By Gina Webb
Ever wonder what quarterback Joe Montana has in common with Irma Thomas’ “Ruler of My Heart” played by guitarist David Tronzo?
Chances are, you’ve never paced around a backyard in Marietta, desperate to find the right tone for a 5,000-word article for Esquire magazine.
And if you can’t imagine the connection between “Ode to Billy Joe,” “The Planets, Opus 32” and “Astral Weeks,” maybe you haven’t been at your desk lately, writing a book about growing up in the Middle Georgia town of Warner Robins in the ’70s.
When writers look to music for inspiration, strange combinations can get the wheels turning.
Take a look as some Atlanta writers reveal what’s on their playlists, past and present.
Susan Rebecca White
Music serves as a sort of transitional space that takes me from my normal life to my world on the page. When I was finishing “Bound South,” I listened to Yo La Tengo’s “Black Flowers” every day as I drove to my office. I also listened to “Prayer Without Words” by Mary Gauthier and “God is in the Roses” by Rosanne Cash. This summer, at work on book two (“A Soft Place to Land,” due out in May), Neko Case’s “Hold On, Hold On” became book two’s “Black Flowers” — meaning I’d sit in the parking lot until the song finished before I’d go in to write.
(“The Cracker Queen: A Memoir of a Jagged, Joyful Life”)
There are certain musical works that never fail to get me in the mood to write:
“Astral Weeks,” Van Morrison: This album takes me to a familiar place that I can’t quite identify.
“Chant Byzantin,” Sister Marie Keyrouz: My all-time favorite sacred vocal music.
“Gustav Holtz: The Planets, Opus 32,” the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andre Previn: Douse all the lights. Play this record. Be transported.
“St. James Infirmary Blues,” Earl Hines Trio: Fatha Hines’ spare take on this classic will leave you wallowing in grief and sobbing in despair. In a good way.
“Delta Dawn,” Tanya Tucker: As a child, I had no idea what this disturbing song was about, but damn I loved it. Still do.
“Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry: What did Billie Joe McAllister throw off the Tallahatchie Bridge? This song covers some of the essential Southern themes: death, food, mystery and family.
(National Magazine Award-winning journalist for GQ and Esquire)
About 15 years ago, I was working on a profile of Joe Montana, struggling, as ever, to find a voice. I was one or two drafts in, getting nowhere on my third, and I went into my backyard to get some distance from the source of my frustration. But my stereo was playing really loud, and what I wound up hearing was a slide guitarist named David Tronzo playing his version of Irma Thomas’ “Ruler of My Heart.” It was blazing, heraldic, and I knew, as soon as I heard it, that I had my story.
But that was the only time that’s ever happened. I still listen to songs on my computer through the shuffle function of iTunes, and I’ve become addicted to the “apparent” aspect of the randomness — of the fact that it seems to contain odd messages, written in the algorithms, strictly for me. That’s what keeps me at my desk — my computer talking to me, eccentrically, through the runes of song.
(author of 10 novels, including “Blindsighted,” “Triptych,” “Undone” and the upcoming “Broken,” due next summer)
When I drive up to the cabin [which is the only place I really write], I listen to stuff to put me in the mood. If it’s my character Lena I’m thinking about, then it’s definitely Heart. If it’s the others, then I’m into Red Molly (especially the murder ballads like “Caleb Meyer”), Shelby Lynne (“Don’t Mind if I Do”), the Judds (“Why Not Me?”) and the Dixie Chicks (“Lullabye”). Women in country music are just writing about the interesting, living-life stuff, ya know? So, I guess I’m a little bit rock ‘n’ roll but mostly country.
(Storyville mystery series, “The Blue Door”)
For the Storyville books, I was listening to New Orleans jazz from as far back as I could find it, which included wax cylinder recordings from the turn of the century and dance band music from the teens. For “The Dying Crapshooter’s Blues,” set in 1920s Atlanta, I kept hearing Blind Willie McTell’s “Georgia Rag” as I set the scene; the title is taken from one of his most famous songs, and I used the story he tells as a plot line. In “The Fall” (due out in March), the Beatles’ “She Loves You” is a jumping-off point for the narrative and mystery to follow.
(“Rage in the Gate City”)
For my upcoming book about Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in Atlanta in 1968, I’m listening to: “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” Donovan; “Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny Cash; “Green Tambourine,” Lemon Pipers; “Magic Carpet Ride,” Steppenwolf; various songs from “Hair”; songs from people who attended the King funeral, such as Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone and James Brown; and music from the funeral: “We Shall Overcome,” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” by Mahalia Jackson.
(“Invisible Sisters: A Memoir”)
Specific rock, gospel, soul, folk, country and classical selections played in my head as I wrote “Invisible Sisters”: Desmond Dekker and the Aces, “Israelites,” the dead-on soundtrack to the Jamaica vacation section; Erik Satie, “Gymnopedies,” because my sister Sarah often played these pieces in the afternoons at home, and they remind me of her; and Paul Simon, “Peace Like A River” — this summed up a rare period of near-tranquility in my family. There’s a sort of tragic irony for me in the lyrics, “you can’t outrun the history train.”
The music that puts me in the right frame of mind for the novel I’m drafting now includes Yo Yo Ma, “Appalachia Waltz”; Robert Plant and Alison Kraus, “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”; and the Be Good Tanyas, “The Littlest Birds.”
(“Makes Me Wanna Holler,” “Them” and currently at work on a new novel)
Wes Montgomery, Miles Davis, Norah Jones, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Jimmy Smith, Bill Evans, Shirley Horn and Kenny Burrell … The reason I often turn on music when I write is because writing is such a difficult and isolating process. It’s like the rest of the world is living, going places, etc., and I’m trapped in my office typing. So good music — mostly jazz instrumentals — helps me relax and sneak in a little enjoyment while I work.
(“The Armchair Birder”)
I made it through “The Armchair Birder” with a pretty eclectic mix of old and new — all the way back to the rambunctious Yardbirds and on up to contemporary chanteuse Taylor Swift. In between were pop-rock-blues standards like the Eagles, Counting Crows, Gil Scott-Heron and, of course, anything by Hootie. For my follow-up volume about the lives of familiar shorebirds, I expect it’ll be a steady auditory diet of “Tern, Tern, Tern.”