Steven Moore’s essay collection The Distance from Slaughter County is a nuanced exploration of identity and Midwestern life.
The Distance from Slaughter County has one essay especially devoted to music. Its an exploration of the country music I grew up listening to; that essay is already a playlist, more or less. I hope the tunes below will give a sense for what the rest of the book is about, and what it was like to write. Cheers.
“Any Man of Mine” – Shania Twain
The essays began with an interest in place, in the ornery complexity of being from somewhere. “Where are you from?” is another way of saying, “Tell me a story,” or better yet, “Activate my imagination.” Here goes: Shania Twain wanted “Any Man of Mine” as the first single for her 1994 album The Woman in Me, but studio execs felt it was too rock-and-roll. They worried country fans would reject it. The execs believed “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” was a less controversial pick for country radio, and they led with it. They were making bets about audience, taste. Their imaginations were insufficient.
“She’s in Love with the Boy” – Trisha Yearwood
Yearwood’s first verse includes chickens, a front porch, small town boredom, the phrase over yonder, and a Chevy pickup tearing through mud. Notably, the porch is old. The Chevy is beat-up. I put her name on the first page of the book to kind of signify all this. If obliquely. To kind of say, over yonder but through time. Over yonder to that song about Katie and Tommy. Over yonder: the intensity and recklessness of young affection. Its velocity and resourcefulness. You might know Yearwood better for the ballad in Con Air, the song that asks “How do I live?” which is fine, and good, but technically that question appears in every song.
“Unsteady Youth” – Alexis Stevens
I grew up in southeast Iowa, then moved a short ways to Iowa City for college. I discovered that a place can be, and mean, more than one thing, which many people learn a lot sooner than that, while others, I’m told, never learn it at all. I discovered in Iowa City that a place can be very difficult to conceive of, especially if you’ve never lived there, and also if you have, and that some version of this problem animates most of my favorite writing. I moved away in 2012, the same year “Unsteady Youth” appeared on the Iowa City Song Project, which you should check out in its entirety, if you haven’t already, and feel any kind of way about the town.
“Hope the High Road” – Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
Jason Isbell’s encounter with how fucked the world is and his response—trying to take the high road, wishing the high road for others, hoping this road leads you, somehow, back to yourself—leave me pretty conflicted. I like the song but always find myself arguing with it. Isbell was responding to conflict, the rancor of 2016, and his articulation of the conflict is a lot more compelling than his solution. Which makes the song relatable. It’s full of contradictions, and the same anxieties that run through my book. He gives the contradictions a good riff.
“For the Time Being” – Sammy Rae & The Friends
I started the book in early 2019, having completed my MFA program two-ish years earlier. I was trying to find a writing habit that worked for me. I’d already forgotten there’s no such thing as The Routine, no single practice that you find once then use forever. Only routines, practices. How as soon as you figure out what works, its context gets blown up, and you have to start over. But that cycle makes things easier too. Any routine just has to work for now.
“Beautiful Trauma” – Pink
You ever go to a stadium concert and see Pink—who, having wrote a near-perfect album, toured on it for 20 months in a row, performing 159 times to three million people—fly through an arena on high-wires, singing and singing and singing, and you think to yourself: My art could probably stand to be more ambitious? That ever happen to anyone else?
“It’s Magic” – Eric Dolphy
Interlude: A dude in California was trying to get me to understand jazz. He wanted me to love it like he did, which was tough because he was a trained musician while I’m just a person. It was like when poets try to teach you about poetry, how they insist that poems don’t have secret meanings, you just have to experience the poem, but a lot of experiencing the poem depends on interpreting the poem’s very specific technical features, which, once interpreted, unveil a particular, if not secret, meaning. That is, I still don’t know how to love jazz. But I enjoy it. And I’m glad he tried teaching me. Much of the book is about that: Thank you for trying to teach me stuff, even if I only got partway there.
“‘Heroes’ (Full Version)” – David Bowie
I spent three months on an essay about “‘Heroes’” that doesn’t appear in the book. The idea was to listen to Bowie’s recordings and then the covers—by the Wallflowers, Janelle Monae, Motorhead, Peter Gabriel, that part in Moulin Rouge, the movie trailers for Justice League, Jojo Rabbit, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. I wanted to consider what Bowie might’ve meant about heroism, and how the song has been perverted, undermined, sometimes fulfilled kind of on accident. My essay sputtered. It lacked structure. Also quality. I couldn’t connect the song to the logic of the other essays, couldn’t understand it through the lens of the Midwest, which is why the essay failed, and how I confirmed what the book was about.
“Heroes” – Dead Sara
Different song entirely. It makes me appreciate this: There are so many currently working writers I truly admire. All the essays that inspire me most are being made by people right now, presently, which makes it so much more exciting to write my own work. Seeing the weirdest books come out year after year. Heroes, all of you.
“Friends in the Armed Forces” – Thursday
The Distance from Slaughter County includes an essay about the civilian-military divide, exploring the strange, confusing encounters that can happen between military folks and non-military folks. Thursday’s song samples this problem nicely, which is to say the song is a disaster, a wreck of contempt, love, grievance, condescension, misunderstanding, and loss. The song’s frustrated pain is a trap, and the trap is related to place, but maybe not the place you think.
“Heavy Heart” – Bartees Strange
Bartees Strange talks about “Heavy Heart” as a pandemic song, about trying to experience joy in moments otherwise clouded by pain. How it can feel selfish to do anything other than just the pain, but you should, make space for more, if you can. It’s been kinda wild, lately, seeing musicians perform their pandemic songs in crowded rooms. Did they struggle to imagine the work escaping its isolated beginnings, but then now here it is, out there?
“Together Again” – Janet Jackson
For the last edits, I printed the manuscript at an Office Depot, using one of those self-service copiers where you swipe a credit card directly on the machine. I’d been on a Janet binge for maybe a year, The Velvet Rope especially, and as I waited for the pages to collect in the tray, “Together Again” came on the store radio. The song was tinny and faraway in the rafters, but you’d have to put a lot of problems in the way of that song to diminish it. So I was listening to the song, waiting. The thing about self-service copiers is they don’t ask how your day is going, so you can’t be like, Great, I’m printing my book! But Janet’s song came on, so that felt like a cool thing. Like yeah, she gets it.
“Run” – Delta Rae
I want to give another big thanks to the extraordinary folks at the University of North Carolina Press. Your hard work means so much to me. I’m sorry I don’t know very many bands from North Carolina, but I like this one a lot. Thank you so much again. Thank you thank you thank you thank you.