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interview with Dab Jewell
Blood Country: A Nashville Sideman Mystery
Today, Rebeccas Reads is pleased to interview Dan Jewell, who is here to talk about his new murder mystery, “Blood Country.”
Although Nashville native Dan Jewell says he knows only three chords on his old Silvertone flattop, he and his wife Joyce once cut a demo of his songs in the famous Woodland Studio, where artists as diverse as Robert Plant, Roy Acuff, and Mother Maybelle Carter have recorded through the years. Jewell grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and country music on the radio and has been a mystery fan for many years, especially the more hardboiled writers like Ross Macdonald, Sue Grafton, and Michael Connelly.
Jewell worked his way through college as a construction worker for an electrical utility, a pharmacy clerk, a short order cook, and as a tall and skinny shopping mall Santa Claus. He completed his undergraduate work at Martin Methodist College and Middle Tennessee State University, and has two graduate degrees in English from George Peabody College (M.A., Ed. S.). He taught writing, literature, and/or theater at Southeastern Louisiana University, Eastern Kentucky University, Columbia State Community College, and Volunteer State Community College where he received the Outstanding Faculty Award for 1989-90. Jewell was a co-editor of “Number One,” Volunteer State’s literary journal, for five years, and he directed many of the college’s theatrical productions, including “Spoon River Anthology,” “The Odd Couple,” “Bus Stop,” and “Antigone.” He also served as Dean of Humanities at Volunteer State from 1991-1999. The Jewells live on five wooded acres in Sumner County near Nashville.
RR: Welcome, Dan. It’s a pleasure to have you here today, and I love the title “Blood Country” because of its play on words. Will you explain the title for our readers not yet familiar with your book?
Dan: Thanks, I’m happy to join you today at Rebeccas Reads and answer your questions about “Blood Country.” In the title the word “blood” connotes violence, murder, and revenge. As for the word “country” besides its general meaning of a rural area, it also refers to the type of music associated with Nashville. Add “blood” to that, and you have a city and an industry where violence, murder, and revenge will be found.
RR: Why Nashville, Dan? What made you decide the country music scene was the perfect setting for a murder mystery?
Dan: First, there’s the glamour and celebrity factor. Country music has glittering stars who seem larger than life in their videos and on the huge concert stages. All of them, even the nicest ones, wear their performance masks, and for the most part, hide their human reality behind the “show” or public performance façade.
Second, there’s the dirt factor. If you have idealized, larger than life stars who hide behind a public persona, there’s bound to be some hidden unpleasantness, some dirt, if you will. Celebrity athlete Tiger Woods, for example, wore the mask of a super clean, master golfer who was an idyllic family man. But soon cracks appeared in that mask and eventually we saw the human beneath. Hollywood celebrities like Hugh Grant and Mel Gibson, to name two, also illustrate the point. And, from Waylon Jennings’ drug escapades in his younger days to Mindy McCready’s travails today, there are plenty of stories about country stars who let their rhinestone mask slip. What that means is that the stars are, after all, human. And this stuff is magnificent fodder for mystery fiction.
RR: How about the subtitle, “A Nashville Sideman Mystery.” What does that mean?
Dan: The main character, Rose, is a session guitarist, or sideman, as they’re sometimes called in the music industry. They work in recording sessions with well-known artists and comprise the bands that tour with those artists. To the general public they’re the musicians—the people who play the guitars, the mandolins, the banjos, the basses, the drums, the fiddles, and the steel guitars—that largely remain anonymous. Even for the best in the sideman business, work is not always available. Many of the lesser known sidemen have day jobs. Rose has a day job—he’s a P. I. But his side guitar work gives him access to the industry; I plan to use that repeatedly in other stories in the series.
RR: Tell us about the main character, Joe Rose. How does he get involved in the murder investigation?
Dan: Rose’s ex-wife, Patty Hill, a Vanderbilt Math professor, has a friend, Roxanne, who wants to leave her husband, Vern Hamlin. The strung out Hamlin is a superstar performer and owner of Great Axe Music. Hamlin has Roxanne—a well-known country music performer herself—locked in the house and won’t let her leave. Patty asks Rose to go with her and convince Hamlin to release his wife.
RR: What are the circumstances surrounding King Hamlin’s death, and why does his son Vern think the murder investigation needs to be reopened after twenty years?
Dan: The case concerning the murder of King (Vern’s father) twenty years ago was closed when the young man accused of the crime was killed in an escape attempt. At the beginning of the novel, Vern receives a mysterious, anonymous letter implying that the accused man was innocent.
RR: Who is the character referred to as the “Monkey” in the book and what is his role in the case?
Dan: We learn that he’s actually called “Monk.” His father was a caretaker at the Hamlin estate and the letter suggests that Monkey or “Monk” might know the identity of the real killer. Shortly after Rose questions Monk, he’s found dead. Was it murder or suicide? Rose’s investigation broadens to include Monk’s death.
RR: One of your characters involved in the investigation is referred to in the book as “Country music’s answer to Lady Gaga.” Will you tell us about that character and what that phrase means?
Dan: Oh, that’s Roxanne. Vern’s soon to be ex-wife. As I said earlier, she’s a performer herself and her publicist uses that phrase to describe her. Her performing costumes do not fit the traditional female country singer mold and she goes out of her way to be shocking in order to attract media coverage. Rose and Roxy don’t get along too well, although at one point in the novel she attempts to seduce Rose.
RR: It sounds like Roxy and her husband don’t get along well either if he has her locked in the house? Do their relationship issues figure into the mystery somehow?
Dan: Vern is strung out on alcohol and drugs. And there is some question as to his mental stability. He seems obsessed with keeping Roxy when Rose and Patty arrive at his mansion, and there’s a tender scene with her when she comes downstairs to leave him. But then he quickly turns away from those feelings, calling her a whore and ordering her out of the house. As for Roxy’s feelings for Vern, they seem to vacillate too—between guilt at leaving the man who gave her her big break in country music and a desire for her freedom to pursue her own selfish goals. But she gets over what little guilt she feels rather quickly.
After Roxy leaves him and Vern comes out of rehab, he continues to think of Roxy, but his focus is now on finding out who really killed his father. In that respect, the relationship with his assistant, Jessica Apple, becomes more important. Also, the other woman who seems to be on his mind is his stepmother, Monica Malone.
RR: Would you tell us a little about a few of the other fascinating characters involved in the investigation?
Dan: I’ll start with Jessica Apple, Vern’s assistant. She is very supportive of Vern’s decision to reopen his father’s old murder case. But she doesn’t trust Rose, or any private investigator for that matter. As Rose proceeds, he decides to do a background check on Apple. What he finds at first is zero. Zilch. Nada. Prior to her college days, there is no data. As he digs deeper into Apple’s background, everything in the case comes into focus.
Another important character is Monica Malone, Vern’s stepmother, who’s at the center of the novel. Everyone seems to know this beautiful woman or to have had some sort of relationship with her. She was married to Vern’s father at the time of his murder and had previously been married to the man accused of the crime, Billy Wolf. Since the murder, she has been married several more times and is currently the wife of the pastor of a Nashville megachurch. Then there’s Tilden Hurt, the professor who writes mystery novels. He too knew Monica and had lived with her after she left Wolf and enrolled in one of his college classes. And I’ll also mention, Claude Hamlin, Vern’s uncle and CEO of Hamlin Enterprises. He was married to Monica for a short time right after his brother King’s death. Untangling all these relationships is part of the difficulty Rose faces as he investigates King’s murder.
RR: Wow, Dan. I can see why Rose has his hands full when it comes to untangling these relationships. Can I ask if you, as the author, had any secrets for how to keep all these plot twists straight yourself?
Dan: I spent a considerable amount of time writing a backstory for each character, then placing those stories on a narrative timeline, and constantly crosschecking the facts. My wife also helped tremendously with this. She read the manuscript five or six times and was always on the lookout for discrepancies.
RR: Typically in mystery novels, someone is out to stop the detective from revealing the truth. Does Joe get himself into any dangerous situations as a result of taking on this case?
Dan: Yes, Rose finds himself in several dangerous situations. At the beginning of the novel, when he first meets with Vern Hamlin at his mansion, Vern pulls a gun on his uncle Claude and his associate Wesley Taggart. Rose quickly disarms him.
In another “dangerous situation,” Rose encounters the “country Lady Gaga” (Roxanne) who is naked as she emerges from her pool. She tries to seduce Rose to divert him from his mission but despite her absolute best efforts, she fails.
Monk, the first character Rose interviews, attacks him with a weed trimmer before Rose wrestles him to the ground. Vern and Rose are also threatened by a crazed songwriter with a big gun at Vern’s Great Axe studio. There are more scenes like that, especially the finale, but if I say more, I might spoil the ending for readers.
RR: Dan, in your own words, how would you describe Rose? He sounds like a pretty decent guy. What do you think will make him an attractive detective for readers?
Dan: Joe is a man in his mid-thirties who’s had a failed marriage and several dead end love affairs. He’s perhaps too quick to resort to violence or the threat of it to accomplish his goals. As the story progresses, some of the events coincide with, and in some cases, lead to his own discoveries about himself and his shortcomings.
In this sense, Joe is a kind of everyman. Most of us don’t carry a weapon and we don’t get into physical fights regularly. But, like Joe, we have made mistakes in our lives, and we try to learn from them.
Like many people, his relationships have not gone well and he’s trying to figure out why. His hopes to be a success in music have not been fully realized and he’s aware of that, too. But, like most of us, he’s found a niche, a place in the world where he fits, and where he feels he’s making a contribution, no matter how limited, and he’s growing more comfortable with that. As most of us know, these lessons on the path to a mature and fully realized life are sometimes difficult. I think readers can identify with Joe’s struggles because they’ve gone through, or are going through, or will go through some of what he experiences.
RR: Dan, what do you find most difficult about writing a mystery novel?
Dan: It’s all fun to me, but I probably have the most difficulty getting my plot laid out first. I have three strategies for dealing with that problem. First I do some background reading, in this case on unpleasant events that have involved actual country stars or terrible situations they’ve brought on themselves. Next, I turn to Shakespeare.
Dan: Yes. I sometimes look at the plots for his plays, particularly his tragedies, for plot ideas. I don’t use the whole plot by any means, just a few points to get me started. I had a writing teacher once who said, “If you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best.” And Shakespeare is the best. Truth is, he himself borrowed many of his plots from previously written works. A large segment of Shakespearean scholarship is devoted to discovering the sources from which he derived his plots. His play “Hamlet” for example is more than likely derived from Francois de Belleforest’s book of tragic histories or Thomas Kyd’s “Ur-Hamlet” both of which were written twenty or thirty years before Shakespeare wrote his “Hamlet.” He took these stories and turned them into entertaining dramas for his audiences.
In “Blood Country,” I have a quotation from “Hamlet” at the beginning of the novel, and I use some plot points from that play, including a variation on the famous “play within the play” which Hamlet uses to determine his father’s murderer.
My final strategy to assist with plotting involves the use of 3 x 5 index cards. I transfer my plotting ideas for individual scenes in the narrative to the cards; that way, if I want to change the order of some of the events, I can change the order quite easily.
RR: What’s next for you, Dan? Do you plan to write more mysteries?
Dan: I’ve already started some preliminary notes on another Sideman mystery featuring P. I. Joe Rose. The tentative title is “Country Medium,” and it’s the story of the family of an aging country singer who has one son, two daughters and one illegitimate daughter. The illegitimate daughter is a beautiful black girl who’s murdered at the beginning of the book.
RR: Dan, I know from your website you have a lot of information about murder-type events in Nashville and country music, so do you think Nashville will always be the focus for your books?
Dan: At first, yes. Nashville is a gold mine as far as being a backdrop for a mystery. There are so many great things about the city that most people don’t know about. They’re only familiar with the stereotype, and in my stories I want to show them things about the city they never dreamed of. But I imagine there’ll come a time when I might want to take Rose away from his home turf and give him a case that takes him somewhere else. It might be fun to see how he would react, for example, if I plopped him down in L. A. or San Francisco.
RR: You’re also a native of Nashville. What difference do you think that makes for you as an author, as opposed to say if you were writing about another place?
Dan: Imagination is a powerful tool and I’d like to think that with some research I could write a story set in N.Y. City or Denver or London or even Shanghai. The short story writer O. Henry, for example, didn’t live in Nashville, but he wrote a very good story, “Municipal Report,” which is set in Nashville. But, having said that, being a native can have its advantages, especially in terms of providing you with details that flow naturally from your experience.
RR: Thank you for joining me today, Dan. Before we go, will you tell us where we can find more information about “Blood Country” online?
Dan: You can check out the “Blood Country” pages at Amazon, Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Books a Million, and Outskirts Press. I also have a website, Country Dirt http://countrydirt.blogspot.com/, where you can find lots of information about the book, including a video trailer I developed which gives the potential reader a visual preview.
RR: Thanks again, Dan, for the opportunity to interview you today. We all love a good mystery. Best of luck and keep writing.
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