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August 22, 2018

Randy Kennedy's Playlist for His Novel "Presidio"


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.

Randy Kennedy's novel Presidio is an assured and original debut.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Kennedy employs a conversational and reflective tone as he skillfully explores the nature of guilt, identity, and grief in his assured debut. This deceptively polished confessional imbues the three-dimensional characters with humor, cynicism, and considerable pathos in artful contrast to the moonlike landscape of West Texas... For fans of Larry McMurtry and Philipp Meyer."

In his own words, here is Randy Kennedy's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Presidio:

My novel Presidio, the story of a car thief in West Texas in the early 1970s, is about, in no particular order: loneliness, loss, heartbreak, betrayal, motels, cars, cafés, criminality, rural America, Manifest Destiny, boredom, borders, reading, writing and escape. Here are some of my favorite songs about those things – songs that would make for good company on a solitary road trip across Texas.

1. Mr. Fool (George Jones)
I’ve always loved this song. It’s about the funny distinction between being called Mr. Fool and just a plain old fool. The singer, overcoming heartbreak and betrayal, has earned the right to lose the honorific. For many years when I was writing the book, this was the title.

2. Someone Else You’ve Known (Merle Haggard)
The novel is partly about the slippery nature of identity. So is this fairly obscure 1966 number by Merle Haggard, one of the greatest country songwriters. Camus himself couldn’t have done it better.

3. My Horses Ain’t Hungry (Nimrod Workman recording)
One of those traditional songs whose writers and roots have been mostly lost in the handing down, like Homeric verse. I like that the singer is so indignant at being spurned by his beloved’s family that he won’t even let his horses eat their hay. Odd fact: The modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg once tried his hand at arranging this song.

4. Dalhart, Texas, 1967 (John Fahey)
I’m a fanatic for John Fahey, the unclassifiable folk-blues guitarist, who died in 2001. He got at a particular dissonant American background hum I don’t think any other musician has captured in the same way. This song is dated the year I was born and named for a town not far from the one where I grew up. I’m imagining that Fahey probably passed through Dalhart on one of his cross-country trips and liked the sound of the name.

5. Rosewood Casket (Johnny Williams recording)
This beautiful, haunting song comes on the radio in a stolen car toward the end of the novel. It’s another of those ballads whose murky origins reach back to the 19th century. It’s about death and old love letters, so, naturally, it’s been a go-to standard for country singers for decades.

6. Save the Last Dance for Me (Buck Owens recording)
This is, in my opinion, the greatest country-and-western cover of a pop song ever recorded. It’s a pedal-steel-and-high-harmony version of The Drifters’ classic, by way of the Bakersfield sound. It’s a song that my main character, Troy, could have heard on the radio in 1962.

7. The Great Compromise (John Prine)
I’m a huge Prine fan (as is my editor, Trish Todd) but I came to know this song only recently. It’s a marvel of poetic economy. These lines about heartbreak kill me: “But sometimes I get awful lonesome/And I wish she were my girl instead/But she won’t let me live with her/And she makes me live in my head.” There’s a long-haul truck driver in my novel who knows exactly how he feels.

8. Stranger in the House (Elvis Costello)
This is Costello’s pitch-perfect and sincerely offered pastiche of every forlorn country song
ever written.

9. Motel Time (Johnny Paycheck)
I once went to Central Park to hear a Johnny Paycheck concert, but he cancelled at the last minute because of “illness.” A hipster Texas polka band took his place. Paycheck, a hard liver, died not long after and I still regret having never seen him perform live.

10. I’m A Stranger Here (Lambchop)
A music-wise friend introduced me to this very strange and wonderful Nashville band.
They have a cult following among indie musicians. Kurt Wagner’s gravelly, almost swallowed voice sounds the way I imagine some of the more unredeemable motel characters in my book would sound.

11. Juarez (Flaco Jiménez)
Jiménez – born in San Antonio, where I was born – is king of the norteño accordion players, and I’ve danced to his music several times when he’s played New York. This is his ode to the border city where part of my novel takes place.

12. Tonight I Think I’m Gonna Go Downtown (The Flatlanders)
The Flatlanders got together in Lubbock, Texas, near where I was raised, in 1972, and made
one great record before disbanding. I dearly wish I had been old enough to know about them when they were together. This is my favorite song from that album.

13. Flatland Boogie (Terry Allen with Lucinda Williams)
While we’re on the topic of Lubbock-born songwriters (a tiny, mostly unheralded group, though it does include Buddy Holly), here’s a fantastic one by the visual artist and songwriter Terry Allen, who gets the comic and the calamitous in West Texas exactly right.

14. You Don’t Very Far to Go (Lucinda Williams recording)
Williams’s devastating cover of one of Merle Haggard’s most devastating songs of loss.

15. If You Were Me (And I Were You) (Dwight Yoakum recording)
… And we’re back in the land of country-and-western existentialism, always rich territory. This is Dwight Yoakum’s cover of the 1955 classic by Webb Pierce.

16. Tumble in the Wind (Version 1) (Jackson C. Frank)
Jackson C. Frank, from Buffalo, was one of the great tragic songwriters of the 20th century. His work was covered by Paul Simon and Nick Drake, but his life ended at 56 in schizophrenia and despair. He recorded some of his best songs toward the end of his life, on a cheap cassette recorder, his voice almost gone. I grew up in a place where the wind was often strong enough to tumble you.

17. Easy Rider (Leadbelly recording)
The blues classic about betrayal and about a woman, originally recorded by a woman, Ma Rainey. Even though it’s not at all about cars or riding in them (it’s about an unfaithful lover), I think of it as a perfect road song.

18. Good Stuff (Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed)
My book is set in the early 1970s. If a movie of the novel had been made in the early 1970s, this smooth country-funk ditty would have played over one of the car-theft scenes.

19. Under the Double Eagle (Asleep at the Wheel recording)
How a 19th century Austrian march tune became a favorite of country guitar pickers in the 20th century remains a mystery to me. My dad, an amateur guitar player, loved it and I can never think of it apart from the sound of his old Fender Stratocaster. A minor character in my book likes to whistle this song, and while he’s whistling it, taking a leisurely stroll around the motel where he’s staying, my character Troy steals his car.

20. Wheels (The Flying Burrito Brothers)
Among Gram Parsons’s greatest lyrics and a perfect mood-setter for the book: “We’ve all got wheels/To take ourselves away/We’ve got the telephones to say/What we can’t say.”

21. She Never Spoke Spanish to Me (Joe Ely)
A member of the Flatlanders band, and a native of Lubbock, Texas, Ely went on to have a solid, though still under-appreciated, solo career. This song makes me think of my character Bettie, who only pretends to speak Spanish.

22. The Wheel of the Wagon is Broken (Milton Brown & his Musical Brownies)
This is a lament about the end of the Old West, which in many ways was still ending when I was a child there in the early 1970s.

23. Wichita Lineman (Glen Campbell)
My dad was a telephone lineman and my mother was, briefly, a rural telephone operator. (It’s how they got together – a pre-Internet version of meeting online). This song, written by Jimmy Webb, is one of the most magisterial country-pop songs ever written.

24. Just As I Am (Willie Nelson recording)
I grew up in the Southern Baptist church and this sweet hymn was always played at the end of services, during what was called the invitational, when congregants were welcomed to go up front for a heart-to-heart with the pastor. Willie Nelson included it on his masterpiece 1975 album, “Red Headed Stranger,” possibly because it was a song he, too, had stuck in his head from youthful churchgoing.

25. Desperado (The Langley Schools Music Project recording)
My main character, Troy, is a half-hearted criminal, a desperado in only the most comic sense. So this gorgeous, heartfelt recording of the Eagles’ hit by an elementary school girl, made by a Vancouver music teacher in the mid-1970s, is the perfect end to the playlist.

Randy Kennedy and Presidio links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Dallas Morning News review
Vogue interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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