blackbirdonline journalSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
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A Correspondence with Brad Efford
Conducted on April 2, 2023

On April 2, 2023, Brad Efford answered emailed questions from members of the Blackbird staff. The questions addressed Efford’s relationship to music, his curation of his project The RS 500: Telling Stories in Stereo, and his connection to Claudia Emerson. His essay from The RS 500 “#305: Lucinda Williams, ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’” is republished as a part of the 2023 Reading Loop that remembers Emerson and her work.

The Blackbird staff questions were moderated by Managing Editor Waverley Vesely and were posed by Blackbird interns Corinne Bogden, Maddie Rees, Caroline Richards, and Chris Shaw.


Maddie Rees: You mention in your Lucinda Williams, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” piece that “music is the unifier,” especially in regards to your friendship with Claudia. Do you ever find that music is the unifier in your relationship with writing? In what ways does music help you feel more connected with writing?

Brad Efford: Music was the first great love of my life. The greatest job and most important education I’ve ever had is still the years I worked in a record store in high school (Record & Tape Exchange in Fairfax, VA—now closed). It was there where I learned about taste and art and personal obsession and, most importantly, music. In grad school, my poetry and essays and short fiction were all infused with music in some way or another, with particular infatuations popping up around Patsy Cline and Kurt Cobain and Merzbow and the locked groove at the end of ABBA’s Super Trouper. After grad school, I built the RS 500 as a way to keep writing and building community, and as a way to keep music threading through both. Music has always been my unifier. Even now, typing this out, I’m listening to music (Tove Lo’s Dirt Femme. Good album.), and it’s keeping me focused and giving me the emotional wherewithal to get out of my own head long enough to get thoughts down on paper. My ideal writing life is lived with noise-canceling headphones and an endless library of songs I can hop through and across to better match the energy I’m bringing to the page. I recently wrote an essay about Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre and listened to a long YouTube video of oil pump jacks on a loop while writing—even this was music, even this guided me somewhere I wouldn’t have gotten to on my own. I think one important job a writer has is to get out of their own way long enough to let the unknown take hold and deliver; music, for me, makes space for that unknown.

Corinne Bogden: So many different writers have contributed to your project—including yourself—and you all seem to bring such unique writing styles, formats, and perspectives to the table. What exactly made you and/or your team accept some of these submissions? To what degree did one’s introspection, personal investiture, and/or interaction with the album’s material itself factor into a good essay that’s published to the site? (In other words, what exactly made an album essay worthy of being published, and what nuanced styles were acceptable or desirable?)

BE: Maybe this is taboo to admit, but frankly my primary intention behind The RS 500 was to build community, not search for the world’s greatest writing. I had just graduated from an MFA program where I met some brilliant new friends and writers, and being in an environment like that can be really intoxicating in the moment and in the effect it leaves in its wake. I missed having a built-in way to meet people and learn from them and celebrate the voices they brought into the world. The RS 500 ended up being this amazing word-of-mouth experience where friends of friends and friends of friends of friends reached out wanting to write about this or that album, and I was pretty much always excited to accommodate that desire. Because we published twice a week and had 500 albums to get through, the turnaround was always lickety-split—some essays could have likely used more work if we had more time, but I was happy to give new writers a platform and make room for a whole panoply of voices the project would likely not have had with a really stringent acceptance process. Plus, we weren’t able to pay writers, which I never felt super good about! It’s hard being picky without that kind of a financial leg to stand on.

In terms of what kinds of pieces were most desirable, definitely ones that had a strong and consistent voice, point of view, and, above all else, something to say. There are definitely some folks who chose to write about albums they either hadn’t heard of or knew they didn’t like, but that didn’t have to be a roadblock to the success of the essay itself—some of my favorite essays from throughout the project are ones where the writer spent hundreds or even thousands of words questioning their connection to the music in the first place.

Caroline Richards: You talk about the way Claudia’s reading of the Steve Scafidi piece “Life Story of the Possible” in undergrad effectively jump-started your appreciation for “the great beauty of language” and its importance; how has this appreciation changed or developed over the years and what authors do you consider to be key touchstones on this journey?

BE: Like most ’90s kids, I raised myself on an early and robust diet of Goosebumps, Roald Dahl, and Animorphs. I was enthralled with the machinations of character and story from a young age and used to spend the Sunday church hour writing little unfinished, unpolished tales on the backs of the program and communion envelopes. High school is where I fell in love with music, so a lot of my favorite “authors” at the time were songwriters and lyricists: Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Erykah Badu, Nick Drake, Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Captain Beefheart and Zappa introduced me to the blues and dada and absurdism, and by the time I went to college, I was primed for the unexpected and hungry for outsider art however I could find and make it. Claudia helped me fall in love with poetry, and Scafidi was a major part of that specific journey—he’s still my favorite poet to this day, and his books are the ones I return to most. But I also discovered the avant-garde in college and spent countless hours studying Breton and Artaud and Sarah Kane and Adrienne Kennedy like each word was trimmed in gold. I carried all of these voices (and a million more) with me into my MFA program, and the more recent stage of my life in love with language has found me as a teacher, passing some of my favorite writers and thinkers on to students of my own. I’ve been enjoying how cyclical the whole thing is. Just the other day I read The Bald Soprano with one student and a collection of Lucille Clifton’s poems with another—not bad work if you can get it!

CB: You rightfully pointed out in the “About” section of your website that the 273 musicians consulted in compiling RS’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list were “mostly white and almost exclusively American and/or predominantly English-speaking.” How do you think this influenced what albums were selected to be on the list? If you could change anything about those circumstances, what would you change and how do you think that would change the album list?

BE: The two original versions of the RS 500 “Greatest Albums” list (from 2003 and 2012) were very Anglocentric, white, and male. What this led to, as you can predict, was a portrait of the twentieth century that favored white appropriation of the blues, and, as an extension of that, rock music. It always felt to me like albums on these early lists that weren’t already canonized as “classic” came with a faint whiff of condescension, as if the jury (and by extension, RS itself) were saying “Good job, Sleater-Kinney! You should be really proud of yourself!” The whole thing felt far less like a celebration than a decree, and many of the choices both in album selection and placement were expected (except when they were totally confounding . . . looking at you, No Doubt). To answer your second question, I would implore everyone to take a look, if they haven’t already, at Rolling Stone’s updated 2020 “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list! This time around they intentionally diversified the jury in a number of really exciting ways, and, as a result, it’s far more hip-hop, pop, and R&B-centric. This is such a better reflection of what modern music sounds like, and of how modern music has changed in the past fifty years to reflect modern society. It’s not perfect, obviously, but far more interesting.

Chris Shaw: After reading through the piece we’ll be publishing in Blackbird, I scrolled a bit through the site and landed on the last piece on The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” In the piece, you discuss how you first landed on the idea of The RS 500 and how you realized that you might need some help to write all 500 pieces. While writing can be solitary and isolating, especially when you’re jettisoned out into the world from an MFA program, you point to the need for friendship and help in completing the project. With 134 people eventually contributing to the RS 500, I was wondering how the experience of working with so many talented writers might have expanded or revised your view of what we’re doing as writers. In other words, you made a solitary project into a collaborative one, and I’m interested if that step toward collaboration influences the sort of writing you do today? Additionally, has your writing process become more collaborative as a result of working on The RS 500?

BE: This is a terrific question, and it’s got me thinking a lot about writing I “do today.” The truth is, I don’t do too much writing today unless it’s to patch a hole in an upcoming issue of wig-wag—the online zine of movie essays that I run—or take part in the annual March Xness competition that’s become such a boon for so many writers these days. But yes: the RS 500 has had an impact on more or less every creative endeavor I’ve made for myself since the project took its final bow, and especially through what it taught me about collaboration and friendship. I think there’s still a bit of a stink for a lot of people around the concept of “online friends,” and the idea that you could create a community with folks who you’ve never shaken hands or shared a meal with still sounds ludicrous for many in my generation and older. But this isn’t true, obviously, and the minute I realized how important the internet was to my own creative process was the minute I became a better artist and reader and writer and cheerleader and friend. At various times, both during and after the RS 500, I’ve put together a newsletter about junk food, hosted readings and panels at various AWP conferences, started a podcast about movies (Film Fest; in its second season), and created a whole other online journal that just had its twenty-fifth issue go live—and none of this would have been possible without other people, many of whom have become very important to me in ways that would be hard to adequately describe. We’re not here for very long; we should be pumping each other up along the way, and doing whatever we can to find a community that feels right for us and safe and fun for others. Otherwise, frankly, what’s the point of any of it!  

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