When the Right Chord Strikes: Author Michael Farris Smith’s Shattering Playlist

From Ryan Bingham's music video for “Southside of Heaven”

From Ryan Bingham's music video for “Southside of Heaven”

Editor’s note: Last, but certainly not least, in this week’s debut series “The Writer’s Guide to Music” is author Michael Farris Smith (whose novel Rivers will be on my nightstand before the weekend starts). Be sure to go back and read Brian Panowich’s entry from Wednesday and David Joy’s post from Thursday. Again, if any authors, writers, or musicians are interested in submitting a post for consideration, email admin@writersbone.com or tweet us @WritersBone.—Daniel Ford

By Michael Farris Smith

Over the past five or six years music has become as much an influence on my writing life as anything. Why? Because great songs are filled with powerful imagery, emotion, and the complexities of the human spirit that we try to understand but can't. This is the same thing I do when I sit down to create story or character or scene. How real can I make it?

Great songs make it real. You feel them. You don't forget the striking lyrics, the emotional attachment. Part of my morning routine is drop off my little ones, ride around and listen to the handful of songs that are ringing in my head at the moment, come home and strum a couple, and then write. It's my favorite damn habit.

Here are 10 songs that have either stuck with me as an artist, or that have had big impacts on whatever I've been working on. Or are perfect for late nights and back roads. Or all of the above.

Martin Zellar “Ten Year Coin”

I started listening to Martin Zellar 20 years ago when he was with the Gear Daddies. This song has a lyric that stays with me just about every time I sit down to write or think about what might hide in the dark shadows of all my characters. It's so strong: "When I was younger I used to wonder what could ever bring a man to want to kill, and it scares the shit right out of me to admit that I don't have to wonder still."

Steve Earle “Goodbye”

Well, Earle is just a badass. But "Goodbye" is a stripped down song about longing, regret, the fragile nature of loss. "Goodbye" was in my head the entire manuscript of Rivers. I attached Cohen to this song and I suspect that character and novel and song will always sit together in my mind. 

Ryan Bingham “Southside of Heaven”

The coolest thing about Ryan Bingham? Two summers ago he played in Tupelo in this little bar that held about 200 people. This was right in the middle of a tour when he was playing to thousands. I thought it'd be a paired-down set, paired-down band, maybe play for about an hour. Instead, they crammed the entire band on this little stage, took shot after shot in front the audience, and ripped and roared for two hours like it was Austin City Limits. Love this song because: "When I die, Lord, won't you set my soul upon a train. Send it southbound, give some ol' blues man name."

Ben Nichols “The Last Pale Light in the West”

If you are a fan of Cormac McCarthy, and he has had a big influence on my work, then you'll dig Ben Nichols. This song comes from the same titled album, which is based on McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian. You feel the burned out landscape, burned out characters. I love this damn song late at night with only the headlights out in front.

The Civil Wars “Dust to Dust”

This is the other song that stuck in my head during Rivers. Because of this: "You've held your head up, you've fought the fight. You bear the scars, you've done your time." The song twists you up. And then the video was two lonely people wandering around Paris. The City of Light sits right beside Mississippi as the two places that have had the biggest mark on my work.

Pearl Jam “Wishlist”

I was 21 when “Ten” came out and holy shit. But I didn't let the band come and go. I've held on to Pearl Jam over the years. Last year I saw them in Memphis and kinda forgot how hard they bring it. Their songs also are full of notions of identity and individuality. "Wishlist" grabs all that. The first line: "I wish I was a neutron bomb, for once I could go off." I feel like that about every other damn day.

Sons of Bill “Joey's Arm”

I've only recently come to discover Sons of Bill and thank God I did. "When you don't fit in at church or bars, you bite your lip and you hide the scars." How could the son of a preacher not just get all tied up by that line?

Jason Isbell “Traveling Alone”

Isbell's “Southeastern” is an album I listen to over and over. Honestly, I've gotten suckered by the single like everybody else, but this album has reminded me what it means to listen to a full album, feel the themes, and really get to know an artist. "Traveling Alone" is like so much other stuff I dig. It haunts you, drains you. You feel its grasp for...something.

Drive-By Truckers “Outfit”

Bottom line is "Outfit" pretty much describes the people I know, the towns I grew up in, and the hard-working, hard-loving people I've been surrounded by my whole life. It's damn near everything I love about the South.

Drivin' N Cryin' “Straight to Hell”

Forget "Sweet Home Alabama." If you don't know "Straight to Hell" then you don't know the true Southern rock anthem. Every band I've played with, every bar I've played in, if you want everyone to get up and raise glasses, then strike up "Straight to Hell." Drivin' N Cryin' is probably the best Southern rock band you have never heard of. "She took my hand and we walked into the sun, a new day's promise had begun, we'll make it along whether you like it or not..."

Rock on.

Michael Farris Smith (Photo credit: Chris Jenkins)

Michael Farris Smith (Photo credit: Chris Jenkins)

To learn more about Michael Farris Smith, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @michael_f_smith.