It’s a very old tale—boy meets girl; boy trades girl for a shot at fame; boy comes to regret that last part. Gabriel’s Songbook, a debut novel by Johnson City author Michael Amos Cody, is a love song to music—creating it, performing it, and generally being passionate about it. What it is not is a love song to the music business.
Twenty-one-year-old Gabriel Tanner leaves his new wife, Eliza, and his little hometown near Asheville for the chance to prove himself in Nashville. He’s hoping for a big break, but reality sets in as soon as he arrives: “Young men with guitars awaited country music stardom on every corner, warbling songs about trucks and alcohol and mamas and cheating hearts, guitar cases opened at their feet. Grungy kids Gabriel’s age or younger, looking both frightened and defiant, one moment weaved and bobbed through the starry-eyed sidewalk crowd like the children they were, the next disappeared into some black hole of a bar.”
Gabriel’s Songbook chronicles the talented-but-naïve young musician’s ups and downs with a vast array of music-business figures: managers, producers, label executives, promoters, engineers, disc jockeys, contract lawyers, marketing consultants, bandmates, writing partners, hair stylists, and wardrobe consultants. They all have big plans for him, but eventually he comes to understand that they’re all working their own angles, which are not necessarily to his benefit. Through it all, Gabriel works hard to remember why he’s doing all this, and what he’s given up along the way. He goes back to the night he saw the new girl at their high school in the crowd at one of his shows:
In the purity of that moment—filled with music and Eliza—I discovered a light. A guiding star, as I’ve always imagined it. Over the years, even in times when I felt most earth-bound, I kept sight of that star in the heavens. When I sat in some darkened room with my guitar in my arms, trying to fit words to music, it hovered above me like a muse invoked. And when I finally got a real stage and an audience made up of more than friends and family, it became a spotlight, or the spot-lit reflection of myself in some pretty woman’s smiling eyes. I followed that star … without question, through a great wilderness and some of my wildest dreams.
Such dreams don’t always survive the trip, though Gabriel’s love for music endures: “This part, the writing of lyrics, I loved most of all about songwriting, even on this edge of exhaustion,” he remembers. “The soul churning. The stirring up of memories and feelings and dreams. The strange sensation that I was a bystander watching as the page filled with these things put into words.”
Through flashbacks, dream sequences, song lyrics, and even ghostly visitations, readers can watch Gabriel learning lessons the hard way, as he is transformed from a romantic idealist into a hard-drinking, hard-living “almost was,” often at odds with family and friends. Cody brings to life Gabriel’s passion for his art and his ambition to succeed in music, deftly portraying the anguish of unrealized dreams made even more bitter by regret.
A graduate of Auburn University, Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.