How Country Music Made Me a Better Writer
I wasn’t always a die-hard country music fan.
Growing up in Chicago, and subsequently moving to other cities like Prague and San Francisco, I was raised on a steady diet of screaming guitars, blues, a smattering of jazz, and the occasional hipster band.
Don’t get me wrong – I still love them all! They’ve been the soundtrack to some of the best times in my life and when a song like Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing” comes on the radio in my car, I go off like a firecracker – pounding my hands on the steering wheel and frightening my children.
It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties and actually moved to a rural area that country music made its way onto my radar. Then subsequently wormed it’s way into my heart. A couple of years into living in my new home town, I realized that honky-tonk had pretty much taken over my iPod, leaving The Clash, Bowie, countless British New Wave bands and Madonna lonely for play.
(The Rockabilly songs of the Stray Cats got to stay in the fold.)
I’ve got to admit that a lot of my city slicker friends found my new taste in music questionable. Some openly wondered if my move to central Virginia didn’t coincide with a minor head injury.
City slicker friend: “You actually like John Denver. Really like him. You don’t listen ironically?”
Me: “I think he’s one of the great songwriters of the twentieth century.”(I’m deadly serious here)
City slicker friend: “Oh.”
Country music just ain’t on the playlist in yankee cities. Sure, a city dweller might enjoy “cool” country stars that have had Hollywood movies made about their lives. Singer-songwriters like Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn come to mind. But for the most part, country music to a city person runs neck in neck with elevator music and polkas when it comes to their listening pleasure.
And I was right there with them.
It took changing my habitat dramatically to inspire me to learn an entirely new repetoire of songs that have little to no relationship with the good ole days of my teens and twenties.
I slowed down, started working out of my home office, and found myself noticing how the breeze would blow through so many leaves on a summer evening that I’d swear I was listening to wind chimes. Without even meaning to, I got to know – intimately – the movement of sunlight throughout the day and the phases of the moon. I can’t sleep when the moon is full, I’ve learned, so I might as well put on something soft. Maybe Willie Nelson.
It was finally seeing what a holler really looked like, and hearing the truly terrifying shriek of a fox’s mating call. Driving on roads called 22 curves (and for good reason), drinking whiskey in a rocker on my front porch (yes, we really do that), or hearing my daughter say her dream car is a pick up truck (not kidding here).
Still, all of those genteel country living experiences led me to water, but they didn’t make me drink. What did was my congential love of a great story.
Because in country music, I’d found some of the best lyrical storytelling I’d ever heard, and it was not confined to the usual trilogy of sex, drugs and teen angst that can make great music, too, but gets a bit repetitive. And frankly, starts to lose its oomph after you’ve had a kid or two.
Even some of the schlockiest country tunes tend to have very adult themes that present a complicated set of circumstances. Like a good book.
A country singer will warn you not to come home a drinkin’ with lovin’ on your mind, tell you to stand by your man, lament that if their phone still ain’t ringin’, they assume it still ain’t you. They teach you how to play the game of life through a game of cards, fall into a ring of fire, and go to Jackson, Mississippi looking for trouble of the extramarital variety. They sing about their daddies and their wayward loves, their friends, their problems, the mountains they grew up drinking in like moonshine. They take you this close to their face, till you can smell their breath.
And over the past decade – more than poetry, even more than reading – country music has inspired the way I’ve constructed the personalities of some of my favorite fictional characters.
Johnny Cash’s Delia, A Boy Named Sue and Number 13 colluded to help me create a bulemic Hungarian assassin with a penchant for rich food and sadistic murder…and a heart for only one woman.
Frankie Laine’s Wanted Man showed me how impulsivity and desire can spawn a fledgling outlaw.
Dolly Parton’s Touch Your Woman guided me in writing a heartbreaking love scene between two characters about to face their doom.
And Garth Brooks’s Friends in Low Places, about a regular guy who crashes his ex-girlfriend’s wedding to a high roller, always reminds me to give my characters a sense of humor – even amidst some of their most painful, cringy episodes.
Well, I guess I was wrong
I just don’t belong
But then, I’ve been there before
Everything’s all right
I’ll just say goodnight
And I’ll show myself to the door
Hey, I didn’t mean
To cause a big scene
Just give me an hour and then
Well, I’ll be as high
As that ivory tower
That you’re livin’ in
‘Cause I’ve got friends in low places
Where the whiskey drowns
And the beer chases my blues away
And I’ll be okay
I’m not big on social graces
Think I’ll slip on down to the oasis
Oh, I’ve got friends in low places –Garth Brooks
These artists continue to teach me not to waste words and to tell a compelling story in the shortest amount of time possible, so as not to bore a reader with competing descriptions and over-wrought emotions. They remind me that I don’t need a shoot-out or car chase or even a bunch of sex to put tension or excitement into a scene.
And they’ve shown me that having heart and brazen sentimentality can illustrate a powerful truth that kicks even the most cynical reader in the gut.
So, writers…and readers…next time you need to boost your imaginations, or just want to hear a great yarn – find your local country music station (I swear, even big cities have one), sit back, put your boots up and have a listen.