August 5, 2019
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Tammy Lynne Stoner's impressive novel Sugar Land is an entertaining and assured debut.
The Houston Chronicle wrote of the book:
"[Sugar Land] is about improbable kindnesses stubbornly taking root in harsh environments; the resourcefulness of people who feel they’ve been cursed not just by society but their own desires; and how the toughest prisons are often the ones we create for ourselves."
To me, music is light and sound and energy and, ultimately, union. It helped me learn how to feel and process emotion—something that seemed to come so easily to other people. I’ve been formed, saved, and obsessed with music since I was a little girl with my ear to my hidden bedroom radio, sneaking out to watch MTV’s 120 Minutes after everyone had gone to sleep and writing songs about dandelions and car crashes.
From bootlegs of the Smiths live to white vinyl Let’s Active LPs and pre-orders of Cure 45s through the Aretha Franklin’s Live in Paris album I found at Goodwill (and thankfully found again later on CD at the dead hero, Tower Records), Wes Montgomery—which I tuned in to while I lived in Busan, South Korea with its fabulous jazz scene, to local Austin bands who were so varied and amazing you never needed to go outside the City Limits: the Recliners, The Naughty Ones, 8-1/2 Souvenirs, Meg Hentges, etc etc., I—like many of you, have soundtracks for every stage of life.
Given that Sugar Land took eight years to write then quietly endured a three-year production timeline, it’s tricky to narrow down the musical highlights for this soundtrack, but here goes. Here are 16 songs that both directly relate to Sugar Land—ditties I listened to before editing (I never listen while I write) or songs that reflect characters—and music that inspired my writing. The Sugar Land soundtrack:
1. “Someday Soon” by Firefall
At the start of Sugar Land, nineteen-year-old country girl, Dara, falls in love with her best friend, Rhodie. It’s a sweet and passionate love, but it’s in the early 1920s in a small town in Texas, so it’s damned—quite literally—from the start. This song carries the early hope that their love can conquer anything. Plus, who doesn’t love Firefall? Be honest now.
2. “Ain’t Even Done with the Night” by John Cougar Mellancamp
First love. This is it. No other song makes me feel nineteen again like this one.
3. “The Charleston” by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra
Dara runs away from Rhodie and takes a job in the kitchen at the Imperial State Prison Farm for men, where she works alongside Beauregard, who sold his car so he could get the best radio money could buy. As a dapper dancing man in 1923, he would have listened to music like “The Charleston”—the song for the dance, which was inspired by watching dockworkers in South Carolina (much the same way the Balls inspired Madonna’s “Vogue”).
4. “Groovy Situation” by Gene Chandler
Beauregard has swag-ger, like “Groovy Situation”—which, as a side note, has way more swagger than Chandler’s best-known hit (and the song that spurned his unfortunate nickname, “The Duke”), “The Duke of Earl.” Check out his super Old School website for more on The Duke, or maybe avoid all that and let him live as he is here: groovy.
5. “I idolize You” by the Charmaines
Not only do I adore that this ‘60s girl group calls the boy they idolize “pretty baby” and tell him they want to “make you my pet,” they scream their feelings—something I love when a character does. Also, this song has a farfisa solo—this huge keyboard I played for a hot second before switching to guitar, which was easier to carry on the subway. The other girl in the band took the farfisa keyboard; she had a car.
6. “Midnight Special” by Lead Belly
Lead Belly, the blues singer, is a character in SUGAR LAND. He meets my fiction characters at the Imperial State Prison Farm (where he served time in real life) and befriends Dara before he sings for a pardon from the governor of Texas, and gets it (again, true story). “Midnight Special” was written about the train of the same name that would pull into the prison. It was said that if the train shined its light on you, you’d be getting out soon, Like Lead Belly.
7. “Good Night” by Babybird
I first heard this song on some college radio station—and they didn’t say who sung it. This was pre-Shazam and they didn’t bother to put a playlist on their radio website. Argh! Then, miraculously, I heard it again on Pandora, but it wasn’t available to buy. Double argh! A year later, it popped up for purchase and now I own the song that has been my favorite morning-writing song for years and years now. The line that hooks me every time: “Run me a bath then plug me in / I’m like a TV learning to swim.”
8. “Flower” by Amos Lee
This song positively reeks of soul-gospel as Amos Lee prays that the Lord deliver him to love—and it feels southern, which I can’t get enough of.
9. “Waiting for That Day” by George Michael
After working at the Imperial State Prison Farm for a decade, Dara leaves the prison as the Warden’s wife, but all the while the memories of Rhodie keep a secret part of her hidden away from him (and everyone else). As George Michael says, “Oh, my memory serves me far too well. Years will come and go…”
10. “Weekend in New England” by Barry Manilow
I love Barry Manilow’s unapologetic heartbreak-drama and the reminder that timbre can makes or break the words. Plus, I got engage to at a Barry Manilow concert. My lady cried when he sang this song—and a lady like that only comes around once in a lifetime.
11. “L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N” by Noah & The Whale
When I first heard this, I dubbed it this generation’s “88 Lines about 44 Women.” Like its predecessor, this song lists folks doing things their own way. Listening to this reminds me to relax about the looming issue writers often face—Will it sell?—and just do my own thing. Plus it has this line: “But to a writer, the truth is no big deal.”
12. “Hey Good Lookin’” by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty
Fast-forward in Sugar Land
Tammy Lynne Stoner and Sugar Land links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists