Book Notes – Jarret Middleton “Darkansas”


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton EllisKate ChristensenLauren GroffT.C. BoyleDana SpiottaAmy BloomAimee BenderJesmyn WardHeidi JulavitsHari Kunzru, and many others.

Jarret Middleton’s novel Darkansasis a compelling and dark debut.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

“It’s a well-carved story of a family’s curse, as brittle and grotesque as any works in the vein of Faulkner or O’Connor.

A subversive twist on Southern myths that’s surprisingly rich in its execution.”

In his own words, here is Jarret Middleton’s Book Notes music playlist for his debut novel Darkansas:

1. Tim Barry – “Texas Cops”

Darkansas opens with country musician Jordan Bayne waking up hungover with a black eye and an unnamed girl in his bed, trying his best to recount what happened the night before after his solo acoustic set at a San Antonio dive. He throws some clothes in a bag, leaves the girl, grabs his guitar, and heads back home to the Ozarks for his twin brother’s wedding.

Tim Barry is one of my favorite folk-country artists ever. Former front man of legendary punk band, Avail, his solo career is a perfect blend of fiercely independent punk attitude, trains, booze, tragedy, perseverance, middle age, friends, family, and the struggle to be a good man. In a lot of ways, there couldn’t be a better fit for the character of Jordan.

2. Leon Payne – “Lost Highway”

Leon Payne is one of those songwriters like Kris Kristoffersen, Roger Miller, or Townes Van Zandt, who wrote dozens of songs made famous by other musicians over the years. Lost Highway is a perfect example. Leon Payne wrote it in 1948 and it has since been covered countless times, most notably by Hank Williams and Bob Dylan. In Darkansas, the patriarch of the family is bluegrass legend, Walker Bayne. When Jordan returns home, he takes a meandering walk through Walker’s studio, looking at all of the pictures, records, and memorabilia of his father’s storied career. One of the pictures is of Walker with Leon Payne, who’s squinting because, in addition to being a genius songwriter, he was also blind.

3. Lucero – “Banks of the Arkansas”

In choosing an appropriate playlist for Darkansas, I wanted the tracks to comprise an equal amount of contemporary tunes and old classics, to account for the generational gap of the two musicians in the family, Jordan and his father, Walker. What better way to represent the new country-folk influence than to go with this classic from Lucero, whose frontman Ben Nichols’ is an Arkansas native. This song is fitting for the tone of the book because it is new but sounds like an old traditional. It is also a nod to Jordan’s relationship with ex-girlfriend Leah Fayette, who he has known since they were kids. Things ended badly between them and now that he is back in town he has to make amends, which is easier said than done.

4. The Louvin Brothers – “Satan is Real”

Throughout Darkansas, the narrative revisits all the grisly, violent, and bizarre ways that sons have murdered their fathers in the long and twisted history of the Bayne clan. In 1907, Zuriel Bayne becomes a zealot in the Evangelical revival of Charles Parham. When he returns home to find his father ill, he blames his twin brother Jonathan for being a Freemason, which Zuriel considers demonic. He believes his brother unwittingly has invited the devil into their house. From that point on, Zuriel’s mental state deteriorates into madness. He believes God has chosen him to release his family from Satan’s grasp. Spoiler alert: it does not go well.

5. Cory Brannan – “Survivor Blues”

Jordan Bayne is a convicted felon. In addition to playing dive bars, drinking himself into oblivion, and numerous brushes with the law, he’s also a hopeless romantic. Brannan’s lyrics are overtly literary and tragic, each one a story in itself. He’s a brilliant songwriter, dyed in the same wool as the cast of characters in this book. Guy and girl fall in love, steal a car to get “way the hell away from here.” Fleeing a lifetime of betrayal and abuse, they head off together, fully aware that this chapter will probably soon end badly as well. A great star-crossed lovers story song wrapped up by the beautifully brutal chorus line: “They say it makes you stronger, but first you gotta survive / What didn’t kill you will make you wish you died.”

6. Merle Travis – “I’ll See You In My Dreams (Live on Ozark Jubilee)”

“Jubilee U.S.A.” was a live music variety show that aired on ABC in the 1950’s. Also known as the “Ozark Jubilee,” the show aired a showcase of country, bluegrass, and folk artists live from its studios in Springfield, MO. Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Wanda Jackson, The Louvin Brothers, Lefty Frizzell, Conway Twitty, and virtually every country star at the time graced it’s stage (with the glaring absence of black blues and folk musicians, of course). Carl Perkins made his TV debut on the show. It was eventually overtaken by more popular music variety shows, not least of which was the “Grand Ol’ Opry.”

The “Ozark Jubilee” was significant for a number of reasons and it figures into the history in Darkansas. On the evening of Malcolm’s bachelor party, a drunk Jordan climbs up a fire escape and sneaks inside of the Jewell Theatre, also known as the Landers Theatre, where the show had originally been shot. Jordan reminisces that their father Walker performed live on the show in the early ’50s. Also, early on in the novel, when Jordan is shaken up by an off-handed remark about his famous father, Jordan jealously reasons that he could, “Travis pick his way out of a toilet stall faster than Walker ever could.”

7. Roscoe Holcomb – “Trouble in Mind”

Roscoe Holcomb is as Kentucky bluegrass as it gets. Trouble In Mind reminds me of that golden age of bluegrass, whether from Kentucky or Arkansas, which the character Walker Bayne plays his fictional part. There are few better practitioners of the banjo than Roscoe Holcomb. His sustained high tenor wail carries like wind through a reed and you can almost imagine it cutting clear and high above the constant chug of a locomotive on the tracks, watching fields and sky pass from one of its boxcars.
A chapter in Darkansas is set in 1936 and recounts Bayne ancestor Casey’s robbing of a moonshine still and his war with the avenging gang that follows. There is a chase down a country road in a Ford wagon and a fight at the mouth of a mine. I can hear this song playing as they careen towards tragedy.

8. Henry Thomas – “Arkansas”

Henry Thomas is one of the earliest surviving recordings of black sharecropper blues, alongside Blind Willie McTell, who’s up next on the playlist. This version of Arkansas is unique. Similar to many earlier folk traditionals, it is a pastiche of multiple different songs in a new arrangement. This version combines parts of “Let Me Bring My Clothes Back Home,” “Trials and Troubles,” and “Arkansas.” It contains the famous line, “I had my ups and downs through life and bitter times I saw, but I never knew what misery was ’til I hit old Arkansas.” There are countless iterations of this song, making it one of the most famous state songs and satire folk songs on record. Thomas’ version also contains the part of “Trials and Troubles:” “I’m going to buy ’em all, cigarettes and chewing tobacco when I can, ’cause trials and troubles are heavy for a man.” Which you might recognize from its contemporary treatment in a fantastic rendition by Old Crow Medicine Show.

9. Blind Willie McTell – “You Was Born To Die”

Another early blues folk legend. Ghostly, romantic, and straight-forward. It pertains to one of the brothers and the fate that befalls them by the end of the book, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t say which one. “You made me love you, then you made me cry / you should remember that you were born to die.”

10. Sister Rosetta Tharpe – “Strange Things Happening Every Day”

The undisputed godmother of rock n’ roll! The queen diva! It is hard to overstate the indelible mark Sister Rosetta Tharpe made on American music. If Chuck Berry was the godfather of rock n’ roll, she was the godmother, and still has yet to receive her proper due. A big, proud, beautiful black woman from Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s voice booms with that feel-good, deep-down-in-your-soul gospel that forms the backbone of music in this country. Despite racism, sexism, a slave economy, and a repressive state, her voice rings with the joy of song and the ultimate deliverance of God’s love. Until judgment day, though, take it from the master herself, strange things are happening every day. . . .

11. Townes Van Zandt – “The Highway Kind”

Townes is my favorite artist on this list and possibly of all time. There is no more casually genius songwriter that I know of, though a few come close. The tone and lyrics of this song perfectly reflect the years of loneliness and suffering that have come to define Jordan’s life. No matter what he has ever done, it has never been the right thing, and it will never be enough. Now Jordan is heading into the jaws of something much bigger than him–something abstract, visceral, and eclipsing in its horror. In the words of Townes: “Follow the circle down, where would you be?”

12. Gillian Welch – “Time (The Revelator)”

Ultimately, Darkansas is about a cyclical murder myth that plagues the Bayne family throughout the ages. For generations nobody was even aware the myth existed, until Jordan comes home for Malcolm’s wedding and starts to see clearly for the first time that something is not right with his family. He always thought a dark cloud hung over only him, a black sheep fuck up that can do no good. He starts to understand that something unnamable, old, and evil has infested every generation going back to the Civil War. While he doesn’t yet know the purpose, he knows something is amiss, but even still it might be too late. What is revealed, we are powerless to stop. Jordan could act to stop fate from happening, but as the old saying goes, we usually meet our fate on the road we take to avoid it. Perhaps anything Jordan could do to stop the murder from happening is exactly the action that will ensure the murder will occur. Time will reveal all.

13. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club – “This Is How We Do Things In The Country”

A ceremonial murder ballad celebrating the surreal, dark secrets, murderous intentions, bloody pasts, insane psyches, old-time religion, snake cults, the devil, and redemption that populates the shadowy world of Slim Cessna’s Auto Club and the twisted history of Darkansas. Beware!

Jarret Middleton and Darkansas links:

the author’s website

Criminal Element review
Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review
Shelf Awareness review

The JDO Show interview with the author