06/13/2024

Some Crim

Track the Untold Stories

Writers and Musicians: When Artforms Intersect

Writers and Musicians: When Artforms Intersect

I have long held the belief that you can tell a lot about a cowboy by the way he treats his hat; the way he wears it, and the way he treats it when he takes it off his head. The same can be said about a musician and his instrument, the songwriter and his guitar. We reveal ourselves by the way we treat our favorite objects, and even more so the way we treat our animals, or the way we speak about others in their absence, and the way we treat both friends and strangers in their presence.

I also believe it is the writer’s responsibility to reveal these very human things—in sum and substance, it is the very core of what we do. If we fail to reach for revelation, for insight, unique perspectives and observations, we are selling ourselves short, and likewise our readers.

In my life, I have had the great joy to participate in all of these pursuits—horseman, musician, and writer—and for me, there is a distinct confluence, a synergy among them that has taught me a great deal about nature, people, and the world.

In recent weeks, I have been doing a number of talks and signings in support of the release of the newest installment of the Sheriff Ty Dawson crime thriller series, Knife River. As has always been the case, my favorite part of those events is the audience Q&A, where readers get to delve deeper into the backstory, the characters, the musical references, and details about the writing process. But the question I encounter most frequently regards the origins of Ty Dawson, and the fictional locale Meriwether County, in which Dawson plies his trade as both a rancher and a sheriff.

In fact, I often characterize the series as Longmire meets Yellowstone in the 1970s.

But I think it is the time-period itself that sets the tone, and frankly, I love that these books are so evocative for many of us, and the fact that they take place during the 1970s conjures such a vast mélange of memories, images and feelings, and that the musical soundtrack of those times informed more than a mere backdrop, it was the atmosphere.

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I like to say that I was born in South California (a term that is infrequently—if ever—used by anyone other than me, but I’ve always liked the look of those words on the page), birthed at the crossroads of the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras, reared in the shadow of Aquarius, and graduated from high school in the ballroom of the Hotel California.

I was raised on a small ranch in San Juan Capistrano, grew up surrounded by horses, cattle, and untold acres of farmland (orange groves, strawberries and avocados in my case), learning to saddle and handle a horse (a pony, at first) by the time I had reached my fourth birthday.

But music was my first love, and I took to the entire scope of it with my whole heart.

So, after graduating college with a degree in Finance and Business, I promptly did what all good business students do: I started a country-rock band.

I spent a number of years as a full-time working musician, then as a record producer, and finally as an artist manager—advising, listening, traveling, laughing, negotiating and sometimes arguing with some of the most fascinating people in the world; my exposure to the music of my youth informing every mile and every moment. Perhaps one of my most cherished chapters from that period came from my association with legendary music- and film-producer, James William Guercio, founder of the famed Caribou Ranch Studios. Situated in the rural front range of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, Caribou Ranch became the iconic recording resort home-away-from-home for artists as varied as Paul McCartney, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Chicago and John Lennon (among dozens of others). This association formed the backbone of a fictionalized narrative thread in Knife River which to say much more about would spoil the fun…

Suffice to say, though, that the thing that most effectively fuels creativity and inspiration for me as a writer is music.

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As an author, my basic premise is this: Every story is about people. Whether it is science fiction, horror, whodunnit mystery, cozy or literary narrative, the way that people respond to a situation is what creates the trajectory of the story; the locale, setting, and historical timeframe creates the cultural backdrop within which the author’s people process their reality and how the fictional community perceives the story as it unfolds. So, if the jumping-off spot as an author is to create a entertaining and compelling narrative, the lens we employ in the telling of that story indelibly affects the story itself.

This is where music comes in for me.

I had once heard an interview with Pink Floyd’s guitarist, David Gilmour, in which he mentioned that during the recording of the band’s legendary and iconic Dark Side of the Moon album, he refused to listen to rock music at all (other than what the band themselves were creating in the studio). His justification was that he didn’t want to be influenced by anyone outside the band while they were writing, if he could help it; a statement that illustrates how deep and subliminal those influences can potentially be. I will admit, at the time I recall thinking his position seemed a little excessive, even a bit precious. I have come to eat my words. Turns out, I think David might well be right.

The reason, I discovered, was that music—for me—was a sonic “cocoon” of sorts that formed the wall between the fiction I was writing (the environment I was endeavoring to create) and the real world I emerged into when my writing-day had concluded. As most writers already know, that emergence can come as a shock. As a result, when I outline my story I begin by creating a soundtrack, a playlist of sorts, that emotionally, lyrically, and sonically supports the overall tone I’m seeking to realize for the book as a whole. In fact, I use musical cues throughout my novels, if for no other reason than to remind the reader (and me) that there is a sonic ambience of sorts that accompanies the novel and forms guardrails to the tonal quality of a scene, and ultimately the work as a completed piece. At the request of many readers over the years, I now note the “soundtrack” I immersed myself in during the writing of the book in the Authors Notes and Acknowledgments section at the conclusion of each one.

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I have a number of author friends who also have deep backgrounds in the arts: oil painting, filmmaking, acting, sculpting, dancing… the list goes on. Others among my writing colleagues have professional experiences that lie well outside of the artistic realm. But the differences among us are rooted primarily in perception, influenced by our life experiences and observations; and because we process information through different filters, we arrive at differing conclusions—or similar conclusions from an entirely different path or train of thought. It’s rather miraculous, really, and an enormous component of our common experience as artists.

I really hadn’t intended to get overly “meta” about this writing thing: too much navel-gazing into our “process” rapidly becomes counter-productive. What works for me might not work for you. But all of us require creative nutrition, and a healthy understanding of the influences that inspire us—or ignite that creative passion inside us—these are the things that drive us to pursue the true heart of story we seek to tell.

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