THE READING ROOM: Tired in Book Form, Dolly’s Characters Find Life in ‘Run Rose Run’ Companion Album
Rose McCord is on the run, though it’s not until two-thirds of the way through Run Rose Run: A Novel (Little, Brown) — the sedate, button-downed, and clichéd thriller by Dolly Parton and James Patterson — that we discover why she’s running. By then, it’s too late for us to care about Rose or her fate or anyone around her. The novel rambles loosely from one event to another in the lives of one-dimensional characters who represent stereotypes in the country music world: the handsome but brooding male country musician with a past; the young woman singer whose songs propel her to sudden fame; the slithering managers and DJs out to make a quick buck off of young country stars, especially women; the retired woman country star who’s living in a mansion in Belle Meade, Nashville’s glittering conclave of wealth, who’s vowed never to return to the stage, among others. Fans of the TV show Nashville will feel as if they are watching many of the same stories unfold, except at least Nashville had tension and conflict among the characters that drove the plot.
As the novel opens, we meet AnnieLee Keyes, a young woman thumbing from Houston to Nashville. After a series of close calls, she makes it to Music City, ragged and dirty, and stumbles into the Cat’s Paw, a honky-tonk off lower Broadway. After trading some small talk with the bartender, Billy, she asks if she can sing some songs on the little stage in the bar. Billy agrees and lets her borrow the bar’s guitar. (She’s of course left hers back from wherever she came.) Of course, AnnieLee wows the crowd with her angelic voice and her tough and tender songs.
Sitting in the crowd one night is guitarist Ethan Blake, who’s enamored of AnnieLee and who’s a session musician for Ruthanna Ryder, one of country music’s grandest queens. In the clipped cliches so characteristic of this novel — maybe all country music people talk this way, though — he tells Ryder about Keyes: “She sang like an angel who’s been cast out of heaven, yearning to fly back up to where she belongs.” By now, you can guess the rest of the story: Ryder takes Keyes under her wings, Blake and Keyes fall tentatively in love, Keyes quickly ascends to stardom, opening for a Blake Shelton-like star in an arena show, Keyes has trouble accepting her newfound friends and fame and continues to run fearfully from her past, Keyes’ past (her life as Rose McCord) emerges from the shadows in the form of angry and vengeful men out to harm her — or teach her a lesson — Blake rescues Keyes from the danger, carries her back to Nashville, and Ryder comes out of retirement to duet with Keyes.
By the end of the novel AnnieLee can reveal her identity to her fans and declare from that stage with Ryder: “My real name is Rose McCord. And I want you to know that it’s taken me more than a handful of miracles for me to be here — and to even be alive. As long as I live, I will never, ever stop being grateful for this moment, and for every sweet, free breath I take.”
While the novel is formulaic and disappointing, thank goodness Parton released her new album Run Rose Run as a companion to the novel. Many of the lyrics, or portions of them, appear in the novel, too, as parts of songs written by AnnieLee, Ryder, or other characters. The lyrics for all of the songs on the album appear in an appendix to the novel. For example, Ruthanna Ryder’s song “Big Dreams and Faded Dreams,” a gospel-inflected rocker with jaunty harmonica and slide guitar grooves, announces what is easily the theme of the novel: “My desire is always greater than my fear.” Both AnnieLee and Ruthanna are driven by desire to reach their goals, no matter the fear that lies like a shadow beneath it, whether it’s fear of failure or fear that someone will discover their real story or fear of death.
The album launches with the propulsive country rambler “Run,” classic Dolly with soaring fiddle runs and rambunctious banjo rolls and background vocals by Dailey & Vincent. The handclapping, foot-stomping hoedown music mimics the lead lyrics of the song: “Run-run-run, a-run-run.”
The rollicking “Driven” careens lickety-split down a pop-inflected bluegrass path, with the fiddle and vocals mimicking a train chugging at top speed down the track. The song conveys AnnieLee’s passion for songwriting. Ruthanna’s swampy, minor chord “Snakes in the Grass” warns of those unscrupulous managers and music industry people just waiting to strike their innocent victims like the creatures of the song’s title.
The hopes and promise and disappointment of young love wafts through the tender ballad “Bluebonnet Breeze,” a story that’s “often been told / Of a rich city boy and a poor country girl / Their families tried hard / To keep them apart.” It’s Romeo and Juliet set in the bluebonnet fields of Texas. The gritty power anthem “Woman Up (And Take It Like a Man)” declares that the singer’s not gonna take being put down and marginalized any longer, while the gentle “Secrets” — written in the novel by Ethan Blake — croons lovingly of the need for sharing with each other the mysteries we hide in our hearts.
Although listening to Parton’s album might enhance the experience of reading the novel, it’s not necessary to listen while reading. The album stands very well on its own and, in fact, tells the story of these individuals making their way in the country music world much more clearly and effectively than the novel does. Parton’s genius as a songwriter shines brightly once again in these 12 tracks, and the songs engage our compassion, make us mad, tug at our hearts. That won’t happen when you read the novel, though, so in this case leave the novel on the shelf and cue up the album and let Parton do what she does best: Tell stories in songs that touch our hearts.