The Story In My Head Has a Soundtrack

wireI can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but I love music. Music is a constant companion—at work, at the gym, relaxing around the house, and especially when writing. Maybe it’s from all of the soundtracks at the movies setting the moods in a film, but for me music is an integral part of my writing. In fact, when writing, I even create playlists for characters. While working on “Moonshiner’s Lament” which appears in the MWA VENGEANCE anthology, music played a role in shaping the story.

When I sat down to write this tale, all I knew was that the story would be set in Appalachia in the early ‘70’s, and I knew the hero would be a Vietnam Vet who has returned to his old ways of hauling illegal whiskey. When I began, I had was this framework and an opening line (Goat McKnight’s hands ached for a gun). That was all. Then, it struck me where Goat would be. I wrote the first page at a blistering pace. I re-read what I had written, and immediately pulled up my Window’s Media player and started creating what became “Goat’s Playlist.” This list became what played through my earbuds while writing and re-writing “Moonshiner’s Lament.”

The first songs were no-brainers. Who can write about moonshine without Robert Mitchum’s “Thunder Road,” or George Jones’ “White Lightning.” For me, the Cat-Daddy Appalachia moonshiner songs has got to be Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road,” and yes there is an homage to Earle’s song in my story.

To get into the mood of the 1970’s era, I leaned heavily on classic rock—The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, CCR as well as others. Rock and roll was part of the soldiers serving in Vietnam. The Doors and Stones songs all seemed to be what would be playing when soldiers thought about being back home having a good time. And when you hear Jimi’s blistering guitar or listen to CCR’s “Running Through The Jungle” you can feel the humid jungle weighting you down, and hear the staccato insanity of a firefight with tracers racing around.

Goat McKnight wound up going into the military to avoid prison for running moonshine, so Goat seemed to share the rebel spirit of the original country outlaw artists. As a result Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, David Allen Coe, Hank Williams Jr and Waylon Jennings were in heavy rotation on Goat’s playlist.

A few albums helped set the tone of the story as well. Dierks Bentley’s UP ON THE RIDGE ALBUM is a bluegrass influenced country CD. The title track played while I was working out the first scenes up on the mountain. Since all of the songs on Kathy Mattea’s album COAL are about miners and the mining life, every track went on the playlist. Her song “Coal Tattoo” has a cadence of a moving car and that song played in my head while I had Goat driving the night away.

There were many other artists and songs, too many to list, though some were definite standouts, songs that seemed to speak directly about some part of Goat’s tale while I was writing. These were—Bruce Springsteen (Born In the USA), Brantley Gilbert (“Hell on Wheels”), The Cumberland River Band (“Let the Moonshine Flow” and “Rock Island Express”) as well as Old Crow Medicine Show (“Big Time In The Jungle”).

Most writers have some rituals. Some writers have to write at specific times or locations. Others have to outline or not outline. For me, whenever I open up to start a story, as I’m looking at the blinking cursor on the blank page, I click on my music library and hit play.

Check out “Moonshiner’s Lament” in Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance, in bookstore now.

Rick McMahan is a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The year 2012 marks his twentieth in law enforcement. Rick’s work wakes him to counties across central and southeastern Kentucky, including Bell County, the area featured in “Moonshiner’s Lament.” His myster stories have appeared in various publications, including the Mystery Writers of America anthology Death Do Us Part. He also has a story in the International Association of Crime Writers’ forthcoming collection of crime fiction from around the world.