It’s graduation day, and there’s little that Retta Lee Jones will miss about Starling High School. Nineteen years old and raised in small-town Starling, Tennessee—about two and a half hours outside Nashville—she’s desperate to “get on with my real life”—the life she’s been “staring out the window and daydreaming about all through high school.” The heroine of Suzanne Supplee’s new novel, Somebody Everybody Listens To, Retta has plans—big ones: Retta Lee Jones wants to make it in country music.
Setting out for Nashville in her great-aunt Goggy’s 1987 Chevrolet Caprice Classic, a car merely on loan for the summer, Retta has little money and little idea of where she’ll spend the night. Her only asset is her voice, its rich timbre, a sound as “pure as the mountain air” that stuns almost everyone who hears it.
A Tennessee native, Supplee is the author of two previous novels, When Irish Guys Are Smiling and Artichoke’s Heart, which was praised by both Booklist and School Library Journal critics for its light touch and quiet charm. With Somebody Everybody Listens To, Supplee continues to hit the mark. This may be a novel built around the country-music dreams of a small town girl, and it may be blurbed by Miss Dolly Parton herself (“a wonderful story about dreams and determination that reminds us all to squeeze the most out of every single day”), but it’s an original. Where similar plot lines have spelled doom for so many other authors—country music and the business of making it needing no help when it comes to forced sentimentality and cornpone clichés—Supplee succeeds.
The book’s chapters are titled after famous country songs, and there are short bios of the artists who most notably performed them, but Supplee’s focus is on the artist before he or she “made it.” Many of the stars Retta idolizes started off in beginnings as humble as her own: Patty Loveless’s father was a coal-miner who died of black lung disease, and Carrie Underwood had never been on an airplane before stint on American Idol. The business of country music is merely the vehicle through which Supplee tells a story about how to follow a dream.
Technically, Somebody Everybody Listens To is a novel for young adults, and it does successfully capture the yearning and frustrated impatience of young adulthood. But it’s a book with broader appeal, too. The story of Retta Lee Jones is clear. “It’s amazing,” she says, “when you think about it, all the possibilities, the things that might happen in this one brief life if you’re brave enough to try.”