I had a dream last night that Elvis Costello wanted to write a song about my book—he was talking about Lucien Fewell and how he had a great musical hook for the name Pistol Johnny. I didn’t get to hear the song in my dream, but I bet it was awesome.
This is particularly funny to me because back when I was first researching the book and looking for material on “Pistol Johnny” and his New Mexico exploits (which also sounds like a band name), I kept getting hits for “Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten.” I don’t think I would like his song about my book nearly as much.
All this got me thinking about playlists. I don’t listen to music when I write. I like it quiet. That, or some kind of sporting event on TV. That’s become almost white noise for me, in that I can ignore most of it but know to look up for the replay when there’s a big commotion.
However, I do love music when I’m not writing, and I like to think about music as it relates to people I know. When I was writing fiction, one of the things I used to determine who my characters were was what I thought they would have on their iPod. It was a fun exercise and it helped me keep the tone and rhythm of different character voices in my head.
It’s a little harder to do that when writing nonfiction. I mean, the only songs I’m absolutely certain that the folks in my book were listening to were Dixie and the Bonnie Blue Flag, and I would assume some hymns and religious tunes. I don’t know a lot about the music of Reconstruction or of 1872 Virginia. And even if I were familiar with that music, I’m not sure it would really help me all that much with these guys.
But it is kind of fun to speculate about what they might listen to if they were alive today, so I’ll do that.
I suspect that James Clark would mostly be a talk radio kind of guy — lots of news, lots of keeping his finger on the pulse of public opinion. But he also liked dances and flirting, so there’d have to be some time devoted to Top 40 so he could be up to speed on that, too, and able to impress the ladies. His daddy was a Primitive Baptist elder, so odds are he’d get a lot of personal mileage out of that Dusty Springfield song when putting the moves on someone.
Fannie Fewell was 16 and from everything I can tell, smart but not very serious—the Billboard Top 40 Target Audience. To me, this means she’d either be really into angry ovaries like Sara Bareilles or she’d be all about the Katy Perry bouncy fun. Because I had to spend a lot of time with Fannie and didn’t want to hate her, I chose to believe she fell into the Katy Perry camp, with a side of Adele. (Go ahead and hate me now: I think Sara Bareilles has an amazing voice and a horribly bratty outlook about life.)
Lucien Fewell was my favorite to wonder about. He was raised to be a Southern gentleman, but he was a mean drunk. I don’t think he was really a redneck, per se, but he wasn’t totally distinguished and confined to a drawing room. So maybe Hank Williams but not necessarily Lynyrd Skynyrd. He took off for a new life in the wild West when it was still wild, so he was up for some rough stuff. Maybe he’d be a thrash metal kind of guy. I finally decided he would have let Sturgill Simpson play on the jukebox without smashing a bottle into it. But I also kinda think that, like me when I’m writing, he’d probably be more inclined to settle in with the sports broadcast du jour rather than any particular music.
I really do wish my dream would have let me hear Elvis Costello’s song about him, though.