Memphis author, poet, and editor Sheree Renée Thomas released a playlist Thursday, June 4th, via the music and literature website Largehearted Boy to accompany and celebrate her new short story collection Nine Bar Blues (Third Man Books).
Nine Bar Blues is musical in its embracing of Memphis’ and the Delta’s musical storytelling roots. Musical in its publication — officially released just over a week ago via Jack White’s Nashville-based Third Man Books, the literary arm of the Raconteurs and the White Stripes rocker’s Third Man Records label.
And Nine Bar Blues is musical in its name, conjuring the “New Weird South” with wordplay that calls to mind compound-meter, adding an extra measure to the traditional eight-bar blues structure. Most of all, the collection is musical in its lyrical prose and genre-spanning short stories, like singles on a particularly excellent concept album. All this to say that an author-curated playlist is a particularly apt and welcome companion to Thomas’ short story collection.
“When I travel, I’m not only looking for the new food, but I’m looking for the new beats,” Thomas tells me on a recent phone call.
About the short story “Head Static,” one of Nine Bar Blues’ stories in which the music motif is most readily apparent, Thomas says, “I was thinking about what it might be like if your very existence depended on the ability to experience new music. … That constant innovation that humans have in expressing themselves through rhythm and tone.” Laughingly describing finding a world-saving song like some hidden treasure out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, she adds, “I also wanted to play on the quest story.”
“Claire had spent decades foraging through black vinyl, seeking black gold, the sound, the taste of freedom,” Thomas writes in “Head Static.” For Clair, the protagonist of “Head Static” music is a sword and a shield, a way to connect and a path to forgetting. She and Animus drive through deserts and rain, in search of underwater pyramids and ancient melodies of the future.
The playlist is excellent, and an excellent companion to Nine Bar Blues, but the article is as interesting for Thomas’ commentary on her song selection. She writes in Largehearted Boy, “Since Claire and Animus live beyond time, they actually were instrumental in helping create House music during the early club scene. And there is no house music scene, on or off the page without the trinity, the holy trifecta of deep house music. That is, “I’ll House You” by the Jungle Brothers, “You Used to Hold Me” by Ralphi Rosario, and “Follow Me” by Aly-Us. The Jungle Brothers anthem sets it all off. If a DJ plays this and you don’t start off dancing hard, you are already lost.”
There’s psychedelic bliss in Parliament’s “Swing Down, Sweet Chariot,” a live version from 1977, in which the funk band remixes the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Another track, Aly-Us’ “Follow Me - Club Mix” is hope and resilience distilled and paired with a dance beat.
The playlist closer, “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun” by the Rotary Connection with additional vocals by Minnie Riperton, is a standout track. It opens with gently plucked acoustic guitars, vaguely reminiscent of Bobbie Gentry’s dreamy “Courtyard,” and that spirit of mystery and magic pervades the entirety of the nearly six-minute-long track. But it isn’t long before hand percussion, a full drum kit, and so-soulful-it-hurts electric guitars enter the mix. The song has notes of symphonic music, funk, and jazz.
One thing is clear: When Thomas is one day making the big bucks writing screenplays, the studio should let her pick the soundtracks too.