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March 16, 2021

Will Johnson's Playlist for His Novel "If or When I Call"

If or When I Call by Will Johnson

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.

Will Johnson's novel If or When I Call is a stunning debut, an evocative and lyrical portrayal of life in rural middle America.

In his words, here is Will Johnson's Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel If or When I Call:

No two ways around it. It's ferociously self-indulgent to assemble a soundtrack to one's own book. I've started and stalled several times here, and it's hard for me to see the spaceship any other way. But I've also been asked about it a couple times now, so I'm inclined to try. My first novel, If or When I Call involves a number of musical references, so maybe it's not that much of a stretch to at least explain how a few songs worked themselves into their respective scenes; to try and round them out into some sort of collection.

When I was writing it, there were places where specific songs felt like natural accompaniment. Including those references (at least to me) supplied an extra element. Of course this is not groundbreaking. Music is often referenced within fiction. I only knew I wanted some songs included at the outset, and others cropped up in the moment. Some songs here aren't even mentioned in the book, but in my mind they fit the headspace of the characters, or at least the mood at certain junctures. So if you happen to check the book out, maybe it will enhance the ride. If not, I'd still argue that it's a good playlist.

"Cherokee" - John Moreland

If one song was the heartbeat of the book, it would be this one; not only in terms of lyrical content, but overall timbre and atmosphere. It takes Melinda eastward, away from the small stamps of towns and flatness that had nearly swallowed her, out on her own toward the Big River, into southern Illinois.

"It's Good To Be King" - Tom Petty

It's one of the musical bonds that Parker and Melinda shared through their relationship, and a force that haunts Melinda in their new days apart.

"Alley Flowers" - Jolie Holland

Melinda's late night escape from the motel room accident, heading down toward the Ohio river to rest.

"Seven Year Ache" - Roseanne Cash

It was easy for me to hear this song at low volume in the convenience store scene with Melinda and Layton. It came out in 1981, toward the end of my years in the Missouri bootheel, and felt like an inescapable frequency (in a positive way) at that time. Time/space association.

"It Must Be Love" - Don Williams

Also plays low in the convenience store scene with Melinda and Layton. The positivity of this melody felt right in tandem with Layton's inherent kindness and generosity.

"No Volvere" - Antonio Bribiesca

Maureen loves old Antonio Bribiesca records, as she proudly announces to Chad as their tension starts to arc on her back patio.

"Til We Meet Again" -Elizabeth Cotten

Parker and Ben's fishing trip, just before Parker's fit.

"Pico"/"Lucky Buzz"- Richard Buckner

Melinda's walk through the street fair, and introspective moment on the curb in front of the Superman Museum - Metropolis, Illinois.

"Fast As You" - Dwight Yoakam

When I lived in Dallas years ago, my favorite bar was Ship's. I kept it in mind when envisioning the layout of The Lantern. Dwight Yoakam's music, and this song in particular got heavy rotation at Ship's. It felt like a natural carryover to The Lantern, and I don't think it's too much of a stretch that Dwight would play well in a southeast Missouri shotgun-style bar.

"You've Never Been This Far Before" - Conway Twitty

I knew I wanted Conway to fall into the ride somewhere. Donnie and Maureen's first few miles in his semi-truck felt like a suitable setting.

"Blackhawk" - Emmylou Harris

Melinda's drive through Mound City and New Grand Chain over to Karnak, Illinois.

"Too Much In Between" - Nina Nastasia

Parker's ambulance ride after his accident.

"Climbing High Mountains"/"Relief" - Sam Amidon

This medley spun in my mind a few times as I was writing the final scene in Parker's hospital room. Some of my favorite music of the past fifteen years.

And so, a fantasy soundtrack of sorts. I've buffaloed my way past the host/hostess stand with a full swan dive into the Buffet of Narcissism, but the voyeur in me would still find joy in seeing some other writers' assembly of soundtracks to their work. I'm still down with the Sharpie'd mix CD. Cassettes, too. Thanks for checking it.

Will Johnson is a musician and songwriter who has played in the bands Centro-matic, South San Gabriel, Marie/Lepanto, Overseas, New Multitudes, and Monsters of Folk. He also releases records under his own name, and makes paintings centering on the subject of baseball and its history. His work has appeared in American Short Fiction. He was born in Kennett, Missouri, and currently lives in Austin, Texas. If or When I Call is his first novel.

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