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March 9, 2012

Book Notes - Joe Wilkins - "The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up on The Big Dry"

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, and many others.

Joe Wilkins had already impressed me with his poetry, and his new memoir The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up on The Big Dry finds him equally as talented at prose as he recounts his life growing up in eastern Montana.

Benjamin Percy wrote of the book:

""Joe Wilkins grew up hard in the middle of nowhere—the bent-back, make-do world of the driest, loneliest country in all Montana—and after reading this memoir about the West, about myth, about manhood, about grief and transcendence, I felt at once heartbroken and hopeful and ultimately awed by his ability to twist sentences like barbed wire, his voice wondrously rich with dirt-and-gravel poetry.""

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Joe Wilkins' Book Notes music playlist for his memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up on The Big Dry:

The Mountain and the Fathers is a memoir of my boyhood and young adulthood on the Montana plains in the 1980s and ‘90s. The book is built of fragments of memory, story, research, meditation, and imagination. And the book is filled with music.

Whether crackling from a single speaker radio with a tinfoil flag on the antenna or screaming out of a boombox, there was always music. Most everyone around town listened to whatever happened to be on the pop country station out of Miles City, but my parents had a whole box of records in the basement. Gordon Lightfoot, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass—I loved to thumb through them, to study the worn covers. When I was in middle school, my older sister gave me lessons in Bon Jovi and Poison. Then the radio station up in Billings started to play Pearl Jam and Nirvana. And one day I found Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits at a K-Mart bargain bin and bought it, not really knowing what I was getting myself into.

This playlist functions as a kind of sonic summary of The Mountain and the Fathers. I hope you enjoy the music and the book.

1. Gordon Lightfoot - "Early Morning Rain"

Extricating memory from story can prove difficult, and in the writing of The Mountain and the Fathers I had to interrogate many moments for traces of both.

For instance, I know my father, in from a morning's work in the fields, used to rest in the basement after lunch and listen to Gordon Lightfoot records on his HiFi. What I don't know is if I actually remember sneaking down the stairs to watch him, to see him reclined in his easy chair with his eyes closed, or if I have simply been told that I did so many times that the tale has begun to feel real. Whether memory or story, though, I can see it all, can even hear Lightfoot warbling along in my mind.

2. Waylon Jennings - "Amanda"

A year or two after my father died, when we were still boys, my brother got one of Waylon's greatest hits tapes for Christmas, and we played it on one of those old black cassette player/recorders with mechanical keys. I remember liking the growl and verve of it, the tough tenderness of it, and I remember, as the music slowed and Waylon began to croon, my mother telling us that "Amanda" was one of my father's favorite songs.

3. Johnny Cash - "At Folsom Prison"

I'm not sure I heard Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" until I was a young man. Yet the song, or, more precisely, the album, mattered a great deal to me. It was one of the records in my parents' basement collection, and one spring, when the basement flooded after a hard rain, most of those records were soaked. We dried out the ones that weren't warped and cracked beyond recognition. Very few of the record jackets survived though. The jacket of At Folsom Prison was one that did, though half of the cover photo sloughed off, a ragged line running through Cash's face, just below his eyes.

Years later, finding the album in a used record shop, the unblemished cover shocked me. It didn't look right at all. Rather, the damaged photo—with its narrative of associations, its impressionistic possibilities—seemed truer to the music, that, by then, I knew well.

4. Pearl Jam - "Corduroy"

As a teenager stuck in an outpost town on the plains of Montana, where pop country ruled the radio waves and the best record store around was the Sam Goody in the mall two hours away, Pearl Jam was a revelation. And "Corduroy" especially. The way it builds to a howl, then fades, then howls again. It made so much sense to the fearful, howling boy I was.

5. Smashing Pumpkins - "Tonight, Tonight"

In writing The Mountain and the Fathers, I came back to much of the music I listened to as a teenager. These days, I wouldn't listen to most of it on a regular basis, but, wow, does it ever still pull at the old heartstrings.

"Believe," Corgan sings, "believe in me, believe / That life can change, that you're not stuck in vain / We're not the same, we're different tonight." You don't hope for much more than that when you're sixteen.

6. Nirvana - "The Man Who Sold the World"

This little alternative rock tour wouldn't be complete without a Nirvana tune. Though I loved the screams of those first few albums, Unplugged was the one I listened to the most. That powerful, complicated, stripped-down sound readied me, I think, for all sorts of musical discoveries to come, including Dylan, Springsteen, Wilco, and Lucinda Williams.

7. Bob Dylan - "Subterranean Homesick Blues"

Though Dylan only gets a brief mention in The Mountain and the Fathers, his music (like Hemingway and Ralph Ellison, authors I discovered around the same time) instantly represented for me the world beyond the small town of my youth, the world I wanted so badly to escape into as a young man.

8. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - "Even the Losers"

A friend and I used to sneak out his second-story window and smoke cigarettes and listen to Tom Petty when we were in high school. That was fun. Still sounds kind of fun.

9. Gordon Lightfoot - "Sit Down Young Stranger"

Another Lightfoot tune that has haunted me for years. And I mean haunted in the best possible way. Every time I hear "Sit Down Young Stranger" I'm stunned. The guitar work is, as always, wonderful, and Gord's voice is at its sad, brawny best; he truly inhabits both the plaintive young stranger and the questioning father.

Also, for many years I had it in my head that this Lightfoot song in particular was important to my father, but I don't know if that's true. Rather, I think it's been important to me all these years for the very way the father and the son hesitatingly approach and speak to one another inside the same song. And so I use "Sit Down Young Stranger" as a bridge, then, in the last section of The Mountain and the Fathers, in an imaginative scene of my father in his prime, some months before I am born, a scene that I hope pulls into perspective the man who was my father and the man I have become, as well as the fact that we are all, and simultaneously, daughters and sons, mothers and fathers.

Joe Wilkins and The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing Up on The Big Dry links:

the author's website

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Killing the Murnion Dogs

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

List of Online "Best Books of 2011" Lists
List of 2011 Year-End Online Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists