Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Murder Ballads,' featuring Robert Finley and Dan Auerbach

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'Murder Ballads,' by Gabe Soria with Paul Reinwand and Chris Hunt.
'Murder Ballads,' by Gabe Soria with Paul Reinwand and Chris Hunt. (Jay Gabler/MPR)

If you're making a movie or a TV show about fictional musicians, you've got to get the music right — as the producers of That Thing You Do and Empire clearly understood, enlisting Adam Schlesinger and Timbaland, respectively, to make sure the songs popped. With a book, though, you have the luxury of leaving the tunes to readers' imaginations.

Writer Gabe Soria wasn't going to take that easy out, though, for his new graphic novel Murder Ballads (available locally at the Source and elsewhere). He enlisted a buddy to write and record the songs performed by the characters in the blues noir — and his buddy happened to be Dan Auerbach. The Black Keys frontman partnered with bluesman Robert Finley to create five tracks that come as a digital download with every copy of Murder Ballads. If you spring for the $200 box set, you get the music as a 10" vinyl EP.

Is the music good? Of course it's good, but you'll have to judge for yourself whether it would be good enough to kill for. That's what happens in Murder Ballads, as a freshly-recorded tape becomes the MacGuffin in a bloody struggle among five desperate outsiders who think they might have a hit on their hands.

The story is set in Shreveport, Louisiana, circa 1998. "Leadbelly's from Shreveport," a young white guy named Nate tells his wife Mary, who replies, "I'm not an idiot." They're on their last wad of cash, heading west to make one last stab at saving their careers and their marriage after blowing everything on a failed record label.

Nate's hoping to find some undiscovered talent, and he lucks out when he walks into an empty bar where two African-American men — the Fontweather Brothers, and yes, they're brothers — have just the gift, and the sound, Nate's looking for. To sweeten the pot, Nate convinces the brothers to help him track down a legendary producer who may or may not be living alone in his boxer shorts at a dilapidated house with a vintage studio.

Everything goes south — so to speak — as the brothers and their white producers tussle over a session tape. The tape includes songs like the chilling "Bang Bang," the instrumental "Butter Sandwich" ("You could f--- up a butter sandwich," one of the musicians tells Nate), and a song called "In the Pines," which becomes a sort of theme for the book.

The story dramatizes, but doesn't glamorize, the idea that "authentic" music comes from struggle. Nate mentions that if he doesn't sign the Fontweathers, they might be snapped up by a label like Fat Possum: the kind of label that specializes in artists like R.L. Burnside, with stormy sounds and stories that seem too good (from a marketing standpoint) to be true. Nate's original concept is to record the Fontweathers live, "like a real field recording."

"Field recording?" asks one of the artists incredulously. "This ain't no sharecropper shack. You want us to put on some overalls, too?"

The Finley and Auerbach songs sound right, whether or not they prove to have real-world legs. The best of the lot might be "The Empty Arms," the one song not attributed to the Fontweathers, but to the veteran producer. "I wrote and recorded it after the divorce came through and I sobered up," says "Franklin Bonisteel" in a flashback story included at the end of the book. "Best damn thing I ever did and she didn't get a dime of my royalties. Ha!"

Great song, not a great story. Not like the story of the Fontweather Brothers, or the story of Burnside, who served time for murder, decades before teaming up with Jon Spencer for an indie-rock breakthrough. Of course he didn't mean to kill anybody, Burnside later averred. "I just meant to shoot the son of a b---- in the head."

The Current's Murder Ballads giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's Murder Ballads giveaway between 8 a.m. CDT on Wednesday, August 30, 2017 and 11:59 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, September 5, 2017.

One (1) winner will receive one (1) softcover copy of Murder Ballads. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $24.99

We will contact the winners on Wednesday, September 6, 2017. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. CT on Thursday, September 7, 2017.

You must be 13 or older to submit any information to American Public Media. The personally identifying information you provide will not be sold, shared, or used for purposes other than to communicate with you about things like our programs, products, and services. See Minnesota Public Radio's Terms of Use and Privacy Statement.

This giveaway is subject to Minnesota Public Radio's 2017 Official Giveaway Rules.

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