The Inspiration for A Swan's Sweet Song25 Dec 2017
Quite a few years ago, I got a job at Radio France, writing and broadcasting a daily program about the history of North American country music. I was in Laval, a small city in the west of France — definitely not a buzzing centre of activity, but one day, I heard that a country music group — The Country Brothers — were coming to town to play in a cosy, fuggy, local bar. Wonderful! I would take advantage of their one night stop to interview them for my program: my very first interview with professional musicians.
Back then, radio announcers and journalists used tape recorders called Nagras in the field. Modern Nagras are lightweight and digital; back then, they weighed in at a ton and a half, and the ones at our radio station were tired and over-worked. One technician was supposed to keep them in working order, but he was usually across the road, comfortably tippling in the local bar. His office, if ever he was in it, was little more than a speakeasy. I was, of course, not familiar with the infernal heavyweight Nagras, but a colleague gave me a crash course, and off I went.
Well, I can assure you that The Country Brothers were absolutely delightful. There were three of them, and yes, two really were brothers. All were talented singers and musicians. All were absolutely charming.
Much later in the evening, during one of their longer breaks, and after having imbibed quite an amount of the local beer — an activity I participated in — Zack, the older brother was feeling merry enough to answer my questions, so I pushed the button on my Nagra, and the interview began.
Zack was fascinating. He had an incredible knowledge of music as well as a wonderful country twang … although, yes … there was the hint of a French accent there too, one he was determined to cover up as best he could (it didn’t seem so authentic, being a French country music singer, he said.) In fact, he soon admitted he wasn’t even French: he and his brother were originally from Ukraine: — quite an amusing twist for an authentic “American” country singer.
He talked about the life of a country musician, about being on the road with road food and cheap hotels in backwoods European towns, about chance meetings with other musicians, about whole nights passed making music together. When it was time for him to begin a new set, I thanked Zack with all my heart and turned off the Nagra. I knew I had just had a brilliant first interview, and when I staggered my beery way back down the road, I was floating.
The next day, I raced to the radio station and got ready to edit the interview and prepare it for my show. And… yes, you might have guessed it… when I pushed the playback button there was nothing. Just silence. Desperate, I pushed all the keys. Nada. What had happened the evening before? Had I pushed the play button instead of record? Had the Nagra simply not functioned? No matter: it was as if that interview had never existed.
But the stories Zack had told me, the memory of that amusing evening (and thoughts of my own incompetence) stayed with me. And I vowed that, one day, if ever I became a writer, I’d use the information I’d gleaned.
Sherry Valentine, the heroine of my romance, A Swan’s Sweet Song, is a country music singer, and she’s tired of being on the road, of screaming fans, of temporary relationships that never do work out. She thinks that changing careers, becoming an actress, will be more satisfying. And when, during a cultural festival in a backwoods town, she meets New York playwright Carston Hewlett, Sherry’s agent, Charlie Bacon, thinks this is the perfect opportunity for her. Of course, Sherry doesn’t agree: she knows about Carston’s anathema to being used for his influence.
In little time, Sherry and Carston discover there are many interests they share: a love of the country, long walks, and a passion for research — Sherry has spent years of her life learning about the origins of early authentic country music, and its roots in Irish, English, Scottish and German melodies. But, of course, there is also a very intense attraction between Sherry and Carston (or this wouldn’t be a romance) and this confuses the issue even more.
No thanks to the paparazzi, things do not work out as planned. Sherry and Carston separate on bad terms. He heads back to his isolated home in the country; she heads for Hollywood, a minor role in a soap opera, and the unpleasant company of bottom-feeding producers and directors who see actresses as casting couch material.
Our star-crossed lovers do meet again, and, if you want to know what happens then, you’ll just have to read or listen to A Swan’s Sweet Song. If you’re also interested in hearing some original country music, western swing, and Irish music, just click on these YouTube links, and enjoy!