy the line about being a sad and lonely fool – though Tammy never would admit this to anybody but herself.

“Memphis Women and Chicken” Donnie Fritts

Food, what we cook, how we eat, tells us plenty about who we are and from where we come. This couldn’t be more true for the fictional Elberta, Alabama, where peaches brought by Spanish conquistadors bolster the economy and men break racial lines for a plate of pulled pork and ribs. This song is “Funky” Donnie Fritts’ love letter to place, people and poultry. “Now over on Union there’s a good ol’ gal. She can smoke a pig and fry a foul. She’s got biscuits in her oven and cornbread in her pan and I get by to see her every time I can.” If you don’t crave a piece of fried chicken – and more – after listening then I’ll eat my shoe.

“There Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down” Brother Claude Ely

Lee Malone was adopted and raised in a kind of apocalyptic version of the Christian faith. Part of the end times is, of course, the resurrection. I’m not sure there’s a better resurrection song ever recorded than this one. Brother Claude Ely shout-sings over rhythm guitar that, the deeper into the song we go, feels as if it’s on the verge of losing all control and zipping off into eternity itself.

“Live Forever” Billy Joe Shaver

A pretty fingerpicked song about leaving this earthly plane by one of the harder living musicians in country music. Janie Treeborne, Maybelle’s granddaughter, sees the land her family comes from as a connection to the past, as a way for them to live on—if not forever. She’ll protect that notion at any cost to herself and others.

“In a Town This Size” John Prine

I grew up in a place – not unlike the fictional Elberta, Alabama – where everybody knows everybody’s business. So I deeply understand what Prine means when he sings, “In a town this size, there’s no place to hide.” Many of the characters in Treeborne would get what Prine means too. It’s a blessing and a curse being from somewhere like this, but I’m not sure there’s a better kind of place for a storyteller.

“Long Gone Lonesome Blues” Hank Williams

Rick Bragg, one of my college journalism professors, once told me this is the saddest song he’s ever heard. Take this lyric: “I’m gonna find me a river, one that’s cold as ice. And when I find me that river, Lord I’m gonna pay the price. I’m going down in it three times, but I’m only coming up twice.” Rick also said “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” is the prettiest song he’s ever heard. I can’t disagree there either—sadness and beauty go hand-in-hand.

“Nobody Gets Me Down” T-Model Ford

I had in mind T-Model’s sound when writing the character Lee Malone, who, in addition to running a peach orchard, plays guitar and writes songs. T-Model was a Mississippi bluesman who, while on the road, subsisted on canned oysters and whiskey. I wanted some of his don’t give a shit attitude in Lee Malone too. You’ll hear what I mean loud and clear in this song.

Caleb Johnson and Treeborne links:

the author's website

Booklist review
Chicago Review of Books review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Birmingham News interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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