A couple of weeks ago, I was recruited to participate in the Virtual Blog Tour that's been making the rounds, in which writers answer questions about their creative process. I was first tagged in this little venture by Mo Duffy Cobb, a fellow creative nonfiction writer I met while in graduate school at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Mo writes beautiful essays, many of them set on her native Prince Edward Island, and is hard at work on a travel memoir. I should also mention that she is a fine raconteur.
As fate and serendipity would have it, I was asked to participate again--later that same day--this time by Karen Salyer McElmurray, an award-winning, multi-genre writer, gentle soul and dear friend whom I have known for years. Karen is the author of the memoir Surrendered Child, the novels Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven and The Motel of the Stars, all of which are highly recommended. I often teach the opening to her memoir, which is so well-crafted, both lovely and devastating.
1. What are you currently working on?
I'm deep in the weeds at the moment with an essay collection that is centered around the theme of exile. It examines how one can be an exile to--and be haunted by--place, family, religion, sexuality. One of the essays, titled "Bastards and Ghosts" after a line in Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory, centers on the love-hate relationship we all have with where we're from--in my case Kentucky, Appalachia--and how place can both form and damage us. This essay will be published next year in the anthology Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia.
I also just finished editing an anthology that will be published by Cleis Press in spring 2015. Titled The Women We Love, it explores the relationship between gay men and significant women in their lives. Contributors include Hilton Als, Jericho Brown, Michael Cunningham, Mark Doty, Fenton Johnson, Robin Lippincott, Terrence McNally, Kevin Sessums, Edmund White and more. The women profiled include Maria Callas, Flannery O'Connor, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Diana Ross, Nina Simone, Eudora Welty, Virginia Woolf and other notables, as well as mothers, grandmothers, sisters and a childhood librarian.
2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?
The essay collection I'm working on it at least partly prompted by my identity as a gay man and my attempts to come to terms with both that part of myself and where I'm from. But it's also inspired by my love of history, of England, of music, of female icons. Those aspects of myself are all embedded in these essays, so in that respect it's original to me and to my experience.
3. Why do you write what you do?
I write to contextualize my experience, both for myself and in the hopes that potential readers might find a slice of themselves in the writing with which they can identify. I write to investigate, to learn, to preserve, to imagine. To engage with history and place and spirit and craft. To find those moments of poetry and emotional truth.
4. How does your writing process work?
I'm a big believer in the Muse--to paying attention and listening to what fascinates and moves me. If inspiration beckons, I've learned to answer, to try to sit down and write immediately. As writers, we've all had those moments when you get an idea at midnight, just before bedtime, and you put it off, thinking, "I'll do it first thing in the morning." And then when you get up, it's either gone or changed in some way.
I once heard Rosanne Cash say in an interview that creative material--mostly songs, in her case--is "there in the ether and you just have to have your skills good enough to get [it]." It's songcatching, to use a folk music term, but it can certainly apply to other art forms like poetry and prose. Cash says that when she gets an idea for a song, she has trained herself to quickly get it on the page in fear that if she doesn't it will be given to someone else--like Lucinda Williams--who will grab on to it.
So I try to keep all that in mind, to write when things are hot. But I believe in just showing up--in showing your self and the universe that you are serious by practicing your craft--in putting in your time at the writing desk and moving through the world with intention and awareness, always open to ideas.
The key to this blog tour is to keep it going, so here are the three writers I'm tagging:
Silas House is both my partner and an incredible writer whose work moved me even before I met him. His bestselling novels include Clay's Quilt, A Parchment of Leaves and The Coal Tattoo, and his most recent books are the young adult novels Eli the Good and Same Sun Here (co-authored with Neela Vaswani). Silas has written three plays, and we collaborated on one book of creative nonfiction, Something's Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal.
Cyndi Williams is one of the most talented people I know. A set designer in Nashville, she is also an incredible photographer and writer. Her stories have been published in The Louisville Review and Appalachian Heritage, and her photography in The Bitter Southerner. She's currently hard at work on a short story collection. All of that, plus she's a damn good cook who makes perfect Southern biscuits.
Marianne Worthington's poetry slays me with its lyricism and craft. Her chapbook Larger Bodies Than Mine was awarded the 2007 Appalachian Book of the Year by the Appalachian Writers' Association, and she created the Motif anthology series, editing three of its volumes. She is co-founder and poetry editor of Still: The Journal, the first online Appalachian literary magazine.
One of my favorite questions I get from audience members at readings is about what and who I'm listening to at the moment. Here are my Top 25 from 2012--unranked and in alphabetical order--followed by ten honorable mentions.
Boys & Girls - Alabama Shakes
The first thing you notice about the Alabama Shakes is lead singer Brittany Howard's voice, which channels the likes of Janis Joplin and Bessie Smith. This is an album for grooving and chilling and everything in between. Download: "Rise to the Sun" & "I Ain't the Same"
The Carpenter - The Avett Brothers
The boys from North Carolina return in full force with an album every bit as strong as 2009's I and Love and You. Download: "Live and Die" & "February Seven"
Old Believers - Cory Chisel & the Wandering Sons
Chisel has one of the finest voices in music today, and his sterling vocals are the focal point of this record. Download: "I've Been Accused" & "Foxgloves"
Sing the Delta - Iris Dement
It took Dement eight years to release a follow-up to Lifeline, her gorgeous Southern hymns project, but the end product has been well worth the wait. Sing the Delta is full of the gritty and graceful storytelling that Americana fans have come to expect from Dement. Download: "The Night I Learned How Not to Pray" & "There's A Whole Lotta Heaven"
Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now - Justin Townes Earle
With this album--and its mile-long title--Earle pays tribute to the great soul recordings of decades past, and the results are stunning. Download: "Look the Other Way" & "Down on the Lower East Side"
Fear Fun - Father John Misty
Father John Misty is the sobriquet of former Fleet Foxes singer/drummer Joshua Tillman, and on Fear Fun, he has crafted an album that is a sheer sonic pleasure. Download: "Fun Times in Babylon" & "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings"
The Lion's Roar - First Aid Kit
This duo of sisters is from Sweden, but their sound is Americana at its finest--tight harmonies, acoustic sounds and emotional songwriting. Download: "Emmylou" & "Blue"
From the Ground Up - John Fullbright
Back in September, at the Americana Music Association Festival in Nashville, my friend Holly Gleason texted me, beckoning me to the Mercy Lounge to hear John Fullbright. "Xtian Okie philosopher poet," she wrote. "You will dig him." As usual, her instincts were right. I dug him, and so have the Grammys--From the Ground Up, his debut studio record, just got a nomination for Best Americana Album. Download: "Gawd Above" & "Daydreamer"
Halcyon - Ellie Goulding
Few are experimenting with electronic sounds like Goulding, the British pop sensation who had a minor hit here in the States with the single "Lights," the title track from her ebullient 2010 debut album. Halcyon is a joy from start to finish, pop music at its finest. Download: "Only You" & "Anything Could Happen"
Camilla - Caroline Herring
The South is the landscape of much of Herring's music, and with the addition of Camilla to her oeuvre, she has established herself as one of that region's finest writers of any genre. Tackling subjects such as race, class, gender and mountaintop removal, Herring never sounds preachy, opting for compelling, poetic stories over polemics. Download: "Black Mountain Lullaby" & "Fireflies"
Thankful n' Thoughtful - Bettye Lavette
One of the finest interpreters alive today, Lavette crosses musical genres with ease on this album, singing tunes written by the likes of Bob Dylan and Sly Stone and the Black Keys. Download: "Everything is Broken" & "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere"
A Church that Fits Our Needs - Lost in the Trees
This is a song cycle about loss, written in the aftermath of singer-songwriter Ari Picker's mother's death from suicide. The album is difficult to listen to at times, but its delicate beauty and lush orchestration provide a cushion for the listener, a place for deep contemplation. Download: "Red" & "This Dead Bird is Beautiful"
Unorthodox Jukebox - Bruno Mars
Mars is one of the most exciting singers out there today, a fact that is evidenced on his latest album, which covers a lot of musical ground, from reggae to Motown to old-school crooning. Download: "Locked Out of Heaven" & "If I Knew"
The Origin of Love - MIKA
This is what great pop music sounds like--catchy hooks and clever songwriting, all delivered with MIKA's sensuous vocals. I dare you to get the title track out of your head. Download: "The Origin of Love" & "Underwater"
Buddy & Jim - Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale
Two of Americana's finest team up for a collection of tunes that you can both dance and cry to. Not to be missed. Download: "That's Not Even Why I Love You" & "It Hurts Me"
Farthest Field - Daniel Martin Moore & Joan Shelley
Shelley has described Farthest Field as a daydream, and her characterization is right on the money. This languid record is perfect for curling up with a cup of Earl Grey in the afternoon, and letting this Kentucky duo transport you to another plane. Download: "First of August" & "Sweetly By"
Babel - Mumford & Sons
The boys from Britain return with an album that is essentially an extension of their debut Sigh No More, with more songs of fierce banjo rolls and foot-stomping drums and gin-soaked choruses. Babel is a fine record--and no sophomore slump--but here's to hoping they break new ground the next time around. Download: "Holland Road" & "Broken Crown"
Channel Orange - Frank Ocean
Ocean made headlines earlier this year for coming out, but the true revelation is his artistry, with shades of 1970s Stevie Wonder and an extra something as fresh as "mango, peaches and lime." Download: "Sweet Life" & "Bad Religion"
Who's Feeling Young Now? - The Punch Brothers
Chris Thile--now officially named an American genius by the MacArthur Foundation--and Company have outdone themselves with this album. Listen to the opening track, "Movement and Location," and notice that it is a dance song, featuring a throbbing bass, a catchy hook, a cool-down period and ethereal vocals by Thile--but it is all acoustic. Now that's genius. Download: "Movement and Location" & "New York City"
Our Version of Events - Emeli Sandé
My favorite pop album of the year by an artist you likely have not heard of--and that is criminal. Go now and buy this record. You heard me. Now. Download: "Heaven" & "Where I Sleep"
Half-Made Man - Ben Sollee
Half-Made Man is Sollee's finest album to date--and that's saying something. Although Learning to Bend and Inclusions were both exceptional in their own ways, Half-Made Man sees Sollee truly come into his own as a vocalist, alternately crooning and wailing and rocking with a versatility to match his cello playing. Download: "Unfinished" & "The Pursuit of Happiness"
Come Home to Mama - Martha Wainwright
Easily Wainwright's finest record since her eponymous debut in 2005, Come Home to Mama features her iconic, tortured vocals and confessional songwriting--not to mention the tune "Proserpina," the last ever written by her late mother, the great Kate McGarrigle. Download: "Can You Believe It?" & "I Wanna Make an Arrest"
Out of the Game - Rufus Wainwright
Brother Rufus keeps it all in the family with his gorgeous Out of the Game, produced by Mark Ronson, whose signature throwback influences helped to launch the late Amy Winehouse's career into the stratosphere. This sound is a change for Wainwright, who imbues it with his characteristic moxie and sensuality. Download: "Out of the Game" & "Rashida"
Blunderbuss - Jack White
The High Priest of Rock returns with a set of songs that is guaranteed to rock your face off. Download: "Weep Themselves to Sleep" & "I'm Shakin'"
3 Pears - Dwight Yoakam
After a seven-year absence from the studio, Yoakam returns to form with this rocking album, which fuses all of his influences into delicious ear candy. Download: "Long Way to Go" & "Rock It All Away"
Mirage Rock - Band of Horses
Little Spark - Jessie Baylin
Wreck & Ruin - Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson
Like A Man - Adam Cohen
Shallow Bed - Dry the River
Here - Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros
Some Nights - Fun.
Lonesome Dreams - Lord Huron
Magic Hour - Scissor Sisters
+ - Ed Sheeran
One of my favorite weekends of the year has come and gone, but what a special time it was. At this year's Southern Festival of Books, I was joined by country music icon Naomi Judd to discuss A Few Honest Words, which she is featured in. After reading a couple of passages from her chapter, we had a forty-minute onstage discussion about the influence of Kentucky on the Judds and what it means to be an Appalachian. We even joined in singing a few bars of "Hello, Stranger," the old Hazel & Alice/Carter Family song that was one of the first Naomi and Wynonna learned, and demonstrated a holler call for the audience. The event will soon be available as a podcast on Chapter 16, so stay tuned for those of you who couldn't make it to Nashville.
The next evening, I was honored to set in on a couple of songs at Marshall Chapman's annual Literary in the Round, held each year at the legendary Bluebird Cafe during the weekend of Southern Fest. This time around, Marshall was joined by singer-songwriter Matraca Berg (also featured in A Few Honest Words) and authors Silas House and George Singleton. An especially poignant moment came when Matraca's niece, who turned seventeen that day, assisted her on "Strawberry Wine." There wasn't a dry eye in the house. To read more about the show, check out the brilliant Holly Gleason's post over at No Depression.
Photo by Silas House
Yesterday marked the debut of A Few Honest Words at the annual Americana Music Association Festival in Nashville. There couldn't have been a more appropriate place for my first reading from the book, which profiles sixteen artists from a variety of roots genres.
As Jim Lauderdale said onstage at the AMA awards ceremony on Wednesday evening, "boundaries are for cowards." That's one of the main points of A Few Honest Words--to move beyond constricting categories and simply embrace the music.
Thanks to the good folks at Parnassus Books, who were on-hand to sell the first available copies of the book. If you're ever in Nashville, please stop by their store and support a wonderful independent retailer.
Since the book officially releases in October--and ships from online retails outlets on 25 September--the next reading will also be in Nashville, this time at the Southern Festival of Books, where I will be sharing the stage with Naomi Judd on 12 October. We'll do an onstage interview and discussion, and then a signing. Hope to see you there--or out on the road at other dates.
For this week’s Throwback Thursday we look back to 1993, the year the great Rosanne Cash released her seminal album The Wheel. Written and recorded following her exodus from Nashville to New York, the album embraced a more cosmopolitan sound, and nothing typified this evolution better than the title track and lead single, with its hypnotic circular guitar hook and sensual lyrics.
Here for your listening and viewing pleasure--check out the beautiful cinematography and tarot imagery--is “The Wheel.”
It’s Throwback Thursday here at On the Margins, and featured today is the great Jessi Colter’s classic heartbreaker “I’m Not Lisa.” The story of living with a man who has not gotten over his former flame, the song was released in early 1975 and went on to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and #4 on the Hot 100 pop chart.
Now sit back, and let Jessi rip your guts out with her searing lyrics, voice and piano playing.
Welcome to my new website! My forthcoming book, A Few Honest Words, will be released October 2012. In the meantime, take a look around. Read an excerpt that was just published in Sojourners magazine. Listen to a clip of my interview with Jim James on the A Few Honest Words page. And please spread the word about the book to your fellow music lovers.
We will be adding new content to the website (a book trailer, updates on readings and events) in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.