Carrie Rodriguez, multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter, brings her own special and inspiring blend of roots music to this year’s Freshgrass Festival in North Adams, Mass., appearing Sunday, Sept. 17, at 1 p.m. I caught up with her by phone recently for a laugh-filled chat about books and reading.
So you have a great model for writing: Your grandmother was a writer. Tell me a little about her.
Well, she got a late start in writing. She published her first book when she was about 71, I think. Her books were short stories and memoirs about growing up in West Texas in the Depression, as well as what is like being a woman and an artist in that place in the 1940s and 1950s. She was a storyteller all her life, though. I recall her telling me wonderful bedtime stories. She told these hilarious, wonderful stories at our family gatherings and dinners. We’d heard all the stories many times before, but she was such a wonderful storyteller. She sent one of her stories in to the Houston Chronicle — at the time they had a section about books and reading — and they published it. John Aielli, who’s a famous radio host on KUT-FM here in Austin, asked her to come on his show and read some of her stories. She did, and she had him in stitches; when she walked out of the studio, there was a publisher waiting to talk to her about a book.
Did her writing inspire you to start writing songs?
I was a reluctant songwriter. My father, David Rodriguez, is a great songwriter. I always wanted to be as far away from songwriting as I could (laughs). My songwriting came about as a result of meeting Chip Taylor and singing duets with him. When we were making our second album, Chip said he wanted me to help him write songs for it. I thought, “Well, when the guy who wrote ‘Wild Thing’ asks you to write songs, you probably better do it” (laughs).
What was your favorite book as a child?
I loved Roald Dahl; I adored his books. The BFG was my favorite; I must have read it at least ten times. My grandmother’s house was full of books. When I was growing up I spent a lot time at her house, and I would go through those shelves of books and discover writers like Shel Silverstein. When I was young I went through a big phase of reading everything John Irving had written. I went through a Gabriel García Márquez period.
Have you gone back and read those books again? Has your experience of them changed?
You know, I haven’t done that, but it would a good thing to do.
What books are on your nightstand now?
It seems like I’m always trying to catch up on books. I just finished Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. It’s so beautifully written and a lyrical book about science and wonder and the world. Her book kept me reading late into the night; I couldn’t put it down. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that’s kept me up at night. And, after you’ve had a child — my son is two now — it’s harder to stay up late to read since you’re always tired (chuckles). I also recently finished The Devil in the White City; I loved the way it painted a picture of a certain time in history, but it’s such a dark book. I do love historical fiction. Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad: Oh, wow; that book is truly transportive. I’m also reading a script for a musical quite a bit because I’m writing the songs for it. That’s such a different way of writing a song because you’re writing to propel the plot. The song has a specific subject matter. I’m used to following an idea or a lyric or a tune and letting it come together.
Have you ever faked reading a book?
Hmm, I remember fake-reading some Graham Greene novels. My dad had a lot of them — and there are a lot of them — on his shelves, and I thought I should read them, but I just couldn’t get through them.
If you pick up a book, do you finish it? Will you stop reading it if you don’t like it for some reason?
I generally read a book to the bitter end. I do feel like I have to finish a book I start. I’m kind of a fast reader, though, so I can get through a book quickly. I’m also kind of a binge reader. I might read books for two or three weeks, and then I’m not reading for a couple of weeks. After a few weeks of not reading, I’m looking for new books to start reading, or re-reading.
How do you like to read: print or electronic?
In print. I wish I could do electronic, since it would be simpler to take a lot of books when I travel, but I really need to feel the book in my hands and the pages when I turn them.
Are there any genres you won’t read?
I don’t read a lot of self-help books. Maybe we should find another name for those kinds of books because it has a negative connotation. I have friends who read them and get something out of them. I’ve tried to read a few, but I’ve never been able to get through one. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but I do love historical fiction.
What’s the one book you won’t leave home without?
Hmm; let me look at my shelves and think about what book I’d read over and over if it’s the only book I had with me. I think it would be Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. It is so Texas. I love the book’s imagery and painting of the wilderness of Texas that hasn’t changed all that much since the time in which the book is set. It had me once I started; I didn’t want it to end.
If you could have lunch with three authors, living or dead, who would they be?
Molly Ivins: she’d really make it fun; Gabriel García Márquez; and my grandmother, Frances Nail.