Monday, June 11, 2012

My First Time: J. R. Angelella

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is J. R. Angelella, the author of the novel Zombie (Soho Press) as well as a forthcoming Southern Gothic supernatural YA series from Sourcebooks/Teen Fire co-written with his wife, the writer Kate Angelella.  His short fiction has appeared in numerous journals, most recently in Sou’wester, The Coachella Review, JMWW, Plots with Guns and The Collagist.  He holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from Bennington College and teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York City.  For more info, check out his website or follow him on Twitter: @jrangelella

My First Drive-By Truckers Album

I first listened to the Drive-by Truckers' album The Dirty South on Thanksgiving in 2004.  It had been given to me in August as a present from my father for my 24th birthday.  From the moment I could crawl, he has religiously introduced me to all of his favorite music—my earliest rock-and-roll memory was when he gave me a 7" vinyl 45 rpm record of The Kinks' "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All Night."  I can still remember sliding across the hardwood floors of our Federal Hill row home, banging away at my air guitar as the Kinks ripped through the speakers.  The Drive-By Truckers were another one of his bands that he had been pushing on me for quite some time.  I had heard a few tracks here and there, but never enough to make me fall in love.  But there I was on Thanksgiving with my wife, Kate, celebrating the holiday alone in Ithaca, New York, preparing a pared-down version of the classic American meal, throwing back a batch of my wife's mean old Bloody Marys, and finally, belatedly opening my birthday gift.

It was around this time, too, that I had come to one of those existential crossroads regarding my writing.  More specifically, I was considering walking away from it altogether.  I had graduated college in 2001 at which point I informed my family I was not returning home to Baltimore, but was instead staying in Ithaca to pursue a career as a writer.  At the time, I knew that if I went home to Baltimore with this goal, I would have to fight on the front lines of the war every day to keep it alive, whereas if I stayed in my safe college town, I would have the distance and space necessary to create.  Needless to say, no one really believed me, and at this point, after three years, I began to disbelieve, too.  I didn’t really have much to show for myself, I thought.  I was frustrated, having only produced a few short stories, a disjointed collection of bad prose that I (erroneously) referred to as a novel, and the chaotic jumbled early stages of a new project that would later turn out to be my novel Zombie.  While my wife went into the bedroom to make her holiday phone call to her family, I put The Dirty South in my stereo, plugged in my headphones and pressed play.

A slew of familiar, distorted guitars and chopping, axe-like drums descended, before the pace quickened and broke into a sprint with three mad electric guitars hounding toward oblivion.  The song was "Where the Devil Don't Stay" about badboy bootleggers and in that moment I experienced what can only be described as love.  The lyrics grabbed me by the throat:
Where I call to the Lord with all my soul
I can hear him rattling the chains on the door
He couldn't get in
I could see he tried
Through the shadows of the cage around the forty watt light.
(Later, I echoed this image in Zombie when Jeremy finds his father alone in the basement of their house with a bare bulb swing from above.)  I couldn’t help but be reminded of thrashing my soft body across the hardwood floors of my old house to The Kinks and after another top-up of Kate’s Bloody Mary; I dusted off the old air guitar once again.  As the album progressed, I kept inching the volume up and up and up to the point where Kate could hear the music all the way in the bedroom.  I apologized with a wave and pretended to turn it down, only turn it right back up.  Another Bloody Mary and another rawboned track thundered through me.

What happened next changed my life forever: I listened to a three-song cycle ("The Boys From Alabama," "Cottonseed" and "The Buford Stick") each inspired by the often martyred Sheriff Buford Pusser of McNairy County, Tennessee, who was famous for waging war on the redneck mafia of his time, specifically fighting against prostitution, gambling, prohibition, moonshining and murder.  But these songs were different—they were written from the point of view of the bad guys—of the pimps and gamblers and bootleggers and murderers.  I was listening to storytelling at its finest.  And as the album spiraled like a tornado towards its end, the gorgeous "Goddamn Lonely Love" did what every great rock song does: broke my heart.

I didn’t know what to make of what I had just heard.  Was it the Bloody Mary?  Or was this album that good?  In a daze, I called my father and worked my way through the handful of family members wishing me a happy Thanksgiving until I got to him and before he had a chance to say a word, I yelled: “The Dirty South?”  It came out as a question and he knew exactly what I meant.  He replied with a hearty laugh, before yelling back, “You listened to it?  I’ve been waiting for you to call about this for months.” We spent the next hour talking exclusively about The Dirty South.  I may have been 24, but not much had changed between us, musically, since back when I could crawl.

The idea of the Drive-By Truckers as storytellers surprised me, encouraged me, and opened me up to a new way of approaching my own work.  It sounded like they were having so much fun on each record and fun was the very thing that I was missing in my work.  The foggy doubt hanging over my own writing began to lift as this new idea sank in, burning away the creative barriers.  Instead of being fearless on the page and reveling in an unabridged pool of creativity, my stories were largely stiff, safe, reserved, stunted, weak, wooden, premature and lacking any real perspective.  The Drive-By Truckers proved to me that there was not only incredible fun to be had telling the most devilish narratives, but also that the opportunity existed in art to deliver unique and original versions of clich├ęd, second-hand stories.  The songwriters on that album--Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood, and Jason Isbell--collectively produced (in a certain light) what I consider to be a collection of short stories, or otherwise known as neo-country-punk noir—each story serving the same vision: the dissection of the dirty South.

I've since become a self-proclaimed high-priest of the DBT faith.  I’ve seen them a handful of times in concert, each performance more memorable than the last.  My father and I attended a show together recently where we got close enough to the stage that we could damn near touch Patterson Hood’s handle of Jack Daniels next to his mic stand.  (They are a rock and roll band, through-and-through.) Shortly after that concert, I found a phenomenal live recording of that NYC show and when I listened to it straight through and really focused on the audience, I could hear my dad singing and clapping and carrying on, just like I used to do to The Kinks.

Thanksgiving is no longer Thanksgiving for me, but rather affectionately known as DBT Day in my house.  (My wife is a saint, I know!)

The first time I listened to the Drive-By Truckers, they saved my life.  Without The Dirty South, I could have very easily walked away from my writing for good and wound up just another loveable deviant scheming deep inside the backwoods of another DBT record.


  1. Well Hot Damn!!! The Roots of Rock & Roll!!

  2. God Bless your Father.

    My first concert ever was the Kinks at SPAC.

    Just placed an order for this DBT album.

    Enjoy the Novel One ride!!!!


  3. Fyi, has a collection of several dozen Drive-By Truckers live shows.

  4. Fyi, has a collection of several dozen Drive-By Truckers live shows.

  5. Patterson Hood talks about how rock & roll saved his life. I guess he has paid it forward.

  6. Yo. I understand your experience so well. My experience came in the Gangstabilly era with Panties In Your Purse. The Living Bubba is an anthem, and 18 Wheels of Love became a song that my son and I were able to sing together. Didn't save my live, but sure improved it.

  7. Wonderful post - love the DBTs. I'm finishing up a novel thats on this theme - music redeeming a life. Nothing better than music + fiction!