My grandfather was a veteran of war, the 1940 Golden Gloves Chattanooga champion at 160 lbs., tall and lanky as me, about as tough as a locust post. I don’t remember much about him. There’s only one memory of him in fact: me staring out a French door when I was two or three, him kicking over a stump in the backyard and pulling out handfuls of baby copperheads like some holiness preacher. Mama said she only ever saw him cry one time. That day was the day Nat King Cole died. Such is the way with music.
I think the earliest song I remember ever hearing, and I mean real music, none of that Wheels-on-the-Bus-bullshit, was Willie Nelson’s “Remember Me” from the 1975 Red Headed Stranger album. Daddy played it on the record player—snaps, crackles, pops, and all that vinyl goodness.
One grandma sang jazz. One grandma sang old-time country. Both sang hymns. And I can’t sing a lick. But life’s always been lived to music.
If I were to name the writers who have most influenced my work, William Gay would wind up in the top five. Though it’s the short stories contained in I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down that I think serve as his masterpiece, some of William’s finest writing rose from essays on music in magazines like Paste and Oxford American. Even the title of his short story collection stems from a three line lyric in an old blues tune—“I hate to see that evening sun go down, / Yes, I hate to see that evening sun go down / ‘Cause it makes me think I’m on my last go ‘round.”
To ignore the music is to ignore the man, two things seemingly inseparable.
This idea of music and its impact on the writing life is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’ve recognized the influence it’s had on my work for a long time. I wrote the end of Growing Gills with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long As I Can See the Light” on repeat. I did the same with my second book, Ruth, only the song was Johnny Cash and June Carter’s rendition of Thomas Dorsey’s 1937 “Peace in the Valley.” But never has music defined my writing as much as with my latest work, a novel titled Where All Light Tends to Go.
I saw the narrator, Jacob McNeely, before I heard him. He was eighteen in the story, but when I first saw him he was younger. His daddy had taken him hog hunting. A pack of walker hounds bayed the pig in a dried creek bed, and only a child, Jacob stabbed that pig just like he was told. I saw his reflection in the fading light of the pig’s eyes. I recognized what he discovered: that one animal is not that different from another.
But when I heard Jacob McNeely, when his voice woke me up out of a dream, there was a song that accompanied him. There was music and, more specifically, a musician that defined him. The musician was Townes Van Zandt. The song was “Rex’s Blues.”
Looking back, I think it’s the circumstance of that song, the inevitability of ruin, the hope of whom it’s happening to, and the futility of that hope that envelops Jacob McNeely. He was born into and of that song.
It was the opening verse of Townes’ “Rake” that became Jacob’s first go at love—“I used to wake and run with the moon / I lived like a rake and a young man / I covered my lovers with flowers and wounds / My laughter the devil would frighten.”
Townes’ “Waiting Around to Die” was about as close a thing to fate for the entire McNeely family as words from God, all of them destined for graves from the start—“Sometimes I don’t know where this dirty road is taking me / Sometimes I can’t even see the reason why / I guess I keep on gambling, lots of booze and lots of rambling / It’s easier than just a-waiting around to die.”
There’s a moment in the novel where Townes’ For the Sake of the Song album is spinning around a record player and as “Don’t You Take it Too Bad” bleeds into “Colorado Girl,” Jacob knows that when the song finishes out, someone will have to flip the record. But when he doesn’t, when those “final crackles and pops of blank album slid away under the needle,” what comes is a song of the same note, a song that Townes didn’t write, but one I’m sure he would’ve sung.
The novel and the music become inseparable.
When I think about why my writing is so dark, it’s two lines from Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” that make the most sense: “There ain’t no use in turning on your light, babe / The light I’ve never known.” When I think about where my writing comes from and my process, it’s another line, this time from a Paul Simon cut on the Sounds of Silence album—“My words trickle down from a wound I have no intention to heal.”
My writing and the soundtrack of my life bled together. That conflux happened long ago.
When I was in college, I had a mentor who wrote creative nonfiction. She had this story of passing a bread factory along her route to work each day, and how the smell from that bread factory took her back to this place and time in her life that she’d almost forgotten. Every time she smelled it, she was transported.
So one day she drove there and sat outside at the employee picnic tables, and she wrote and wrote until that place had given her all it could. She didn’t use this phrase for what that place did to her writing, but what she was describing is what I’d call a point of entry. I think all writers need that point of entry. I think all writers need a gateway. And for me, the door has always swung open on a song.