Fresh Water in the Salton Sea: Drew Kennedy’s Novel Idea
Fresh Water in the Salton Sea, Drew Kennedy’s new project, is something of a novel idea. Yes, it’s the Texas-based singer-songwriter’s fifth album, but it’s also the title of his first book, a travel narrative that follows fictional alt-country artist Dan Murphy as he tours the American West alone, playing shows, encountering off-kilter characters, drinking enough to pickle Hemingway’s liver, and writing songs along the way.
For Kennedy, who first fell in love with alt-country music in college after hearing a Robert Earl Keen record and attending a Whiskeytown show (where Ryan Adams enthralled the crowd even as he played with his back turned to them for the first half of the concert), writing Fresh Water in the Salton Sea was an opportunity to intertwine story and song in order to let readers take an inside look into where songs come from and how they’re crafted, and then “run it all together, novel and album, into an audiobook.”
“When I started to get the Google-aided feeling that no one had ever done anything like that before,” Kennedy explains, “I knew I had to do it.”
Though both album and novel can be enjoyed separately from one another, it’s a real treat to experience them together (for those who don’t want to mix their media, the audiobook inserts the songs where the book features the lyrics written out). The book Fresh Water in the Salton Sea was written in three months, most of it in Kennedy’s office above the Phoenix Saloon in New Braunfels, Texas (the same town Dan Murphy calls home). The tour Murphy takes is identical to one Kennedy, wife Holly, and singer-songwriter Rodney Hayden took two years ago. With the songs already completed, the tour was used as the backbone of the novel, with each stop resulting in inspiration and a new song from Dan.
The life of a troubadour is a solitary one, which means Dan’s travels are reflected on the internal journey he’s undertaken, as evidenced by the opening song “War with Myself,” with a lyric (“When you’re at war with yourself you’re bound to lose”) that sets his entire introspective process in motion. As such, it’s a pensive collection of songs that accompanies the book, and none are better than “We’ve All Got Our Marks to Make.”
Co-written with Walt Wilkins, it’s perhaps the only song in existence to cite both George Washington and Hank Williams. Washington, working as a land surveyor in 1750, carved his initials into the rock of the Natural Bridge, a 200-foot stone arch located in Virginia. He was likely one of the first white men to see the majestic landmark, and made special mention of the arch in his journal. Fast forward about two hundred years and you’ve got Kennedy’s inspiration for the second half of the song: “Before a show at this great place called The Cabaret in Bandera, Texas, the owner and I walk down the street to Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar. He points out this little table in a corner next to the fireplace in Arkey’s and tells me tells me the following story: Hank Williams had played the Cabaret back in the 30′s, and after the show refused to leave the dancehall. The owners, not knowing what to do, decided to give in to his demands, which were as follows: a bottle of whiskey, and to be locked into the dancehall overnight. They came back the next morning and found Hank passed out on top of a little table with a half empty bottle of whiskey being used as a pillow, and noticed that he had carved his name into the side of the table with a pocket knife. That table is in Arkey’s, and you can see Hank’s name there, to this day.”
“I had the verses written, but they seemed incredibly incongruous,” says Kennedy. “There was a common thread there, but I couldn’t find it. Walt Wilkins…helped me find it in about an hour.” There’s something humanizing about the carvings made by these two men who’ve since achieved near-mythic status leaving something of permanence, but Dan isn’t sure about his own work, trailing off with an “And as for me…” Kennedy is the same, admitting, “I still don’t know if I’ve left my mark in anything, but I’m trying.”
He needn’t worry. We’ve all got our marks to make, and with Fresh Water in the Salton Sea, Drew Kennedy has etched a deep one.
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