A Guitar and a Pen
Stories by Country Music's Greatest Songwriters
Robert Hicks, John Bohlinger
and Justin Stelter
Center Street: 258 pp., $23.99
O irony of ironies.
Here I spend half my life trying to pass as a member of the cosmopolitan intelligentsia, only to have my editors ask me to review "A Guitar and a Pen: Stories by Country Music's Greatest Songwriters." It's as if they delight in forcing me to reveal the guitar and fiddle reverberating in my soul. As a rancher's niece growing up in rural New Mexico, I knew a lot more about "A Boy Named Sue" than I did about "Madame Butterfly." Patsy Cline and Hank Williams were dead, so that made them classical music, and as far as anybody I knew was concerned, Buck Owens on "Hee Haw" was a lot more entertaining than any Gilbert and Sullivan fanciness.
This is almost a setup to a country song: Girl leaves the trailer, goes to Paris and learns to parlez-vous, only to have the forces that be return her to reality. (In fact, Joe Ely already wrote that one; it's called "My Baby Thinks She's French.")
But back to the subject at hand: The best country music offers nothing if not a good story, so who could blame editor Robert Hicks -- author of the bestselling historical novel "The Widow of the South" -- for thinking that an anthology of stories by big-name country songwriters and singers would be something special? The impressive list of contributors includes one of the original "outlaw country" guys, Kris Kristofferson; Charlie Daniels, of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" fame; and Tom T. Hall, who wrote "Harper Valley P.T.A." and numerous other hits.
Singer Vince Gill frames the anthology perfectly in the book's foreword: "Just as Marty Robbins once told us in two minutes and fifty-eight seconds the epic tale of a cowboy who meets a beautiful girl, kills the rival for her hand in a gunfight, steals a horse, runs away, returns to the girl, takes a bullet, kisses the girl, and dies, these men and women are spinning their tales a little longer this time. If the . . . songwriter is the ultimate short, short story writer, then what can he do if he has a bit more time and paper? That question remains at the center of this book."
I'm here to tell you the answer to that question is not a whole heck of a lot.
It's not that there aren't a number of peachy moments to be found in these pages. One of them is Bobby Braddock's epistolary ditty about an Internet hookup, which surprises and amuses. (Braddock co-wrote George Jones' smash hit "He Stopped Loving Her Today," one of the best cry-in-your-Coors ballads ever) Janis Ian's essay about the theft of her beloved Martin guitar ends happily, and the short story "How I Stayed a Boy" by Tia Sillers (who co-wrote the multi-platinum modern country hit "Blue on Black") will charm you. And, I have to say, Robbie Fulks' essay about a dismal time speaking at the career day at his kids' school will make anyone who writes for a living laugh in sad, sad recognition.
Great lines can be found even within stories that don't quite get off the ground, such as Hal Ketchum's "The Clock Struck Nine." But taken in the aggregate, the collection lacks the punch and verve of real storytelling. The cadence is off, the timing not quite right. For all artists, working outside the forms they know best is a challenge. It's as if these songwriters didn't quite know what to do with themselves when stripped of a four-minute framework.
Some tales begin well, then meander and lose resolution; others that would have been tragic or cautionary in two minutes ring with hollow sentimentality over six pages. Narrators such as Mark D. Sanders -- for whom the voice is the story itself -- start funny but wear thin, like some wise-cracking guy at a bar.
All right, so this anthology isn't likely to win any literary prizes, but the stories will respectably occupy your time while you're on the Blue Line or the bus to Bakersfield, and they might inspire you to break out a Townes Van Zandt recording or maybe something by Patty Griffin or Lucinda Williams. It might even give you just enough of a taste for the short story and that hard-bitten voice to send you to the bookshelf in search of the good stuff. May I suggest Lee K. Abbott's "All Things, All at Once," to satisfy that particular craving?
Ultimately, "A Guitar and a Pen" could best be explained by the quote attributed to Blaise Pascal (yeah, that's right, French -- you knew I had to bring it full circle): "I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to make it shorter." *
Samantha Dunn is the author of the novel "Failing Paris" and co-editor of the short-story anthology "Women on the Edge."