“There are thirteen hundred and fifty-two guitar pickers in Nashville. … And anyone that unpacks his guitar could play twice as better than I will,” or so the Lovin’ Spoonful said back in 1966 in their song “Nashville Cats.” Nashville has more guitar players now (and probably had more then, to be honest), but the problem for anyone hoping to make it big remains the same. Everybody is the best guitarist or singer or piano player or whatever anyone back home has ever heard. Most of them are better than you.
You have to have talent to make it in Nashville, but it’s not a straightforward meritocracy. You have some songs you play around town. You try to build an audience. You wait for lightning to strike. No matter how good you are, you also have to be lucky.
Jeff Zentner was one of those talented musicians, but his lucky break never came. In the early 2000s, he was in the band Creech Holler, which earned great reviews. After Creech Holler broke up, Zentner put out lovely solo records: imagine Alison Krauss crossed with Lord Huron, but always playing the saddest songs.
Ultimately, Zentner became a metaphorical rock star rather than a literal one. His debut novel, 2016’s “The Serpent King,” received starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. It seemed like every media outlet that compiled a Best of 2016 list put his book on it. It won the William C. Morris award from the American Library Association. Instagram and Tumblr are full of art made by enthusiastic fans of the book. And the buzz for his second novel, “Goodbye Days,” which is coming out in early March, is already enormous.
I was curious about what it’s like to go from working really hard at one creative endeavor that doesn’t pan out how you hoped it would to another creative endeavor where you have almost instant, unimaginable success. So, I sat down with Zentner and asked him.
Betsy Phillips: If you’re Milli Vanilli or Ashlee Simpson, clearly, you know when the jig is up. But you had a ton of talent. You were making really good music. … And somehow you were like … you somehow knew this wasn’t working. So I’m curious to hear you talk about how you decided, “Okay, I gave this my best shot …”
Jeff Zentner: How I decided my 30 album sales to depressed women in Poland weren’t going to take me far? Okay, so, yeah. I’m really realistic about art and commerce and what you need to do to attain a certain level of professional success in any given field.
And music? I realized it was never going to happen because, first of all, I’m not in a position to tour, because I’m not a bohemian personality, where I’m okay with insecurity. I’ve got to have health insurance. I can’t create if I’m on the verge of disaster.
I have a family that I provide for. I like to have a steady income. All of these things are really antithetical to making it as a musician. And I did not have the technical musical skill to make it as … you know, you can kind of have a middle-class living as a musician living in Nashville if you play lots of session work — if you’re a Jerry Douglas kind of guy. But that wasn’t me at all.
I was never that technically skilled as a musician. I was always way too idiosyncratic. Even to this day, if someone’s like, “Hey, let’s get together and have a jam session,” I’m like, “Uhhh, I kind of just know my songs and that’s it. I don’t know any other songs.”
So, there was that.
There was the fact that I came to music late. I started playing guitar when I was 21. And my greatest goal was to someday, just once, play in front of people. And I obviously achieved that.
But it was such a late start that by the time I think I was making really good music I was well past 30, and you don’t make it big as a musician after you’re 30. You just don’t. You can’t attain anything. You can’t even get … like … Who’s somebody who’s not as big as Jason Isbell? Because I think of Jason Isbell as pretty big. But still, he’s not huge huge.
BP: Well, look at Todd Snider still knocking around.
JZ: There you go. There you go. You can’t even make it Todd Snider big if you start after 30. I mean, the number of musicians I can think of who made it big after 30, it’s like David Gray, Leonard Cohen, maybe the Iron & Wine guy? I don’t know. But it’s a real short list.
So, that’s another thing. I was too old.
Another is that I was volunteering at Tennessee Teens Rock Camp at that point. And I just fell in love with these young people and I wanted to make art specifically for them. Because I saw the way they clung to the art they loved. I saw how they interacted with it. I saw how deeply they let it move them. And I just wanted that audience. I wanted to make art for that audience.
And there was no way I was ever going to be able to do it through music because they don’t market the kind of music I knew how to make — which is extremely depressing Gothic folk music — to teenagers. It just doesn’t happen.
I felt, too, like making music I was sort of fighting with one arm tied behind my back and it was my dominant arm, which is humor.
I was never able to incorporate humor in any way into my music, and I don’t think anyone is, really. I don’t like funny music. I don’t like clever music. I do like Todd Snider and he’s the closest I’ll come to listening to funny music. I just don’t like funny music, it’s weird. There’s just some barrier in my brain that doesn’t allow me to enjoy or make funny music.
And that barrier for some reason isn’t present in novel writing. So I can bring in what I think many people would say is my best thing, which is my sense of humor. “Many people” meaning a large percentage of the people who know me. Not many people, because not many people know who the [f—] I am.
BP: So you give up getting kicked in the teeth in the music industry …
JZ: To be fair, I never tried, tried to make it. I never tried to find professional management. I never tried to tour on a professional level. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get over that barrier.
Because when you’re writing and you’re trying to make it, you can do like I did and write on your iPhone on the bus to and from work. But in music when you’re trying to make it, it means you’re driving from Omaha to Denver in a 15-passenger van with 300,000 miles on it and hoping that after the show one of the three people who’s there will let you crash on their floor.
BP: And that no one has stolen your gear.
JZ: And that no one has stolen your gear.
BP: So, when you decided, “Okay, this is over,” I imagine that that time sucked. Like you didn’t immediately switch gears into “I’m going to write.”
JZ: No, I did!
There was a transitional period where I was both making music and writing. Actually, I even started a band and it’s funny, with this band, I even did one of the most financially remunerative projects of my whole music career. We got paid a few thousand dollars from some random guy in Hong Kong to record a song based on a short story called “Microbes.” This was a very strange project and to this day we have never heard what became of this. It was supposed to be for some anthology that was going to go with a compact disc? I don’t know. I don’t know. All I know is the check cleared. So we recorded it and sent it to him and he was happy with it. And we said “all right.” So, it was very strange.
So, I was both doing that and I was starting to write. I didn’t want to just cut it off, but when I got the book deal, that was where it kind of put the kibosh on the band.
So I said, “Okay, sorry guys. The time I have now is going to have to be spent writing under contract. Because I’m writing under contract.”
BP: I read that you had the dream experience of getting an agent — that you had a friend who knew someone.
JZ: Yes. She’s got an interesting Nashville connection, I guess you could say. She used to be married to Patrick Carney of the Black Keys. And she, um, they divorced before he moved here to Nashville. …
So this friend of mine, her agent had discovered her through a Salon piece that she’s written about her marriage with Patrick Carney, so that’s how she got that agent. And she passed my manuscript on to him.
BP: Did you ever see yourself as a fiction writer before this?
JZ: No. Well, here’s the thing. I’ve always been a book person. The music thing was a really funny blip. All my life I’ve been a book person. I was obsessed with reading as a kid. My mom would take me to the library, and drop me off with a quarter to call her when I was done. I would stay there for hours and hours and hours.
I worked at bookstores in high school and college. So I was always a book person.
But it never occurred to me that I could write a book, because I thought that books came from ivory towers or from on high and that anybody who published a book had an MFA in creative writing, had studied it for years, knew all the right people. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have any training in creative writing. I never had a creative writing class. So, it just didn’t seem like something I could do.
It was my day job where I was writing all day, every day where, from 8 to 4:30 every day, just writing, writing, writing, that gave me the confidence to try to monetize my new skill.
BP: So, do you still write on the bus?
JZ: I do.
I don’t write on my phone anymore, but I’ve got a little Samsung tablet with a keyboard and, yeah, I’ve been working on my third novel. I have to write a 25-minute keynote speech for a young adult festival in Texas later this month, so that’s what I’ve been working on lately.
But yeah, I still write on the bus.
BP: How many words a day do you get done that way?
JZ: When I’m really cooking, I can do 500 on the way in, I can do 500 over lunch, and 500 on the way home. So I can do 1,500 just doing that. But the third book’s been going really slowly because it’s a comedy, and I just don’t feel funny lately.
I get a lot of my writing done during the times when my mind is quiet. I’ll go on a walk and my mind will just be quiet and I’ll start with inspiration, but now during those quiet times, all I think about are politics.
BP: Is it what you thought it would be?
JZ: It is. It is. It is exactly what I thought it would be. The teen audience is so, so passionate and they love books and they’re so enthusiastic.
They are the exact opposite of the jaded hipster “over it” consumer. They’re so passionate and things are so new to them.
So, like, I can go to one of these [young adult] festivals and at that Y.A. festival, just in that little moment, I’m famous and I’m a rock star. And then I can come home and nobody knows who I am. I can walk through the grocery store, nobody bothers me. Tabloids don’t care who I am. It’s the best kind of fame.