Skip to main content

Dwight Yoakam Says New Album Was Inspired By Coal Mining And Mountain Music

The country star plays songs and talks with Fresh Air about his grandfather's work in the coal mines. Yoakam's latest album, Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars ... features bluegrass versions of his hits

21:00

Other segments from the episode on December 6, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 6, 2016: Interview with Dwight Yoakum; Interview with Maria Semple; Review of Dizzy Gillespie album

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, country music star Dwight Yoakam, is joining us with his guitar. And he's going to play some songs for us. He has a new album with a tongue-in-cheek title "Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars..." which was released 30 years after his debut album "Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc." The new album features bluegrass versions of some of Yoakam's own country songs. Yoakam was described by The New York Times music critic Jon Pareles as a high-concept classicist who inhabits an era and geography all his own, a remembered California where Buck Owens and The Byrds somehow reigned together in harmony. Yoakam has had his share of hits and platinum albums. On his way to becoming a country music star, he became part of LA's punk and roots rock scene, sharing the bill with bands like X and The Blasters, playing what became known as cowpunk. He's also an actor who's been in the films "Sling Blade" and "Panic Room" and is in the Amazon series "Goliath." Let's start with a track from his new album. This is his bluegrass version of his country song "Please, Please Baby," which he first recorded in 1987.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLEASE, PLEASE BABY")

DWIGHT YOAKAM: One, two and a one, two, three. (Singing) Please, please baby, baby come back home. It's so cold and dark here all alone. If you come back I promise I'll be good. If you come back home, baby, I'll act like I should. I laughed when you packed your bags and told me goodbye. I hollered I don't need you, but honey that's a lie. Please, please baby, baby, come back home 'cause it's so cold and dark here all alone. If you come back I promise I'll be good. If you come home, baby, I'll act like I should.

GROSS: That's music from Dwight Yoakam's new album "Swimming Pools, Movie Stars." Dwight Yoakam, welcome to FRESH AIR.

YOAKAM: Oh, well, thank you. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Your grandfather was a miner. He was a miner for - what? - like, 40 years.

YOAKAM: Forty years, yeah, over...

GROSS: Did he tell you stories about working in the mines?

YOAKAM: No, he was pretty quiet guy. I heard more of the stories from my mother and my granny and my aunts that would describe what they had known that he didn't often talk about. I remember seeing him as a child. He was working in a mine that was fairly close to their home there in Betsy Lane, Ky., and it was so close in proximity that he wouldn't clean up or shower there. He would just drive back home. And I remember one time seeing him come in and it was like seeing an alien person show up because he was still covered in coal dust and soot, and it had a profound impact on me.

I realized, you know, in retrospect as - you know, as I wrote things about it, about my life and my family's existence, I realized that it was a frighteningly harsh way to make a living. And I used to say that they were slowly dying trying to make a living. You know, he had black lung, and he didn't talk about it much. It's almost like a combat veteran. But he witnessed some horrific things.

He was very, very fortunate that he was never trapped in a mining cave-in. But he lost his brother in a mining disaster on a shift that he wasn't working. And he was in a collapse where his brother-in-law was killed very near him in the same section. They were working together in the same section of a mine where a cave-in occurred. And he had injured his hand and a certain deformation of the finger that I always knew about as a kid, knew that that particular injury at his finger had been caused in that disaster that killed his brother-in-law, my grandmother's brother.

And he never talked about his own brother's death to me. My mother told me about that and told me about the impact on her family. And that's part of what you hear in the first verse of "Miner's Prayer."

GROSS: Well, since you've been generous enough to bring your guitar with you, I'm going to ask you if you wouldn't mind singing that song that you wrote, "Miner's Prayer."

YOAKAM: Sure. I'll do that for you.

(Singing) When the whistle blows each morning and I walk down in that cold, dark mine, say a prayer to my dear savior. Please let me see the sunshine one more time. When oh when will it be over? When will I lay these burdens down? And when I die, dear lord in heaven, please take my soul from 'neath that cold, dark ground. I still grieve for my poor brother, and I still hear my dear old mother cry. When late at night they came and told her he'd lost his life down in the big shoal mine. When oh when will it be over? When will I lay these burdens down? And when I die, dear lord in heaven, please take my soul from 'neath that cold dark ground.

GROSS: That's Dwight Yoakam singing his song "Miner's Prayer." Thank you - thank you for performing that. Did your grandfather, who was a miner, ever hear that song?

YOAKAM: No, he never did. I wrote it after he died. I'd gone back to his funeral, and he died in 1979. And I came back to California, and I think a couple of weeks after that funeral wrote that song thinking about him, his life. And now, sadly, I wish I had been able to play that for him. Yeah, I'll never escape the influence of him in my life. And my - his wife, my grandmother, Earlene Tibbs - those experiences with them shaped me musically probably more profoundly than anything else in my life and shaped me as a writer.

GROSS: Did your grandparents sing?

YOAKAM: Yes, they did. They both sang. My grandmother had a very haunted mountain voice and would sing hymns. My grandpa would sing but in a very, very subdued way. And he'd ask me about learning "Cripple Creek" on the guitar. And I remember when I came across - I didn't know the song. It was an old bluegrass, a mountain song. And then I heard "Up On Cripple Creek" by The Band and I thought that's what he was talking about. And I played it for him, and he seemed confused by me saying, Grandpa, I learned "Cripple Creek," which was the (singing) up on Cripple Creek, she'll send me. If I spring a leak, she'll mend me. Anyway, it had nothing to do with (singing) going up Cripple Creek, going up Cripple Creek, going up Cripple Creek, going on the run. Going up to Cripple Creek to have some fun.

There's - you know, again, I think back and he never said that's not the song I meant.

GROSS: (Laughter) Really?

YOAKAM: He listened to me play. Yeah, I was about 11 years old when I heard the other one on the radio. And I went back when I saw him the next time, I said, Grandpa, I think I learned "Cripple Creek." And I sang the one with The Band. And he just kind of nodded and listened to me sing it, said, oh, yeah, well, that's real good.

(LAUGHTER)

YOAKAM: I realized later that it was not the same song.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dwight Yoakam. He has a new album featuring bluegrass versions of some of his songs. It's called "Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars..." We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is country music singer, songwriter, guitarist Dwight Yoakam. He has a new album called "Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars..." which features new recordings of some of his earlier songs. But this time he does them in a bluegrass style. The church that you grew up in was the Church of Christ.

YOAKAM: Right.

GROSS: What was the singing like in church?

YOAKAM: Well, the congregation that I was raised in was one that sang and a non-instrumental fashion. It was all a cappella singing, and so that had a major influence on me. And those songs, I think, shaped to some degree how I would evolve as a writer, pentameter of songs, the melodies of those kind of hillbilly hymns - I used to refer to them - because they were not Southern gospel as much as they were passed down from Scottish Welsh Protestant hymnals.

GROSS: Can you sing a hymn for us?

YOAKAM: I did this actually at Buck's funeral. It was one of his favorite hymns and we were talking about it one time. He goes...

GROSS: At Buck Owens' funeral.

YOAKAM: Yeah Buck Owens' funeral. After having discussed it with him because I sang it on a piece about Minnie Pearl's life. She and I had talked one time about our hymns. And it came up that I always liked "In The Garden" and she said to me, oh, that was my favorite hymn.

(Singing) I come to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses, and the voice I hear falling on my ear the son of God discloses. And he walks with me, and he talks with me. And he tells me I am his own, and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.

That's a little bit of "In The Garden."

GROSS: That's Dwight Yoakam singing and playing guitar. You said these songs influenced you. Can you talk about the influence of the songs on your own songwriting, these hymns?

YOAKAM: Well, I think the way that, you know, I listen to hundreds of those hymns sung repeatedly over the years of my life. And I know that they probably influenced a rhyme scheme maybe to certain extent. They influenced, you know, the pentameter of placement of words, etc. And it's not something that's a conscious thing that occurred. It's more in retrospect as I've thought about it over the years and look back at what I wrote, how I wrote things - like there's a song that Ralph Stanley later recorded with me that he had guested on my record what was called "Travelers Lantern" that I wrote as basically, you know, a hymn.

(Singing) Deep in the night, you hear a voice calling lost and alone, barely able to speak. Each weary step through cold shadows they stumble. Lost and alone.

You know what? I just forgot what the next lyric was I was going to sing.

GROSS: (Laughter).

YOAKAM: Something.

GROSS: But I see your point, I think, about like the simple line of it.

YOAKAM: Yeah. Well - and just - and melodically, I was influenced by, you know, those hymns. And "Hold On To God" was another one that I wrote early on my early records. Obviously it was a literal reference to all of that.

GROSS: Did you stay with the faith or just with the music?

YOAKAM: I guess I stayed with the faith. I mean, organized religion is not something that I've maintained a direct connection to in my life, but the spirituality of it has had an indelible impact on my life and remains with me.

GROSS: You've written your share of drinking songs over the years, and drinking songs are a staple of country music. Did you write drinking songs because they were part of the genre or because you'd spent a lot of time in bars?

YOAKAM: (Laughter) I'm the sober guy that can tell you what went on.

GROSS: (Laughter).

YOAKAM: You know, I don't really drink, but I've been around a lot of drinking, and, you know, at 18, when you start playing in bars, you know, you start to witness the good, the bad and the ugly of alcohol as a source of escape. And I wrote about it because I witnessed its use as a means of medicating - a lot of people using it to medicate themselves from hurt.

GROSS: Along those lines, one of the songs you do on your new album. "Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars..." is a song called "Two Doors Down" which is about a bar that's two doors down that might medicate this person from their pain for a little bit. Would you play a little bit of that for us?

YOAKAM: Let me see. I haven't had to...

(Singing) Two doors down there's a jukebox that plays all night long real sad songs all about me and you. Two doors down there's a barmaid that pours 'em real strong. Here lately that's how I make it through. Two doors down there's a payphone but no calls come in. Two doors down there's a memory that won't ever end.

One of the first drinking songs I wrote was on my first album "Guitars Cadillacs," and it was also from watching and playing in the bars bearing witness to the kind of haven that honky tonk bars were for a lot of people from the struggles in there.

GROSS: So when you - when you were putting on a show in the bar, the people in the bar were putting on a show for you in a way (laughter).

YOAKAM: Well, I was certainly taking in, yeah, the movie that went on in front of me every night. And I wrote "It Won't Hurt" based on having watched that for a few years in my late teens, early 20s.

(Singing) It won't hurt when I fall down from this barstool. And it won't hurt when I stumble in the street. It won't hurt 'cause this whiskey eases misery. But even whiskey cannot ease your hurting me.

And I guess I see sometimes - you know, being on the sober end of the bandstand watching - saw the sad futility in trying to drink trouble away and wrote about it from that angle. There was, you know, kind of that end of that - you know, that song - the hook of that is that - but even whiskey, you know.

GROSS: Is that one of the reasons why you stayed sober because you'd seen so much damage from drinking?

YOAKAM: Yeah, I mean, I was raised, as we mentioned a little while ago, in the Church of Christ, which was a very abstinent faith. And I just didn't - there was never anything that I found seductive enough, I guess, to have a romance with it.

GROSS: Well, I'm really grateful to you for performing some of your songs for us today. Thank you so much for doing that. And...

YOAKAM: Ma'am, you're welcome.

GROSS: ...And can I ask you to leave us with a song?

YOAKAM: Sure. What're you thinking?

GROSS: Well, I was thinking maybe "Turn It Up, Turn It On, Turn Me Loose."

YOAKAM: Oh, yeah.

(Singing) Well, I'm back again for another night of trying to break free from the sadness that I can't lay to rest. This old honkey tonk sure does feel like home, and the music with the laughter seem to soothe my loneliness. Turn it on, turn it up, turn me loose from her memory that's driving me lonely, crazy and blue. It helps me forget her so the louder the better, hey mister, turn it on, turn it up, turn me loose.

GROSS: Dwight Yoakam, thank you so much.

YOAKAM: No, thank you. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Dwight Yoakam's new album "Swimmin' Pools, Movie Stars..." features bluegrass versions of some of his country songs. After we take a short break, we'll hear from writer Maria Semple. Her new comic novel is about a beleaguered wife, mother and artist who promises herself today will be different. And Kevin Whitehead will review a newly released Dizzy Gillespie concert from 1980. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Maria Semple, has written a new comedic novel that takes place on one day in the life of its main character, Eleanor Flood. Eleanor is a middle-aged mother, who earlier in life had success as the animation director for a popular TV show. She was also nominated for a prestigious graphic novel award that led to a book contract. That was many years ago, and now, having made no progress, she's dodging calls from her editor. She's also worried she's not romantic enough with her husband, or present enough with their son Timby. Timby's unusual name was suggested by an autocorrect error on Eleanor's iPhone.

She's decided to get her life together and has created a mantra to say to herself when she wakes up in the morning. The mantra's first sentence is the title of Semple's novel, today will be different. It's both hilarious and moving to read Eleanor's most ungraceful attempts at self-improvement.

Maria Semple is also the author of the best-seller "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" Before writing books, Semple wrote for TV shows, including "Arrested Development" and "Mad About You." She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Maria Semple, welcome to FRESH AIR.

MARIA SEMPLE: Thank you.

BRIGER: Your book starts with your character Eleanor Flood's mantra for the day. Can you just tell us a little bit about who Eleanor is?

SEMPLE: Eleanor Flood is a woman who lives in Seattle. She's an illustrator. She's the wife of a Seahawks doctor and the mother of an 8-year-old son Timby. And she is incredibly scattered and overwhelmed by basic daily existence.

BRIGER: (Laughter) That sounds fair. So this is her mantra that's trying to be a solution for some of these problems. Can you read it to us?

SEMPLE: (Reading) Today will be different today. Today, I will be present. Today, anyone I'm speaking to I will look them in the eye and listen deeply. Today, I'll play a board game with Timby. I'll initiate sex with Joe. Today, I will take pride in my appearance. I'll shower, get dressed in proper clothes and only change into yoga clothes for yoga, which today I will actually attend. Today, I won't swear. I won't talk about money. Today, there will be an ease about me. My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile. Today, I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound. Today, I will buy local. Today, I will be my best self, the person I'm capable of being. Today will be different.

BRIGER: (Laughter) That's very funny. So there's a lot going on in that mantra. There's - I like how it's a mix of, like, clearly important things and then some other things that are not so important. Why did you want to start your book with a mantra?

SEMPLE: I started my book that way because literally the day that I sat down to start writing my book I thought that I would go into a room with a yellow pad and sharpened pencils and try to channel something deep down inside of me, something that maybe was a source of pain or shame or a part of me that I didn't want the rest of the world to see thinking that perhaps from there I could have something with enough energy that I could base a novel on. And I sat down and I almost wrote that first page word for word. As soon as I finished it, it had this spooky, kind of scary, nauseating energy about it. And I thought wow, I think I'm about to embark on writing a novel that takes place in a single day.

BRIGER: I really like the yoga pants reference that you only wear yoga pants if you're actually going to yoga. That reminds me of a rule in my house where we only try to wear sweatpants if we're actually going to sweat. But of course, it's impossible - impossible to keep because it feels like you're leaving the house in your pajamas.

SEMPLE: It does. And it's now getting really frighteningly acceptable, isn't it? Athleisure-wear (ph) I think it's called...

BRIGER: Yeah.

SEMPLE: ...Where they're there just owning it out there. Now no one needs to put any work into it.

BRIGER: So, you know, the novel takes place in one day and actually provides her an opportunity to spend the whole day with Timby. But, you know, because of the plot of the book, she's stressed out and she's distracted. She keeps handing him off to people, sometimes random people at the Gap or...

SEMPLE: Yes.

BRIGER: ...People she hardly knows at a sculpture park.

SEMPLE: Right.

BRIGER: And it's funny, but I think it gets to this issue that parents really struggle with. You know, they want to be as present as possible for their kids. They want to give the kids their full attention. They want to be the best person they can be for their kids. But, you know, at the end of the day, you're tired, you're cranky. And, you know, oftentimes, the children get the lesser version of you and the outside world has grabbed all your attention.

SEMPLE: Very much so. When in fact one of the reasons that I put Timby in the way that I did was that I was looking for a piece of paper one day. And I opened a spiral notebook, and there was a very darling picture that my daughter had drawn of me that said Mommy. And it was very sweet, and she signed her name and she said age 8. And I thought, oh, that's so cute. I'm going to tear this out and put it up on the wall. And directly on the next page was an illustration by her that said mad mommy. And it was a picture of me with smoke coming out of my ears looking really mean. And it was, like, by my daughter, age 8. And those two illustrations are in the novel.

BRIGER: Right.

SEMPLE: And I was very happy to be able to put mommy and mad mommy in the novel. And it really just devastated me because I do want to be mommy. But a lot of times I feel like my daughter gets sloppy seconds - you know? - and gets the worst of me every day. And that's not how you want to conduct your life at all. But that often, I can see, is the kid's experience. And so when I decided to put Timby in the book and I made him age 8 because it was literally the drawing - the age that my daughter was when she drew mad mommy - is I wanted to write realistically about a kid who really is getting the worst of his mother and how sad it is. But also, maybe even more sad is that the kid is not necessarily experiencing it that way, that - there's a line in the book where Eleanor says, I feel like I haven't been spending a lot of time with your dad. I feel like I'm not really there for him. And Timby says hoping to make her feel better, that's OK, mom, that's just the way you are. And he really is trying to help her and thinks that those are comforting words when in fact...

BRIGER: Right.

SEMPLE: ...They just make it worse for her.

BRIGER: Right. So did you in your mantra with your child - did you try to then play board games or make sure that you were present there all the time?

SEMPLE: Oh, absolutely. And Rat-a-tat Cat, in fact, makes an appearance in the book because that's a game that I really do try to play or Clue or - yeah...

BRIGER: I hate Clue. I can't stand Clue.

(LAUGHTER)

SEMPLE: I can't either. At some point, I just guess to get it over with...

BRIGER: Yeah, I do, too.

SEMPLE: ...Just randomly guess.

BRIGER: So another issue that Eleanor is dealing with, you mentioned it there, she's struggling in her marriage. And she actually thinks that her husband Joe might be having an affair. But, you know, beyond whether or not he is having an affair, if that's actually true, it's clear that they're drifting apart. They don't share a lot of the same interests together. And at one point, Eleanor says, somewhere along the way my marriage turned into an LLC. Joe and I became two adults joined in the business of raising a child. And, you know, I think that's an issue that a lot of parents struggle with, too, trying to make sure that the relationship doesn't just become about raising the offspring.

SEMPLE: That's right. And scheduling just becomes really the basic interaction I feel between adults. I remember - I mean, this must have been 10, 15 years ago the first time a friend of mine said, oh, I'll email my husband. And I thought, oh, my gosh, like, how could you admit to something - to cross that line? How impersonal. And now I feel like that's really how I interact with my partners. We email each other, and it's terrible, you know, and how at some point you you will drift into two people living in the same house together raising a child. You know, you're - at some point is easier just to go to things you like alone, letting them go to the things they like alone. And that's one of the things that Eleanor is faced with.

BRIGER: Right. And I think then the worry is that once the child leaves the home then what's left?

SEMPLE: Absolutely. And I - the cliche of you've got to put work into a marriage - it just - every day you're faced with it. And it is. You have to kind of work on the muscle to like each other and love each other.

BRIGER: Eleanor has a very funny rant comparing herself to younger moms. She considers that she had her child a little older in life. Could you read a passage for us?

SEMPLE: (Reading) When I graduated from college, it never would have occurred to me not to work. That's why women went to college to get jobs. Get jobs we did and kick some serious butt while we were at it, thank you very much. Until we realized we'd lost track of time and madly scrambled to get pregnant. I pushed it dangerously close to the wire and gave birth to little Timby, thus joining the epidemic of haggard women in their 40s trapped in playgrounds, slumped on buoying ladybugs, unconsciously pouring Tupperware containers of Cheerios down their own throats, sporting maternity jeans two years after giving birth and pushing swings with skunk stripes down the center of their hair. Who needed to look good any more? We got the kid. Was the sight of us so terrifying that the entire next generation of college-educated women declared anything but that and force their careers altogether to pop out children in their 20s? Looking at the Galer street moms the answer would be apparently. I hope it works out for them.

BRIGER: (Laughter). That's very, very funny. I don't know if you consider yourself a younger or older mom, but did you find yourself comparing yourself to younger, older moms on the playground?

SEMPLE: Well, I came up with that or I got that idea because I have several friends who are shrinks. And any time I do, I just say, hey, what's going on out there? Like what are you hearing about?

(LAUGHTER)

SEMPLE: And one of them - this is maybe 10 years ago said, oh, here's what I'm hearing. I'm hearing women who had kids, and they're old. And they're really tired or I'm hearing about young moms who are afraid of those old moms because they're so terrifying to look out that they have kids and now they're mad that they don't have any careers.

And so I just kind of put that back in my head, and I thought I'd throw that in the book. But, yes, you certainly feel old and tired and judged by the really beautifully put together young moms. And then there's later in the book a big scene with them and then Eleanor does something quite ghastly to get back at them for being so young and pleased with themselves.

BRIGER: That's right.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Maria Semple. Her new novel is called "Today Will Be Different." We'll hear more of the interview after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Maria Semple author of the new novel "Today Will Be Different." She used to write for the TV shows "Arrested Development" and "Mad About You."

BRIGER: In your new book, "Today Will Be Different" and your last book "Where'd You Go, Bernadette," there are scenes around it - Christian group choirs. And, you know, these are interesting moments because they - you know, your books deal with characters that have, like, a sarcastic or like an ironic position. They take an ironic position towards the world, but these passages with the choirs are written unironically and this - and that kind of singing requires you to be unironic and really give yourself up to the singing.

And one character says, you know, maybe that's what religion is hurling yourself off a cliff and trusting that something bigger will take care of you and carry you to the right place. Do you have that kind of a spiritual trust? Do you think of yourself as a religious person?

SEMPLE: I wish I had that spiritual trust. I'll tell you that. My mother is Catholic, and she - and I was raised Catholic. And my mother still goes to church and really wants me to go to church with her, and for all my years - for 50 years or at least the 30 years I consider myself an atheist, I would not only say I'm not going to church with you, but I would always kind of mock her and kind of throw an elbow in about how stupid religion was when she went off to church.

And then a couple years ago while I was writing "Today Will Be Different," I was in Colorado, and my mother was there. It's where I'm from Aspen, Colo., and she said, oh, I'm going to go to church. And my father had just died, and I thought why do I have to sit here and mock a woman for going to church? And why can't I go to church with my mother? Is this really something I'll be proud of looking back on my life that I couldn't go to church with my mother? And so I went to church with her, and I was deeply moved by what I saw there. And, in fact, there's stuff that goes on later in the book which is very much my experience of what happened when I went to church. And I never followed through on it, I will say, you know. But I really at least saw - it convinced me, and I thought it was beautiful.

BRIGER: Eleanor in your book "Today Will Be Different" was the animation director for a television show - and - before she was a mom and before you became a novelist, you worked for a variety of TV shows, including "Mad About You" and "Arrested Development." And, you know, "Arrested Development" was such a terrific show about this insanely dysfunctional family. Was there a favorite character that you liked to write for?

SEMPLE: You know, what comes to my mind first is Will Arnett because when you're writing for TV, you often will write some really crazy stuff. And I think what's more common than most people realize is actors coming in and say I'm not going to do that because it embarrasses them. It would make people think that they're either clumsy or mean or stupid, you know? And so we have to do - we would have to do a lot of rewrites based on an actor's comfort level.

And Will Arnett from day one would just do anything and commit to it, you know? And when you talk to any kind of writer now - and I do still, my friends and TV - and you ask them about actors - and really if you're saying to someone do you like that actor? You're not saying are they a nice person? You're basically saying how much will they commit to your material? You know, because that's what you love, you love an actor who will just say, OK, point me in the direction and I'll just take it as far as I can because it's surprising how much pushback you actually get from actors.

BRIGER: Now, your father Lorenzo Semple, Jr. was also a writer. He wrote for television and film. And some of the screenplays he wrote were for the movies "Papillon," "The Parallax View," "Three Days Of The Condor," the 1976 version of "King Kong," "Flash Gordon," the James Bond movie where Sean Connery comes back, "Never Say Never Again." That's the one with the very creepy massage scene in it.

SEMPLE: (Laughter).

BRIGER: And he also wrote the television show "Batman." That's a very impressive list of credits. When you started getting into writing, did your father share any advice with you?

SEMPLE: He helped me with scripts. You know, he would go through scripts and give me notes on them. And what he would do was really take the logic seriously of every single scene. And that, I think, is something that's helped me as much as anything in that he would always say don't be afraid of ruining it in real life. If someone - oh, I have to get on a plane and fly across the country, maybe at least consider the fact that the plane ticket would be too much because you're buying it on short notice or, you know, just always go smaller instead of going bigger. You know, that story solutions happen on a small scale and don't just immediately revert to, oh, in the next scene they get famous. You know, like, try to pull it back into reality, which I know seems weird from the guy who wrote "Batman," but he had some other tricks up his sleeve.

BRIGER: So are there any disadvantages in being from a family of writers?

SEMPLE: I feel like it's been nothing but positive for me because as a child, what I saw was that writing was a job and it was a fun job. I will say that my father always said that he got into writing because his great uncle was the playwright Philip Barry. And he used to spend time with Philip Barry, and he hung out with the expatriates. And it was really quite a heady crowd. And my father always said, wow, that's a life that I would like to do is to be a writer because then I can hang out with other writers and drink martinis and it's - would be - what a wonderful elegant way to conduct oneself.

And so in my growing up, I was with my parents who really lived a wonderful life. They traveled all over the world. They brought their kids with them. We always had very interesting people - not just writers, directors, actors - around. And I also saw that my father worked really, really hard during the day, you know, and he wasn't to be disturbed. And he - you just saw the look on his face that this guy took it seriously and he worked hard and he was very professional.

And so I feel like I came to Hollywood with an understanding of how hard you had to write and how you had to keep at it. And also, I think the kind of disillusionment with Hollywood helped me in that I liked it but they were all just people to me at that point, you know, the people I grew up with, the movie stars and the various people. And so it kind of helped that I wasn't starry-eyed from the beginning. I just saw it as work.

BRIGER: Well, Maria Semple, thanks so much for being here.

SEMPLE: Thank you.

GROSS: Maria Semple's new novel is called "Today Will Be Different." She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. After we take a short break, Kevin Whitehead will review a newly released Dizzy Gillespie concert recording from 1980. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In November of 1980, Dizzy Gillespie played a concert at a 3,000-seat hall in Montreal with a distinguished sextet, including vibist Milt Jackson, pianist Hank Jones and bassist Ray Brown. That concert has just been released on the album "Dizzy Gillespie & Friends - Concert Of The Century (A Tribute To Charlie Parker). Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says star-studded concerts like this one have their upsides and downsides.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIZZY GILLESPIE, RAY BROWN, MILT JACKSON, HANK JONES, PHILLY JOE JONES, JAMES MOODY PERFORMANCE OF RUTH ETTING SONG, "GET HAPPY")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie on "Get Happy." All-star concerts aren't always all that. You may hear the stars to better advantage with their own bands. But the 1980 show modestly titled The Concert of the Century that's also the name of the album was more of a happy reunion. Five of the six players had recorded together as young beboppers in 1946. And Dizzy had worked with them all since. In the '80s. the trumpeter's lip wasn't always in the best shape. But here he's in fiery form. Gillespie always had great rhythmic ideas and a way of saying something even when playing a lot of notes.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIZZY GILLESPIE, RAY BROWN, MILT JACKSON, HANK JONES, PHILLY JOE JONES, JAMES MOODY PERFORMANCE OF DIZZY GILLESPIE SONG, "BLUE 'N' BOOGIE")

WHITEHEAD: A downside of all-star concerts is they are more about the individual musicians than collective interplay. Band cohesion takes a backseat to showcase the solos. An audience generous with supportive applause can isolate those improvisations even further. Here's Milt Jackson on vibes.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIZZY GILLESPIE, RAY BROWN, MILT JACKSON, HANK JONES, PHILLY JOE JONES, JAMES MOODY PERFORMANCE OF VINCENT YOUMANS SONG, "TIME ON MY HANDS")

WHITEHEAD: Hank Jones from Detroit on piano and Philadelphia Joe Jones on drums, making his only recording with Dizzy Gillespie. One upside of such gatherings is an ambitious player can upstage the headliner in a friendly way. James Moody is the scene stealer here. Riffing the blues on flute, he gets the rhythm section's attention and turns these all-stars into a band.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIZZY GILLESPIE, RAY BROWN, MILT JACKSON, HANK JONES, PHILLY JOE JONES, JAMES MOODY PERFORMANCE OF JAMES MOODY SONG, "DARBEN THE REDD FOXX")

WHITEHEAD: James Moody in 1980. Moody was a dynamic live performer back then whose records didn't quite do him justice. He was funny and silly and a serious tenor saxophonist. James Moody had power, imagination and speed and could connect with an audience, kind of like Dizzy Gillespie.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIZZY GILLESPIE, RAY BROWN, MILT JACKSON, HANK JONES, PHILLY JOE JONES, JAMES MOODY PERFORMANCE OF JOHNNY MANDEL AND PAUL FRANCIS WEBSTER SONG, "THE SHADOW OF YOUR SMILE")

WHITEHEAD: It's not all fireworks on this 1980 concert, but there's a lot of that. Some of the tunes go back to the '40s, when the core crew were young pups but these musicians were still in mid-career. Bassist Ray Brown was a mere 54 and old man Dizzy was barely 63. We can forget what long productive careers some jazz musicians have. One reason they can do that is the work of being an improvising virtuoso keeps them mentally and physically sharp. Being out on the road so often doesn't wear them out. It keeps them going.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIZZY GILLESPIE, RAY BROWN, MILT JACKSON, HANK JONES, PHILLY JOE JONES, JAMES MOODY PERFORMANCE OF HOAGY CARMICHAEL AND MITCHELL PARISH SONG, "STARDUST")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONEAudio and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed Dizzy Gillespie & Friends - Concert Of The Century (A Tribute To Charlie Parker). Tomorrow, my guest will be Fox News host Megyn Kelly. We'll talk about the two recent stories in which she became the news - her debate question to Donald Trump about his disparaging comments about women, which led to her being targeted by hostile tweets and death threats, and her decision to come forward about how she was sexually harassed by Roger Ailes, which helped lead to his downfall. She's written a new memoir. I hope you'll join us.

Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Mooj Zadie. I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

37:37

'Unholy' Examines The Alliance Between White Evangelicals And Trump

The president isn't known for his faith. Instead, author Sarah Posner says he connects with Evangelicals by voicing the legal, social, religious and cultural grievances of the Christian right.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue