Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe
The Music Playlist
I am continuously inspired by the enormous creativity, talent and generosity of Mississippi musicians, and I selected samplings of their songs to pair with particular chapters of my book Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe. In an effort to win back her runaway mother, the book’s main character Cricket runs away to live in an overgrown Mississippi ghost town to try to solve a clue trail left by a mysterious Mississippi artist. Each of these songs relate in some way to Cricket’s emotional and physical journey and all songs have a connection to Mississippi. Many of the artists are in the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame. The Mississippi Arts Commission provided valuable input on this list and you can learn more about their work on their website. Below I’ve written about how the songs relate to Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe and provided links to learn more about the musicians who created the works.
My hope is that this playlist sparks a conversation, and I’d love to hear from you. Please let me know if you anything you’d like to add or change about the descriptions below. And if you have a Mississippi musician whom you think should be included in the playlist, you can nominate them by clicking the link below.
“Everything is Broken” – R.L. Burnside
Written by R. L. Burnside
I selected R. L. Burnside’s “It’s Bad You Know” to begin the playlist. To my way of thinking, it perfectly captures Cricket’s emotions as she learns that she’s about to be sent away and lose her chance to reunite with her mother. I admire the way this version captures the best of Mississippi Delta blues while infusing it with new energy and intensity. Mr. Burnside’s powerful, straightforward delivery adds to the emotional resonance of his performance.
R.L. Burnside was born in rural Lafayette County, Mississippi, and spent much of his life in the northern Mississippi hill country. You can learn more about his life and music here.
“Goin’ Down South” – North Mississippi Allstars
Written by R.L. Burnside
“Goin’ Down South” accompanies Cricket on her journey South through the overgrown woods to the ghost town. The lyrics serve to remind us of Cricket’s commitment to find her mama no matter what and they give voice to some of Cricket’s subconscious fears. I admire the energy in the performance and the sense of unwavering commitment conveyed in the lyrics to a journey that, though it bears the possibility of heartbreak, is absolutely necessary. There is no turning back.
The North Mississippi Allstars live up to their name. Their music reflects the influence of Mississippi musicians who have gone before them, and their distinct style adds to this tradition. You can learn more about them and the musicians with whom they play (including their connection to R. L. Burnside and other legendary Mississippi musicians) here.
“Take Another Road” – Jimmy Buffett
Written by Jimmy Buffet, Jay Oliver, and Roger Guth
As Cricket enters the woods of the ghost town, she leaves her old life behind. Jimmy Buffett’s “Take Another Road” may be contemplating an ocean journey, but the sense of adventure and uncertainty that the song’s lyrics evoke pair well with Cricket’s own journey. In particular, the reminder that the protagonist might “disappear without a trace” was a very real possibility for Cricket. The lyrics also reflect how Cricket is choosing an unknown path. She is beginning to chart her own course.
I admire the juxtaposition between the calm, rhythmic, almost soothing music and the bold invitation that the song extends to “take another road.” As writers and readers, we all do that.
Jimmy Buffet was born in Pascagoula, Mississippi near Ocean Springs, where artist Walter Anderson created the secret room that was the inspiration for the “Bird Room” in Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe. You can learn more about Mr. Buffett’s life and music here.
“You Got to Walk that Lonesome Valley” – Mississippi John Hurt
American Traditional Gospel Folk Song
If you’ve ever felt utterly alone, as Cricket and Charlene do in the overgrown ghost town, this song will resonate with you. To me, it perfectly pairs with Cricket’s realization that everything is up to her. She feels the weight of that as she struggles to make decisions that will keep Charlene and her warm, safe, and alive.
Mississippi John Hurt’s performance took my breath away. I also admire the simple, straightforward guitar that accompanies the lyrics and how the song slowly builds from a personal experience of having to “walk that lonesome valley” to reflecting upon others: mothers, fathers, and Jesus, who have walked that valley too. From faith and family, we can find strength. To me, this song is more hopeful than sad. Yes, it is a lonesome valley that we must all walk through, but by reflecting upon those who have gone before us, we can find strength enough for the journey.
One of the joys of putting together a playlist comes in is discovering new artists. I’m embarrassed to admit that I first discovered Mississippi John Hurt while I was researching Mississippi musicians for inclusion on this list. Mr. Hurt has quickly become a favorite, and I hope that you enjoy his music as much as I do. Mr. Hurt was born John Smith Hurt, in Teoc, Mississippi in 1893. You can learn more about his life, music, and legacy here.
“I Shall Not Be Moved” – Mississippi John Hurt
Written by Alfred Henry Ackley
To my way of thinking, only this song by Mississippi John Hurt could follow “You Got to Walk that Lonesome Valley.” His “I Shall Not Be Moved” takes the knowledge of the nature of being human that he so poignantly expresses in “You’ve Got to Walk That Lonesome Valley” and brings that to the logical conclusion for a faith-filled person. His confidence is firmly planted in his faith, and his determination to continue on the path he has chosen rings true in every line. Having made a choice, he is determined to see it through. Similarly, Cricket is determined and committed to her journey. Despite the obstacles she faces, she, too, will not be moved.
“Hard Times” – John Lee Hooker
Written by John Lee Hooker
By Chapter 9, Cricket has encountered undeniably hard times as she struggles to solve the clue trail and survive in the woods. Then things get worse. To me, the emotions that she is experiencing are perfectly reflected in John Lee Hooker’s “Hard Times.” I admire the vulnerability of the song’s lyrics and Mr. Hooker’s matter-of-fact delivery. As much as we sometimes try to pretend that things are better than they are, Mr. Hooker’s song reminds us that strength and healing can come from a clear-eyed assessment of the facts before us. Acknowledging how things are is the first step toward changing them.
John Lee Hooker was born near Clarksdale, Mississippi, and you can learn more about his life, music, and legacy here.
“Rollin’ N Tumblin’” – North Mississippi Allstars
Written by Jo Trent
The line from “Rollin’ N Tumblin’” that most resonates with me is “drinkin’ muddy water, living in a hollow log.” Cricket is living in a treehouse, not a far stretch from a hollow log, and she’s certainly drinking muddy water. I admire how this song’s instruments and vocals exuberantly rise above the dire circumstances described in the lyrics. To my ear, the song evokes a pride in surviving through these conditions. Getting through the tough circumstances confers a dignity that can’t be denied or taken away. Cricket has begun to discover strengths and resourcefulness that she didn’t know that she had.
We’ve included information about the North Mississippi Allstars and a link to learn more above.
“Thinkin’” – Steve Forbert
Written by Steve Forbert
Steve Forbert grew up in Meridian, Mississippi, just 37 miles down Highway 45 from Electric Mills, the inspiration for the fictional town of Electric City in Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe. The first time I heard Steve Forbert on the radio, I was entranced by his distinctive voice and insightful lyrics. “Thinkin” is a perfect example of that. To my mind, it pairs perfectly with these chapters as Cricket is simultaneously trying to solve the clue trail and trying not to lose her focus worrying about her mama.
You can read more about Mr. Forbert’s life and music here.
“Jackson” – Johnny and June Carter Cash
Written by Billy Edd Wheeler
Yes, this song is written for an entirely different context and doesn’t refer to any particular state where “Jackson” is located. The good folks in Jackson, Tennessee may see things differently, but, to me, the song captures the sense of possibility that I always associate with Jackson, Mississippi. I spent four years in Jackson, Mississippi while studying at Millsaps College, and I return there every chance I get to explore its rich cultural resources and connect with friends old and new. This performance juxtaposes Johnny Cash’s powerful low voice with June Carter Cash’s confident vocals. The tension in their expectations revealed in the song nicely parallel Cricket’s unlimited love for her Mama with her fear about what other people would think about her mother’s behavior in the Mississippi Museum of Art. Cricket enjoys the grandness of her mother’s expression of love and confidence in her even as she fears that it will get them kicked out of the museum.
Neither Johnny Cash nor June Carter Cash are from Mississippi, but the Mississippi Country Music Trail Commission recently unveiled their 35th trail marker in honor of Johnny Cash for his song inspired by his night in the Starkville City Jail. So, at least for one day, he lived in Mississippi.
You can read more about the Mississippi Country Music Trail here.
“We’re Gonna Hold On”- Tammy Wynette and George Jones
Written by George Jones and Earl Montgomery
As Cricket searches the woods for food and clues, she is determined to see her quest through. That same rugged determination is reflected in this duet between Tammy Wynette and George Jones. To my ears, the song’s performance sounds like the singers are working to convince themselves of their commitment to “hold on,” even as they are announcing their intent to the audience. Sometimes simply saying something aloud helps to make it so.
Ms. Wynette was born on a cotton farm in Itawamba County, Mississippi. You can read more about her life, music and legacy here.
“All the Things you Are” – Mulgrew Miller
Written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II
The complexity of this instrumental performance and its hopeful mood pair nicely with the pride that Cricket feels from having learned how to feed Charlene and herself from the woods. I also selected this song because Mr. Miller’s performance reminds me of an intricate puzzle with every piece precisely in place. Mr. Miller was certainly a master of this form. As Cricket works to solve the clue trail, I imagine that one of Mr. Miller’s wonderful jazz pieces was playing in her head.
Mulgrew Miller was born in Greenwood, Mississippi. You can read more about his life, music, and legacy here.
“Change”- Blind Melon
Written by Shannon Hoon
I selected this song for the way that, to me, it perfectly pairs with the events in Chapter 21. This song begins simply with a guitar and vocal that remind me of a Gospel hymn and is quickly joined by a winsome harmonica. The song builds to a powerfully delivered and increasingly complex performance. I believe that the song brilliantly expresses our natural resistance to change, however necessary. Cricket begins another part of her change process when she reaches out for help. Indeed, as the song states “[w]hen life is hard, you have to change.”
Blind Melon was founded in 1990 in Los Angeles by a group of Southern transplants. Rogers Stevens, Brad Smith, and Glen Graham (on guitar, bass, and drums, respectively) are all Mississippians. Christopher Thorn (guitar) hailed from Pennsylvania, and the group’s original vocalist, Shannon Hoon, arrived shortly thereafter from Lafayette, Indiana. You can read more about the band here.
“In My Time of Dying” – performed by Led Zeppelin based on traditional gospel song recorded by Charley Patton
Mississippian Charley Patton recorded this song as “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed.” I couldn’t find a publicly available version of Patton’s performance with high quality audio on Youtube, so I selected Led Zeppelin’s performance as a way of showing the influence of Delta musicians throughout an array of genres. As is true with so much in art and literature, many trails lead back to Mississippi. To my ear, this song reflects the longing for relief and peace of a dying person. Cricket experiences similar emotions as she feels her body giving in and regrets how she had failed her mother. She is determined to make things right if she can just survive long enough to take action.
Charley Patton, considered by many to be a “Father of the Delta Blues,” was born in 1891 in Hinds County, Mississippi and spent most of his life in Sunflower County in the Mississippi Delta. You can read more about Charley Patton and his life, music and legacy here.
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” – Elvis Presley
Written by Hank Williams
As Cricket reckons with her responsibility for her mother’s leaving, she feels weighted by the guilt that she has kept secret, even from a part of herself. Elvis’s iconic live performance of this Hank Williams classic song seems a fitting pairing. Elvis described it as “probably the saddest song I’ve ever heard,” and I completely agree. Its melancholy lyrics are enhanced by Elvis’s rich vocals and soulful performance.
Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, which is 108 miles up Highway 45 from Electric Mills, the inspiration for the ghost town in Smack Dab. You can read more about Mr. Presley’s life, music and legacy here.
“That’s Life” – Paul Thorn
Written by Paul Thorn and Billy Maddox
Paul Thorn wrote this song about his mother, and his deep love for his mother shines through in every line of the song and every note of his performance. I selected this song for these chapters because it evokes Cricket’s love for her mother, the love that makes Cricket determined to do what it takes to get her mother back.
Paul Thorn grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi. You can read more about Mr. Thorn and his music here.
“Clean Up” – The Canton Spirituals
Written by Wallace Strickland and Harvey Watkins, Jr. (both Mississippians)
When Cricket confronts her mistakes, she begins the process of healing. With it comes a fresh resolve to make things right. “Clean Up” by the Canton Spirituals is an exuberant and skillful expression of that transition. I admire their harmony, energy, and the way that they engage the audience in joining in their commitment to “starting my life over again.”
The Canton Spirituals were founded in Canton Mississippi in 1943, and you can read more about their life and music here.
“I Be Trying” Cedric Burnside
Written by Cedric Burnside
The refrain in Cedric Burnside’s song perfectly captures Cricket’s determination as she goes forward. Making positive changes is a process that we all need to embrace, and Mr. Burnside’s accessible, relatable song and the vulnerability in his vocals reinforce this message.
Cedric Burnside was raised in Holly Springs, Mississippi and is the grandson of Mississippi musical legend R. L. Burnside. You can read more about his life and music here.
“Tough it Out” – Webb Wilder
Written by Webb Wilder
Trying to solve the clue trail in Ms. Vidalia’s house brings more questions than answers. Webb Wilder’s energetic bass and drum-powered performance of “Tough it Out” is full of the energy and persistence that seeking answers requires. The lines “I won’t bow, I won’t bend, I won’t break, I’ll tough it out” particularly resonate with this chapter pairing.
Webb Wilder was born as John McMurry in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in 1954. You can read more about his life and work here.
“Push and Pull” – Rufus Thomas
Written by Rufus Thomas
I selected Rufus Thomas’s “Push and Pull” for this chapter grouping for the mental back and forth that Cricket’s clue-solving requires. The song’s relentless rhythm and classic sound provides a complementary soundtrack to Cricket’s mental gyrations.
Rufus Thomas was born in Cayce, Mississippi. You can read more about his life, music, and legacy here.
“Music Inspired by the Seven Climates” – Luther Dickinson
Arranged by Luther Dickinson
As Cricket enters the Bird Room, she is transfixed by its beauty and intricacy, painted by fictional artist “Bob,” a character who was inspired by artist Walter Anderson. Luther Dickinson performed “Music Inspired by the Seven Climates” in the Ocean Springs Community Center, surrounded by the murals Walter Anderson painted. You can view the paintings at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art.
Luther Dickinson was born in Tennessee but moved to the hills of North Mississippi as a young man. You can learn more about his life and music here.
“Rough News” – Charlie Musselwhite
Written by Charlie Musselwhite
The news about her mother is indeed “rough news,” and I selected Charlie Musselwhite’s blues-infused and powerful performance of the song by the same name to reflect the complex emotions, that Cricket experiences in this chapter.
Charlie Musselwhite was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi. You can read more about his life and music here.
“Madame Butterfly” – Leontyne Price
Written by Giacomo Puccini
As Cricket reflects on the news about her mother, she remembers the ways that her mother brought beauty to her everyday life. One of those ways was by playing a recording of “Madame Butterfly” by Mississippi native Leontyne Price. Words fail me in trying to describe Ms. Price’s exquisite performance in this song.
Leontyne Price was born Mary Violet Leontine Price in Laurel, Mississippi and has become one of the most acclaimed opera singers of all time. You can read more about her life and music here.
“It Isn’t Gonna Be That Way” – Steve Forbert
Written by Steve Forbert
Cricket has plotted out a path, and it has failed. Every word in Steve Forbert’s brilliantly constructed and earnestly delivered song resonates with her emotional state. In particular, the closing lines of “You’ll just have to live/ and see what you find/ yes and take it from there/ and follow the signs/ you think you can live/ and dream your own fate/ You think you can wish/ and walk through the gate/ Well it isn’t gonna be that way” parallel the realization that things will not work out as Cricket planned.
We’ve included information about Mr. Forbert and a link to learn more above.
“Heavy Load”- The Jackson Southernaires
Written by Marvin J. Yancy
“Heavy Load” beautifully captures Cricket’s emotional state in knowing that her quest has failed. Yet the hope expressed in the Jackson Southernaires’ energetic performance is enough to spur her on.
The Jackson Southernaires were formed in Jackson, Mississippi in 1940. You can read more about their lives and music here.
“Ready For the Times To Get Better” – Marty Stuart
Written by Allen Reynolds
Marty Stuart included this piece in his “Songs I Sing in the Dark” album and I think that it is a song that captures Cricket’s mental state in these chapters. In the words of the song, “it’s been a too long time with no peace of mind and I’m ready for the times to get better.” I admire the vulnerability in Marty Stuart’s performance and his acoustic guitar accompaniment perfectly enhances the listening experience.
Marty Stuart was born in Philadelphia, Mississippi, just 42 miles from Electric Mills, Mississippi. You can read about his life and music here.
“He Went to Paris” – Jimmy Buffet
Written by Jimmy Buffet
Cricket learns the truth about the artist Bob and his complicated history. The character of Bob was inspired by Mississippi artist Walter Anderson, who went to Paris to further his art. I imagine that, like the protagonist in Jimmy Buffet’s song, he was “looking for answers” on his journey, and the song captures the sense of wanderlust and optimism that I imagine that Walter Anderson felt as he realized the broader potential of his art. Similarly, Cricket is beginning to feel a sense of possibility in her own artwork.
We’ve included information about Mr. Buffet’s life and music and a link to learn more above.
“Lonely Mississippi Blues” – The Barefoot Movement
Written by Alex Conerly
This hopeful, upbeat song reflects Cricket’s determined optimism as she charts her course to meet her mother.
Alex Conerly, a member of The Barefoot Movement from 2013 to June 2021, was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and wrote “Lonely Mississippi Blues.” You can learn more about the band here.
“I Feel like Going Home” – Muddy Waters
Written by Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters (both Mississippians)
Cricket wants nothing more than to go home and reunite with her mother. Muddy Waters’ brilliant performance captures this emotion. His stripped-down guitar accompaniment is a lively counterpart to his honest, vulnerable delivery.
Muddy Waters was born near Rolling Fork, Mississippi. You can read more about his life, music, and legacy here.
“Three Little Words” – Milt Hinton
Written by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
All Cricket wants to hear is that her mother loves her and wants to come home. This vibrant instrumental by Milt Hinton expresses that optimism and sense of possibility.
Milt Hinton, born in Vicksburg, Mississippi. You can read more about his life, music, and legacy here.
“Love in Vain” – Robert Johnson
Written by Robert Johnson
Cricket’s entire journey seems to be for nothing. “Love in Vain,” captures her feelings. Robert Johnson’s stripped-down performance relates well to Cricket’s vulnerability and sense of hopelessness. As the song’s lyrics reflect, she feels that “all my love was in vain.”
Robert Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi. You can read more about his life, music, and legacy here.
“I’m Just Me” – Charley Pride
Written by Glenn Martin
Cricket has grown in her journey, and she realizes that she was, in the words of the song, “born to be/ exactly what you see/ nothing more or less.” She has been through enormous trials and is ready to feel comfortable in her own skin. Charley Pride’s dynamic voice and toned-down accompaniments perfectly express this message.
Charley Pride was born in Sledge, Mississippi. You can read more about his life, music and legacy here.
“Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” – Paul Thorn
Written by Paul Thorn
Cricket learns that sometimes it’s time to start taking chances on herself. I selected Paul Thorn’s joyful “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” to pair with this chapter. The hard-earned optimism expressed in the refrain lets the audience know that sometimes listening to the positive “little voice inside your head” is a first step toward happiness.
We’ve included information about Mr. Thorn’s life and music and a link to learn more above.
“People Grinnin’ in Your Face” – Son House
Written by Son House
With only the simple accompaniment of a hand clap, Son House’s powerful voice reminds us to let the little things go and to rise above petty insults. Cricket does just that when she ignores her cousins’ behavior and makes peace with her Aunt Belinda.
Son House was born near Clarksdale, Mississippi. You can read more about his life, music, and legacy here.
“Sittin’ on the Top of the World” – Howlin’ Wolf
Written by Howlin’ Wolf
Cricket has completed her quest. Although things didn’t work out the way that she expected, she has found her own path. Howlin’ Wolf’s booming, exuberant voice and lyrics express a satisfaction in less than ideal circumstances that are, to my ear, the perfect accompaniment to these chapters.
Howlin’ Wolf was born Chester Arthur Burnett near West Point, Mississippi. You can read more about his life, music, and legacy here.
“Rock My Soul” Duff Dorrough
Written by Duff Dorrough
Cricket has found a surprising satisfaction in forgiveness. As Cricket moves forward, faith can be a source of strength. I selected Duff Dorrough’s gentle “Rock My Soul” to accompany her on her journey.
Duff (Jerry Lee) Dorrough was born in Ruleville, Mississippi. You can read more about his life, music, and legacy here.
“This Little Light of Mine” by Mississippi artists and produced by the Mississippi Arts Commission
To me, the only fitting way to end the Mississippi playlist is with the compilation performance of “This Little Light of Mine” prepared by the Mississippi Arts Commission. The Mississippi Arts Commission fosters and promotes the arts throughout Mississippi and you can learn more about their work here.
These are songs that didn’t fit a particular chapter but are by some of the other Mississippi artists whose work I especially admire. I’d love to hear from readers about other Mississippi artists that you would like to nominate for inclusion in this list.
“I’ve Been Around” – Marty Stuart and Johnny Cash
“Tones of Home” – Blind Melon
“Come Monday” – – Jimmy Buffett
“Grits Ain’t Groceries” – Little Milton
“Dixie Diner” – Greg “Fingers” Taylor with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets
“Daddy and Home” – Jimmie Rodgers
“Can’t Let You Go” – R. L. Burnside
“You Gotta Move” – R. L. Burnside
“Away Out on the Mountain” – Jimmie Rodgers
“Before I’m Old” – Christone Kingfish Ingram
“The Thrill is Gone” – Christon Kingfish Ingram
“Reunion” – Bobby Gentry
“Don’t Explain” – Cassandra Wilson
“I Ain’t Got Nothing but the Blues” – Mose Allison