Friday, March 03, 2023

Music in Prose

By Johnny D. Boggs

Micki Fuhrman called me the other day to pass on good news:

The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City had called to let her know that her album Westbound (do we still call them albums?) was winning this year’s Western Heritage Wrangler Award for Outstanding Traditional Western Album.

Which answers that album question.

“So,” Micki  says, “you have a song on a Wrangler-winning album.”

That’s not why Micki’s getting a Wrangler next month.

But it’s cool. Hey, I can’t carry a tune – I don’t even hum well – or pick a chord. A note is something I pay off. A meter is what I feed quarters into to keep from getting a ticket. Scales are what I scrape off fish. Rhythm is something I ain’t got.

But sometimes I string a few words together that aren’t half bad.

The song Micki recorded as a duet with Jon Chandler is “Loving County.” It’s inspired by Elmer Kelton’s great novel The Time It Never Rained, about a ranching couple’s struggles during the 1950s drought. And a comment I overheard from an old cowboy/rancher in a West Texas cafĂ©:

“A cloud ain’t nothin’ but a high school tease.”

But for a guy with no musical ability, I often think musically when I’m writing prose. I try to follow Johnny Cash’s instructions: Tell the story and get out of the song. Don’t waste words.

Is the rhythm right for this scene, this paragraph? Is this the right word? Do I need something else? It’s the right word, but what if I place it here instead of there? Hmmm … I’m stumbling over this phrase, which means the reader will, too. What if I repeat this word for effect? How does this sound when I read it aloud?

Since we’re talking music, we might as well get to songwriters. My favorites, other than the aforementioned Man in Black? The usual names: Guy Clark, John Prine, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Bruce Springsteen, Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newbury, Bob Dylan, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tom T. Hall, Merle Haggard, Bobbie Gentry, Bonnie Raitt, John Fogerty  …

And many prose writers I admire – Wallace Stegner, James Agee, Dorothy M. Johnson, Loren D. Estleman, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Raymond Chandler – have a lyrical style. 

Rarely do I listen to music when I’m writing. Not because it’s distracting. I worked for newspapers, so I’ve had to write fast with people screaming two desks down from me, or dictate a story from a phone booth with sirens blasting and someone asking me if I could loan him a buck for cigarettes. 

All I want to hear when I’m writing is the keyboard clicking.

Anyway, I’m not moving to Nashville or Austin. And when I play Westbound, I usually listen to “What a Moon” or “Runaway Heart,” both of which Micki wrote.

She’s got that songwriting thing down. I’ll stick to prose. But sometimes when I’m driving at night, a song idea will percolate, and I’ll start noodling for words. Maybe I’ll jot down some lyrics later.

Just don’t ask me to sing anything.

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