Some stories really stick with you. For Wisconsin singer-songwriter Kurt Gunn, one of those stories is Stephen King’s novel ‘Salem’s Lot.
He takes out the book and re-reads it every September 5th – because that’s when the story starts.
Now Gunn is putting his own twist on one of King’s earliest published works. He’s created a concept album called Scenes from a Small Town in Maine that’s inspired by the book and just happens to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the novel.
If you’re unfamiliar with what a concept album is, that’s not too surprising. Even though many well-known bands have recorded these kinds of works – the way we listen to music today makes it unlikely that anyone but the biggest fans would realize an album is actually a concept album.
A concept album has a definite theme, each song is connected to another in some way. And in many cases, concept albums follow a story-line. The Who’s Tommy and Green Day’s American Idiot are two of the more well-known examples.
There’s also everything from Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon and Jethro Tull’s Aqualung to Lady Gaga’s Fame Monster and The Suburbs from Arcade Fire.
The problem is, since so many of us now pick and choose the individual songs we want to listen to rather than the entire album – we miss the larger picture that some of the most-talented musicians want to paint for us.
That’s why when you read some online descriptions for Kurt Gunn’s Scenes from a Smalltown in Maine – it explains that this album was meant to be listened to in its entirety.
“It’s really one song in my eyes, and it’s a story. You don’t start a story in the middle, you start from beginning to end,” Gunn says.
How Music Rose Out of ‘Salem’s Lot
Kurt Gunn was just a kid when he saw the 1979 TV mini-series based on ‘Salem’s Lot. He admits he was probably too young to watch it, but it must have made an impression.
Gunn started reading Stephen King’s books when he was 12 or 13 and ‘Salem’s Lot became one of his favorites. The vampire tale happens to be one of King’s favorites as well.
It was King’s second published novel and his followup to Carrie, which was a smash hit. But at the time the now prolific author was still working as a high school teacher in Hampden, Maine.
In a 1987 interview King said of ‘Salem’s Lot,
“In a way it is my favorite story, mostly because of what it says about small towns. They are kind of a dying organism right now. The story seems sort of down home to me. I have a special cold spot in my heart for it!”
Ben travels back there to write a story about a mysterious old mansion in the small town. It’s a spooky old Victorian home where a gangster killed himself and his wife.
The writer makes friends with a high school teacher, falls for a local girl, but soon realizes something much more evil than he expected is present. Vampires put the town under siege, and Ben tries to rally people to fight back as more and more victims are claimed.
It’s a classic tale of good battling evil. A Stephen King fan takes it one step further commenting on the author’s website that the story sends a message about what happens when good people choose to ignore evil.
However, for Kurt Gunn, making the album Scenes from a Small Town in Maine wasn’t about sending any sort of message. Instead – it came about as more of a happy accident.
“I was writing a song, and all I had was the music without lyrics,” Gunn explains. “Sometimes when I come up with lyrics I will just make up some nonsense to find a melody. I had a copy of ‘Salem’s Lot sitting on my desk, and so I started making up nonsense lyrics to what would become ‘The Girl.'”
Once he got started, he didn’t want to stop, saying “the lyrics were too specific” to stand alone. Gunn had always wanted to make a topical album, and now he finally had an idea that he liked. Once he got started, the music and lyrics started flowing out of him.
“I wrote down about 10 or 12 titles that I wanted to write about, and the album flew out of me in about a week and a half. I was more or less just writing it for myself, and had not really planned on releasing it.”
But when friends listened to what Gunn wrote, they convinced him to change his mind.
Stories that we love become a part of us. And if it’s a story you can read over and over again, it has to mean something to you. Gunn says there isn’t a specific theme he relates to in ‘Salem’s Lot, but it’s obvious there is some sort of connection.
“The first quarter of the book you are vested in these characters lives, you want to live in that small town with these people…and then everything goes terribly wrong, and it’s a huge bummer…”
Making the Album & How You Should Experience It
Gunn teamed up with another local musician and producer to make Scenes from a Small Town in Maine – Paul Hanna of the rock band Annex.
“It was a no-brainer for me to work with Paul again on this album,” Gunn says. “I’ve always sort of known Paul through the music world, but it wasn’t until I did my last album, Underneath, with him that we became good friends. I think that our music is just enough different that it really works out and makes the finished product unique and not predictable.”
“I just sort of came at him with all these weird songs. I explained each song to him, and he sort of took it from there. It worked out great, just bouncing ideas off of each other, and trying different things out. We both really believed in the album too, and that helps.”
You should not expect Songs from a Small Town in Maine to be creepy and disturbing like a horror movie. The music could certainly be described as haunting and perhaps a little bit eerie at times – but what you’ll hear is Gunn and his acoustic guitar along with subtle atmospheric enhancements.
At its core, this album is Kurt Gunn doing what all good singer-songwriters do best – telling stories. Each track on the album focuses on a certain character, including the town itself, which I’m sure King would agree is a sort of character too.
Gunn realizes not everyone has time to listen to an album from beginning to end. But he hopes you will…at least the first time.
“I designed this album to be easy to listen through,” he says. “Each song was written to be short and to the point, with every song under three minutes but one. So the whole album is 26 minutes. You can listen to it on the way to work, and I like that about it. Then Paul came up with the idea of blending all the songs together with no gaps between tracks.”
Gunn says, for now, he’ll most likely only perform this album in its entirety when he plays it live.
You can catch that full-performance of Scenes from a Small Town in Maine when Gunn officially debuts it at Dejavu Martini Lounge in Appleton on Thursday, October 8th. Then he’ll perform for a Green Bay crowd at Fox Heights on Saturday, October 10th. Both shows start at 9pm and you can pick up your copy of his album.
If you miss those shows, you should be able to find the album on CD and limited-edition vinyl at local record stores. That includes the Exclusive Company and Rock and Roll Land in Green Bay as well as Green Baybeez in De Pere. You can also download the entire digital album from iTunes and from CDBaby.
Epilogue – What Would Stephen Think?
Kurt Gunn and Stephen King have another interesting connection. They’ve both called the city of De Pere home.
King only lived in De Pere for a short time when he was young. But one of his earliest memories happened on the west-side of that small Northeast Wisconsin town.
He wrote about it in his memoir On Writing, and it practically opens the book.
As the story goes, King had an extremely obese girl for his babysitter. He claims she would sit on him, fart and laugh about it. My kind of gal.
She also liked to feed him eggs. One day she fed him way too many eggs, and little Stephen King puked all over himself.
Rather than clean up the egg vomit, the obese babysitter stuck Stephen in a closet, and then she fell asleep. When King’s mother got home, she fired the babysitter, and that was the last he ever saw of her.
No wonder the guy became a horror author.
But you’d have to think Stephen King would be curious to hear music inspired by his early work. It’s interesting that a book about a writer returning to a small town home of his youth would turn into songs written by a young musician in a small town King once called home.
We just may get to find out what King thinks about it all…
Kurt Gunn happens to have a friend who lives near Stephen King’s home in Maine. The friend dropped off a copy of the album for King to listen to.
“Whether or not he listens to it, I don’t know,” Gunn says. “I hope he does, and I like to think that he would enjoy my book report on it. Either he likes it and speaks out about it, or I get sued…either way I win, I guess. How cool would it be to be sued by Stephen King? You can’t buy publicity like that.”
Keep us posted, Kurt.
- Appleton Release Show – Dejavu Martini Lounge, October 8th at 9pm (Facebook Event)
- Green Bay Release Show – Fox Heights, October 10th at 9pm (Facebook Event)
- Visit Kurt Gunn’s Official Website
Check Out the Lead Track from Scenes from a Small Town in Maine