When I was thinking about ways I could invite Stephanie Kuehnert to talk to Beatrice readers about the inspiration for her second YA novel, Ballads of Suburbia, I remembered that we were coming up on the holidays, and gift ideas are always helpful this time of year, right? So I asked Stephanie if she would be willing to recommend some of her favorite ballads, songs with the sense of emotional energy that drove her fiction, and she was totally up for it—and there’s one recommendation here I can totally get behind, one that I can understand even if my enthusiasm isn’t as intense as hers (but that may just be because I haven’t heard the CD in a decade), and one that I’d never heard before but I’m absolutely going to check out.
When Kara, the main character in Ballads of Suburbia, talks about ballads, she says, “I’m not talking about the cliched ones where a diva hits her highest note or a rock band tones it down a couple of notches for the ladies. I mean a true ballad. Dictionary definition: a song that tells a story in short stanzas and simple words, with repetition, refrain, etc. My definition: the punk rocker or the country crooner telling the story of his life in three minutes, reminding us of the numerous ways to screw up.”
Even though Kara is not a fictionalized version of me (I swear!), she and I do share the same definition of a ballad. So keep this in mind while reading over my recommendations for albums with great ballads. This is why you aren’t going to find the soundtrack to The Bodyguard on my list or any hair metal albums. (Though I do have a big soft spot for “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” by Poison; I’m not gonna lie.) Think of these as my favorite storytelling albums.
The Essential Johnny Cash
Back in high school, when I got suckered into joining one of those mailorder music clubs, I found this box-set in one of the catalogs and figured it would make a good intro to the Man In Black. Johnny Cash is the ultimate musical storyteller in my opinion. My concept of ballads (and the whole concept behind Ballads of Suburbia) comes from listening to his songs, simple tales of the troubles we encounter in life. I always loved “A Boy Named Sue,” especially the whimsical way it ends where after fighting the man who named him, “Sue” admits that although his name did make him a tougher guy, he’ll name his son anything but Sue. Then there is “Cocaine Blues,” the tale of a man who takes a shot of cocaine and proceeds to shot his woman down and attempt to outrun the law. The moral of the story is simple: “Lay off that whisky and let that cocaine be.” But it’s a lesson hard learned like most of life’s lesson are. Basically, Johnny Cash’s catalog is a treasure trove of tales of warning, woe, and love that will make you smile, shed a tear, shake your head, and even laugh once in awhile. You’ll never find a more perfect or essential collection of ballads.
Social Distortion: Social Distortion
My favorite punk rock storyteller/master of the punk ballad is Mike Ness and his band, Social D. The influence of Johnny Cash is clear as they cover “Ring of Fire” on this album—the song June Carter wrote, but Johnny Cash made famous. But the greatest ballad on this album has to be “Story of My Life.” It’s a song practically everyone I know can relate to, because we’ve all watched life breeze by us so fast and been left standing there in a haze of memory, trying to figure out how to move forward. There are a bunch of other intense stories told on this album. “Ball and Chain” is a classic ballad to me, how could it not be when the narrator finds himself with “a broken nose, a broken heart, and an empty bottle of gin”? Then there are the “Sick Boys.” They were the kinds of boys I loved even though they were as dangerous and troubled as the song made them seem. And many of them ended up on the “Drug Train,” another ballad that warns about the dangers of substance abuse. This album is all about the lows that follow the highs. Great stories with great lessons—if you learn from them; if you don’t, well, your experiences can inspire your own ballads.
The ’59 Sound: The Gaslight Anthem
I discovered Johnny Cash and Social Distortion back at the beginning of high school, but The Gaslight Anthem is a newer band of balladeers/storytellers that I discovered just last year. The title track, “The ’59 Sound,” may well be the best ballad about grief ever written. I first heard it not long after a friend of mine was killed in a motorcycle crash and it was one of those songs that felt like it was written just for me. The whole album feels like it tells a story, though—one of love lost, second chances given and blown, and how to live through it all. “Old White Lincoln” conjures memories of teenage friendships and summers spent mostly in cars. There’s the ballad of the aspiring rock star and all the girls that he’s lost or left behind in “Here’s Looking At You, Kid.” “High Lonesome” reminds us of the dreams we had and the ways we mess them up. It’s one of the many Gaslight Anthem songs sung about a very intriguing girl named Maria, who is all over their first album “Sink or Swim” as well. The references to her really tie their songs together and give them a real feel of story. I’m looking forward to their next release to see what happens next.
8 December 2009 | guest authors |