Writing prose about music is, to borrow an analogy, dangerously close to trying to teach a fish to ride a bicycle. If you could say it in regular words, there’d be no need to sing it. And music can do some things far more efficiently than any other art form. For example, it takes over seven hours to tell the three-generation story of the Corleones in the three Godfather films; Steve Earle covers the same amount of territory in less than five minutes in his song “Copperhead Road.” So really, the best a prose writer can do is try to describe the effect music has on the people who create it, and hear it.
The list of novels that do that well is fairly short. One of them, P.F. Kluge’s Eddie and the Cruisers, I reviewed here. Another, Lee Smith’s The Devil’s Dream, is on deck for a re-read and review in the near future. And Sheila Kay Adams’ My Old True Love is a third, one set in the Appalachian Mountains and about, among other things, the way songs can often speak for us when regular words fail.
Set in the years before, during and after the Civil War, it tells of two men, Larkin and Hackley, and the woman they both love, Mary. But it’s told by Arty, Hackley’s sister and Larkin’s foster mother, who’s barely older than they are. And it encompasses many aspects of the South that don’t get much attention, such as the idea that not every Southerner was gung-ho for secession or Civil War. And woven throughout all this is the music they sing, listen to, and share.
Sheila Kay is uniquely qualified to write this novel. She’s a professional storyteller and noted ballad singer; you can find my review of a documentary that features her here. Further, she’s so embedded (by history, biology and choice) in the region she describes that the book reads more like a memoir than fiction. She brings Arty to life in a way that’s astounding in its simplicity and vividness.
And the story does not evolve in the way you expect. In fact, there’s a glorious moment near the end where one character says something very simple, but it has the effect of turning the reader’s expectations entirely around. It works the same way the climax of the Scorsese film The Color of Money works: by making you suddenly realize this isn’t the story you thought it was going to be, and yet now that you know, you can see that it could be no other story.
I write about Appalachia in my Tufa novels, and my father’s family comes from the region. But Sheila Kay lives and breathes what she writes, and because of that, there’s an amazing depth and verisimilitude to her words. In My Old True Love, she brings it to life and shares it with us, just as the folks in her stories share the songs they learn. And believe me, the book sings.