Monday, July 18, 2011

Crossing Mediums: Songwriters As Storytellers

No matter the medium, I just love stories. In fact, you might say that when it comes to storytelling, I'm medium-agnostic. A good story is a good story, whether it's on film, on stage, on the page, or even to a tune.

Because it's summer, the season for live music, let's take a literary look at that last one. It'd be fair to say that songwriting was storytelling before storytelling was storytelling. Song was the first way people told stories, as they sat around their cave campfires enjoying their roasted woolly mammoth. These days, music as a means to tell a story has advanced quite a bit, so much so that musicians frequently cross over into other mediums. And lately, several famous musicians have traversed the medium-line to publish generally well-received novels.

Here are a few examples: Crooner Josh Ritter published a novel last month titled Bright's Passage, about a man who returns to his West Virginia home after fighting in World War I. It has an average rating of 3.73 stars on GoodReads. Pretty solid. Folksy performer Steve Earle published I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive, about a guy who lives with the ghost of Hank Williams, in April to better-than-average reviews (3.56 GoodReads average). Nick Cave, Jimmy Buffett and Bob Dylan are other examples of folks whose primary medium is songwriting, but who have also published novels. I'm sure there are more examples — please comment below if you know of more.

This is a trend that doesn't take a Mensa membership to decipher. As my friend Doug said, as we were discussing this last weekend during a show (after a beer or six), "songwriters just have an innate gift with language, a natural talent for telling a story." He mentioned one of his favorite artists, New Orleans-based songwriter Paul Sanchez. He said the last time he caught Sanchez, during Jazz Fest this year, there was a woman sitting near the stage talking loudly on her cellphone and generally being a nuisance. Sanchez, on the spot, made up a song about (read as: making fun of) her — "it was amazing. He developed this story in his head while he was playing another song," Doug said. 

More so than possibly any other type of artist, musicians are creative about how they tell their stories. If it's not publishing a novel, it might be a CD-length concept album. Even generally considered neanderthal heavy metal and alternative musicians like Iced Earth, Mastodon, Coheed and Cambria, and Queensryche tell a story start to finish over an album or several albums, and set it all to music. In fact, Claudio Sanchez, frontman for Coheed and Cambria, includes a 350-page novel in the deluxe edition of their latest CD titled Year of the Black Rainbow, adding details to the story in the band's five-album set. He'd also published comic books to go with the albums, as well. Even if you don't like the music, you have to appreciate the storytelling talent. (Or, actually, since Iced Earth, Coheed and Cambria, and Mastodon actually tell fairly "out there" sci-fi stories, the music, to me, is more interesting than the stories. I'm just not a sci-fi guy, you dig?)

At any rate, musicians who adapt their craft to another medium are eternally fascinating to me. We've already covered the idiot celebrities who trade on their name recognition to publish novels. That's the low, dark-and-seedy end of the medium-crossover spectrum. This is the high end. I'm about 300 times less skeptical of a musician-published novel than I am of one published by an actor/actress — both in terms of whether the celeb actually wrote the novel and how much I might enjoy it. I'm excited to check out both Earle's and Ritter's novel (at some point), and that's something I'd probably never say about other medium-crossover types of projects.

By the way, and to bring this post full-circle, Steve Earle and Paul Sanchez have both appeared in the HBO series Treme, set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the flood. While we're speaking of spectacular storytelling, that series is spectacular storytelling to a "T." Season One is available on DVD, and Season Two, which just wrapped up, should be soon. I can't recommend it more highly.

So what other musician-penned novels are out there? Why specifically do you think it is that musicians are able to cross mediums better than other artists? Or would you argue that that's not actually the case?


  1. Well, pop musicians are a kind of story-teller. Even the most inane 3-minute, 3-chord throwaway song has characters and conflict.

    The best musician-penned novel I've ever read is FAVORITE GAME by the great Leonard Cohen. It's about young people and love, the lingua franca of pop music, but it is tortured and quite lovely.

  2. I'm Steve Earle fan - as a musician he's a wonderful storyteller and though I found the writing a little uneven, thought he brought a lot of what I love in his songs to his book. Musicians and writers are both getting to the same place - stories that resonate and evoke and touch people's hearts- with a different but related set of tools.

  3. This is a wonderful post. I've always thought that some of the best storytellers around were songwriters. Jimmy Buffett in particular - I've loved all his novels. They have the same breezy charm as his songs. Not going to win a Nobel, but so what. My favorite musical storyteller is Warren Zevon - I've often wondered what a book written by him would have been like.

  4. I guess I've always equated songwriters more with poets, and have actually used song lyrics to teach poetry to youth, but this post feels spot on to me. I know that my favorite "sing along" artists are always the ones with the best lyrics-the Indigo Girls, Paul Simon, even Billy Joel on a good day.

  5. @theApe - True, but just like in literature, some are better stories than others, right? Thanks for pointing out the Cohen novel - interesting!

    @bookspersonally - Good to hear a mostly positive vote for Earle's novel. I like his music, too - and really like his acting. You're absolutely right about writers and musicians both aiming at the same spot - stories that resonate. That's a great way to put it!

    @petekarnas - You're actually the first person I've heard say anything positive about Jimmy Buffet's novels - but most people who bag on them only do so because they don't believe a musician like him could actually write a good novel. I've never read them, but I've always been really curious.

    @Heather - That's an excellent point about songwriters being close to poets. But what is a poem, after all, but a story told in verse instead of prose. I remember sitting in a lit class in college, and the teacher asserted that it was impossible to earn a living as a poet these days. And a kid raised his hand and said, "that's not true - think of all the incredibly successful lyricists/musicians who have simply put their poetry to music." I thought that was brilliant.

  6. The only author that comes to mind for me in this genre is Wesley Stace,aka John Wesley Harding,who has written three novels to date.

    I read his second one,By George(which was about a family of ventriloquists told from the viewpoint of the dummy)and it was a truly riveting book. His other books,Misfortune and Charles Jessold,Considered as a Murderer,have offbeat themes as well.