Rosanne Cash, editor
Songs Without Rhyme
(Hyperion, $19.95, 288 pp.)
(Houghton Mifflin, $22, 288 pp.)
A couple Sundays ago, The New York Times ran a story on the kinship between roots music and Southern literature, half of which plumbed the affinity between the unvarnished works of Nashville singer-songwriter Paul Burch and local author Tony Earley. Last of My Kind, Burch’s song-cycle based on Earley’s novel Jim the Boy, lay at the heart of the discussionnotably, how his album doesn’t merely evoke Earley’s fiction, but actually manages to extend its emotional and narrative reach.
Another case of consanguinity cited in the article was novelist Larry Brown’s paean to Texas tunesmith Robert Earl Keen in the July-August issue of No Depression. Also mentioned was Brown’s recent tour with alt-country icon Alejandro Escovedo, a double bill that featured the Oxford, Miss., author reading from his latest book and the Texas-bred musician playing songs from his current CD. Although hardly identical, all three of these pairings found the artists in question using their respective media to place the work of their counterparts into sharper relief. And sticking to what they know. Which begs the question: What happens when artists try their hand at the craft of their opposite number?
It’s been done, of course. The Rock Bottom Remainders, a cheeky aggregation of scribes including Amy Tan and Stephen King, crossed over from literature to rock, but that was just a lark. And punk-rockers from Patti Smith to Lydia Lunch have proven themselves decent enough poets (and a hell of a lot better, say, than Jim Morrison or Jewel). But Smith and Lunch were bards to begin with; early on, many of their songs were merely verses augmented by music. Musicians who essay fiction or other forms of prose are another matter, as two middling new books attest: Songs Without Rhyme, a collection of prose by songwriters, and Doghouse Roses, the much anticipated volume of short stories by Steve Earle.
Songs Without Rhyme is the brainchild of editor Rosanne Cash, who recruited 13 fellow songwriters to each create a piece, fictional or otherwise, based on one of their songs. Cash, who had previously published a book of stories called Bodies of Water, took part in the exercise as well; her sensual tale of a preternaturally endowed woman living in the 22nd century set a fairly heady standard for her peers.
Rosanne also persuaded her father, Johnny Cash, and ex-husband, Rodney Crowell, to take part in the project, the Man in Black’s phonetically titled “The Holografik Danser” being the only entry in the book that wasn’t drawn from a song. Written in 1953 while he was serving as an Air Force radio operator in Germany, Cash’s futuristic, at times gripping Cold War fable not only predates his recording career, it foreshadowed a handful of episodes of the Twilight Zone as well. Crowell’s Cash-inspired contribution, “I Walk the Line Revisited,” turns an unflinching yet tender eye on his hard-knock boyhood in Houston’s squalid East End. Crowell’s vivid, vernacular prose bodes well for his forthcoming memoir based on those years, The House on Norvic Street.
Other highlights include David Byrne’s wry sci-fi send up of genetic engineering and Loudon Wainwright’s soul-baring “Letter to Chester Baum.” Joe Henry’s hard-boiled “Stuntman” and Shawn Colvin’s taut “Bonefields” also evince a certain verveand in Henry’s case, a sharp ear for dialogue. But at least half of the contributors here lack any discernible voice, whether their writing is stiff (Suzanne Vega), melodramatic (Paula Cole), prolix (Marc Cohn), or just plain flat (Barenaked Ladies’ Steven Page). Even the best pieces in this monochromatic assortment (surely there were black and Latin voices Cash could have tapped) could have used another editorial pass or two.
Which brings us to Doghouse Roses, Steve Earle’s authorial debut. Earle’s stories confirm what most of us who’ve been paying attention already know: He can spin a yarn, toss off telltale zingers like “Every song he’d ever written bore a woman’s given name as its title,” and write with both brains and brawn, often at the same time. “Wheeler County,” the source of the aforementioned zinger, limns an unlikely friendship between a drifter and a sheriff’s deputyand between the rounder and the cop’s wifewith tenderness and insight. Empathy also suffuses “A Eulogy of Sorts,” Earle’s gritty, autobiographical account of hustling crack and Dilaudid on the streets of South and East Nashville.
But too often he trades craft and dramatic tension for bluster and cliché. Earle’s characters live in a world in which “the shit hits the fan,” “the waiting is the hardest part,” and “there’s honor among thieves.” And most of them, outlaw-heroes who resemble an idealized celluloid version of himself, “color outside the lines,” are “full of piss and vinegar,” and “call everybody ‘Hoss’...after [they’ve] had a couple of beers.”
From overwrought similes like “brown heroin steadily seeped across the Rio Grande like tainted blood from a gangrenous wound” to pro forma pulp like “the desert stretched out before him like a diorama in a museum,” there’s no shortage of clumsy purplings here either. Indeed, when in “Jaguar Dance” Earle observes that his protagonist “looked like an extra in a bad spaghetti Western,” he could just as well have been talking about his own prose, the bulk of which reads like dialogue from the B movie in question. And the less said about the well-meaning, but borderline blackface, back-holler noir of “Taneytown” the better.
To his credit, Earle writes what he knows, be that playing music, copping a fix, or witnessing an execution. The problem is, most of the time he acts like he knows it all, a smugness that gives way to didacticism, a tendency to explain away every last detail, to tell his benighted readers what’s going on rather than honing his imagery to show them.
Witness the cub-reporter turn in “Wheeler County,” in which Earle aridly spells out what it means to subcontract to build a concrete foundation: “This entailed grading and leveling the site (which in return he ‘subbed out’ to his brother-in-law, who owned the necessary heavy equipment), building the wooden forms, and after the drains and the water and gas lines were roughed in by the plumbers, pouring the concrete. In short, backbreaking manual labor.”
Elsewhere, especially when he’s talking about Mexico, explaining that mestizos are “the progeny of their liaisons with indigenous peoples,” or drugs, reminding us that peyote is “the mythic hallucinogenic cactus,” Earle comes off like a would-be sociologist. Or like Dana Scully from The X-Files. Dilaudid, he expounds in “A Eulogy of Sorts,” is “the trade name for hydromorphone hydrochloride, a pharmaceutical narcotic typically prescribed for terminal cancer patients.”
Of course, what Earle knows best is himself and, from the strung out singer whose life is spiraling out of control in “Doghouse Roses” to the sap who’s spent a lifetime running from commitment in “A Well-Tempered Heart,” he flashes plenty of insight into his own character. Yet whether it’s the drug-smuggling stud in “Jaguar Dance,” the boho expatriate in “The Internationale,” or the hitchhiking Vietnam vet in “Wheeler County,” virtually all of Earle’s rebel protagonists are him. It’s a self-mythologizing that, over the course of 11 stories, wears as thin as his hollow romancing of disaffection and pain.
An air of predictability also pervades Earle’s stories, the worst offender being “The Witness,” a potential stunner he mars with a Miss Marple-meets-David Lynch ending you can see coming after the first couple of pages. States execute innocent people, and that alone is reason to abolish the death penalty. But instead of Earle’s prurient, and implicitly preachy, take on the issue, why not have his witness turn out not to be the killer, but tainted all the same, just as any of us are who live in a society that sanctions executions? Such a tack would not only make for better fiction, it might enable readers to see how no one escapes the inhumanity of the death penalty.
The ending of Earle’s title story, which has the makings of a decent screenplay, is just as problematic. After 24 pages of riveting, if sentimental, narrative putting readers inside his own descent into the hellish demimonde of a crack fiend, he tacks on a hackneyed 12-step rap as a coda that any editor worth his or her salt would have made him flesh out and, more importantly, earn.
Where, for that matter, was his editor for much of this promising, but ultimately deflating collection? Make no mistake, Earle has great facility with language and imagery, as indelible songs like “Someday,” “Billy Austin,” and “The Devil’s Right Hand,” among dozens of others in his vast catalog, attest. And in places here he flexes muscle and chops as a writer of fiction. But as is the case with better than half of the songwriters who responded to Cash’s call, for now it appears Earle needs music to make his words sing.
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