The day before I read Lee Clay Johnson’s debut novel Nitro Mountain, I finished Paul Theroux’s latest travelogue, Deep South. It seemed the kind of pairing a moonshine sommelier might recommend. During his odyssey, Theroux pauses to chew on the contradictory, impossible-to-define Southern character, and quotes historian Sheldon Hackney’s 1969 essay "Southern Violence": The Southern identity "involves a feeling of persecution at times, and a sense of being a passive, insignificant object of alien or external forces." Nothing could serve as a better primer for the characters populating the coal-blighted Virginia countryside in Nitro Mountain.
Leon is an on-and-off member of a band fronted by Jones, a "big deal in the bluegrass and old-school country scene." Despite a broken arm, Leon brings his bass and his demons out on tour with Jones. When he’s not on stage, Leon self-medicates his pain with alcohol and women like Jennifer, his would-be girlfriend held captive by Arnett, a crank-fueled criminal with a Daffy Duck tattoo on his neck. Arnett forces Jennifer atop Nitro Mountain, where he plans to live inside a run-down inn. When Jennifer pulls Leon into a plan to poison Arnett, Jones sets out to help his young protégé.
Hackney’s quote doesn’t just touch upon the characters; it sums up the titular mountain as well. Ravaged and then abandoned by coal companies, the land literally threatens to blow up at any moment—dynamite remains buried deep underground in the caved-in shafts. As each character tries to escape from an orbit of violence, it seems only a matter of time before they explode. It’s perfect fodder for the type of country songs that soundtrack their poverty-hewn world.
Our conversation touches upon Lee’s musical heritage—he’s from a family of bluegrass musicians—and our shared love of Appalachia. In fact, we met in Charlottesville, Virginia, while teaching community college.
Oh, I should note one last thing: two days after Lee and I spoke, Merle Haggard, arguably the greatest country singer-songwriter in American music, died. Lee emailed me after the news broke: "I can’t believe I didn’t mention Merle during the interview. He’s the perfect example of what we were talking about. He was a poet for the working class. This is the first time I’ve had to say that in the past tense. Death ought to be ashamed."
When we spoke, Lee was in St. Louis, Missouri, still getting acquainted after relocating to the city. I sat in the shadow of the Virginia Blue Ridge.
Jay Varner Are you ready to go?
Lee Clay Johnson Yeah, man. Let's do it.
JV I'll start with the questions I sent you in writing—
LCJ Sorry, just a second. My Jack Russell terrier—(to the terrier:) "Go away. Go on the couch. Daddy's busy." Actually, let me plug in my computer too.
JV There's a great line about country music in Nitro Mountain. A doctor tells the broken-armed bass player, Leon: "Country music won't kill you. But I've known it to ruin folks' lives." You come from a musical family and I know you play as well. How did your background both in bluegrass and Nashville country influence this novel?
LCJ Well, music ennobles two of the characters in the book, Leon and Jones. It's something that lasts, something they can count on. Similarly, music has been a constant part of my life, a place for me to go. Sometimes I still wonder if I'm not more naturally a musician. Though in the end I think it all comes down to good storytelling, no matter the form. My folks are not necessarily literary people—Hi, Dad (laughter)—but they are songwriters and pickers and singers and that's what counts. To hear my mom sing a murder ballad convincingly—like "Pretty Polly" or something old like that—and make it feel urgent ... I just better bow down and admit that's where some of this book came from.
JV I'm curious about those murder ballads now. What else back there stands out for you?
LCJ You mean song-wise?
LCJ "Down in the Willow Garden." "On the Banks of the Ohio." And even Willie in the "Pretty Polly" song—there's a little bit of him in Nitro Mountain, in my character Arnett, you know? That sensibility, that kind of wrapping of violent horrific acts around beautiful music—it affected me.
JV Country music is its own character in this novel, as much as any of the people. And Leon, even with that busted arm, seems happiest when he's up there on stage playing the bass. Elvis Costello famously said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."
LCJ That's clever, man.
JV (laughter) But how do you bridge that potential gap between a musician like Leon—who's obviously experiencing music on a very different level—and a reader's own thoughts and feelings about country music?
LCJ When I write about music, I'm writing just as much about the musicians playing it. In country music, the music and the musician are inseparable. So even if a reader isn't interested in country music, I hope I make the people playing it compelling enough to read on. I'm not trying to convince anyone to like the music but that there is this dude who likes music and his struggles are real.
There's another difficult side to writing about music, especially as a musician, and that is trying to make the experience of playing it less "inside baseball" and more universal. So while writing the scenes with Leon and Jones on stage, I caught myself describing things technically—chord changes, keys, relative minors—and I had to back up and take a lot of that out because really all I needed to do was write how things sounded, looked, and felt.
JV The only real way that Jones can communicate is through his songwriting. One of my favorite arcs throughout the novel is Jones wrestling with a song he's working on. Both you and I have written songs. There's such a demand for economy of language. In terms of weeks or months, I spend as long writing a song as I might on an essay. How does that work for you? Is there a relationship between writing songs and writing fiction? You mentioned storytelling, obviously.
LCJ Absolutely. Years back when I was playing and touring with a string band in Virginia, I wrote a lot of songs. When the band broke up, I didn't really know what to do with those songs. And then I started writing Nitro Mountain. I stumbled upon Jones and thought, These songs are his. They belong to him now. It was an amazing moment for me to see that I had kind of prefigured this character and his sound before I even knew him. You get chills, man, when something like that happens. I feel like there was a larger plan in the creation of those songs—they were never quite all me, though they were more autobiographical than my fiction.
Some of the songs took months to write, others happened in a couple hours. But even when you write a song quickly, it's gonna get better the more you play it in front of people or the more you just play it period. You let it kind of take on the right melodies, you trim down the words a little bit, and all that just takes time.
JV A couple of years ago I read a young-adult book called King Dork by a guy named Frank Portman, who is in a punk band. He actually recorded five of the songs and put them out there on an EP to go along with the book, for readers to listen to.
LCJ That's a cool idea. In my book, we watch Jones work on a song throughout—the one song. His big moment is finally singing the song that we've watched him scribble notes on at the bar and elsewhere. "Murder on My Soul" is what it becomes. I recorded it, just to see how it sounded. There are some other moments of him on stage singing about his dog and things like that. Those are all fully formed songs that I do have. I don't think I'm brave enough to put out an EP. (laughter) But who knows?
JV Are you going to take the guitar with you on your reading tour?
LCJ Absolutely, the guitar's coming. Maybe some pop-up performances will happen.
JV One of my favorite things that I've read about country music is by Bill C. Malone. He described country as a "vigorous hybrid form of music, constantly changing and growing in complexity, just as the society in which it thrives also matures and evolves." But if I'm being honest about mainstream country today, I think it's regressed. (laughter)
LCJ Let's be honest about it for a minute, yeah.
JV I mean so many of the hits today, they're nothing but a laundry list of either Southernisms or that generic kind of rural signpost thing that we see. At points, your characters make a little dig at the country-rap subgenre. It would seem that any classic country song should be about people like your characters, and where they're from, yet today, most country songs are not.
LCJ Most mainstream contemporary country doesn't seem to be built to last. It's disposable. They're not making it like they used to. I mean, it worries me. What does this change in cultural form mean for the rest of our culture? And don't get me wrong, there are new artists whom I like, and there are some new songs that I enjoy listening to. But many of them I don't appreciate the way I appreciate Hank Williams or Lefty Frizzell or Kitty Wells. I'm trying to think of who is on the radio right now that I really dig. I mean Chris Stapleton is really powerful. And his bluegrass band the SteelDrivers before all the bigger stuff happened … Brandy Clark is great. There is some good stuff out there, but yeah, most of it's junk. But maybe that's how it's always been.
JV That's a good point. If we listened to the radio in '55, there was probably a lot of crap, too.
LCJ Sure, exactly. But I think it's right to be skeptical and question a lot of what's happening, how the form is changing.
JV You mentioned Brandy Clark. She's great. When so much mainstream country seems to be about escapism, she's somebody who's really writing about daily struggles of life, the ins and outs. Your characters, for better or worse, rely quite a bit upon escape in their lives. We've got Leon's dad who's constantly self-medicated on weed. Leon doesn't shy away from alcohol or pills, and the novel begins with a DUI crash. At one point, Jones realizes he hasn't woken up not hungover maybe one morning in the last five years. So what is pulling your protagonists to that kind of country that you're talking about, that does have something true to it, when it's increasingly harder to find?
LCJ I think it's about finding something that resonates with you. Some of the older music speaks to the more basic, as you said, truer facts of being alive, the essential confusion and pain of living. These folks can see themselves in this music; it gives them hope, or at best something to do on a Friday night.
JV The people and the places in your novel often seem to fade into the shadows of America, in some way. The mainstream is more interested in white-collar jobs and cities, ignoring these more rural areas. I'm not talking about music here; if I turn on the television, there's a story about doctors in New York or Chicago. Why do you think that is?
LCJ The mainstream might be reluctant to examine that underbelly because they're scared of what they'll find. It's challenging stuff. I think good art, good music, good writing challenges us.
JV So if the mainstream is afraid to go there, does that mean that you have even more responsibility on your shoulders to get these people and places right?
LCJ Absolutely. I wasn't born in Appalachia, but there's so much that connects me to that area—music and people who I was thinking about and living with as I wrote this book. So there's a huge weight to get it right, especially the place. But this is also not an exact document of a place; it's a composite. A lot about it is mythical, even. Like an upside-down fairy-tale.
JV Appalachia and the South are probably the most misunderstood and mocked areas in America today. One of my favorite moments in your book that speaks to that is when Leon is going to a courthouse, and he notices Confederate statues out front. And he says, "I guess it was appropriate to have them out there, an encouragement to people like me: It's okay, we all lose eventually." Many of the characters have a bit of that latent defeatism. Is it about being mocked and being defensive? Is it the poverty, the isolation, the history?
LCJ It's probably all of that. There is a kind of fatalism in some of the poor white Southern communities. This belief that if something can go wrong, sooner or later, it will. That's what it is for me.
JV Murphy's Law, more or less.
JV Who knows what will happen, but I look at the current presidential election and wonder who is appealing to those people? And it seems like Trump is, definitely.
LCJ Yeah, out of fear and frustration. Fear being a big part of it.
JV Yet the people in Appalachia are so determined and resourceful, and they always have been. Arnett is a villain in the book, but he's very industrious as well. You can't help but respect that about him.
LCJ Arnett is wildly resourceful. He has no limits. He'll do whatever it takes.
JV Doing whatever it takes reminds me of a book I read—a history of Appalachia by John Alexander Williams. Williams is talking about the dilapidation and poverty in the area, and it seems that Arnett's moonshine and meth, his attempt at revitalizing a hotel, are, in the words of Williams, "a reminder of the extravagant hopes and frequent disappointments that accompanied Appalachia's development in the industrial era." It seems like time has moved past so many of these areas, but the people remain.
LCJ Absolutely. Go to these old mining towns and most of the abandoned buildings are stunning. Beautiful brick banks and factories, all abandoned—if they're still standing. Sometimes you see some evidence of what used to be there. It's hard to imagine the tragedy of watching all that prosperity come and go. The land is emptier than it was before. And I think Arnett's style resonates with that. It's a big part of what makes him scary, this willingness to do whatever it takes. A few years ago, while I was visiting the great banjo player and bluegrass singer Dave Evans, he drove us by an old lodging building for coal miners—the look of it, man, the way it leaned, I just started imagining some wild man fixing the place up and what he might do with it.
JV And that's Arnett in the book. Arnett is such a compelling character, endlessly fascinating. I was almost frightened to keep reading to see the next thing he would do.
Going back to Williams, he says Appalachian literature is "anchored in a rather old-fashioned narrative realism […] that draws on the ways in which Appalachian people have always used narrative for entertainment and understanding, parsing their experience through Bible stories and folk tales, traditional ballads and country songs." Also, just the "parlance of people in small communities." He quotes Eudora Welty, "They have a 'narrative sense' of each others' lives." I wonder what you make of this? Is it something you were conscious of while writing the book?
LCJ I love that, and I agree with it. What I've written might be considered old-fashioned, sure, in that it is narrative and it is entertaining, to a degree. This doesn't bother me. Though I wasn't conscious of it while writing the book. I just took my time and put down what was already inside me. And while the book does rely heavily on a unique place, I don't see it as a work of regionalism. I'm using a relatively small area of land to get at something bigger. Though I don't think the story could have been placed anywhere else.
JV You know, I couldn't help but think of Breece D'J Pancake. He is a writer I've come to identify with this place. I wonder which writers are important for you?
LCJ Yeah, Pancake is a hero of mine. I found his one collection of stories when I moved to Charlottesville and it changed me. The work of Mark Richard and Larry Brown had a similar effect. Reading them, I thought, What? It's okay to say it like that? I think it's a vision that's not tied to the region but one that challenges the status quo, and that can come from anywhere. Leonard Michaels and Grace Paley are also writers that had a great effect on me. One of my all-time favorite first lines that works so well with sound and image is Richard's opening to his short story "Strays." He writes, "At night, stray dogs come up underneath our house to lick our leaking pipes." It's tight, resonant, and essential. It's as if you can hear the tongues and see the porous structure of the house, the animals, the poverty…
JV I haven't read that story in a while, but I remember it so well. It is excellent. Larry Brown is another writer who kind of hung the moon for me. The world that he invites you into, the people, the details, are just so his.
LCJ Yeah. In fact, look at me being prepared, I have a copy of Brown's Father and Son with me here. Do you mind if I just read the first few sentences?
JV Not at all.
LCJ "It was Saturday when they drove the old car into town, returning him, passing by the big houses with their blankets of dark grass beneath the ancient oaks. Midday. A hot wind blew in the car windows and rattled papers on the dash as they went up the wide and shaded avenue toward the square." Put that against Richard's line—there's a lot different there. Brown's voice and pacing are much looser and slower. It's more of a novel's beginning. We don't know what's going on yet, but we want to. We've got the blankets of grass, the papers being rattled, those two interesting words: "returning him." It's like, where has he been? Let's find out, let's keep reading.
JV What a master, man. With any of those authors, violence shows up. I guess that could be true for so many places, but in the South particularly, there's a certain kind of violence juxtaposed against this beautiful landscape. You capture that so well with Virginia—it's gorgeous, and yet there can be such horror happening simultaneously.
LCJ That's always been a fascinating counterpoint for me. Though completely imagined, Nitro Mountain is very real to me. It's a ruined pastoral landscape, and the story is all about abuse—physical abuse, psychological abuse, drug abuse, environmental abuse. I think violence is inherited, it's taught, and some of the characters are born into bad blood. Leon turns to violence, poisoning, as a last resort. But only because he thinks it will bring him closer to love. It doesn't. The characters are raped and so is the land.
JV You mentioned that when companies leave these old coal towns, everything is fundamentally changed. The book gives an image of Nitro Mountain as an area that has been completely ravaged. There is this sense of waiting for everything to kind of blow up.
LCJ There's that fatalism again, right?
JV Much of that is due to the coal company.
JV Yet you never state that and the characters don't say it either. But it's there.
LCJ It's implied.
JV So where did this place come from? You mentioned driving with Dave Evans and seeing that old place. What else did you pull from?
LCJ I pulled from so much. It's a composite of people I've met, things I've seen, places I've driven by, flown by, or stayed in for long periods of time. I think playing music in bars contributed to many of these scenes. I grew up in a bluegrass bar. My parents—they're great—thought it was okay because I was still short enough that the cloud of smoke was above my head. Playing in bands, touring, traveling, approaching the world as a songwriter—all the material, it's up for grabs.
JV Everything is material, one way or another. I'm always thinking, Where's that thing or that person or that line gonna find a home?
LCJ Right, exactly. Waiting for that line. As storytellers, once we have it, how are we gonna make it convincing and feel urgent? For a song, sometimes it's chords, melody, and voice that make a line true. For fiction, it takes a lot more time and work. You've gotta develop—you can't just wrap your hand around the neck of the guitar and hit a G chord. You've gotta, sentence by sentence, build up that world and make it all work.
JV I'm curious about the characters, especially in terms of gender. Violence is such a part of these people's lives. Is there something you seek to say here about masculinity? An attitude that is passed down generationally among men?
LCJ That generational wound, yes. Leon's father is even more broken than his son. Leon's mother holds their world together. I'm suspicious of looking for the message or the takeaway, but, in this case, I can say that the characters' masculinity is fraudulent. They're posturing. It's like the rooster can scratch and strut and talk about where the food is all day, but it's not unusual for the hen to have already found some grub.
JV Certainly Leon's mother tries to keep things together in any way that she can. So much of the violence of the men is passed onto the women in the book. They all suffer at the hands of the male characters. What is the role of the women in this society you've created?
LCJ This book is Jennifer's book. It's her story, really, in a kind of hidden way. She is hidden in plain sight throughout. She comes into focus at the end. She gets the last word. And her power is brevity. This is a world where women are marginalized, and I wanted to get that down right.
JV Jennifer getting the last word—is there some hope that we can take away from that?
LCJ Hope is a hard word to use. But she says, "You are not alone." It was an interesting moment writing this and realizing how her perseverance makes the story work. As to hope, I do see something good there. But again, there is that pull of blood.
JV I found Jennifer at times very frustrating, just as human beings often are. I was trying to figure out why she was doing what she's doing and then it started to make sense to me. She displays a very cold detachment from Leon after his section ends. Is that because she needs to not feel anything in order to survive?
LCJ You got it, man. It's about survival. When you're scared, you can be pushed to a different place. And she's scared, and she's surviving, and she knows what she has to do. But she does care for Leon, and she actually admits that. We do see her deal with that.
JV I often feel that there is this weird conflict between the notion of the literary and entertainment. Your book is both. Why do you think calling a book entertaining tends to carry a negative connotation?
LCJ I don't know why, but thank you, that's exactly what I wanted this book to be. There's no reason why we should reject entertaining prose. There's not a damn thing wrong with it. Especially today when people are reading less and less—let's write good stuff that people want to read, that's exciting, that's not locked up in some tower, that you can take around and have fun with, just like a song, like a guitar, something you can break out and share. I look forward to going on tour and reading sections of the book just because it's fun for me to read aloud.
One more thing about Arnett. The strangest thing was his inner monologue while being chased by the troopers. You know, as unlikeable as he is, I worked on his sections the least. They flowed; they rolled. I didn't edit much. He was a very interesting character to write and live with. I have never experienced much like it.
JV When are you getting to Charlottesville?
LCJ June, man. I'm gonna be there for a while. I'll be teaching a weeklong thing at WriterHouse. It is strange to have this book coming out and be living in St. Louis. I feel like a fraud or something. I mean, Missouri's cool, it's Daniel Woodrell country, Winter's Bone. But that's the Ozarks. Virginia at this point feels more like home to me. Jill McCorkle once said that region is language and language is region. I still think about that sometimes and wonder where my region is.
Jay Varner is the author of Nothing Left to Burn, a memoir about his volunteer-firefighter father and arsonist grandfather. His work has appeared in Oxford American, Black Warrior Review, Fjords, and many other publications. He teaches writing and literature at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.