The Lost Art of Liner Notes by Author, Scott Gould

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!

A Conversation with Southern Author, Scott Gould about Writing and his Novel, Whereabouts

Southern author, Scott Gould, talks to me about writing and his latest novel, Whereabouts…

Author, Scott Gould

You returned to the town of Kinsgtree, SC but moved from a first-person, point-of-view adult narrator reflecting back on his childhood to a young, female third-person point of view. Why not a first-person point of view? Also, did you find it more difficult to write from a female perspective verses a male?

To be honest, I shifted to a third-person point of view as an exercise for myself. I’ve always been most comfortable writing in first person. That’s always my go-to, especially in short fiction. But I remember thinking I needed to get out of my comfort zone a little and try something that made me squirm in the chair a little. Squirming is good for writers, right? Plus, third person gives you a little more latitude with delivering information, although this point of view is so limited through Missy Belue, it’s almost a substitute first-person. But the fact of the matter is, I decided to do it because I wanted to be a little uncomfortable. And as far as using a female protagonist…well, that was a conscious decision for my daughters, who were very young at the time I started the book. I wanted to write a story for them with a strong, independent female character, so it just seemed natural to filter the story through Missy’s eyes. During all the versions of the novel, I worried constantly if I was being true to her character, if I was making her believable. A great deal of the revision process revolved around being true to Missy. (Was I being true as a male writer interpreting her.) And I still worry about it. I guess it was a little bit of a risk, writing a female protagonist. Maybe I set myself up for some criticism, but, I mean, I think I made the decision to have a female protagonist for all the right reasons.

There’s something reminiscent of a fairy tale in Whereabouts. It reminded me of Goldie Locks and the Three Bears. Missy tries out men (not in a slutty way!) like Goldie Locks tries out porridge, chairs and beds. She tries Skyles, then Hassan, but unlike Goldie Locks who eventually finds the perfect fit, Missy rejects the third option and chooses independence. Did you have the fairy tale method in mind when you wrote Whereabouts?

I never really thought about Whereabouts in terms of a fairy tale, but now that you’ve told me this, Dawn, I am going to steal this idea and use it whenever possible. (Do I owe you money?) For me, I was just following the tried-and-true advice my old teacher, William Price Fox, gave me. Dig a decent hole and toss your character in. Let her try to crawl out. When she gets close to the surface, bang her on the head with the shovel and knock her back in the hole. Repeat process. Okay, maybe Bill was too graphic back during those days, but the point is valid. I wanted to keep throwing roadblocks in Missy’s way…and all the roadblocks happened to be the men she encountered on her journey. Missy Belue has an emotional destination. She wants to find an antidote to the boredom and unhappiness and restlessness in her life. On the way to this destination, she faces roadblocks. She keeps getting thrown back down in the hole. (As an aside, if you haven’t read William Price Fox’s stories and novels, you should. Moonshine Light, Moonshine Bright is wonderful book I go back to time and again.)

South American short-story writer, novelist, journalist, Gabriel García Márquez, said in his prologue to Twelve Pilgrims:

…The effort involved in writing a short story is as intense as beginning a novel, where everything must be defined in the first paragraph: structure, tone, style, rhythm, length, and sometimes even the personality of a character. All the rest is the pleasure of writing…and if the rest of one’s life is not spent correcting the novel, it is because the same iron rigor needed to begin the book is required to end it. But a [short] story has no beginning, no end. Either it works or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t…toss the story in the wastebasket.

Do you agree with Márquez? I noticed in the Acknowledgements Whereabouts developed from a short story titled, “Sort of a Prophet.” Did you find it harder to move from short stories to a novel?

Oh lord, who am I to dispute Marquez? I mean, I agree with parts of what he says here, especially about the common intensity between a short story and the beginning of a novel. But I’ve found (and I ain’t no expert, trust me) that beginning a novel requires the establishment of a voice that the reader can live with for tens of thousands of words, a voice that seems to suggest, “Settle in. We’re going on a trip. It’s going to take a while. Just hang with me.” On the other hand, a short story, in my experience, requires a bit more of a desperate quality in the narrative voice. If I had to put a sound on it, the storytelling voice would be a little more pitched, maybe in a higher key, a voice that suggests, “I gotta tell you this story before it gets away, before I forget it.” Oddly, Whereabouts had its beginnings in a story that I placed in the middle of the novel. I decided to write what got Missy to that particular short story, and then write what happened to her afterward. It was almost like the short story (“Sort of a Prophet”) was the peak of a tall hill. And the novel is the process of getting Missy up the slope to the top, then follow her down the backside of the hill. I’m not sure that metaphor makes sense. Hell, I’m not sure it’s even a metaphor.

I kept wondering if the encyclopedia salesman was a younger Skyles, especially when Missy chose an encyclopedia starting with the letter “S.” That remained a bit of a mystery, but some of his characteristics fit and then some not so much. Was it Skyles? Or will you reveal this tidbit?

I wasn’t really thinking about Skyles when I wrote the encyclopedia salesman’s character. What I was thinking about was the time when I was in the seventh grade and I almost knocked my front teeth out, diving at the Kingstree Moose Lodge pool one July. I had to eat through a squeeze bottle for weeks and be careful with my teeth, and stay at home alone during the day while my parents were at work. (I don’t know where my sister was. Maybe off with relatives or something. Or locked in the attic.) Anyway, I’m hanging out bored at home, with orders not to answer the door, and this college-aged encyclopedia salesman shows up, and he’s sweating and nervous. I knew I shouldn’t ask him inside, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to go outside and shoot some basketball. Plus, we already had encyclopedias. I hadn’t been allowed to do anything for days. (My mother was trying desperately to preserve my front teeth.) So I end up in the back yard, shooting hoops with a sweaty encyclopedia salesman, and I’m being real careful to keep my loose front teeth out of the way of the rebounds. My parents were not happy with me. Now, combine that with the fact that my father still has that set of World Book Encyclopedias from the late sixties, and the biggest one is the ‘S’ volume. I just kind put those things together to try and set up the idea of Missy Belue wanting to keep moving, just like the sharks she reads about in the ‘S’ volume. (That volume is sitting right here, on my table.) Skyles? Man, he is something altogether different. He should probably have his own entry in the ‘S’ volume. But I can’t see him ever selling encyclopedias. Or sweating.  

Sorry–’m such nerd–but I always try and hunt down the literal meaning of character names. Mona was a bit a whiner or moaner, so I thought her name was fitting. What about the name Skyles? Was that a play on the word “skyless” and yes, I Goggled it! It’s Lithuanian for “holes.”

I love the process of coming up with characters’ names. To be honest, most of the time, I go with the best sounds. I’m really attracted to rhythmic names that make some noise. I had a friend in elementary school named Freddie Belue, and I always thought his last name was so cool, almost like you put an odd, extra syllable in the word “blue.” And I thought, Yeah, Missy spends a lot of this novel being blue. That works. Mona was named for the reason you mentioned. Lots of whining and complaining and worrying in her character. With Skyles, I wanted something that seemed a little mysterious and unique. (But I like your idea better. Lithuanian for holes. You sure I shouldn’t pay you something?) And Asa, of course, is sort of an ass most of the time, so I went with that. I never know if I get the names right or not. It’s something I always look back on and go, “Damn, that doesn’t work.” But maybe these will hold up. Ask me in six months. I’ll probably wanna change Missy to Abigail or something.

I compared Virgil’s The Aeneid to Whereabouts because it seemed to me that the allusion foreshadowed Missy’s journey? Was that your intention or did the allusion stop with Asa Floyd guiding the grief-stricken through their personal hell? It was a hilarious allusion, by the way.

Virgil’s Aeneid…I love this question. Okay, so I didn’t go as far down the Virgil rabbit hole as you did. When Asa says, “In this hell you’ve been thrust, I am your…Virgil,” I was thinking about Dante’s Inferno, and how Virgil was Dante’s guide through the circles of hell. (Also, I wanted a set-up for the punch line, when Mona says, “Thank you so much, Virgil.”) But now that you’ve mentioned it, there is sort of a parallel between Aeneas’s wanderings and Missy’s. I might steal that too. (I swear, I should probably pay you.) But to be honest, I was only thinking of Virgil and how he led Dante through all those circles. That’s part of my problem—I only know a little bit of a lot of things. Gets me into trouble sometimes, especially at cocktail parties with English department faculty.

There were two items that suggested to me, or at least left the door open for a series with Missy Belue. Who was in the casket at the last funeral?! Why did Missy end up where she did at the end? Can we expect more from Missy Belue, meaning can we look forward to reading more Kingstree based stories and characters?

I have not really thought about taking on Missy Belue again, but that’s not to say that couldn’t happen. You know, I ended the story at the place where I thought the circle closed. And I wanted to end with Missy in a place that she had earned, that she could claim as her own. A few days ago, I did a book club discussion with some folks in Chicago, and they sort of hammered me about the ending. (Actually, they hammered me pretty hard. Felt like I was defending a dissertation.) They thought I’d left Missy in a bad place, with few decent options and only hardship ahead. I disagreed, and we had a nice, adult-like discussion about gender and agency and the like. But in retrospect, the interesting thing for me is that they were already writing the next chapter in her story. And the next chapter had some trouble in it. They wanted more, maybe. So perhaps Missy’s story should go on. Maybe I’ll go read The Iliad and get me some inspiration.

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 also based in Kingstree, SC. If you enjoyed Whereabouts, you’ll love Strangers to Temptation.

MORE ABOUT SCOTT: Scott Gould is the author of the novels Whereabouts and The Hammerhead Chronicles (forthcoming from University of North Georgia Press), the story collections Strangers to Temptation and Idiot Men (forthcoming from Springer Mountain Press) and the memoir Things That Crash, Things That Fly. He is a two-time winner of the S.C. Arts Commission Artist Fellowship in Prose, as well as a winner of the S.C. Academy of Authors Fiction Fellowship. He lives in Sans Souci, South Carolina and teaches at the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities.