THE READING ROOM: Granville Automatic’s Elizabeth Elkins on How Stories Become Songs
Elizabeth Elkins (photo by Abby Linne)
Elizabeth Elkins and Vanessa Olivarez are Granville Automatic. In the last edition of The Reading Room, I reviewed their new book, Hidden History of Music Row, to which Brian Allison also contributed. The group’s follow-up volume, Lost Music Row (The History Press), will be out in 2022.
Elkins is working on a new book, Your Cheatin’ Heart: Timothy Demonbreun and the Politics of Love and Power in Nascent Nashville (Vanderbilt University Press). She is the president of Historic Nashville Inc., a nonprofit membership organization whose mission is to promote and preserve the historic places that make Nashville unique. Her book is part of a new series of 25 books — “Truth, Lies, and Histories of Nashville” — that Vanderbilt University Press will be publishing between now and 2029, Nashville’s 250th anniversary.
Elkins became interested in learning more about Demonbreun as she was driving into Music Row every day on a street with this name that didn’t seem pronounceable and that sounded strange in the midst of what she assumed was a Scotch-Irish settlement. She tells a brief portion of Demonbreun’s fascinating story in Hidden History of Music Row, and his history gives you a full picture of how complicated the early history of Nashville is. Elkins follows her curiosity about the city’s origins by immersing herself in a city’s history and architecture. “I want to know what’s going on where I am,” she says.
Before moving to Nashville, Elkins wrote for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta magazine, Arts & Antiques, and Creative Loafing. Her songs have been recorded by Billy Currington, Kira Isabella, Aaron Goodvin, and Ruby Boots.
Elkins also loves good books, so she and I chatted by phone recently about books and reading, songwriting and writing, and T.S. Eliot.
What books are on your nightstand now?
I have books stacked in a few places around the house. On my nightstand right now, though, I have three books: Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, by S.C. Gwynne; Blood and Thunder: An Epic Story of the American West, by Hampton Sides; and Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands: A Young Politician’s Quest for Recovery in the American West, by Roger L. Di Silvestro. I always try to read everything I can on Teddy Roosevelt; I find him really fascinating. I’ve also been on a five-year kick of reading about the expansion of the West. Some of the books in the other stacks are Richard Powers’ The Overstory, Richard Campanella’s Cityscapes of New Orleans, Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, and Thomas J. Campanella’s Brooklyn: The Once and Future City.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Were there any books you hid from your parents?
I was that “can’t-grab-the-book-out-my-hands” reader when I was young. I read the Narnia books, everything by Beverly Cleary and E.B. White. There’s a story my parents tell that when my dad would read to me and he’d try to skip a page, I’d make him go back and read it. I had the book memorized so I knew when he was leaving out parts of the story. I never hid any books from my parents. I remember buying some of those big, so-called radical books, like The Communist Manifesto, the Bible, Mein Kampf when I was older, but music was my way of rebelling.
What’s the last book that made you laugh? Cry? Angry?
When I was doing research for Hidden History of Music Row, I read several memoirs and autobiographies, including Chely Wright’s memoir Like Me: Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer; it’s not a funny story, of course, but there are several lines that made me chuckle. The Overstory is the last book that’s made me cry, and I am not finished reading it yet. It’s just so beautifully written. The last book that made me angry was probably Empire of the Summer Moon. The subject itself — the rise and fall of the Comanches — makes me angry, but reading history also makes me angry because the socials are filled with people who write about the current situation who speak like they’re “experts,” but they are not deeply familiar with history. It’s frustrating that many people don’t know history.
What books would we be surprised to find on your shelves?
Maybe Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. I think it’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It’s so beautifully written. Maybe they’d be surprised by my Anne Rice section, but people who know me wouldn’t be too surprised. I have a lot of books about different cities and architecture, but people who know me wouldn’t be surprised. Maybe Harold Bloom, or this one: The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene.
What’s the best book you’ve received as a gift? The best book you’ve given as a gift?
The first two volumes of The Letters of T.S. Eliot are the best books I have received as gifts. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is the beginning and end of all things I’m interested in; the poem has deeply influenced me as a writer and as a songwriter. I like to give people books that will inspire them to do something creative.
What’s your ideal reading experience?
Things have to be quiet for me to read or write. I usually read at night, normally before I go to bed.
How does your reading influence your songwriting?
Well, many of my ideas and stories for songs come from just watching people and listening to them. The stories for so many of Granville Automatic’s songs are found in books. I’ll often write down phrases from books that might spur a song. Also, reading magazines like The New Yorker inspires songs. For example, one of my songs, “Houses of Books,” comes from a phrase that Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter used to describe the houses she lived in.
What’s the book that changed your life?
“The Waste Land”: Eliot is so musical. The poem reads like music; it influences my entire approach to songwriting. It’s a little bleak, but it’s brilliant in the way it joins math to architecture, architecture to history, history to politics, and politics to music in this great circle.
If you could invite three authors, living or dead, to lunch, whom would you invite?
T.S. Eliot, of course. John Keegan: he really makes history readable. He tells fiction-like stories about wars, making history and military history come to life. Douglas Preston because of his two books Cities of Gold and Talking to the Ground. He walked or rode on horseback through parts of the Southwest retracing the steps of Coronado.