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May 4, 2020

Bobi Conn's Playlist for Her Memoir "In the Shadow of the Valley"

In the Shadow of the Valley by Christina Dalcher

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 Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Bobi Conn's In the Shadow of the Valley is a powerful memoir of triumph over adversity.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"This memoir, although at times achingly sad, provides an uplifting tale of a woman who decided that she would prevail over the hand that life dealt her…An engaging read that will connect with fans of Tara Westover’s Educated and those interested in the ability of the human spirit to overcome adversity."

In her own words, here is Bobi Conn's Book Notes music playlist for her memoir In the Shadow of the Valley:

In my recently published memoir, there is a constant push-and-pull between the beauty of the Appalachian forest where I grew up and the ugliness of a home wracked with violence, substance abuse, and cruelty. Very little of 1980s culture reached our home in Eastern Kentucky, but it seemed like the one country music radio station was always on. I loved music from an early age, as I soaked up the stories and ballads that played across the airwaves, allowing me to envision other lives and worlds as readily as my books did. Looking back, I can see how music mirrored that juxtaposition of beauty and pain – so many great lyrics convey suffering, while the melodies bring their own beauty to the song.

I was in middle school when my mother moved us kids into town, and I thought I would finally get to hear the music my peers listened to – particularly on MTV, which I caught glimpses of at other people’s houses, but we could only ever count on educational television reaching our house. But instead of feeling more like my peers and understanding their world, I found I didn’t like much of modern pop culture, and instead explored the music of Chuck Berry, Johnny Horton, and the Beatles. Throughout high school, my musical taste continued to reflect my disconnection from pop culture and the larger disconnect I felt from the world at large. Now, I can see the value of my difference, so aptly symbolized by the music I loved, and appreciate how I was shaped in part by the soundtrack of my life.

“Amazing Grace” by Zoe Speaks

Mitch Barrett’s a cappella version of “Amazing Grace” is the quintessential mountain hymn – sparse, yet full of emotion. I wrote a lot about my experiences of being in church, and especially the overwhelming feeling that I was a sinner – I was constantly ashamed and frightened because of the abuse at home, and I interpreted that to be guilt for my sins, or the devil’s influence on me, as I tried to make sense of the preacher’s sermons. I still think “Amazing Grace” is beautiful, but the lyrics are complicated as they sing about grace teaching the heart to fear, “a wretch like me” – even the idea that grace will appear if only we truly believe – these ideas only further confirmed for me that something was wrong, and it was my fault, and even God wasn’t happy about it. This probably has a lot to do with why I’d rather see John Prine than go to church….

“White Lightning” by Waylon Jennings

While I associate this song with George Jones, I love the low-fi quality that Waylon’s version has – it makes me feel like I’m right back in the holler where I grew up, the radio playing country classics and 1980s hits. It also reminds me of the stories my dad used to tell about my great-grandfather making moonshine, as I wrote about in my memoir. My great-grandfather was in and out of prison and was one of the many outlaw heroes my father admired, even though his outlaw ways resulted in real suffering for his family. I’m still fascinated with the role of the narrator in storytelling, and particularly with unreliable narrators, which I realized is an interesting facet of my father’s role in my life as I was writing my memoir.

“He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones

I wrote about this song as I described sleepless nights in which my mind churned over and over song lyrics, and I fought against that out-of-control feeling by imagining a record needle dragging across the record, ending the lyrical taunt. George Jones was also one of my favorite musicians when I was a child, something that I realized set me apart from the other kids and became a symbol of my alienation from my peers. But when I listen to “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” I still visualize the story that’s being told and I think of my little-girl self in eastern Kentucky, seeing these stories unfold as they came over the airwaves, and I think that the presence of music in our home gave me frequent respite from the chaos and fear that so often dominated us.

“Zoe Speaks” by Maizie Manna

This song aptly describes the angst and desperation I felt as a teenager and young adult, and is one of the rare contemporary songs that I find moving. Maizie Manna’s melodic voice contrasts sharply with haunting lyrics as she sings about deep feelings of alienation and the possibility of death – a poignant combination of beauty and pain. Some of her lyrics reflect my frustrated experiences with (prescribed) medication in my twenties, when I felt like the drugs that were supposed to help me, ended up masking my problems: “Maizie may, may I add a pill to your array of greens and blues? How am I gonna change if I can’t move.” Then there’s the feeling of being judged and ostracized by those around me for the ways I tried to cope, and feeling helpless about being misunderstood: “They would say, that girl ain’t right, she is not okay. I disagree – I think you think you know a lot about me.” Besides the relatability of these themes, the song includes several turns of phrase and possible double meanings for the listening ear. I interpreted the first words as “I see you” until I read the lyrics and discovered it actually says “I.C.U.” – a lovely, painful duality that reminds me of the poems and literature that have led me to fall in love with language and its vast possibilities, over and over.

“Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles

My stepfather introduced me to the Beatles when I was around fourteen years old, and I was immediately drawn to their later work. Once again, I felt the emotion of their songs and envisioned the stories so vividly – it was a lifeline in the darkness when I was a freshman in high school. When I was in my thirties, I went through another dark time that I wrote about in my memoir, and I remember a day when I was driving home from work, and “Here Comes the Sun” played from one of my playlists. When it got to the lyric, “Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting,” I felt something inside me relax in a way that I hadn’t been able to relax for a long time. It was an unexpected moment of relief that gave me hope and reminded me that no matter how hard things have been in the past, they never have to stay that way.

“Wharf Rat” by The Grateful Dead

In my teen years, my first boyfriend introduced me to the Grateful Dead and a hippie lifestyle. I took the lifestyle to the extreme, but still credit that element of my life as the reason I survived to adulthood. At first, I didn’t know what to think about the Grateful Dead – they were definitely not like the old country music I was used to, nor anything else I had heard. I fell in love with them, though, and I realize now that each song feels like its own world, drawing me in and convincing me of the important story it has to tell. “Wharf Rat” is a particularly complex story, with the narrator’s voice shifting a couple of times, and it once again makes me think about unreliable narrators, and who it is they are trying to convince when they tell us a story as they want it to be, not as it is.

“Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six” by The Pogues

I started listening to The Pogues in college, when I found myself disillusioned (once again) with the people I thought would be good to me and inherently good themselves – hippies. The Pogues were the perfect blend of folk, punk, and Irish sounds, allowing me to experiment with how it felt to acknowledge a little bit of the anger I had inside, instead of the peace and love aesthetic I had embraced for so long (and the music that went along with it). As I wrote in my memoir, my family was purportedly Irish “terrorists,” and so the true story told in this song about the oppression of the Irish, resonates with the connection I have always felt to Ireland.

“Old King Coal” by Sturgill Simpson

While I didn’t grow up in “coal country,” we burned coal for heat when I was growing up and our county had its own fair share of extractive economies. However, coal remains a powerful symbol for the environmental and economic abuse of Appalachia. In a few powerful lines, Sturgill Simpson describes the decay of eastern Kentucky as I experienced it: “Now there ain’t nothing but welfare and pills/and the wind never felt so cold.” At the same time as he describes negative aspects of coal mining – black lung, muddy rivers, bare mountains – he addresses outsiders who want to shut the mines down, telling them, “We ain’t looking for pity and you don’t understand/So go back to your city now cause this ain’t your town.” In the latter part of my memoir, I try to articulate what I think is a complex sentiment expressed in this song – that while Appalachia has been suffering, it should be Appalachians who determine their best way forward, especially because the outsider’s gaze is so often clouded by pity and disdain – a phenomenon we see over and over when someone with power decides it’s time to save someone else (especially from themselves).

“You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” by Darrell Scott

Darrell Scott paints a haunting, beautiful picture of life in Appalachia in this song. I didn’t hear it until I was in college, but I then sung it to my son as a lullaby and my kids now know it by heart. The song tells the familiar story of those in eastern Kentucky wanting to get away, to get out of the holler, and in the end, not being able to fully escape. Even though he doesn’t describe the landscape in this song, for me, it is inescapable – the deep, dark hills are also lush and full of life. There are streams everywhere, and we played in them as kids even if the adults were burning tires beside the creek. I try to convey in my book how the desperation of the people is so entwined with the landscape, which is sometimes hostile, sometimes transcendental – it’s an incredible paradox that deserves so much more thoughtful consideration than it’s given.

“Come On Up to the House” Tom Waits

Tom Waits became a staple in the soundtrack of my life in my twenties. This song reminds me of church hymns that we would sing in our Sunday services, but instead of old women’s voices trembling along with a simple piano, this gruff man’s voice belts out poetry with a message of sorrow and hope intertwined – one of the significant themes of my own life experience. And I know that in moments when I’ve started to feel sorry for myself, his line, “Come down off the cross, we can use the wood,” snaps me back into reality. The call to “come on up to the house” makes me think at once of my granny telling me to come to her house, and a preacher calling us to the alter to ask for forgiveness – maybe not what Waits was going for, but this song combines some of the most powerful and complex feelings in my story.

“Sam Stone” by John Prine

For me, going to a John Prine concert is like being in the best kind of church, where everything feels holy and uplifting. He performed “Sam Stone” the last time I saw him play, and I didn’t expect it to, but this song hit me hard. When he got to the line, “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” I started sobbing uncontrollably, thinking about my own father and how he had started shooting up. My memoir discusses his drug use and the effect that it had on us financially, but I also explore another issue that appears in this song, which is the reason people turn to drugs in the first place. Prine sings about easing pain and giving one confidence, which doesn’t seem too far off from what I think my father wanted. Like all children who want their parents to love them, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why my father didn’t love us, and what it was that he wanted to escape from.

“Wings of a Dove” by Zoe Speaks

The first time I heard this song, I couldn’t hold back my tears. It feels like the story of my life, having felt so much of the time as if I were trapped by unseen forces. I especially love the line, “sometimes when you think you’ve lost, you find out that you’ve been winning.” When a publisher picked up my memoir, I suddenly faced, for the first time, what it would be like to have people read my story – people who know me, strangers, all of them. I had experienced so much criticism and abuse, I was afraid that I would only have to endure more by being vulnerable enough to truly tell my story. But I realized that all the time I had felt alienated, ostracized, and unloved, it prepared me to tell the truth as I see it, without fear of losing anyone.

Bobi Conn was born in Morehead, Kentucky, and raised in a nearby holler, where she developed a deep connection with the land and her Appalachian roots. She obtained her bachelor’s degree at Berea College, the first school in the American South to integrate racially and to teach men and women in the same classrooms. After struggling as a single mother, she worked five part-time jobs at once to support her son and to attend graduate school, where she earned a master’s degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing. In addition to writing, Bobi loves playing pool, telling jokes, cooking, being in the woods, attempting to grow a garden, and spending time with her incredible children.

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