Inspiration and “Copperhead Road”

When I teach writing classes, I often play the song “Copperhead Road,” by Steve Earle for the students. If you don’t know it, here’s the video.


When it’s over, I point out what makes the song so extraordinary. It tells the story of three generations of men named Conlee* Pedimore; grandfather was a moonshiner, father was a bootlegger, and the narrator is a pot farmer. The music progresses from pure folk, to slightly harder-edged roots music, to full-blown rock and roll, depicting the progression of generations. The lyrics are filled with specific imagery:

“…he’d buy a hundred pounds of yeast and some copper line…”

“…him and my uncle tore that engine down/I still remember that rumblin’ sound…”

“…now the DEA’s got a chopper in the air/I wake up screaming like I’m back over there…”

When the song over, I usually get a lot of blank stares; what does this have to do with writing?

Then I point out that Earle has told a story of three generations, of three distinct eras, and shown how they intertwine. To do the same thing in prose would take hundreds of pages and probably several years of research and writing; for example, look at “The Godfather,” novel and film(s). Earle manages it in around five minutes.

And THAT is the magic of music.

In the context of the classes, I usually use it to point out how the right detail can do the work of hundreds, if not thousands, of words. But in the larger sense, to me it is magic. I can understand crafting lyrics, chipping away until you’ve got that diamond-hard bit of perfection.

But the music…I’ll never get that.

I’ll never understand how a simple chord change, how moving your fingers on a fret board can change emotions from anger to joy, from amusement to sadness, from any of our millions of feelings to another of those millions. Yet it happens all the time.

I’ve written many novels, and in most of them music plays a part. But in the Tufa novels (The Hum and the Shiver, Wisp of a Thing, Long Black Curl, and the upcoming Chapel of Ease), music becomes part of the story. The Tufa, descendants of Celtic fae folk now living in Appalachia, keep their magic in their songs. When they play music, or sing certain songs at certain times, unnatural things can happen. As I say, in the story it’s magic, but it’s only a slightly exaggerated version of how I feel about music in the real world.

A national anthem, a school song, a shared memory of that stupid one-hit wonder when you were in high school, all these can pull us together. A protest song can swell the ranks of us-vs-them. A love song…well, we all know what they can do.

What songs have affected you the most, and why/how? And writers: what songs have inspired you?

*all the official lyric sheets show the name as John Lee, but I’ve been listening to this song for nearly 30 years, and I swear it sounds like he’s singing “Conlee.” It might be a mondegreen, or perhaps I’ve just been hearing it wrong all this time.

9 Comments on “Inspiration and “Copperhead Road””

  1. Couple of answers spring to mind. Todd Snider is probably a better storyteller than he is a musician. I’ve always liked his music, but his book of stories from the road that came out last year is fantastic, and makes me wish he’d do more prose. But I digress. His songs are lyrical short stories. I always like the way he fits things together.

    Corb Lund is another. He’s a cowboy storyteller. He just dropped an album here recently…the song that I thought of first when you asked the question was “Alice Eyes” off that new record.

    Another that popped to mind was a song called Holly Grove, from a little Atlanta band called The Whiskey Gentry, which I initially liked for it’s big, big sound, but have come to like even more for its juxtaposition of big, brassy sound against the sad story of a murder it tells…

    More than anything, I like the precision telling a story in such a short amount of time takes. I’m envious, since I’m longwinded in my writing…..

  2. I’ve always sung it as “John Lee” but I like your name choice better. Has more hill country in it.

    An excellent, multi-useful observations about a terrific song, sir. Another example of how music can change mood and meaning can be found in some of the bluegrass covers of classic and pop rock. “Pickin on Zeppelin”s take on No Quarter, for example (It’s on YouTube. I find the whole album is excellent writing music.)

    The Civil War’s “Dust to Dust” album inspired one of my books. Dr. John has fed the spirit of almost all of them. And, thanks to you, Tuatha Dea is providing the soundtrack to the WIP “Joshua’s Hollow” tale.

    I’ve found that matching the right song selection to specific scene writing helps me find and fill out the mood and tone of the scene. And I found a weird side effect. If I’m still writing much beyond, say, the second, third song? There’s going to be heavier editing. I likely overstuffed the passage.

    I’m looking forward to Chapel of Ease. You’ve built a lovely, lyric world.

  3. I don’t from any music that doesn’t have as story, as I can understand the words. (Note: Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancin’ in the dark”is playing in the background here.) Rap, jazz, metal, & classical are all fine in their own way, but without the words they don’t stay in my heart long-term.

    Favourite examples: Frank Turner (recovering English punk folk singer); Dar Williams (Her last project, In the Time of Gods, was dedicated to Greek mythos); Ani DiFranco (freak music in the tradition of Woody Guthrie)… Speaking of Guthries, anyone else have a need to hear “Alice’s Restaurant” at least once during November?

    Other honorable mentions: Mumford & Sons, Florence+ the Machine, Danielle Ate the Sandwich, & Baranaby Bright.

  4. Interesting take, but would it not be 4 generations since it starts with pipes? They would represent the lost part of history. I’ve been singing it as Conlee, but now that I watch the video and read his lips, he is saying John Lee.

  5. The unjust taxation of man by a governing body solely interested in gain.
    In Ireland poteen (moonshine) was a way to make enough to eat and put a roof over your head. The arrogance of a government that taxes alcohol sales but prevents it’s distilling is greed personified.
    Copperhead road is a symbol of freedom and working class ethos.

  6. I just found this post. I’ve had my eye on your Tufa novels a very long time. I get paid tomorrow – I think because of this post in particular, those babies are finally mine.

    The reason this post pushed me over the edge is because I just this year heard this song for the first time, and that was because it was mentioned as an inspiration for “The Gods of Howl Mountain” , which I was sent free for review. I put off reading that book for a long time because I was afraid it would be dry. No pun intended. I was wrong – it may be my favorite read of the year. And it’s a damn fine song.

    So, fairies in the hills, music and folklore? Sign me up.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *