Thursday, July 10, 2014

Down the River: Guest Piece by Kent Gowran

Kent Gowran knows his shit. Pulp fiction, many musics, crime and horror film. Plus parking in Chicago. Knows his shit. So, I hit him up for another piece for the Narrative Music series. Kent hit back with this piece. Check out Kent's fiction in spots like this... Meanwhile, listen up when KG talks tunes.

Down The River

In the right hands, narrative songs are as powerful as any story, novel, or movie you’d care to name.  A major contender for consistently great narrative songwriting would have to be Tom Russell, and, at first, when Jed asked me if I’d be interested in writing something about a narrative song for his blog, I intended to write about a Russell song. And while Russell does have dozens of tunes worthy of writing about, that almost seemed like too obvious a choice. So I worked up a list of songs I’d like to yammer about (truth be told, I cold talk about music all day long and never run out of worthy tunes to keep my mouth running), and as I came up with the list, a dark horse came around the bend and my choice was made.

Chris Knight has been releasing good, sometimes great, albums for a number of years now.  For his second album, A Pretty Good Guy, he teamed with producer (a former Georgia Satellite and current Yayhoo) Dan Baird and delivered a batch of songs that far surpassed the Mellencamp meets Earle by way of Kentucky sound of his eponymous debut.  I remember the first time I listened to the album, I got to the end of the sixth track, “Down The River”, and had to go back to the beginning of the song to hear it again.

The nameless narrator of the song tells the story of the murder of his brother and his own brooding, and ultimately empty, path to revenge.  One thing which strikes me as so impressive about this song is how Knight manages to tell a story, a fully realized and pitch black tale, in just under seven minutes, a story that perhaps the sharpest of prose writers could tell in a long short story but most would feel the need to stretch into novel length.  We’re told that the narrator’s brother Walter has been in a fight with a man named Wilson.  And in a brilliant bit of songwriting, Knight tells us everything we need to know about this guy Wilson…

They said you don’t mess with Wilson unless you want a war…

Wilson kills Walter and the body is never found.  The death is declared a drowning, but Wilson, as you’d imagine a guy like him would, brags about what he’s done.  Our narrator then sets out to make things right.

The violence is quick and final.  Our narrator, his song an interior monologue, tells of disposing Wilson’s body and his own retreat into isolation.  Five years go by, and our narrator can’t seem to move on.  As the song winds down, he tells us he’s not done, Walter’s death is with him daily, blood still calling for blood, and Wilson’s cousin is living on borrowed time.

It’s a beautiful and haunting song, and the kind of story that sticks with you long after you’ve heard it.  Knight has named writers like Cormac McCarthy and William Gay as influences, and, listening to his albums, that’s not just a bit of hip name check action.  With the best of his songs, his got that same narrative punch of the best writers, the hit that you feel in your bones, it makes you react, makes you think, makes you listen to the song again.

I was eighteen
my brother was twenty-one
one Saturday evening
when all the work was done
we went down to the river,
had some trotlines to run

my brother Walter
had a fight the week before
knocked a boy named Wilson
through the pool hall door
they said you don't mess with Wilson
unless you want a war

we put the boat in the water,
I made the engine run
loaded the lantern
against the sinking sun
and my brother Walter
was loading his gun
and we went down the river

down past the coal docks
we were running our lines
heard some drunken boaters
racing up behind
it was Wilson and his cousin,
they had trouble on their minds

they passed on by us,
probably going to tend their pots
we headed up the river
with the fish we'd caught
but before we made the landing,
I thought I heard a shot
back down the river

my brother Walter fell over the side
I couldn't find him no matter how I tried
and looked along the bank
but I couldn't find where they'd hide

they drug the river,
they searched it up and down
couldn't find his body
so they decided that he'd drowned
but I knew better
and Wilson bragged around town

so one night I floated down
right above Wilson’s shack
I hid in the woods
'til I saw him walk out back
I put a bullet in his head
and dropped him in his tracks
and we went down the river

down below the trestle
where the water runs slow
I chained him to an anvil
and then I let him go
and five years later
I ain't told a soul

and I ain't done much fishing,
I hardly wet a line
the death of my brother
is still heavy on my mind
I’ve been thinking Wilson’s cousin
better find a place to hide
cause I’m going down the river
yeah I’m going down the river

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