A Soundtrack for City People Who Grew Up in Small Towns
Julie Buntin, author of Marlena, makes a Literary Mixtape for every urban-dweller who remembers what it was like to be young and bored and driving down country roads dreaming of another life
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I should get this out of the way up front — for me, music is for singing, and for feeling. My taste trends sentimental. I like country more than I want to admit. Folk music is my drug of choice, anything nostalgic, women with hard-living voices, and yes, I love a good sad man with a guitar. I grew up in rural northern Michigan, incongruous land of both country music radio and months of endless snow. And so perhaps it’s not a surprise that my debut novel, Marlena, is set in this remote and beautiful place, and that the girl at the heart of the story harbors secret dreams of becoming a singer.
The book came out earlier this month, and in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been asked over and over again how autobiographical it is. I find this question annoying, but it’s not totally unjustified — the narrator of the book, Cat, is a woman slightly older than me, also from northern Michigan, looking back on an adolescent friendship that ended in tragedy and changed the course of her life. I have written nonfiction about losing a close friend from high school; it’s no secret that certain elements of the novel are influenced by real experiences. But the plot is fictional, the girls are characters, and the story is not my own.
Except for the music. That’s one hundred percent ode to the songs I loved as a teenager. I was in high school in the early 2000s, a few years before Cat and Marlena were — but like them, I preferred the older stuff, and was a bit of a snob when it came to Top 40 radio (except for the Dixie Chicks). And when I grew up and moved away from the midwest, as Cat does, to New York City, I found that my taste had mostly cemented, that the songs I played on repeat while waiting for the subway were the folk and country songs I thought I’d left behind like the parts of myself I didn’t much like. Turns out, those parts were just as stubborn as my taste in music. And that’s what those songs capture so well — the impossibility of ever outrunning yourself, no matter how far you go.
This is a soundtrack for city people from small towns — the leave and I’m never coming backers, the runaways. The list can be split into roughly two groups — there are the tracks that make you long for where you come from, that fill you with yearning, and the ones that remind you of the promise of the place that took you in. No explanation can evoke what I’m trying to get at as deeply and fully as Jackson C. Frank singing “Blues Run the Game,” or Gillian Welch singing pretty much anything. You just have to listen; you just have to feel it.
1. Joni Mitchell, “River”
Marlena, the title character of my novel, is a 17 year-old girl with perfect pitch and wide ranging taste in music — from folk to country, pop to punk to blues. But Joni Mitchell is Marlena’s favorite. Her voice, as I imagine it, is a cousin of Joni’s — a little more textured, but full of that same trembling strength, a similar ability to make high notes pierce and shimmer. In the opening pages of the book, Cat, the narrator, remembers Marlena singing “California,” one of the anthems of small town girls, no matter the decade. That aural memory will haunt Cat for the rest of her life. But when I thought about what I wanted my novel to be, how I wanted it to make readers feel, I thought of “River.” I wanted to write that song in novel form.
2. Neko Case, “I Wish I Was the Moon”
In the second half of Marlena, Cat records a video of Marlena singing this song. Both girls want to be famous, or feel famous already, in that bashful way that all teenagers sort of believe they are the true center of the universe. But Marlena really is talented. She’s got a musician’s ear — and like so many teenagers, a hubristic faith in her own instincts. Marlena’s rendition of this song — slowed down, a little angstier, inflected with a vocal crack and tear here and there for slightly misguided and melodramatic impact — is the embodiment of her aesthetic. If Marlena had lived, I imagine she might have tried to write her own version.
3. Gillian Welch, “Look at Miss Ohio”
Gillian Welch’s “The Revelator” is a sacred album to me, and this track my favorite. I don’t want to ruin it with words — just hit play.
4. Dixie Chicks, “Wide Open Spaces”
The Dixie Chicks are wonderful and many of their songs would work for this list. But it had to be this one, this wailing, emotional, even playful tribute to the desire to break free from your life, from the place that defines you, and strike out for somewhere new, somewhere you can write your own story. “I need wide open spaces / room to make a big mistake…” You can hear the teenage girls the Chicks were in every note.
5. Prince, “Purple Rain”
Another thing that all these songs have in common is they’re especially good for driving. When I was a teenager, my friends and I used to drive around the back roads singing this song at the top of our lungs. (Is anyone more fun to sing than Prince?) Prince is the patron saint of midwestern kids who dream of bigger, brighter lives — and we loved him like a god.
6. Blues Run the Game, Jackson C. Frank
This goddamn beautiful song. Jackson C. Frank released a single folk album — it’s called, simply, Jackson C. Frank, and it contains ten plaintive and moving and perfect tracks. After the record was released, Jackson’s life took a downhill turn — he was mentally ill, diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression, and died in 1999 after years of living in poverty, often homeless. There’s something about his story — all that promise, the single influential and striking album, the bright future canceled out by forces he couldn’t control — I always think I can hear what happened to him in these songs, the texture of his voice, the yearning and heartbreak in every note, but maybe that’s just because I know how his life ended. I thought of him a lot while I was writing Marlena, in its own way about a real talent snuffed out too soon, and must have listened to this album a thousand times.
7. Fire & Rain, James Taylor
I considered an alternate version of this playlist that was just the album “Sweet Baby James.” If you’re from a small town anywhere in the midwest and you can hear a James Taylor song without being overtaken by a knee-weakening sense memory, I would be very very surprised. When James sings, “But I always thought that I’d see you again,” I don’t think of a person, I think of being sixteen and taking a running jump off a pontoon boat into Walloon Lake, or how it felt to lie in the grass in my backyard with my best friend, how I took the starry sky for granted. I had no idea that I’d grow up to live in a place where being able to make out four stars in the sky at night would be a rare occurrence.
8. Journey, Don’t Stop Believin’
The ideal condition for listening to this song is in a car going over the New Jersey Turnpike at night, while Manhattan comes glitteringly into view, the volume turned up so loud it hurts a little and the windows all the way down, in hour fifteen of a drive that started in northern Michigan and wound through Canada, your throat sore from at least two packs of Camel Lights. Honestly, if you can’t replicate that exact circumstance, there’s no reason to put this one on — it’s corny as hell, and listening to it casually (if it appears your playlist, say, while getting ready for a dinner party) will just fill with you vague embarrassment. But if you can set it up just right — the car, the night, finding yourself in a great city after a long, long drive from nowhere — every chord will make you feel like anything is possible.
9. Peter, Paul & Mary, 500 Miles
This is a drinking alone song. This is a sitting on the fire escape of your crappy Brooklyn sublet with a bottle of two buck chuck and seventeen dollars to your name, can’t even afford cigarettes kind of song. A what have I done song, an I want to go home song, a song for that exquisite brand of sadness that’s closer to joy than heartbreak — because yes you’re lonely, yes you’re broke, but you got out, and isn’t that exactly what you always wanted?
10. Alabama Shakes, Heartbreaker
The Alabama Shakes are a blues rock band that scratches my country music itch while managing to be totally appropriate — even cool — to listen to as an urban twenty-something. Also, they are incredible, and Brittany Howard’s voice is the stuff of legend.
11. Alicia Keys, Empire State of Mind
I know, I know, everyone on earth is sick of this song — there was that summer after it first came out when you couldn’t go into a bodega in any of the five boroughs without hearing it on blast. But tell me it doesn’t perfectly capture the mystique and allure of the city. Even though I’d lived here for nearly ten years by the time it was released, hearing it at just the right moment still gives me shivers. Sometimes, if I’m splurging on a cab home and we’re going over the Brooklyn Bridge I put in my earphones and play this song and look out at the whole gorgeous mess of New York City and think yes, this is the place that saved me.
About the Author
Julie Buntin is the author of the new novel, Marlena. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, O, The Oprah Magazine, Slate, Electric Literature, and One Teen Story, among other publications. She teaches fiction writing at Marymount Manhattan College, and is the director of writing programs at Catapult. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.