Flannery O’Connor wasn’t one to boast about the size of her readership. When her publisher expressed disappointment that her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, had only sold 1,500 copies in a month, she wryly wrote to a friend, “That was about 1,500 more than I would have expected.” And however many (or few) her fans may have actually been during her lifetime, she probably didn’t spend time wondering whether songwriters were among them.
As tangible and detailed as O’Connor made the southern settings of her two novels and 32 short stories—a body of work often pegged as southern gothic grotesquery that reflects her devout Catholic faith alongside a healthy respect for mystery, a biting sense of humor and nary a trace of sentimentality—music rarely surfaces as a part of the backdrop. You can count on one hand the instances when it does: in “Revelation” there’s a hymn playing on a waiting-room radio, in “The River” a preacher is belting gospel songs a capella at a healing service and in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” two rather rustic brothers are serenading none-too-impressed schoolgirls with “The Old Rugged Cross” on harmonica and guitar. That’s about the extent of it.
And yet, if you read many music reviews these days, you find that O’Connor’s name is frequently invoked in relation to some songwriter or another. Often enough, those doing the comparing make it sound as though all an artist has to do is toss out a couple of vaguely southern phrases to be O’Connor’s musical spitting image. Still, they’re onto something: there’s plenty of fodder for the serious songwriter in the Georgia author’s work. Reading O’Connor is like weathering a hurricane—your imagination may come out the other side with a gaping new skylight where the roof used to be.
In the half-century since O’Connor was alive and writing, her cult-like following has multiplied. More than a few songwriters count themselves among the ranks and, what’s more, name her as an influence. That goes for rock superstars (Bono and Springsteen, to name two) and other artists at every level of local, regional, national and international renown. Those who share O’Connor’s southern fascination bear some of the deepest imprints, and singer/songwriters Lucinda Williams, Mary Gauthier and Jim White and the Legendary Shack Shakers’ J.D. Wilkes all fit the bill.
Eccentricity and a sense of place
Williams was bitten by the bug the earliest. She may well bear the distinction of being the only contemporary songwriter who didn’t just read O’Connor but actually visited her at Andalusia—the once-functioning dairy farm in Milledgeville, Ga. where O’Connor lived out her adult years—with her father, the poet and professor Miller Williams. “I was about four years old, I guess,” Williams recalls. At that age, she chased the peacocks that O’Connor kept on the property; by 15 she was devouring all of O’Connor’s work (“I was just a Flannery O’Connor freak”).
Now her own work—and Gauthier’s, White’s and Wilkes,’ too—is threaded with literary-musical affinities. Since they all possess rather distinctive artistic voices, the results take a different form for each of them, sometimes subtler, and other times, as in the case of Gauthier’s song “Snakebit” and Williams’ song “Atonement,” identifiable almost immediately, if you know what to look for.
It takes a certain sort of songwriter to find inspiration in O’Connor’s writing, someone who’s not afraid to stare into the darker corners of the human heart, those spots where evil and violence fester, for at least a moment.
It helps, too, if they appreciate O’Connor’s jagged rural settings. White certainly does. “One of the things that I will say that she was really good at was creating a time and a place,” he offers. “And that’s something that I was not good at. In fact, just prior to writing those songs on [his 1997 debut The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus], a friend of mine listened to old songs of mine and said, ‘There is no time and place in these songs.’ Immediately Flannery O’Connor came into my mind, and that time and that place that she writes about is so vivid that I thought, ‘Okay, I know how to do this.’ And the song I wrote right after that started out with ‘Way down south I know a girl who is blind. She walks along a highway….’”
White—based in Athens—is quoting from his hypnotic, fractured folk song, “A Perfect Day To Chase Tornadoes,” which offers a string of visual images, each one tilted in such a way that it seems simultaneously real and fantastic. Ever since his epiphany, he’s filled his songs with all manner of odd, evocative details, most of them bearing a distinctly southern tint and the rest generally applicable to any slow-moving small town containing a Pentecostal church. (It’s also worth noting that White ventured into O’Connor’s native territory in the liner notes of his first album with a surreal short story inspired in part by her short story “The Lame Shall Enter First.”)
White also took significant cues from the way O’Connor’s narratives pass from the territory of the seen into the unseen. He considers her infamous story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”—during which a family vacation ends in multiple deaths by bullet wounds—a choice example.
“The setup on that story is so quotidian,” he marvels. “It’s almost pastoral. It’s, like, this beautiful, funny family trip with their little foibles and things like that. And it becomes so dark so quickly, and yet the link is so organic. It’s just like we are all one turn away from darkness. That became sort of a model for me. I really wanted to start in one world and go to another world. I don’t do it as well as Flannery O’Connor did, certainly. [Her stories] went from a vividly physical to a really mysterious metaphysical world, and they sometimes did so just on the turn of a phrase. I wish I could do that.”
Wilkes, frontman and primary songwriter for southern gothic-rockabilly-blues group the Legendary Shack Shakers, saw in the arc of O’Connor’s narratives an element that could lend the band’s wild and wooly songs more heft. “I think you’ll find, if you look at the lyrics in the [band’s] songs, it always ends with a little twist, a little moralistic twist,” he says. “That’s my homage to Flannery O’Connor. Because otherwise it’s just hillbillies raising hell.”
“Jimblyleg Man” and “Something In the Water” are cases in point: The former is an old-time banjo romp that warns listeners to be aware lest they be made to dance like the devil’s puppet, and the latter a sinister jump-blues number that traces a litany of grotesque deformities—not all of them physical—back to pollution of the water supply.
The O’Connor quote Wilkes tacked onto the end of the band’s bio for their album, Swampblood, gets at one of the greatest affinities between the Shack Shakers’ music—Gauthier’s too, for that matter—and O’Connor’s writing: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock, to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.”
The idea of purposeful jarring would definitely apply to the Shack Shakers’ grinding, visceral sound, not to mention Wilkes’ style of showmanship, a blend of rockabilly spitfire, carnival barker and charismatic preacher that strikes the ear forcefully from recordings, never fails to seize an audience’s attention live and bears at least a passing resemblance to some of O’Connor’s more Pentecostal-styled characters. The imagery in the band’s song lyrics also claw, jab and pierce like O’Connor’s descriptions.
“She’s talking about bones and barbed wire and tree limbs and things, you know, the sort of jagged qualities of the pictures she creating,” describes Wilkes. “Not only do I also write using similar terms in the lyrics, but [there are parallels to] the type of sounds that we’ll fly in in the studio or we’ll attempt live on stage with cowbells and playing bones, literally, and creating those sorts of rickety, rustic sounds on instruments. I guess I never really did it on purpose to mimic her writing, but I could see how it could have influenced me somehow. I just think a lot of the music I listen to anyway, Tom Waits being one, [is] also kind of cut from the same cloth as Flannery O’Connor.”
That the Shack Shakers’ musical violence—like the violence in O’Connor’s stories—isn’t gratuitous or arbitrary makes all the difference in the world, though not all of their listeners, or her readers, have necessarily picked up on that fact from the get-go. “I worry about the shock value thing, that people will miss out on the other nuances and subtleties that are in there, that I try to put in there,” Wilkes says of the threat of misinterpretation that O’Connor no doubt faced a time or two. “There’s people that’ll see us at shows and they’ll try to out-crazy you; knuckleheads that are just more into tattoos and skulls and crossbones. But anyone with half a brain, you’d think, would read a little further into it.”
Part of the job
Gauthier’s music jars listeners in a different, yet no less potent, way. She favors sparse, lyric-centered country/folk story songs that expose nerves and confront complacency. “Snakebit,” the first song on her 2007 album Between Daylight and Dark, is a good example: the melody is alternately ominous and desperate, as her first-person narrator describes a feeling of being cursed, smashes a crucifix and takes up a gun.
“There’s trauma in the past, then there’s the wound, then there’s the trauma in the present,” Gauthier says of the song’s storyline. “And then there’s either a decision or an insanity—I don’t know which one it is. But it’s either an insanity or a decision to reject the holy and pick up the gun.”
“And that song will clear a room,” she adds, laughing. “Much like I assume the Misfit [the haunting, murderous character in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”] would clear a writer’s conference. You read that and nobody even wants to swallow. And then people clear their throat nervously and walk out of the room.”
Beyond that song, Gauthier would say she shares O’Connor’s broader sense of vocation, which is, in Gauthier’s words: “to crack the illusions, and to break the delusions and denials and to show the truth. If you’re going for art, that’s your job. If you’re not, then she [O’Connor] would dismiss you immediately.”
That’s a task not often taken up by people in their position, specifically, female artists from the South with Catholic backgrounds (Gauthier, too, was raised Catholic, at least to a point). She testifies of O’Connor, “Her courage gave me courage.”
Gauthier recently did a similar thing for another female songwriter at an O’Connor-related arts festival in Nashville. During a roundtable discussion the other songwriter said she wanted to overcome her fear of venturing into dark emotional territory. Gauthier half-jokingly replied, “I give you permission—not that you need my permission.” The gesture seemed genuinely appreciated.
Car wheels to Millegeville
Williams’ music—her magnificently rough-grained singing, what she writes about, and how, and in what raw blues-, rock-, country- or folk-informed style—possesses a similar boldness. She’s always been thought of as a literary songwriter, and not just because of her pedigree. Like O’Connor, her use of language is lean and startlingly direct. That is to say, no line surfaces in a verse or chorus (when she actually includes a chorus, which is only some of the time) that isn’t essential to the song.
She’ll wring a world of meaning out of a single, seemingly simple image like “car wheels on a gravel road” (the lyrical hook of one of her best-known songs), expanding it to depict not just backwoods existence, but childhood experiences of instability and insecurity, much like O’Connor made the broken-down car of the protagonist of her first novel, Wise Blood, into a both mode of escape and source of bondage. Williams muses about her songwriting, “It’s not dressed with the expected ‘feminine’ flowery imagery that people associate, I guess, with women writing.”
And those qualities have profoundly shaped her fan base. Just as a good many of the readers who sing O’Connor’s praises the loudest are men (White, for one, said on first encounter with her stories he was struck by a woman writing in such a “muscular” style), Williams’ music has always seemed to draw at least as many male listeners as female, certainly not a given for female singer/songwriters in the Lillith Fair era. “I’ve never really thought about it—just like Flannery probably never did either,” Williams says of her music’s appeal across gender lines. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to do it, if I was aware of it and conscious of it.”
Nothing could be less “flowery” than Williams’ song “Atonement.” When she plays it live, she almost always introduces it with a reference to O’Connor. “I’m always sort of struggling, trying to find a way to explain that song to people before I sing it, so they’ll understand it better,” Williams relates. “That seems to be the best way to connect the song is to mention Flannery O’Connor, and Wise Blood particularly.”
If any pre-song explanation is needed, it’s because she steps into a character role that’s a rare for her: hellfire and brimstone preacher with a violent streak. (Besides “Atonement,” she’s done it only one other time, during her far less sinister-sounding “Get Right With God.”) “Atonement” conjures several different preacherly characters from Wise Blood, some cruel and condemnatory, some slick and corrupt, none the least bit kind. As befits those sorts of figures, Williams shifts into a fierce, guttural growl and the guitars are all searing distortion and serrated edges. It’s by far one of the darkest songs in her catalog.
With all the heavily shadowed stories and sounds that O’Connor inspires, it’s easy to forget that her writing is filled with sharp humor, humor so sharp, in fact, that it slices through even the darkest moments. As she wrote, “It is well to realize that the maximum amount of seriousness admits the maximum amount of comedy.” Her comedy, indeed, pops up in the most shocking places, such as the Misfit’s line “She would have been a good woman if there had been someone to shoot her every day of her life.”
“When I read the closing line to “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” it was like, ‘How can she make a joke right now?’” White remembers. “And it was such a relief.”
White took O’Connor’s comic sensibilities as license to upend religious propriety with skewed songs about traditional religious subject matter. His repertoire includes the originals “God Was Drunk When He Made Me” and “If Jesus Drove a Motorhome.” The former nearly earned him a black eye from rockabilly singer Sleepy LaBeef during a music festival’s Sunday morning gospel show.
“The function of humor usually is to create union,” White says, explaining his subversive approach. “We are unified in our response to some irregularity in the world. And so it’s the reverse with her [O’Connor]. The observation that she makes is exclusive, not inclusive. That’s what I needed, because the inclusive humor didn’t make any sense to me.”
Wilkes does a similar, if slightly more pointed, thing with the Shack Shakers in songs like “Born Again Again,” which satirizes an indecisive religious convert, and, perhaps, high-pressure proselytization in general.
“[O’Connor’s] a satirist in a lot of ways, and I started out as a cartoonist and I’ve always loved satire more than any other type of humor, definitely more than irony,” Wilkes says admiringly. “Satire serves a grander purpose—to keep people honest, keep yourself honest and criticize the culture; having a sense of humor but having some sense of moral obligation to point out, you know, hypocrisies. I think that’s what we share in common.”
As Wilkes is fond of saying of the Shack Shakers’ particular angle, “It isn’t that we’re ripping on religion—it’s that we’re riffing on it.”
Flannery’s front porch
Clearly, feeling a kinship to O’Connor—the sort of kinship that inevitably transforms one’s songwriting—doesn’t necessarily require sharing all of her convictions. At this point in their lives and careers, there’s little chance that Wilkes, White, Gauthier or Williams would feel the need or desire to defend religious dogma, as O’Connor openly did in her letters. But the extremes in her stories, the vigorous distortion and mystery, exert a pull not unlike that of spiritual devotion.
Gauthier and White made a pilgrimage of sorts to Andalusia together when the former played tour dates in Georgia. White even capped off the visit by making a field recording of his song “Fruit of the Vine” there. As he puts it, “Recording a song about the south on Flannery O’Connor’s front porch—which is where we ended up recording it—was like, ‘Well, life doesn’t get any better than this.’”
And Williams, on her early childhood visit to the Milledgeville farm, took part in a similarly devout act: waiting patiently for O’Connor to cease the all-consuming act of capturing visions on her typewriter for the day.
“Dad recalls looking up and seeing Flannery O’Connor look through her Venetian blinds—or whatever they were—saw us out there and pull the blinds because she wasn’t ready yet and she didn’t want to be disturbed. So we had to wait outside, I think, ’til she was done.”
Andalusia the historic home where American author Flannery O’Connor lived from 1951 until her death from lupus in 1964, is four miles northwest of Milledgeville on the west side of U.S. Hwy. 441. She completed her two novels and two collections of short stories here. Andalusia is open to the public on Mondays, Tuesdays and Saturdays from 10 to 4 or by advanced appointment seven days a week. For more information, call (478) 454-4029.
The Flannery O’Connor Collection at the Georgia College and State University Museum in Milledgeville houses more than 6,000 pages of manuscripts, including early drafts of Wise Blood, portions of The Violent Bear It Away and most of the short stories. In addition, O’Connor’s personal collection of over 700 books and journals, along with various editions and translations of her work, critical writings, photographs, letters, tape recordings and more are included. Flannery O’Connor Room, GCSU Museum, 221 North Clarke Street, Milledgeville. (478) 445-0988