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 Review of Whereabouts, A Novel by Southern Author, Scott Gould

In Southern author, Scott Gould’s new novel, Whereabouts, Gould quotes Sir Isaac Newton’s second law of motion, the Law of Acceleration, in his epigraph. It’s an unusual epigraph for us literary types who are accustomed to the quotes from Shakespeare, Yeats, or Nietzsche, and it made me pay attention. I take my epigraphs seriously. In Whereabouts, Gould “experiments” with what happens when a motionless body is acted upon by an external force. Or rather, what occurs when one character collides with another character. It’s a simple yet compelling method to view character and plot through, especially for creative writing instructors or writers. Plus, it wasn’t another overdone quote from an overdone author! So, there’s that…

In Whereabouts, Gould returns to the small town of Kingstree, SC, some may remember from his short story collection, Strangers to Temptation, but now with a female narrator and protagonist, Missy Belue. Mere weeks before her high school graduation her father suddenly dies, and Missy finds herself at a crossroads. Missy and her near-catatonic mother, Mona Belue, become inert in their grief. Mona juggles Vodka and religion while Missy goes through the motions, lost and dazed. To feel the void, Mona turns to Asa Floyd, the local funeral director who buries her late husband. In short order, Missy’s father and childhood home are replaced with a new stepfather and living quarters above Floyd’s Funeral Home. At the wedding, Missy’s third cousin, a/k/a road gypsy, Skyles Huffman, appears on the scene and from there the real collision course in humor and heartbreak takes off.

Whereabouts follows in the classic tradition of an epic poem where the hero/heroine undergoes a series of adventures before returning home and/or carrying out his/her mission or quest. It’s both a road narrative and modern-day fairytale, but I’m more inclined towards calling it a modern odyssey because Gould alludes to the Roman poet, Virgil, early on. Virgil also “borrowed” from Homer’s The Odyssey when writing The Aeneid. I don’t believe in coincidence when it comes to authors and allusions. Asa imagines himself as a Virgil guiding the grief-stricken through the “twists and turns” and the underworld of grief. This comic allusion to The Aeneid foreshadows Missy’s epic journey with Skyles. She hits the open road without a plan, yet she finally escapes Kingstree. Ironically, Skyles, who often warns Missy about life’s distractions, becomes her biggest distraction—her Dido to Aeneas. Skyles is as immobile as herself and isn’t her answer. While purposely driving in circles, Missy realizes she’s been figuratively driving in circles the entire time she’s been on the road with Skyles. She abandons him, finds a job as a waitress at the Lil’ Pancake House and a home across the street at the Thoroughbred Motel (that’s anything but thoroughbred). Her new home is a nowhere speck off the interstate, but Missy finally feels like she belongs until she’s dealt another life-changer. Her boss, Hassan, goes into overdrive and takes control of Missy’s life. This is the 1970s when old ideas die hard and Missy is young and naïve—a girl seeking a father-figure or at least the next man who crosses her path to tell her what to do. She’s hits the road again, looking for a sign, and maybe another man. Ultimately, Missy discovers internal strength and independence and leaves the road to return to her roots.

As antagonists go, the men in Whereabouts could be a lot worse. Sure, Skyles is a cheating, aimless, bad-mannered wanderer with a weird philosophy and some may say he took advantage of Missy’s grief and innocence, but he could be worse. The marines she hitches a ride with could have been deadly. Her boss, Hassan is a controlling nut, but he does care for Missy. Even her creepy stepfather, Asa, takes care of her in his own way. My point is the antagonists are not as villainous as I had imagined. So where is the conflict coming from then? It’s mostly internal. In many ways, Missy is her own antagonist. But I still think you must go deeper and ask what does Missy believe to be adversarial? I noticed this in Strangers to Temptation, how Gould used setting, or the town of Kingstree as a character, and he does it again in Whereabouts. On the onset, Gould personifies the town of Kingstree like a (maternal) prison warden: “But Kingstree was one of those small, motherly Southern towns that didn’t give up its young easily. She [Missy] and Angela and all their friends had geography and tradition working against them. Very few escaped.” The only answer is the road, but the road has its challenges. Even after Missy “settles” down at the Lil’ Pancake House and the Thoroughbred Hotel, these places lose their luster. Other readers may say its due the characters that inhabit these settings, but there’s a sense that these places are closing in on her, so she runs. The road becomes her companion for grief and escapism, but nonetheless, a companion which suggest another character.

Onto one of my favorite things about Gould’s writing—his innate ability at language, particularly similes and metaphors. I keep several small notebooks strategically placed around the house, in my purse, or even in my car for whenever I may steal a second to read a book. These notebooks largely house similes and metaphors because I wasn’t gifted with this talent. It’s not stealing, I don’t use them later, but I do study them and sometimes build my own from their foundation. I filled several pages of my notebooks with Gould’s similes before it dawned on me how unfair this was. The god of words hadn’t judicially divided up similes between authors, and I stopped hoarding Gould’s similes. The fact is all you have to do is open any random page in Whereabouts (or Strangers to Temptation alike) and they’re waiting for you. Here are a couple of my favorites: “Asa’s words hit his ears late, like they came on the breeze from a faraway place and needed translating,” and “She wasn’t more than a hundred yards from the mother’s wedding reception, but she was as lost as an Easter egg.” Gould’s similes and metaphors are never heavy-handed. You know when you read a bad one because they stand out like a red light in a one-light town. See what I mean? Even when he layers them, they come off organically, indicating a well-versed, well-read, skilled author who has been honing his craft for some time. This guy may have some poems up his sleeve.

On that same thread, I must mention the compass. You can’t miss it. It’s on the cover and tiny compasses appear at narrative breaks. This may seem cute to some, but I believe it’s more significant than just “cute.” The image serves as a reminder to the reader we are on a journey (or story) navigated by the author. Perhaps, it’s a nod to the actual journey of writing a novel as well, but I’m speculating. Mainly, it acts as an extended metaphor. And I’m reminded of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird—a classic example of a novel where Lee employs this literary trope. Lee’s mockingbird denotes a shattered innocence (simplifying here for the sake of brevity) and like Gould, she thematically places her mockingbirds at pivotal moments. While Missy’s mother is clearing out her father’s odds and ends, Missy discovers her father’s vintage compass collection. It sparks memories of family trips with her dad eyeing the dashboard compass as well as annual displays of his collection and him telling her, “A compass rose is a work of art for directions…The directions always stay the same, but the way somebody points them out, the way somebody gives them more meaning, that’s where the art comes in.” Here, the compass anchors Missy to her father, to her town, but it also points to loss. Further into the novel, the compass represents adventure and Missy’s desire for movement. Towards the end, it signifies how lost she is, a lack of self-awareness and direction. Finally, it denotes her desire to return home. The compass is a rich symbol and Gould gracefully weaves it throughout Whereabouts in such a way that it creates multiple meanings for different readers. This is the art of a good symbol and an excellent metaphor for life’s journey.

Whereabouts, its characters, setting, and plot are super accessible and just about any age of reader would enjoy this novel. Perhaps, I didn’t do Whereabouts enough justice in the comedic arena; I’m telling you it’s dang funny. The heroine, Missy Belue, navigates the South and its absurd environs from the local funeral home, to swamp roads, a roadside motel to a pancake house— filled with a motley crew of regulars and undesirables— and grows up in the process. Whereabouts is balancing act of hardship and hilarity, a feat not easily carried out but when this is well-done, deserves praise.

TO PURCHASE WHEREABOUTS: Support Independent Book stores and shop Bear Book Market or Amazon. I also highly recommend his book, Strangers to Temptation, a collection of linked narratives based in Kingstree, SC.

Upcoming Events: Join Scott virtually for Bookmark’s local author event, 4 on 4th, Feb. 24th at 7 PM.

More about Scott Gould:

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.

Visit Scott Gould, Writer for forthcoming publications, events, and much more.

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