In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Awarded the 2019 Women’s Prose Prize, Beth Gilstrap’s collection Deadheading is firmly rooted in the Carolinas and the strong women who live there.
My origin family is musical. Though I never heard her play, legend has it that my mother is a brilliant pianist. All I know about why she quit is that it had something to do with her contentious relationship with her mother, but after my parents split, she played a lot of Motown and Soul records. My father sang in the choir though we rarely saw it. My elder sibling and I obsessed over MTV and they picked up a guitar at thirteen and set off on their path. I never learned to play an instrument. For some reason, my tired single mother thought drums were a bad idea, but I was always scribbling away in my notebooks while my older sibling practiced everything from Grateful Dead to Iron Maiden. I saw how hard they worked and watched that hard work shift into brilliance. I learned to write with their musical accompaniment and to this day, I can’t write without music. Many of these songs are ones I listened for mood and tone for the stories in Deadheading & Other Stories and as folks have noted over the years, there’s a lyricism to my work I can’t really explain outside of this training. When all else fails to bring the muses, I turn to music.
“The Saint of Lost Causes,” Justin Townes-Earle
Off his last album before his death, this song hits hard. It was released shortly after my mother-in-law, who I’d been taking care of for thirty-one months during a brutal decline from cancer which had metastasized to her bones and liver, died. I wrote many of the stories, finished the book, and sent it out during this period. My husband was self-medicating in a way that could have killed him. I suppose I wasn’t far off. In Earle’s songwriting, in the timbre of his voice, in the way his voice shakes when he speaks on the patron saint of sick children, I hear my past and future. Love, I know deep shadow. I’m a bad dream not a nightmare. I’m too pretty for that.
“Muscadine,” Amy Ray
Back in 1984, before all visits ceased, my elder sibling and I had to spend some weekends with my father. When he showed up, we spent our time together frightened of his erratic, alcohol-fueled behavior. One of his favorite pastimes was to hide for hours and when we opened a closet or went to the bathroom, he would fall out of his hiding spot and act dead. One of the few pleasant memories I have is a summer he dropped us at his parents’ house in Greenville, South Carolina. I’ll leave his sadist father out of the story. He doesn’t deserve my breath or yours. But they had old muscadine vines at the back of the property and my sibling and I and our first cousin ate them until sick and afterwards, the muscadine battle commenced. If I close my eyes, I can feel the grass itching my legs and the pop as I bite down, hot and sweet and tearful. In the collection, I try to capture moments of respite like this amid the characters’ internal and external turmoil. Marry me by the old wood vine/ sweet as honey strong as twine/ you’re the only love that I couldn’t unwind.
“Save Me,” Aimee Mann
If the first two lines alone don’t get you, I’m not sure what we have to talk about. Every character in my collection is trying to figure out how to live after trauma. It’s only when they turn their gazes inward that they find any agency whatsoever. They suspect no one could ever love them. You look like a perfect fit/For a girl in need of a tourniquet.
“Fade Into You,” Muzz
The memory triggered by any version of this song is of taking a nap in the first apartment I ever lived in. An old weeping willow outside always brushing against the window. I am stoned. I am seventeen and sleeping in an oversized Les Miserables t-shirt, and dreaming of leaving North Carolina. I do not want to move back to the house that partially burned. I am at peace here. But mother has promised it’s temporary. You’ll come apart and you’ll go black/ Some kind of night into your darkness.
“Mr. Lonely,” Angel Olsen & Emile Mosseri
This version of the song appeared in Miranda July’s film Kajillionaire. I feel an affinity with July as an artist. There’s something about the way we see the world that’s similar. Oddity. Outsider. In the film, there’s a scene where the lead characters encounter a dying man who asks them to pretend they live in his home. He asks them to make noise. Regular, mundane noise. When the young protagonist realizes this pretending is the closest thing she’s ever experienced to normal family life, I fell apart. I suppose the whole book is trying to make sense of the kind of loneliness that comes with repeated trauma, how it causes you to feel like no one will ever understand. Now I’m a soldier, a lonely soldier.
“Hope to Die,” Orville Peck
I’ve loved Orville Peck since my good friends Jim and Aubrie handed me a cup of coffee and put the record on one scorching July morning at their high-windowed apartment in Louisville. I didn’t know at the time I’d be moving to the city (without my husband) two years later. Peck is an out gay cowboy who wears fringed masks and I loved him immediately. The song hits close because it felt like an expression of my faltering marriage. My husband and I shared drinks on the porch of the home we sold and listened to the song together, caught in a toxic loop we didn’t know how to escape. Take me back to the time I was yours and you were mine.
“Black as Crow,” Rhiannon Giddens w Francesco Turrisi
A North Carolinian herself, Rhiannon Giddens sounds like home to me. In her voice, fireflies and thick orange clay, hurricane-force winds and tender seedlings, bare feet, an ancient soul sewn with crow feathers and reed instruments, haunted, haunted, and hands that know story. Bright day may turn to night, my love.
“Orphan Girl,” Gillian Welch
Many times when I’m stuck on a story, I can queue up most of Welch’s records, play them on a loop, and write my way out of whatever corner I’ve found myself in. Her work reminds me of the music of my childhood, hymns and old country & bluegrass, but with a contemporary sensibility. They say it’s through specificity you find the universal and this is what happens for me when I listen to her music while writing. In “Orphan Girl,” we find someone trying to come to terms with her traumatic origin story leaving the listener to wonder what becomes of someone who grows up without any ties to their own story. But the ties of kinship I have not known them.
“The Greatest,” Cat Power
The opening and title track to Chan Marshall’s album is one of my all-time favorite songs. It speaks to fighting one’s demons and creativity. In my writing, I am the truest, most vulnerable version of myself. At times, it’s frightening. At times, I want to let it all go, but that’s usually despair talking and as several mentors have taught me, both writing teachers and counselors, “the only way out is through.” Once I wanted to be the greatest/ No wind or waterfall could stall me/ And then came the rush of the flood/ Stars at night turned deep to dust.
“Down in a Hole,” Alice in Chains
We come again to addiction and depression. With these artists who have died of drug overdoses, you can see them grappling with their mortality. Many of them seem to see death lurking while those around them strain and squint. This song is here for the despair generation, my generation—a lament for the many friends and family who crossed into the great beyond from drugs and/or suicide. Sand rains down and here I sit/ Holding rare flowers/ in a tomb, in bloom.
“Fall On Me,” R.E.M.
I’m a lifelong fan of R.E.M. and I still remember their performance of this song on Unplugged. The way Stipe’s hand rose, the harmony with Mills, the emotion behind their layering. So much of this book is steeped in what the capitalist patriarchy has done to both the land and those who are not wealthy and powerful. Buy the sky and sell the sky and bleed the sky and tell the sky.
“Far From Any Road,” The Handsome Family
Like many folks, when the first season of True Detective came out, I was a bit obsessed. They nailed the grimy, desperate, fatalism of the south. This was the theme song and it made it onto many a playlist while I worked on the book. When I wrote Still Soft, Still Whole and Deadheading, I was up in a cabin at Sundress Academy for the Arts. By day, I wrote, walked up and down the little mountain, and sat quietly watching a coyote and her pups pass through the holler. By night, I drank pink wine in cans and read an anthology of southern women writers by lantern light. I placed the crow feather and four leaf clover I found the day I left Charlotte in the window and asked the spirits to let it come, whether darkness or light. When the last light warms the rocks/ And the rattlesnakes unfold/ Mountain cats will come to drag away your bones.
“Poor Man’s House,” Patty Griffin
At one point during the writing of this book, a friend and I went out to a Charlotte bar called The Evening Muse where we saw local folks covering Patty Griffin songs. We held sweaty beers in this bar filled with a whole bunch of denim-clad, long-skirted women. I’d listened to Patty Griffin as a teenager but it had been a long time since I’d heard her music. When the tiniest performer of the night, with her messy pink hair, belted this song out, a woman behind me bolted for the door, a cigarette in her hand, shouting to her friend, I can’t do this. And my Lord if I didn’t think about my grandpa and the state of his hands when he died. You know you’re coming to some kind of understanding/ When every dream you’ve dreamed has passed and you’re still standing.
“The Devil’s Inside My Head,” Kasey Chambers, Shane Nicholson
When I was writing the story, “For A Blaze of Sight,” this song popped up on a random shuffle and the rest is history. I put it on a loop and listened to nothing else until I finished the story. It took months. I believe it helped me write the disconnection of grief and the compulsions of the protagonist who, like most characters in this book, is at a psychological crossroads. Lord have mercy on my every sin/ Hold my head up while the water comes in.
“I Don’t Know How,” Best Coast
His abusive mother was dead and we were breaking up even though we still loved each other. I forget the rest. And I don’t know why/ the sun’s in the sky/ The rain it falls down.
“Helplessly Hoping,” Crosby, Stills, & Nash
Eventually, the psychiatrist I saw during these years misdiagnosed me and put me on Seroquel, an anti-psychotic drug which I will now always refer to as the great sinking. I wrote several stories in the collection during this period. Some of my favorites, in fact, but I don’t remember writing them. Maybe I was walking between worlds. At one point, I was told to dial back my emotion about the events of my life at this time. The powerlessness I felt is palpable throughout the book and its echoed here by one of the greats. Wordlessly watching, he waits by the window and wonders/ At the empty place inside.
“Jezebel,” 10,000 Maniacs
In my head I’m still nineteen walking around Raleigh in my oversized Army jacket wondering if I’ll ever feel safe. And twenty years later, I walk my neighborhood, paralyzed by his addiction, her dying, and all that’s unsaid between us. I know your feelings are tender and that inside you the embers still glow/ But I’m a shadow, I’m only a bed of blackened coal.
“Creep,” Arlo Parks
This song has a long tail. A teen with chest pains who can barely get through class without hyperventilating. A twenty-four-year-old who has yet to learn to drive. A man who took his own life, a hose duct-taped from the tail pipe into the window. Witness, witness. Backed into a corner by a man twenty years her senior. But also, summer nights passing joints on the hood of his car, incantations on pearlized blue. I wish I was special.
“If You Run,” The Desert Sessions
This song is for Layla and August, the main characters in the title story. Run, run, run, run, run.
“Pa’lante,” Hooray For The Riff Raff
The term “pa’lante” means “onwards” or “forward,” and was the title of a newspaper published by the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican leftist group advocating for change in the‘70s. Singer/songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra, reckons with spiritual death, ancestral identities, and what folks lose with assimilation. This song is an incantation. Just searching for my lost humanity/ I look for you, my friend/ But do you look for me?
“Reflections,” Diana Ross & The Supremes
Gen Xers might remember this song was the opening number for the show China Beach. We are the children of Vietnam, whether our parents were directly involved or not. We are the aftermath. I think about generational trauma a lot these days between the violence and addiction of my origin family and the continued trauma I’ve experienced since. Trauma is cumulative but I try my best to make it mean something. The last time I drove my mother-in-law home from the hospital (the next ride would be to hospice), I put on a Motown playlist and as she sipped her milkshake, I could see her shoulders popping to the beat ever so slightly. As I peer through the window/ Of lost time/ Looking over my yesterdays.
Beth Gilstrap is the author of I Am Barbarella (2015) from Twelve Winters Press. Her work has been selected as Longform.org’s “Fiction Pick of the Week” and chosen by Dan Chaon for inclusion in the Best Microfiction Anthology 2019. She holds an MFA from Chatham University. Her stories, essays, and hybrids have appeared in Ninth Letter, the Minnesota Review, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Stream Lit, and Wigleaf, among others. Born and raised in the Charlotte area, she has recently relocated to Louisville.