How do you capture that feeling of playing live music on the page?
“I closed my eyes, hands sighting their own country on the banjo’s face, a sense of place in the coming knowledge that music has traveled, borders in, rivers out. I played, a measured step on that passage, and the trees blew and whispered, notes walking one behind the other, a halftone drop and suddenly an octave above, and I sat on the bale in the open barn door, lacing the banjos life, chanting with it, a wild rolling tangle. Eyes open again, I looked toward the valley sky beyond the house, and the music billowed under my hand as lightning flickered to the east and the wind died and the first drops of rain rattled in the trees. The hundreds of birds went suddenly silent, and the only sound still in the night was the sound of the banjo and my humming chant and the rain came then, riveting the tin roof of the house’s sagging porch and forcing me from the bale. I stood inside the barn, inside the doorway and just out of the rain, lit by the one oil lamp behind me, the roar of the downpour all around us as I stood and watched the waterfall and played the banjo.”
Chanting. Chant. Still in the night.
In short, the answer is that the words better sing, too. As in that section above. And the story better show what it means for music to be embedded in an artist’s life, what it means at the white-hot core at the center of a character’s soul.
Richard Currey’s Lost Highway is a timeless portrait of a three-piece traveling band. A banjo, a fiddle, a guitar, and a pocketful of tunes. At first, we’re in the late 1940’s and you can almost feel the landscape coming to life after the war. There are scant references. We learn Leonard learned to play guitar on a troop ship. There’s an aging Chrysler station wagon. There is road trip lodging in “dingy third floor rooms in the sagging houses of working men and their sad rail thin wives.” There are clubs that try to stiff the Still Creek Boys. There are good times and hope and maybe a recording contract and there are come-ons. Maybe the Still Creek Boys can help country music shake this “singing cowboy thing.”
Our narrator is Sapper Reeves, the banjo player. There’s also the tall violin player Estin, whom Sapper met in a Baptist church. And Leonard on guitar. On the road, late at night after his bandmates are asleep, songs come to Sapper in the “corners of wakefulness” and he thinks of his wife, Riva, and baby son, Bobby, at home.
Currey’s novel shows us the shift from live bands on the road to bands with recordings, contracts and appearances on radio and television, the shift into leaving something permanent on the musical landscape. Are Still Creek Boys in control of their destiny? Should they accept every invitation? Are they seeking fame? Currey’s understated prose shows us Sapper’s thoughtful deliberations—and Sapper’s appreciation for what they get to do.
“We sat facing each other on metal chairs in the studio, an airless warren of half-light and microphones and electrical cordage. We drank coffee spiced with capfuls of Jack Daniels and listened to the taped replays booming into the studio with an immediacy and power that surprised us. We played and reworked and listened until the middle of the fifth night, when the album played through in its completion and I sat back in my chair, relieved and gratified and gently awed at the symmetry and generosity and honest invention, the full heart of the music we made, no longer songs finished in the moment they ended and consigned to whatever memory passed for. Twelve songs recorded across five nights to become an almanac of months and years earning this destination, and for me in the ranges of my secrets and fervent imaginings a reconciliation, a prayerful coming to terms, a midnight revival.”
Prayerful. Revival. Reconciliation.
Ultimately, Lost Highway is a love story. For family. For community. And, of course, for music—even while driving.
“The wipers slapped back and forth, doing a poor job of fanning a hole in the vapor. The wet field smoked, the weather both solace and benediction. On my side of the windshield a dead leaf caught under the blade and slid to the left, then right, left again, smearing rainwater, a veined hand waving. Estin drove on, across Tug Fork and into the state of Kentucky. South and southwest. Rain and muted light.”
Reverence for music and its magic oozes from the page. We sense a growing tension in Sapper. A snap here. An angry word there. And then Still Creek Boys are suddenly done and it gets worse for Sapper and his life is upside down and the realities of the world come rushing in. Nobody is immune. Sapper keeps his head down, goes to work, does the right thing one day at a time and tries not to think about destiny “or the precise and fully unexpected nature of its calling.” Lost Highway spans nearly twenty years. Events wrap up, for the most part, in the middle of the Vietnam War.
There’s a whiff of Kerouac in Currey’s elegant prose, enthusiasm and sharp details and reverence and joy and wonder all marinating together in Sapper’s universe and there is still one last chance to find redemption. Through music.
“While I was driving away from Petrie’s that night, it started to rain. A slick of two-lane blacktop disappeared beneath my truck, and I traveled along a berm of falling water, everything in fragile motion at the heart of the world, the full-throated rake of thunder and tremble of my own lagging mind. I was tired—ten hours at the hardware store and three more on the little stage at Petrie’s—and did not steer so much as sense the natural magnetism of the highway, that born away flank of ragged trust. There were names of towns I recalled from the days on the road with the band, so accurate and dreamlike it seemed they could not exist in a daylight world: Lightburn, Century, Angel, signs flickering past rain smeared windows, lost forever unless you happen to be looking at the moment of passage.”
Thunder. Tremble. Magnetism. Angel.
Lost Highway is a beautiful thing.
Pingback: 2022: Top Books | Don't Need A Diagram