movie: Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

This biopic centers on country legend Loretta Lynn, the daughter of (yes) a coal miner in Butcher Holler, Kentucky. I was recently motivated to track it down in part by that Kentucky music issue of Oxford American.

First, the superficial bits: I am impressed with how well this cast resembles the characters they play. Sissy Spacek as Loretta, Tommy Lee Jones as her husband, Doolittle “Mooney” Lynn, and Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline offer remarkable likenesses. There is less to go on with Ted Webb, Loretta’s father, but Leon Helm did a fine job with that role. (IMDB’s trivia section claims, “Loretta Lynn is said to have fainted when she saw Levon Helm in full make-up and wardrobe, because of his amazing resemblance to her real father.”) Phyllis Boyens-Liptak as Clary, Loretta’s mother, reminded me most of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” All the acting struck me as more than adequate. Spacek’s Loretta is somehow both quaking and fiery: she alternates between terror and resolute defiance. Jones is charismatic and frightening. I felt drawn in and engaged by this movie – forgot I was watching actors at all.

The relationship between Mooney and Loretta made me plenty uncomfortable. In the movie, she is 13 years old when they marry; Rolling Stone says she was 15, but this is still disturbing, just to a slightly different degree. On their wedding night, in the movie, he rapes her. The next morning, he hits her for the first time. I did not enjoy watching this. But if this is the true story (and the movie is based on Loretta’s autobiography, so we are to take it as such – at least as close to fact as autobiography ever is), I can agree not to look away. This aspect reminded me of Urban Cowboy, but that fellow-1980 movie of abusive honky tonk relationships does not have the stamp of “truth” on its side, so I consider its offense a little worse, at least from the one angle.

Anyway. Nobody said this movie would be about everybody doing the right thing. It’s a movie about real people, at least ostensibly. Let me say a little more about the “truthiness”: this is a biopic, based on life, via an autobiography, with a co-author, of a celebrity, who has some interest in promoting an image her fans will appreciate. (In that Rolling Stone piece, she and her publicity team are quoted as basically falling back on that stereotyped Southern lady’s coyness about age.) So, based on a real life as represented by the woman who lived it. I’m not trying to be hard on Loretta. These are generalizations, not specific to her. None of us has infallible memory, and celebrity has been known to distort, too. While Loretta and Mooney come off in this movie as messy and imperfect, they are certainly also relatable and sympathetic; this is a classic rags-to-riches story where we root for the underdog. It’s arguably easy on its stars. I figure this movie is fact-adjacent.

I did get involved with it. I cared about the characters. I felt Patsy’s death, and Loretta’s several crises; I was both very angry with Mooney and understood Loretta’s attraction. It was visually pleasing. The music was (of course) excellent, and Spacek and D’Angelo sang their parts throughout, which is impressive. Long story short, this was well worth my time; I can only imagine the nostalgia it holds for viewers who are either from an Appalachia recognizable here, or big Loretta Lynn fans (or both). I’m not the former, and only a moderate fan, but it was a good enough time.


Rating: 7 pots of food.

movies: Notorious (2009) and All Eyez on Me (2017)

These two biopics of the last decade handle the stories of Christopher Wallace (Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls) and Tupac Shakur (2Pac, Makaveli) respectively, although their stories are intertwined and each appears in each movie. First, the disclaimer: I’m not a terribly serious rap fan and don’t know a ton about these two giants. I do like some rap music and I do like what I know of Biggie and Tupac, but I didn’t come into these movies with much of a background of knowledge.

So I guess I came for three things: one, I wanted to hear more of the music each man made. Two, I wanted to learn more about them as people and as public icons. And three, I was interested in the ongoing question of who killed each of them. Maybe a fourth as well – I always want to enjoy a movie and/or admire it as art.

While I enjoyed both movies and took something away, my review is mixed. I feel like in both cases more could have been done with the material. All Eyez on Me takes a particular moment as narrative present and looks back: Tupac’s in prison, giving a reporter an interview. Notorious uses a narrative voiceover, also backward-looking, although it’s not clear what (if any) specific moment he’s speaking from. While this is a technique that can work, I’m not sure it was the right choice here. In Notorious in particular, I felt like it slowed the action down. In All Eyez on Me, the interview often felt performative; at times Tupac and the interviewer explain his past to one another in an obvious narration to the audience, that kind of dialogue that feels totally unrealistic because you know both characters already know everything they’re saying. In fact, I think in All Eyez, dialogue was an overall weakness. This effect faded for me as the movie went on, but I don’t know if that’s because it actually got better, or just because I got numbed to it.

The strength of each movie was definitely its material, the legend of each of these men and the groundbreaking work they each did in rap music, the music business, and the role of rap in a larger culture. Their murders, I’m afraid, are inextricable from their legends: who can say how Biggie’s or Tupac’s career might have ended, had they had the chance to grow old and maybe wash up, sell out, or continue to build their dynasties? Even if the storytelling choices weren’t always the best ones (in my impression), even if dialogue was weak, there’s a powerful magnetism to these characters – even the acted versions of these characters, which I’d say (no offense to the actors) offers a dilution of the originals. For fans who miss their heroes, and who can put aside expecting Demetrius Shipp Jr. to be Tupac (Jamal Woolard/Biggie), there’s something here to be loved and wept over.

In a movie like this, a lot rides on how well the actor looks like, or can channel, his role. I remember in Straight Outta Compton (why didn’t I write that one up??) being really impressed with mostly uncanny lookalikes. The Eminem movie, Eight Mile, had the advantage of the star playing himself, and that one is probably my favorite of the rap biopics, maybe for that reason. From memory, I also think that both of those films featured more music, too. All Eyez did a little better than Notorious; the latter left me really wanting to hear more of Biggie rapping. I did enjoy some of the female musicians featured there, though: Faith Evans, but especially Lil Kim, who I thought was especially true-to-life as played by Naturi Naughton.

Speaking of women, I loved both all-star-cast moms! Biggie’s was played by Angela Bassett, and Tupac’s by Danai Gurira (a small role by Lauren Cohan made this a mini-Walking Dead reunion). Holy smokes – these performances threatened to steal the show. Also, a reprisal in All Eyez by Woolard as Biggie made for nice continuity; that was a good choice. I found Woolard as Biggie a more lookalike casting than Shipp as Tupac, although I have trouble explaining the latter: in some scenes, the resemblance is indeed very close. I think there was just something charismatic and inexplicable about Tupac that Shipp lacks. But I think I’m going to credit that to Tupac’s extreme charisma, rather than dock Shipp points for it, bless his heart. Tough act to follow.

Storytelling so-so; music not as plentiful as I might have hoped for; general awesomeness-as-movies a bit up-and-down. As to how much I learned about the lives of the two, well, I learned a lot I didn’t know, but can’t speak for its accuracy. I was interested to see Biggie portrayed as much more a wanton womanizer, where Tupac had exactly zero love interests until the big one came along. (He comes across as quite virtuous, IF you believe him innocent of the rape he was accused of, as the movie portrays and as he always maintained.) Tupac is portrayed as much more intelligent, ideological, full of plans and dreams and ideas, and revolutionary – although alternating with fun and hijinks. (There is a moment in Notorious that captures this perfectly: “That was Pac,” Biggie muses. “A revolutionary one minute, a thug-life motherfucker the next.”) Biggie is presented, in both movies, as just less intelligent. He doesn’t really have plans or dreams except to make money, although this is not a totally morally void ambition: he wants to provide for his kids, make things better for the next generation.

In Notorious, the question of whether Biggie had anything to do with Pac’s murder is answered: emphatically not, and Biggie was still hoping for a reconciliation. In All Eyez, the truth of what happened isn’t explained (because indeed we don’t know who killed Tupac), but Tupac does not share the goal of making up. Suge Knight is played pretty much as I understood him: a sinister, conniving figure; he could be generous but nothing comes for free. Both men’s murders remain unsolved.

These movies are both far from perfect, but they were well worth my time. They’ve mostly served to further whet my curiosity. One reviewer (can’t remember where I read this) recommends I go read Murder Rap next; and who knows, maybe someday I will.


Rating: an even 6 lines for each.

Oxford American, issue 99: Kentucky Music Issue (winter 2017)

You can see further details or purchase this issue here, and I do recommend it.

I’m amazed, again, at my enjoyment of this magazine, especially in its Southern Music issues, this one about Kentucky – and I was pleasantly surprised to see so many names I knew, both in contributing writers (a few associated with West Virginia Wesleyan) and in musicians. I shouldn’t put these mags off so long; I enjoy them so much.

I am reminded of past OA music issues, of course, and of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics. The liner notes, so to speak, in this music issue for the accompanying album of 27 tracks often expand into mini-essays not only describing the music but arguing for its place in history, its importance, its context… as when I read Poetics, I find myself recognizing something I’d been missing: music written of as the art form it can be. I haven’t found enough of this in the world, I guess. Also, of course, OA‘s concentration on the American South overlaps with my own concerns, and our musical tastes so far line up nicely too.

I am also astonished to see the same themes that plague my own mind and life keep recurring… it was one thing to find the theme of home-seeking in Matt Ferrence’s Appalachia North, which I am reading now, a book I chose for its relevance to my own obsessions. But the same themes turn up in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which I’m listening to on audio now (birthday present from my mom, thanks Mom)… and the music of Kentucky often as not approaches them too. Look at Harry Dean Stanton explicating “Cancion Mixteca”:

I see it as, when you’re truly at home there’s no more suffering… crying to get back to where you come from.

Maybe this is what’s so haunting and impossible about our (apparently universal) yearning for home: that we’re trying to get to place with no suffering, where everything is resolved. Talk about setting yourself up to be disappointed.

Or this:

Inoculated with a love of and fascination with her homeplace, Rachel Grimes became a student of its history.

Again I’m thinking of Appalachia North, Matt Ferrence’s research-rich investigation of his own home: work I aspire to do for mine. Partly I self-select (consciously and not) to expose myself to the media that I am likely to appreciate, of course. But doesn’t it also seem like we encounter things in groups or bunches? A new topic is suddenly all around us. I remember the first time I heard of the concept of a murder ballad. It was from a woman from Kentucky (of course), a fellow student in my MFA program. I was intrigued by the concept; and suddenly murder ballads were all around me. Again from this Kentucky album & magazine: the murder ballad “Pretty Polly,” which I can’t say for sure isn’t the first one I ever heard, sung by Amanda Jo on the dorm steps at dusk in West Virginia’s July, backlit by fireflies.

Perhaps I most loved the brief notes on each song included with the cd that comes with this magazine, those succinct reasons why King Kong’s “Me Hungry,” Freakwater’s “My Old Drunk Friend,” and Sarah Ogan Gunning’s “I’m Going to Organize, Baby Mine” join Loretta Lynn, the Everly Brothers and Les McCann. Reading these paragraphs and listening to the songs and making my own observations about the music and meaning is always the most special treat of an OA music issue. But there was so much I loved here: Jason Howard*’s “If God Had a Name,” about Joan Osborne’s influence on his own life and spirituality (I love the song, too). Jeffrey A. Keith’s study of the Appalshop*. John Thomason on John Prine’s Paradise. Ashley Bloom’s lovely essay “Fire in My Bones” on religion and reclaiming her body. Crystal Wilkinson’s story “Cleo, Cleo Black as Coal,” a piercing piece of fiction to cleanse the palate, except it’s more flavorful than any palate cleanser. John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Death Rattle” was a remarkable piece of investigation, even anthropology. And of course, Silas House*’s gorgeous feature, quoted below. So much astonishingly lovely writing, throughout.

Zandria F. Robinson’s feature, “Border Wars,” confounded me some; sometimes I didn’t know what her sentences meant, although they were always lovely. I found myself both nodding emphatically along, and also sometimes disagreeing. It was an engaging piece of writing, and I guess any differences I felt with her drive home the point about shifting borders and differing definitions, and how they can divide us. If I didn’t always agree, I certainly respected and admired.

David Ramsey’s “Tuned Up in the Spirit,” about the Old Regular Baptists and their line-called music, gave me a little trouble as well. It was a bit too many pages of religion (perhaps without quite enough music) for my tastes. And when he notes that the Old Regulars forbid woman from leading songs, preaching, or taking part in church business, and then moves right along, I think, only a man could brush past that.

Here are a few of the lines I marked, usually in noticing how they speak to my own home-seeking.

This faculty, to be attuned to one’s surroundings and the ways in which they’re unique, to be rooted in the local, to be of a certain place – no matter if one permanently leaves it, like Richard Hell, or stays forever, like Rachel Grimes – is an elemental theme running through [this issue].

From Deputy Editor Maxwell George’s introduction to “The Music of Kentucky.”

Ronni Lundy quotes Dwight Yoakum:

…you have to break the ties to be yourself, and then you see how much those ties meant to you, so you try to put them back. Only you can’t really do it. You can’t do either all the way. But that’s where the story is, right? That place in the middle, isn’t that where it’s art?

This quotation means a great deal to Lundy, too – it gives her the title of her piece on Yoakum, “That Place in the Middle.”

From House’s inspired essay “Watershed,” on the Phipps Family:

There are many Appalachias, but this one is much like most of the rural places in the region: a wound, a poem, a contradiction – none of them easily defined, all of them complex, taut with history and culture that most people never bother to study or understand before passing judgment. Like most places in American, it’s a place of poverty and wealth, of education and ignorance…

And of course, you know what I’m going to say next, that all of this is true of most places in America. A wound, a poem, a contradiction. (I wish I’d written that.)

John Jeremiah Sullivan writing about the jawbone as a musical instrument, and its roots in slavery:

Slaveholders could forbid them the guitar, the banjo, the fiddle, everything. They might even embargo wire and string. But it’s not as easy to take away denuded animal bones. And while those were ready to hand, so was rhythm. That’s how hard it is to kill music.

That’s how hard it is to kill art.

In other words, forget it.

Forget it. This stuff is gold. Get all the Oxford American music issues you can.


Rating: 9 stays out of a man’s shirt collar.

*Recognize these names? From Hillbilly.

Hamilton soundtrack

I don’t usually review music around here, but I’m making an exception for this double-album soundtrack because a) it’s a preview of the actual musical I’ll get to see in about a month’s time (squeal!), and b) it’s highly narrative, so it feels like it belongs.

We’ve all by now heard about the musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, right? Based on the biography Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (which I may need to read next). I had heard of it, but hadn’t paid much attention until I heard Miranda interviewed on my favorite podcast, Another Round (rest in peace). (That episode is here.) Once I started paying attention, I knew I had to see it. So I got tickets! to go with my friend Jacinda (talented author of Saint Monkey) next month in Louisville, and we can’t wait. (Sadly, I will not see Miranda perform, himself, but I will trust that they’ve chosen a good replacement.) My parents recently saw it performed in San Francisco (still waiting on their guest review[s]!), and my mother sent me this soundtrack.

And it’s phenomenal. The music is impressive in itself – that is, as music, you want to lean it, turn it up, nod along with the beat. There is such a full story communicated in its lyrics – all of which are perfectly legible, rare enough with any genre of music. I can immediately hear that Hamilton’s life was full of drama and inspiration, and I can imagine Miranda reading Chernow’s book and being captured by the wild true story of one man’s experience in and out of American politics. That he took that story and put it into varied and captivating song… is another inspiration in itself. I can hardly believe people are this talented.

My impression is that the entire play is available in these songs – leave it to be seen how true that is, but this double-album is quite a complete narrative in itself. It has everything: compelling, dramatic story; catchy beats; wildly crisp, awesome, technical execution; feeling, voice, and talent. I am deeply excited to see it live.

I’ve listened to the whole thing exactly two times through before writing this review, but of course I’ll be going back through it over and over before the show. So far, my favorite tracks include the introductory opener, “Alexander Hamilton,” and the following “Aaron Burr, Sir,” in which Hamilton meets this central character; the pairing “Helpless” and “Satisfied,” which offer parallel love stories with two Schuyler sisters; and the Cabinet Battles, #1 and #2, which are rap battle versions of the stand-offs between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. This is so exciting! This is how you get the kids (and me) excited about history. I’ve written before about the importance of interdisciplinary studies; I think rap-battle-meets-history-lesson might be the best yet. Also the “Ten Duel Commandments,” and “The Reynolds Pamphlet” for its sheer drama, and the final two numbers, “The World Was Wide Enough” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” And, well, I love every track.

I also appreciate the threads that tie these songs together: for example, the repeated refrains of helpless and satisfied (in regards to Hamilton’s love life and ambition). I admire the narrative artistry of the song “Satisfied,” in which we rewind to see a scene and story just told in the previous track, from a very different point of view. This is some fine storycrafting.

I’m afraid of going in circles now – or of creating expectations that are too high to satisfy for the live show. So I’ll stop with this high praise.


Rating: 9 shots.

My Years with Townes Van Zandt: Music, Genius, and Rage by Harold F. Eggers Jr. with L. E. McCullough

Disclosure: I was sent a copy of this book by its publicist in exchange for my honest review.


Over four months ago, a publicist wrote to me offering a copy of this memoir about Townes Van Zandt. Only in the last week or so when I finally got around to opening it did I realize the honor I’d received. I’m really grateful I got to read this one; and I’m honored that I was asked. Thanks, Jennifer.

Townes Van Zandt was a tortured genius and one of the finest troubadours this country has known. Harold F. Eggers Jr. was Townes’s road manager, business partner, and much more, for some twenty years. His memoir here (cowritten with L. E. McCullough, who has the writing experience) is very much about telling Townes’s story, but Eggers’s own life is well-represented, as well. I respect the format very much. The remarkable life of Townes Van Zandt clearly inspired the writing, and that’s the name that draws readers to the book. But Eggers has lived, as well, and I’m glad he’s present.

The book opens with the early years Eggers and Townes spent together, and then flashes back to a very brief telling of Eggers’s childhood and his service in Vietnam before he went to work for Townes (thanks to his big brother Kevin Eggers, who had previously worked with Townes and set up his veteran younger brother with a job to help him out). His tour in Vietnam plays a role in the rest of the story; Eggers credits the things he saw there with his ability to adapt to this wildness of sharing a hotel room with Townes, and believes his thrill-seeking and attraction to danger was about chasing something he’d seen in war. As a parallel, Townes had tried to enlist in the armed forces but been turned away because of the electroshock therapy he’d received as a teenager (also an enormous event in Townes’s life which would follow him forever). As Eggers tells it, Townes’s disappointment cast a long shadow.

There is everything here that a Townes fan wants: insider information, jokes and stories, and that enormous and overarching sadness that we feel in his songs. (Well, almost everything. We still don’t know much about Townes’s early life, pre-shock therapy, because he didn’t remember it, himself. This is a painful hole in the record, in my opinion. But Eggers couldn’t resolve it, and he’s right not to try. I sure wish someone had approached Townes’s parents while they were alive…) It’s a thorough telling of Townes’s final twenty years or so, as seen by Eggers, who does not claim to know what he wasn’t there to see; but the two men spent a lot of time together when on tour, often living as roommates even off the road. Eggers quotes Guy Clark: “Harold, how can you stay in the same room with Townes Van Zandt? You have been doign this for years, man. I’m his friend, too, but it would wear me out. How do you put up with it?” After years of reflection, Eggers is ready to say that growing up in a large family and later his military service gave him “the ability to routinize almost any sort of irrational behavior.” Eggers has his tricks: when Townes pitches fits in public and is on the brink of getting them arrested, Eggers tells him he needs to get onstage right now; this always works. He sees Townes sabotage recording sessions and huge live shows, and wishes the musicians in the studio only knew how to manage Townes the way he does.

As told here, the two have a symbiotic relationship. Eggers babysits and manages Townes, enabling the career he was able to have, however wracked and traumatized. But Townes helps Eggers mange his own demons, too. There’s a huge amount of love here. At the beginning and the end and in between, Eggers relates that Townes wanted this book to exist, and wanted to be sure it told the whole story, and not just the pretty stuff. “Tell the truth, no matter what… do not whitewash anything. Let all the ghosts and demons have their say.” Although Eggers’s love for Townes rings loud, I think he’s honored his friend’s wish, too.

This is one of the ways I want to contrast this book with another. Without Getting Killed or Caught, a recent biography of Guy Clark, was a rich source of information about Guy, one of Townes’s best friends. But it was too saccharine in its praise, didn’t let all the ghosts and demons have their say. Eggers did, and I appreciate him for that.

The style of My Years with Townes Van Zandt is straightforward, the writing style of a man with a story to tell, rather than that of a writer of craft and artistry. No complaints; Eggers’s voice comes through clearly, and I can feel his personality, and I hung on every word. But it’s a straight relating, and not a crafted piece of creative nonfiction. I’m a little surprised, since there was a ghostwriter involved, that it didn’t get a little more polish. But I’m not sorry.

One final detail before I tell you what an important read this is. Several appendices offer a thorough discography (and then some) and Eggers’s recording philosophy, for recording live shows (which have yielded such discography). The student of Townes’s music will be well-served: I know some of what I’m shopping for next.

For the Townes fan? An absolutely essential volume to keep and study. For the reader not so sure about Townes? An important look into the music industry of the 1970s-90s, at counterculture and American roots music, and at an artist you will soon become a fan of. Don’t miss this one.


Rating: for the sake of 8 songs.

Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark by Tamara Saviano

Extra brief today, and then you can get back to your Wednesday and I’ll get back to some better reading.

This book got away from me a little bit, in that I waited too long after finishing it to write this review. But that’s okay, because of my reaction to the book itself: I think it will be an easier-than-usual review to write. In a word, I love Guy Clark, and enjoyed learning more about his life and music. But as a book, I’m not blown away.

Tamara Saviano is a co-producer of the two-disc album This One’s For Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, for which I’m very grateful, and she’s made other contribution to Clark’s and other musical legacies. But I feel that this authorized biography fell into the trap that they tend to fall into. It’s overly praising of its subject, and not critical enough, in the sense not that I want Guy criticized but that I want him critiqued. I want to know the finer points, the rough edges, the ambiguities and the anecdotes that don’t fit into the picture that we fans have developed of him. I wanted to find a Guy Clark who was more Hemingway or Hefner–more complicated, contradictory, and intermittently less-than-likeable–and less a saint.

I’m a big Guy Clark fan, and I loved seeing views of him at different ages, through his life: helping to repair boats in Rockport, meeting guests at his grandmother’s hotel in Monahans, playing music in my old neighborhood in Houston, meeting Susanna under the worst of circumstances. It was good to learn more about his life (and the lives of Townes and Susanna, each of them inextricable from the other two). It felt nice to sort of roll around in Guy Clark while I read this book. I loved the pictures. And I especially reveled in the details that tie Guy’s life to my own: the Montrose neighborhood in Houston where his music career got started and where I lived in high school and for some years after; the cancer hospital where I worked, and where he spent a summer working on a National Science Foundation award; the southeast-side neighborhood where he recorded “Cotton Mill Girls” just down the road from my childhood home. I used to ride my bicycle down that street, where the recording studio was. I’ve said it before: there is nothing like a strong sense of place, especially when the place in question is real and matters to the reader, to make a story feel authentic and important. These ties to Guy Clark mean the world to me.

There was value here, clearly, but it felt more like reading a lengthy pamphlet produced by the late artist’s estate, than a book with artistic value for its own sake. Maybe I’ve been in creative nonfiction for too long and forgotten how to appreciate “straight” biography. I wonder what I’d find if I reread Mr. Playboy or one of the Hemingway biographies I’ve enjoyed in years past. But I really think the problem here for me was the stance taken on the subject: that this is a fan’s authorized biography, and not a close and clear look at a multifaceted human being. In the end, while I enjoyed some aspects of what I found, I’m disappointed.

I marked this line, attributed to Guy by Roseanne Cash: “You have to throw out the best line of your song if it doesn’t serve the rest of the song.” Fine advice for a writer. This book feels like it tried to serve Guy Clark’s memory more than its own song.


Rating: generously, 6 fifths of Palomino Whiskey, if I give credit for the subject matter.

The Poetics of American Song Lyrics ed. by Charlotte Pence

This book took me an inordinately long time – weeks – to finish, but not because I didn’t love it. I loved it. It’s just dense, and took a lot of mental energy. And being a collection of discrete pieces, it was easy to take breaks. And it hit just at the end of a wonderful but wearying semester, so my mind was fatigued. [Post about the semester wrap-up to come.]

I’m going to let editor Charlotte Pence introduce this book to you as she did to me.

Not many editors can pinpoint the exact moment a specific project began, but I can say for certain that it was September 12, 2003, the day Johnny Cash died. I was living in Nashville, teaching composition and poetry writing at Belmont University where 27 percent of the entering freshmen are part of the Mike Curb College of Entertainment and Music Business. The university sits on a hill that hovers at the end of Music Row, those legendary two streets that Nashville record labels and studios call home. When students miss class at Belmont, the reason often involves the words “touring schedule.” Essentially, the music business is an extension of the campus, and there I was teaching poetry and having students ask if they could bring their guitars to class for backup as they read their “poems” for the class to critique.

She goes on: when Johnny Cash died, Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander gave a speak on the Senate floor in which he wondered why Tennessee English professors (“including those at Belmont specifically”) didn’t teach lyrics alongside poetry. Pence acknowledges their “differing politics,” but answers the call nonetheless, to explore this question. Poetry professors have a number of quick-and-easy answers to the question of how poetry and song lyrics are different – I’ve had this conversation with my own favorite poetry professor, Doug Van Gundy, who among others things (like citing a lovely quotation from Glyn Maxwell’s On Poetry) recommended this book to me. But Pence understood that it remains a question in many minds, Lamar Alexander’s and her own undergraduates’, and created a course investigating the issue. In seeking assigned readings for this course, she quickly realized that there was a major shortage of articles analyzing the content and techniques of song lyrics. Long story short, this book was born to answer that shortage.

Pence has more than this to say in her introduction, which I read with great interest. She explains the mix of contributors she’s pleased to present: poets and teachers of poetry; literature professors; and music scholars. They write on a wide range of musicians: Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Michael Stipe, Bruce Springsteen, Okkervil River, Magnolia Electric Co., Leonard Cohen, and a litany of country and rap artists. They generally depart, I venture, from the more standard poetry professor’s position that music and poetry are too different to share the same conversation. Obviously, here they share the room.

Each essay, naturally, varied in how it worked on me. There were a few I ended up skimming past or not finishing; but only a few. Unsurprisingly, many of them tempted me to stop and listen to an album or four before continuing (I mostly did not indulge in this further slowing of my reading, although I found a few single tracks online to aid me). Some of them made points that surprised me or opened my mind.

A few highlights, for me personally:

Pence’s own contribution, “The Sonnet Within the Songs: Country Lyrics and the Shakespearean Sonnet Structure,” was a good discussion of the traditions of a particular poetic form, accessible to my level of knowledge coming in. And it was exciting to see poetry and lyrics lining up.

“Gangsta Rap’s Heroic Substrata: A Survey of the Evidence,” by John Paul Hampstead, was another thrilling example of traditions of one form recognized in another, apparently very different form. Hampstead considers ancient and medieval heroic poetry (Homer, Virgil, and ninth and tenth century Anglo-Saxons) alongside Lil Wayne, Notorious B.I.G., Short Dawg, and a number of others. He finds five common threads: feasting, raiding, treasure, misogyny, and fatalism. I do mean thrilling: it gives me a thrill to see connections like this made.

Pat Pattison’s “Similarities and Differences between Song Lyrics and Poetry” serves as a good overview discussion of, well, the similarities and differences between song lyrics and poetry, and concludes that they are indeed different beasts: a view held in common with my friend Doug and the Maxwell quotation. It’s well defended here but also pulled apart.

I enjoyed David Kirby’s “The Joe Blow Version,” about the various versions of Otis Redding’s song “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” and the richness offered by variability, as opposed to a single, definitive, correct version of a song, poem, play, etc. He quotes a textual scholar, Anne Coldiron, who says “The nineteenth century in particular was an age of canon founding,” the establishment of definitive texts; but the Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, Auden’s poetry, and Brecht’s music are all examples of work with variations. Kirby offers that “Some of the songs that get under our skin the most aren’t written so much as assembled,” that differing versions “remove the mystery and, in so doing, heighten the pleasure.” This essay, by the way, is itself a lovely work of art: Kirby’s arguments are packaged within a narrative of his travels in Macon, Georgia, researching a book on Little Richard and visiting with Otis Redding’s widow and daughter. It is a finely crafted essay and a beautifully executed argument about the value of variation in art, and of the transparency of the creative process.

I also responded to essays studying Okkervil River and Magnolia Electric Co. (the latter a band I’m just discovering through a friend, which is a story unto itself, and a synchronicity that strengthens the reading experience). Those essays are by Stephen M. Deusner and Jesse Graves, respectively. And while the two essays studying Michael Stipe and R.E.M. appealed to me less in their particular subject matter, I was enchanted by the idea of “investigat[ing] the assumption that lyrics should provide literal meanings… ultimately inviting listeners to co-create rather than simply receive meaning from the lyrics.” (Jeffrey Roessner’s “Laughing in Tune: R.E.M. and the Post-Confessional Lyric.”)

I’ll stop there for now. I found The Poetics of American Song Lyrics a stirring and challenging read. For one thing, I lack an enormous amount of the vocabulary and background required for literary criticism of poetry; many of the terms confused me at least a little, and although there is a glossary, it didn’t solve all my problems. Maybe I’m holding myself to an unnecessarily high standard, but I don’t feel qualified to fully appreciate the criticism and in-depth critique in these pages. I felt like I was missing a fair amount. However, the most exciting part is that these essays do the kind of work I dream of doing for some of my own favorite musicians and lyricists: Jason Isbell, Guy Clark, Patterson Hood. I’m not much closer to being able to do that work myself, but I can see now that it’s possible to do such work, and that is exhilarating.


Rating: 9 fading trails.
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