The first two books I published (a story collection called Strangers to Temptation and a novel, Whereabouts) were both set in the Low Country of South Carolina during the shank of the 1970s. I could act all coy and confused and say I don’t know why I chose that decade, but that would be a hefty lie. I know exactly why. In the 1970s—especially the early 70s—I was, for lack of a less clichéd term, coming of age. Those were the years I discovered all the important things in life: how to dodge your parents’ questions, how to fish, how to flirt with crushes, how to paddle a boat one-handed in Black River… and how to read album liner notes.
Back then, I had a paper route through the streets of Kingstree, S.C., and the only reason I rolled-and-slung the Charleston Evening Post six afternoons a week was to buy records. (Well, records and a daily post-route doughnut at the Kingstree Inn.) When I first started dropping money on music, I was content listening to 45s. I recall buying a lot of Jackson Five and Supremes; the Detroit invasion had arrived in full force in the Low Country of South Carolina. But for those of us with memories that stretch that far back, we know that 45s were simply the gateway drug to LPs—the big vinyl, with the big covers.
I have to assume the first liner notes I ever took notice of were inside the first album I bought, Sweet Baby James. I remember the afternoon I finally had enough paper route money in my pocket and headed down to Rose’s store to pick up James Taylor’s 1970 release. That was my initial fix in a lifetime album addiction: slitting the cellophane with a thumbnail far enough to peel the package open; sliding the paper sleeve out of the thick album cover almost like you were opening some sort of archeological tomb; placing the album on the turntable; dropping the needle; then, settling in to study the liner notes.
That was the day I learned something new and vital about myself—I liked knowing who did what. I read the list of musicians like I was studying for a test. With Sweet Baby James, I learned the name of a drummer I would see playing on album after album for the next couple of decades, Russ Kunkel. The guy playing bass, Randy Meisner, would become a founding member of The Eagles a year later. And there was Danny Kortchmar (Kootch), Taylor’s long-time friend from Martha’s Vineyard days, playing guitar. And Carole King, a year before Tapestry, played piano and sang backing vocals. Of course, lying on the floor that day, soaking in the music and liner notes in front of a stereo the size of an adult coffin, I had no clue who these people might become. I only knew it was important to memorize their names and to know the instruments they were connected to.
(Sidebar: when I say “liner notes,” I’m not talking about those things that accompany boxed sets of LPs or commemorative releases, when the record company brings in some hotshot music writer to write something long and flowery and unctuous. Those are the things that win Grammy Awards. Yes, there is a Grammy category for Best Album Notes. I’m talking about the nuts-and-bolts liner notes. Who played what. Who engineered what. Who gets thanked. What kinds of strings were used on the guitars. Who arranged the strings. I’m not interested in a PhD dissertation. I just want to know who gathered around a microphone and made the hand claps on track 6.)
So, it began with Sweet Baby James, and I didn’t have much time to catch my breath before I bought a Creedence Clearwater Revival album a few months later. It was late summer and my mother drove me and my sister fifty miles to Florence to buy school clothes. (I remember the stiff jeans that were four inches too long, jeans I would “grow into.”) In some store, maybe a Kmart, I flipped through the bin of rock and roll until I found Cosmos Factory, an album I’d read about in Rolling Stone. On drive back to Kingstree, we convinced my mother to swing by a Krispy Kreme store for a dozen glazed, still warm in the box. Back home, again in front of the giant console stereo, I went through my routine: slice, peel, place, drop, and read. Only, this time there was a slight, clumsy alteration. Somehow, I managed to get Krispy Kreme doughnut glaze into a few grooves of the second track on side two, “My Baby Left Me.” I tried, so carefully, to clean the sugar out of the grooves without scratching the album. But I could never clean it all the way. I still own that record, and the needle always hops halfway through the sad story of his baby leaving him. But the good news is, the liner notes were unsmeared. I learned what a family affair Creedence was. John’s brother Tom played rhythm guitar, and his other brother, Bob, did the weird cover design and cover photography.
I couldn’t help myself. I grew obsessed. I read every word of the notes inside the gatefold of Go For Your Guns by the Isley Brothers, read the personal handwritten messages. At the end, when they wrote, “Y’all shoot your best shot and keep on livin’…Yeah!” I thought they were cheerleading for me. My jaw dropped when I discovered that Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton played guitar on Stephen Stills first solo album. (And I figured Stills wasn’t feuding too much with Crosby and Nash, since his band mates sang background on his solo album.) Earth, Wind and Fire threw me a curve, printing all their information on the paper sleeve instead of the album cover, but I adjusted. I evolved. I got older. I can remember one evening, on the floor of my college dorm room in front of a smaller, better stereo, reading every syllable spread across three sides of the Born to Run cover, thinking, Roy Bittan plays the glockenspiel. What the hell is a glockenspiel?
Sure, cassettes killed liner notes for awhile. Nobody wanted to unfold the postcard-sized piece of paper and read the fly speck copy. CDs continued to take the fun out of it. I mean, if you finally figured out how to unleash the poster tucked behind the plastic clips, you had to have a magnifying glass at hand if you wanted to see who played the Hammond B3 on track 4. The crinkle of cellophane was gone. The thumbnail slicing was obsolete. (For lord’s sake, it took an engineering degree and a specialized “tool” to get through the security measures on a CD wrapper.) Simply, cassettes and CDs didn’t have the acreage required for liner notes. Size matters.
But most good things have a way of edging back into our world. The past few years I’ve been buying vinyl again, though with the price of LPs, I almost need an extra job—like a paper route—to feed my habit. Once more, I’m slicing cellophane and placing records on a nice, new turntable. And I’ve been studying the notes again. Makes my heart warm to see some old friends from the 70s. Russ Kunkel and Leland Sklar are still the go-to rhythm section for the west coast sound. Roy Bittan is still firing up the trusty glockenspiel on Springsteen’s brand new release. And I’m learning new stuff too. Did you know Sturgill Simpson produced Tyler Childers’ Country Squire album? He joined in the hand claps on side two.
Yeah, I guess you could say I have a problem. I still read liner notes like I’m studying for a final exam. I still occasionally eat a doughnut.
TO PURCHASE WHEREABOUTS: Support Independent Book stores and shop Bear Book Market. Whereabouts is also available via Amazon. I also highly recommend his book, Strangers to Temptation, a collection of linked narratives based in Kingstree, SC. If you enjoyed Whereabouts, you’ll love Strangers to Temptation.
Visit Scott Gould, Writer for forthcoming publications, events, and much more!