Sweet Potato Pie and I Shut My Mouth: The Narrative Craft of Country Music.

As a writer, I often find myself delving into other mediums of art for inspiration, longing to improve my craft by taking cues from the masters of forms of media outside my own. Literature and film have always been close friends, swapping plots and characters freely, but often I find country music just as inspiring and insightful as some of my favorite books when crafting a story’s rhythm, imagery, tone, and setting. Listed are four songs with exceptionally good narratives and characters in which writers could take some cues.

  1. “Paradise”—John Prine

    Country music doesn’t get more literary than John Prine. For over thirty years now, Prine, a past Poet Laureate and Grammy winner, has been creating characters that have a vividness to rival some of Faulkner’s, but his most essential cut will always be “Paradise” from his first album. The narrator of the story, assumedly Prine, tells of taking trips as a child to his parents’ hometown, a place “beside the green river…where the air smells like snakes.” Reflecting on and longing for the places of youth has a long tradition in American literature, including in To Kill and Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, and “Paradise” taps into the same sentiment with the lines: “When I die, I’ll let my soul roll on up to the Rochester Dam, and I’ll be half way to heaven with paradise waiting, just five miles away from where ever I am.” “Paradise” is undeniably American in both theme and imagery, and is a song in which Prine secures himself as a master of words.

  2. “Bob”—Drive-By Truckers

    Creative writing professors often advise their students that good stories put the conflict in the beginning, and I can think of few better example than when “Bob” starts: “Bob goes to church every Sunday, every Sunday that the fish aren’t biting. Bob never has to get dinner with the preacher because Bob never bothered getting married.” Few stories and fewer songs start that compellingly. “Bob” fleshes out its protagonist so clearly that it’s almost intimidating how well and concisely it’s done. So much of a character is fleshed out by a simple line like “He likes to drink a beer or two every now and again, he always had more dogs than he ever had friends.” “Bob” is pure literary elegance.

  3. “Cold Water”—Tom Waits

    Ok, ok, ok. I know Tom Waits isn’t exactly a country artist, but is liberal use of slide guitar, Appalachian junkyard banjos, double bass, and tales of heartbreak and longing make him an honorary member in my personal Country Music Hall of Fame alongside Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, and The Carter Family. But no matter what genre of music is brave of enough to call Waits its own, the scenes of degradation and waste in “Cold Water” make it feel like a companion piece to John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row or Cormac McCarthy’s Suttrree, as all deal with squatters and ramblers struggling to stay afloat amongst urban decay. It’s also hard to top lines like: “I look forty-seven but I’m twenty-four. They’ve shooed me away from here every time before, but I’m watching TV in the window of a furniture store.”

  4. “Greenville”—Lucinda Williams

    Lucinda Williams is to country music what Flannery O’Connor is to the short story. Both womens’ work is so powerful and wonderfully jarring that it’s hard to imagine a time without them, as their influence on their respective mediums is so profound. Much like O’Connor’s work, “Greenville” is small tragedy coursing with both dark comic undertones and naked emotionalism. There are few better lines in contemporary country music than, “You drink hard liquor, come on strong, loose your temper whenever someone looks at you wrong.”

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An Eager Listener’s Thoughts

Another beautiful piece of art has emerged from a simple barn in Illinois. Andrew Bird’s self-recorded new album, “Break it Yourself,” was released to the public on March 6, 2012. From the album art, to the intricate well-written songs, Bird’s new album is a wonderful piece of art that should be listened to and celebrated by music-lovers.
Although Bird’s new songs contain his iconic whistles and violin-plucks, the overall mood of the album seems less mellow and more energetic than his previous “Weather Systems” and “Armchair Apocrypha.” The vivacious musical details that fill his songs on “Break it Yourself,” provide a refreshing experience for the listener.

In addition, many of the lyrics to his new songs seem a bit more relatable than the ones in his previous albums. Specifically, Bird’s songs “Eyeoneye” and “Give It Away” revolve around a common love-subject. The subject is relatable, and the words are still well written without cliché. Bird’s musicianship and lyric-writing abilities show their true potential through “Break it Yourself,” and should leave understanding artists in awe of his talent.

According to Stephen Thompson and his “First Listen” review on NPR Music, listeners must prepare themselves to experience Bird’s new album. Thompson accurately instructs: “Clear away any and all distractions, listen on headphones and let its subtle charms sink in slowly. Early mornings or late nights work best. This isn’t a record for chaotic commutes or busy offices – these are songs of quiet contemplation” (NPR Music). Thompson completely embodies the ambience of “Break it Yourself” through this statement. Bird’s music is like a tapestry woven together with different unique detailed instrumental sounds that create one beautiful piece in the end. Luckily, this type of art is not only seen, but experienced, and can set the tone for an entire morning or evening. So, kick back with a cup of tea, put this record in, and let Bird’s music take affect.

Music Contest!

The Sequoya Review is looking for a musical act for their Release Party in April. Think you have musical talent? Submit a file or video and lyrics (if any) of a song that represents your style of music and what you would be performing to contests@sequoyareview.com for judging.

Prize: An opportunity to play your music at the Release Party of the Sequoya Review at Stone Cup and a video that will be on the homepage of the Sequoya Review website.

If chosen, be prepared to provide a playlist to the judges. The date of the release party is still to be announced.

14 April 2010: The Contest is Closed. See you at the release party!

Interview with Red Heart the Ticker

MEACHAM, FALL 2009: There were many great writers here at UTC for the biannual Meacham Writers’ Workshop, but there was also something new this time: a songwriting workshop with Red Heart the Ticker, a band from Vermont composed of Tyler Gibbons and Robin MacArthur. We got a chance to interview Ty after the band’s set on Saturday.

SR: How do you write songs?
TY: I’ve always written songs–it’s how I express myself. I feel the most whole when I’m writing a song.
SR: What is touring like?
TY: It’s an amazing way to enter in to a place and have a reason to be there. It makes it easy to meet people–it’s a great excuse to travel. However, it’s very hard to make a living. It’s a privilege to get to see new cities, and if we break even doing it, that’s a start . . .
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