Nashville insider pens country music mystery
Stuart Dill is more at home hobnobbing with country music stars than he is slogging through the lower depths of humanity where conspiracies are hatched and killers roam. But he’s succeeded in overcoming that cultural limitation via his first crime novel, Murder On Music Row.
For the uninitiated, Music Row is Nashville’s equivalent to New York’s Tin Pan Alley. Here songs are written and recorded that will eventually be sung around the world. And here careers soar and plummet with astounding velocity. While outwardly serene, this talent-laden piece of real estate is honeycombed with explosive pockets of ambition, ego and jealousy, all factors that make it an ideal locale for murder (even though they rarely occur there in real life).
There are four distinct layers to Dill’s story. The top one deals with the fortunes of superstar Ripley Graham, a mercurial artist who’s on the verge of delivering what is certain to be a best-selling album for his record label. The label is in the process of being acquired by an international conglomerate and needs the much-anticipated album to clinch the deal. Everything falls apart, however, when a sniper’s bullet fells Graham’s manager, Simon Stills, while Graham is shooting a music video on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. With Stills critically injured, his ambitious young intern, Judd Nix, finds himself drawn into the intrigue just as he’s beginning to learn how the convoluted music business operates.
That brings the reader to the second layer. In the process of telling its story, Murder On Music Row also offers one of the most lucid but least “teachy” explanations of how popular music is created and marketed. No surprise here, since Dill’s been in the music business for 26 years and currently manages such high-profile acts as Billy Ray Cyrus, Jo Dee Messina and Laura Bell Bundy. There’s virtually no aspect of the industry he hasn’t touched.
Then there’s the historical layer in which Dill describes how Nashville became a commercial music center. The fourth and final layer is the one that implicitly invites those who are familiar with Music Row to speculate who the real life figures are that Dill partially bases his fictional characters on. Graham, for example, is more than a little flavored with the folksy flamboyance of Garth Brooks.
So Dill has much to talk about when BookPage comes calling at his office on 16th Avenue South, the storied central thoroughfare of Music Row. His crisp white dress shirt tucked neatly into pressed khakis, the blond, curly-haired Dill leans back in his chair and recalls the long and circuitous route that ultimately brought his book to publication.
“I wrote the first page in the late 90s,” he says. “I think a paragraph stayed in the final draft. I wrote most of the book from 10 o’clock at night to 2 o’clock in the morning. I would go home exhausted and tired and see a little bit of the news and then start playing with this. The original idea was what would it look like to have an intern get thrown into the crosshairs—and literally the crossfire—of the politics of the music business with a manager and an artist. It may have been [John] Grisham who said that the formula [for writing fiction] is not that complicated. You take an ordinary person, put him in an extraordinary situation and see if he can get out. So that formula had been in my head for 10 years. But I wanted it to be relevant. It’s fiction, but at the same I wanted the backdrop to be very realistic. I wanted the settings to be real and part of it to be very current. I think there were 14 revisions [of the manuscript] over time. With the last one, I decided we were going to base it in 2011. So I spent January and February [of 2011] doing that."
The story is sufficiently current to include references to the disastrous Nashville flood of May 2010 and to the October 2010 induction of “The Voice” coach Blake Shelton into the Grand Ole Opry.
“I wanted to pepper the book with some real history,” Dill continues. “At the same time, I really did want to talk about the fact that the music industry has changed more in the last 10 years than it has since the beginning of commercial music. It’s at a crisis, and that’s part of the narrative. It pleases me to no end that someone who knows the business here would enjoy the book. That’s all I really want. I thought I could probably throw a piece of fiction out there that would be entertaining for someone that’s not in the business. The more challenging and more frightening part of it all was whether I could write a book that my peers would read and feel like it was worthy. So many times, we get caught up in the New York or L.A. syndrome of somebody making a movie or a book [about country music], and we know that’s not what it’s really like.”
Dill balances his serious intentions with some wickedly deft humor. In an early chapter, his main character, Judd, pores over a guest list for one of Ripley’s lavish costume parties. Readers with only the slightest awareness of country music will recognize many of the names, from Tim McGraw and Faith Hill to Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman. For industry insiders, though, the fun comes in noticing the names that aren’t there—and perhaps in agonizing over why their own names are missing. Naturally, most of Dill’s real clients are on the exclusive list. Elsewhere, Dill writes hilarious and personality-consistent remarks that supposedly issue from the mouths of comedian Jeff Foxworthy and late-night behemoth Jay Leno. He sought permission from neither man for his imagined routines, but they will find nothing to complain about.
Not all of the action takes place in Nashville. Since the requirements of his job have taken him around the world, Dill leads the reader through the streets and into the suites of such other music centers as New York, Los Angeles and London.
“Those are all real places,” he says. “When I began writing the book, I started out with these places [I’d been to] in mind. Then, as I wrote, I started thinking, ‘Did I get that right?’ The Electric Lighting Station in London, where I have the worldwide headquarters of [fictional] Galaxy Records, was where I took a meeting when I was managing Freddy Fender. It was the first time I was in that building, and I was just charmed by it. I didn’t know where it was then. I just got in a cab and went there. Fast forward to almost 10 years later. I’m with Jo Dee Messina in London, and we’re staying at the Royal Garden Hotel. I’m walking down a street and look to my left and there’s that building—just two blocks away. I had no idea that’s where it was. I was excited to find it. In New York at the Carnegie Hall Tower [where other scenes are set], I went up there when the chairman of EMI [Music] worldwide had an office there.”
That Dill made his protagonist an intern was no accident. “I was an intern in the 1111 Building [on Music Row] 26 years ago,” he says. “That’s where I started. So there’s a little bit of romanticism in there for sure. There’s a sense of naivete [in an intern’s perspective] that helps in the telling of the story.”
Dill’s prominence in the music business didn’t give him any leverage in getting his book published. But it did garner him some invaluable advice. “I took it to a couple of agents,” he says. “I was fortunate in that these were friends of mine. So I was lucky in having relationships where I could get real feedback. It wasn’t just a blind submission that got stuck in a pile. Because they were friends, there was probably some obligation [to read the manuscript]. It wasn’t enough obligation to accept it but enough to tell me the truth.”
In the end, Dill served as his own literary agent, acting on a suggestion from his friend, the writer Frye Gaillard. “Frye is from my hometown of Mobile, Alabama, and teaches at the University of South Alabama. He was probably the first guy who said that this was no longer a training exercise, that it was publishable. He called me back and said, ‘You need to take this to Blair.’” Dill’s contacts at John F. Blair, Publisher asked for one additional rewrite of his book before they agreed to publish it.
In 2000, Alan Jackson and George Strait released a record called “Murder On Music Row” that indicted the country music industry for straying too far from its traditional rural roots. It wasn’t a new charge, but it gained a lot of publicity because of the singers’ stature. By this time, Dill had already begun writing his book. “I had different versions of the title [by then],” he says, “but once the song came out, I thought, ‘That’s got to be the title.’”
Although Murder On Music Row is Dill’s first published piece of fiction, he’s determined it won’t be his last. “I do have another idea that I’ve been outlining for awhile that I’m excited about,” he says. “I haven’t done much on it yet. It’s the same idea of playing off the music industry as the backdrop. I like the idea now of using real song titles [for my book titles], even though they don’t necessarily have anything to do with what the songs are about. My working title on this one is ‘Angel From Montgomery.’”
Nashville journalist Edward Morris is the former country music editor of Billboard and currently a senior writer for the Viacom website CMT.com. His books on country music include Garth Brooks: Platinum Cowboy and At Carter Stanley's Grave: Musings on Country Music & Musicians.