Note: Music and Writing: An Interview with Tyler Keith and Tim Lee
Delving into their rich history as musicians in Mississippi, it’s natural to also choose to follow that state’s literary tradition and write as well. Tyler Keith came to Mississippi to study writing with Barry Hannah. Twenty years and thirteen albums later (The Neckbones, The Preacher’s Kids, and now The Apostles), Keith’s first black album “The Mark of Cain” has hit the shelves thanks to fellow Mississippi musician and songwriter Tim Lee. . Tim Lee and his wife Susan Bauer Lee started Cool Dog Sound to distribute music (their own BARK project) and books. “I Saw A Dozen Faces…” by Tim Lee covers his 35-year career as one of the founding College Rock/South AmerIndie bands, The Windbreakers. Lee and the late and unforgettable Bobby Sutliff made several records that received critical acclaim and placed them on the same stages as other seminal 80s AmerIndie artists.
These worlds come together for a Book Signing/Reading/Q&A with music on Saturday, November 12 at 4 p.m. at T-BONES Records and Cafe. Tyler Keith, Tim Lee and Susan Bauer Lee will all be in store and their Cool Dog Sound artwork will be available for purchase and signing.
Tyler Keith and Tim Lee were kind enough to give us some insight into their story, their inspiration, and how their loves of music and writing go hand in hand.
PINE BELT NEWS: What led you to write your own novel?
TYLER KEITH: It’s been a desire of mine to write a novel since I was in high school. I started reading voraciously when I was about sixteen. All the novels that I liked, I usually read about the authors. I was inspired by many of their lives and works. The idea formed in my head around eighteen, I guess, even though I had no idea how to get there. Somewhere along the way, Rock n Roll got in my way and I became obsessed with songwriting. I used to write stories and things from time to time, but it wasn’t until around 2012 or 2013 that I decided to do it and force myself to finish a novel no matter what. Even if it wasn’t good.
PINE BELT NEWS: We see a lot of comparisons to Jim Thompson. Thompson, famous for his sinister but well-constructed pulps, was he your influence? Who else inspires you to write?
TYLER KEITH: Jim Thompson has been a big influence on my writing and this book in particular. When I first read his work, I was bowled over by his dark and unique voice, especially his use of first-person narration in books like SAVAGE NIGHT, THE KILLER INSIDE ME, and POP 1280. J loved the sense of claustrophobia in his works, and the feeling that everyone was guilty of something. You never know who wants to kill you. There are so many other writers I love and inspire me that it’s hard to know where to start. I’m a big fan of Charles Willeford, Nathanael West, Flannery O’Connor, Dashiell Hammett, the Beats, Albert Camus, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Raymond Chandler, Yates and Faulkner. But I feel like the deepest influence comes from the people I’ve had the chance to meet and get to know a bit, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, William Gay, Ace Atkins, Lisa Howorth, Lee Durkee, William Boyle and so many others who walked and still walk the streets of Oxford. I’m probably leaving someone out. I am also constantly inspired by my friends and family. AND Rock n Roll music.
PINE BELT NEWS: In most Noir/Mystery, we’d rather not know what we’re getting into. How would you encourage readers new to the genre to read your novel?
TYLER KEITH: I think you engage the reader by having strong characters and a sense of place. In this book, I wanted the narrator to have a simple voice but a somewhat complicated mind. And somehow he might not understand so the reader is on the same journey as the main character. I wanted to make the character a person who wanted basic things, like a family, but was unable to achieve them. Death Row is filled with people who could have gone either way. I also tried to focus on the development of the “place”. I felt like this place in Florida hadn’t been written about much. I find the place interesting. I had an idea about writing (in the songs as well as in this novel) which is simply, I wanted to do something that I would want to read. “Would I like this book?” If you start caring too much about what you think other people want, you’re probably on the wrong track. I’ve had almost total commercial failure in everything I’ve tried artistically, and at this point I’m fine with it.
PINE BELT NEWS: Was there any real-world inspiration for the novel you wrote?
TYLER KEITH: There was real inspiration for this book. I had a friend who ended up in a halfway house outside of Memphis, and he told me horror stories of indentured servitude, fear and loathing, and general madness. It was an inspiration for Camp Eden. Like everything else in this country, these types of things (rehab, halfway houses) are big business now. I was interested in exploring this as a subtext. The links between organized religion and big business and the exploitation of people who have little choice and nowhere to go. I had a degree of personal struggle with depression and other things, so I wanted to address that as well. I was interested in someone who gets a second chance. The framework of a halfway house interested me in this sense. And the biblical story of Cain and Able has fascinated me since I was a child. The fact that someone who committed a horrible sin would be marked by God and sent away.
The inspiration for the Holmes County chapter comes from family history. I’m a seventh generation Floridian and we’ve been coming to this area since about the 1830s. I was close to my grandfather and he was from there. His father was murdered there in 1904. The violence was somehow due to criminal behavior and a clash between two families, one of the Christian type farming the land and the other of the outlaw type . I was interested in exploring this dichotomy and how it can manifest in a single human being.
PINE BELT NEWS: Do you plan a follow-up and more work?
I’m currently working on a new novel set in Pensacola in the 1980s. It’s “teenage noir punk rock” tentatively titled DAMAGED. I’m 3/4 done with the first draft.
Tyler also has a new album on the way with his band The Apostles. “Hell To Pay” is coming in early 2023.
PINE BELT NEWS: Tim Lee, how did you find Tyler Keith, and what attracted you to him?
TIM LEE: Tyler talked to Susan about the layout and art of her book and sent her a copy of the manuscript. I read it and found it great. The story was really good, and the characters and locations were totally fleshed out. As the story developed, I couldn’t put it down, which is a good quality for a mystery novel.
PINE BELT NEWS: How did Cool Dog Sound start?
TIM LEE: After Susan and I released my book, we realized we enjoyed the process and decided to continue with it. We have other projects underway that we hope to develop in the coming year.
PINE BELT NEWS: In your book, you tell the story of the “New South” and touring in the 80s. You laid the foundation for many of these artists today. How did you feel thinking back to your memories of writing your book and now on the road again talking/playing to people this year?
TIM LEE: Writing the book was a lot of fun. In fact, I reached out to friends for some of their memories under the guise of “this project I’m working on” (I wasn’t ready to admit I was writing a book!). Susan was helpful because she would read sections of it and ask, “Why didn’t you include that story about so-and-so?” My response was usually, “Because I forgot.” The opportunities I’ve had to read the book and talk about that time have been great fun. I still enjoy playing music, and the book is just another extension of that.
PINE BELT NEWS: Is there a new BARK waiting in the wings?
TIM LEE: Yeah. We have a finished Bark album that we did here in Water Valley before moving here with Matt Patton and Bronson Tew. I’m really proud of it, and I think it’s really good. We’ll probably play a bunch of songs from it at T-Bones.
Copies of “The Mark of Cain” and “I Saw a Dozen Faces…” by Cool Dog Sound will be on sale and available for signing at this event.
NOTE TO READERS: Keep charging at Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” windmills. So far, reading with the audiobook seems to be the most satisfying as the “voice” here is at the heart of the story, feeling both lighthearted and adventurous. We will come back to this subject next week.
Mik Davis is the Record Store Manager at T-Bones Records & Cafe in Hattiesburg.