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Alt.country takes alternative storytelling route in new anthology

May 6, 2009 |  3:10 pm

Rhettmiller

Country musicians have always told great stories with their songs. Take the line "I shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die" -- Johnny Cash sings it and keeps on moving in "Folsom Prison Blues." Who could do that? Why did he want to watch a man die? Imagine what dimensions that story might take in something longer than a radio-friendly three-minute song.

In "Amplified," a new anthology from Melville House Publishing, alt.country musicians were invited to stretch out and write short stories. Some, such as Damon Krukowski (of Damon & Naomi) and Jon Langford (The Mekons) have been published before.

Others are brand new to the form. Maria McKee, who has had a successful solo and songwriting career since the demise of Lone Justice, populates her story with quick, charming L.A. characters a la “The Player” and explores the source of creative inspiration, opening with the line, "I had a mystical experience with Johnny Cash's pants."

Although many of the stories include music and musicians -- which is only natural -- Robbie Fulks' focuses on a middle-aged writer on book tour who visits his old stomping grounds at Columbia. "David felt young, residually," he writes with a wry narrative voice that could be accompanied by a twangy guitar.

Three very different love stories are among the book's standouts. In the collection's only graphic novel excerpt, Zak Sally (from Low) has drawn a gorgeously simply and darkly unsettling story of a couple who turn out to be a surprisingly good match. Rennie Sparks (The Handsome Family) wrote "The Thicket" for her husband (and bandmate) on their 20th anniversary, and though it's a little long and a bit disturbing, it has some of the collection's lushest language. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, the story by Rhett Miller (Old 97s) focuses on two loners who may just find salvation in each other.

But good fiction can also be playful. In a nod to publisher Melville House -- named for founder Dennis Loy Johnson's relative, Herman Melville -- Jon Langford's story is told from the point of view of the white whale in "Moby-Dick."

And Texas songwriter Cam King, whose story "Road Kill" is a lesson in avoiding armadillos, says that "writing poetry generally takes a couple more beers than prose." How many beers it takes to get from a song to a story, however, remains a mystery.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Rhett Miller of the Old 97s. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

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