If Jack Kerouac played the banjo, and sat around with John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Alice Munro, he might have had a hand in the Steep Canyon Rangers’ new album, Out in the Open (out Jan. 26). The album is a paean to the road and to going mobile, as well as to the blessings and curses of living a transient life. Though neither Kerouac nor Cormac McCarthy directly had a hand in writing these songs, Graham Sharp, banjo player, vocalist, and writer, may have heard their echoes when he wrote many of them. Sharp wears his literary influences on his sleeve, and his reading — which he’s doing often — inspires his writing. “I’m always reading,” he told ND, and my reading often influences my writing.”
I called Sharp at his home in Asheville, North Carolina, the other day and we chatted about the new album, songwriting, and books and reading. This is part of our conversation.
Graham Sharp: A handful of the new songs came out of this particular collection of stories I was reading at the time.
ND: What stories?
Sharp: A collection of short stories by Alice Munro, Runaway. We were out in Oregon, and we had a few days. Reading stories sparks my songwriting, but when I was reading Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree a few years ago, I was writing some dark songs. Couldn’t let too many of those see the light of day. (Laughs.)
ND: What books are on your nightstand now?
Sharp: Well, I got a lot of books for Christmas; I love that. I haven’t opened any of those books yet. I have a lot to look forward to reading this year now. I’m in this book club, and we’re reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, so that’s what I’m focused on at the moment. I didn’t get to read it when it came out, so I’m glad we’re discussing it in the club and I get the chance to read it now. I also recently picked up this little book by Mikhail Bulgakov. I haven’t read anything by him, but I read Patti Smith’s M Train last year, and she kept mentioning this book by him. I really loved Just Kids, but M Train was even better. I love how she traced her solitude in the book.
ND: Is the Bulgakov book The Master and the Margarita?
Sharp: No, it’s Morphine; I hadn’t heard of it before, but after I read about it in Smith’s book, I kept searching for it and found it in almost this little pamphlet style book in the bookstore here.
ND: You have a great indie bookstore in Asheville, Malaprops. Do you have any other favorite bookstores you like to visit when you’re on the road?
Sharp: Yeah, I love Malaprops. No, I don’t have any favorite stores, but I do love to take a little time when we’re in a town and get out and visit the local bookstores and record stores. You get a real feel for the community and get to meet people as they go about their everyday lives. You get to meet people you might not have a chance to meet otherwise.
ND: What do you read more? Fiction or nonfiction?
Sharp: Even though I love nonfiction, I probably read more fiction.
ND: Have you read Fire and Fury?
Sharp: No, and I don’t think I’m going to, but I suspect my son has already ordered it for me from Amazon. (Laughs.)
ND: You majored in comparative literature at UNC-Chapel Hill. Are there any literary works from your years there to which you still return?
Sharp: Proust. I’ve really just scratched the surface in my reading of him, but I feel like he’s showing that memory is the lens through which we see everything. What for one person is just a blade of grass can be the opening to a wider world for another person.
ND: Is there one book that you won’t leave home without?
Sharp: No, but I’m a sucker for Billy Collins’ poems. They’re humorous. I always like to bring those with me to read when we’re on the road.
ND: If you could invite three authors, living or dead, to lunch, who would they be?
Sharp: Flannery O’Connor: I just love her kind of little twisted perspectives, and the way she sees the hilarious, heartbroken, and very human in the mundane. Dostoevsky: to lend some real gravity to the proceeding. Mark Twain: to see what he and Dostoevsky would have to say to each other. Maybe the three of them at the table would be very interesting. Oh, and I was going to say the prophet Mohammad.
ND: Have you been reading the Qur’an?
Sharp: No, but I should. There was a time I was reading and re-reading the Old Testament. I think there’s a perspective in religious texts that adds a universal dimension to songs and songwriting.
ND: Is there one book that has shaped you as an artist, writer, person?
Sharp: I feel like it’s always kind of a moving target. I was re-reading and thinking about The Great Gatsby when I wrote one of the songs on Out in the Open, “Going Midwest.” It’s a projection of what happens to Nick Carraway after that novel ends.
ND: Do you have any plans to write a collection of short stories, or maybe a novel?
Sharp: No; I enjoy songwriting, and I have about 600 songs right now, and I’ll work on getting some of those out.