At some point during adulthood, most people wonder if they picked the right life or not.
Some ask the question during a singularly challenging moment or rough patch. Others get existential every morning while finishing coffee or every night driving home from work.
Because the difference between fulfillment and frustration can feel as thin as a guitar string. Huntsville author J.W. Fowler’s debut novel digs into this idea. Titled “Free and Clear,” the book intertwines arcs of Ben Landry, a successful songwriter and guitarist, and Andy McDaniel, a once-aspirant musician turned mid-level bank-employee with an overdrawn soul and meh cover band.
Anyone who’s been this close to fulfilling a dream – or having one ripped away – will find things to relate to in this story.
Fowler’s writing style in “Free and Clear” is natural and svelte. His dry, dark, self-effacing wit is offset with a feel for life’s glow and possibilities.
A memorable first sentence, “Even the best gigs can turn to shit,” sets the 292-page tome’s tone. The entire book is written from first-person perspective, with Andy, Ben and the women teetering in and out of their respective lives, Shelly and Rachel, alternating chapters. You experience “Free and Clear” through their eyes and hearts. Their wins and mistakes.
Fowler knows his way around a local musician’s mire. Beer-soaked soul destroying gigs. Band meetings held at Applebee’s. The eternal curse of having talent but not TALENT.
This is no accident. J.W. Fowler is better known to Huntsville local music fans and musos as Bill Fowler, a skilled singer/guitarist. From his early groups like metallic combo Alias and jam-band Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show, to recent grunge tribute Dirt Circus, Fowler’s been part of Huntsville music since the ’80s.
By day, Fowler, now 47, works in the tech side of real estate. By night, particularly during non-pandemic times, you can still catch him on local bandstands, with funk instrumentalists Midlife Chrysler or doing solo gigs.
It’s tempting to take the self-published “Free and Clear” as simply a roman à clef. But the book isn’t just Fowler’s story. It’s more universal. On a recent morning, I met up with Fowler for coffee and the following interview. Edited excerpts are below.
In interviews, Cameron Crowe has talked about having fun making up names for songs by the fictional bands in his movies “Almost Famous” and “Singles.” Your book’s title, Free and Clear,” is the name of the book’s music-star main-character’s big song. There are other fictional Ben Landry song titles in the book. Tell me about coming up with the names for these songs. And why did the song title “Free and Clear” end up on the cover?
I wish I had a Cameron Crowe worthy response. I didn’t have a title for the book, writing it. It didn’t start out to be a book. It started out to be a short story. Sometimes writing is a source of therapy, and so I was just putting down some ideas and one thing led to another.
I was thinking about the music that was in there and emotions I wanted to convey and the name “Free and Clear” just kind of came out. It was like this anthem, kind of, and that’s where the title came from.
But the rest of them, you think about putting an album together and what an artform song order is on an album. You have the first track, where you kickoff, and the second track is maybe a little more subdued and maybe the third one punches you right in the face. There’s going to be a singalong in there someplace … That kind of thing. Just thinking about what emotions I wanted to evoke in the titles, because you can’t hear these songs, they don’t exist.
Since you’re also a musician it might be interesting if you went back and actually wrote and performed these fictional Ben Landry songs.
Dave Anderson (Huntsville guitarist of Brother Cane/Atlanta Rhythm Section fame) made that point. He said, “Do these songs exist and would you be interested in doing that?” And (local singer/songwriter) Alan Little said the same thing. I think it would be cool to do one day, but I’m afraid to do that. Because to you that song has a certain feel to it and I don’t want to tell you what that is. The theater of the mind is at work.
The music biz behind the scenes stuff in the book felt authentic. You’ve had experience in music, but not necessarily at that level. Whose brains did you pick to get those details correct?
It’s a great thing, in Huntsville we’re surrounded by a lot of people who’ve had that experience, Dave Anderson being one of them. I got on phone with him one day, think he was in airport going to one of his ARS gigs: “Hey tell me if this is a plausible scenario.” Talked to Charlie Sanderson (tour manager for the likes of Hank Williams Jr. and Stevie Wonder) to get a sense of the relationship between the band and roadies. Load-in, soundcheck, the timing, I didn’t have feel for that.
And then Amy Glover, who we went high school with, works at BMI in Nashville. I called her and talked with her about the licensing stuff needed to make sure if a performing musician’s career was to go in meltdown mode, he could still make a living just based on the songs he sold and turns out that’s true. I needed to know the mechanics of that.
I didn’t want to take a lot of creative license with that stuff because Dave Anderson is my audience. And those people who are really in it, I wanted them to read this and be like, “OK this person really understands my point of view.” Writing from a fan’s perspective on something as detailed as this didn’t do me any good. I took a page from Robert Bailey, author of “The Professor” (legal thriller) series and a practicing (local) attorney. He told me, “The thing that’s going to make you valuable to readers is your experience with music. You know what it feels like to play a terrible gig and the nuances of that.”
Speaking of terrible gigs, the book opens with the Andy character playing such a gig at a made-up Huntsville bar. What’s the worst gig you’ve played?
I was playing in a band in college (at University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa) and our first gig was at the End Zone the same night Dave Matthews Band played the Ivory Tusk. Needless to say, nobody was at our show. We’re playing to a room, as Jason Isbell calls it “the golden goose egg.”
Lots of Tuesday nights in college towns where no one is out that night or it happens to be the night of the ATO swap or whatever. Or playing on a football weekend and everybody is at the game. Lots and lots of those. More of those than not, actually.
What’s on the opposite end of the spectrum for you? A gig that was a height of your experience as a musician? Where you felt you were getting somewhere. Maybe even close to “making it.”
I may have been a senior in high school or freshman in college. The band I was in at the time was at the apex of the jam band movement of the early’ 90s and a friend of ours booked us to open for Allgood at McCallie School in Chattanooga.
Allgood had just released a killer album a few months before, “Ride The Bee,” and they were huge in the Southeast. The next big thing to come out of Athens, Georgia. We were pretty convinced they would love us and set us up with their management, etc. We were going to get discovered! In reality, we had a great time, played our set and they were gracious and accommodating. Really nice guys. But yeah, all we got from that gig was a pat on the back and a load of Allgood T-shirts.
Why did you decided to use J.W. Fowler as your author name instead of Bill Fowler, which many people in Huntsville know you by? For what it’s worth, I think J.W. Fowler sounds cool. Since many famous musicians change their name some or completely, and your book is about musicians, I thought it was worth asking about.
I have quite a few things going on as Bill Fowler. My everyday life, for example, and my professional career and local music work. I wanted to set my writing apart from all that. Plus, surprisingly, there are a lot of Bill Fowlers out there in the world. One is a big deal in Canadian politics, another owns an auto body-shop in Mississippi. I get his email a lot. So, really, it was in part because I felt like J.W. sounded a bit more literary, but mainly because it distinguishes my writing from everything else out there.
Of the main “Free and Clear” characters, which manifested first?
It was definitely Ben. The personification of Ben came from the Jason Isbell inspiration. I know (Isbell) through other people, and he’s from here, a normal guy and he broke through and it was that accessibility.
You’re a busy guy with a successful day job career, kids and still play music out. What made you carve out time to write a novel?
I lost a good friend to an overdose and my marriage was coming to an end and I’d lost my dad several years previous. All this kind of stuff. I wouldn’t call it a midlife crisis, but you’re looking at the next half of your life, what does that look like, as you’re looking through the filter of people who didn’t make it as far as you. I don’t mean successfully, just in years.
And then I thought a lot about the decisions I made to get to that point, all for the good. There are no regrets. But there was a lot of introspection and retrospection at the same time and I was struggling with a lot of core issues. But the truth is I started writing because I needed to get some stuff off my chest.
When you were putting together the “Free and Clear” plot, did you start off with the beginning? Or did you have the ending and build back? Or start with a key mid-story conflict?
In fell together in a way I think your life does. I had no plan. I started writing about these two guys and then next thing I know I’m writing about the women in their lives and it’s all first person and they’re telling their own stories.
Once I knew who Andy and Ben where, who Rachel and Shelly were, they finished it. By halfway through the book I had no idea how it was going to end, but I knew what they would and wouldn’t do. And I knew there weren’t going to be pretty bows at the end. Not all stories end with a happy and clear resolution.
All four of these character are part of who I am. I have been each of these people to some degree or another. I started writing first person and got into a rhythm or groove with that and next thing I knew I was 50,000 words in and it just made sense to me. And I was traveling for work a lot back then so there was a lot of alone time in hotel rooms, airports and planes.
A male writing a female character is challenging. And in 2020 probably more so than ever you want to get that tone right.
It’s terrifying. In fact it’s ill advised. I wouldn’t take that on lightly if you’re an aspiring writer, or a female writer writing a male character either. It’s super easy to get tone deaf. And you come with bias you don’t realize you carry. When I started doing that it was like tightrope walking with a flaming tightrope and people throwing swords at you. And when I finished the first couple chapters from the female perspective, I handed them off to some folks close enough I knew would read it and give me a sanity check. My sister was material in this.
Is there more of you in the Ben character or Andy?
I’m somewhere in between. Ultimately, we’re going to be who we are. But giving yourself permission to be who you are, it sounds easy but it’s really tough to do.
Given parallels and inspiration from your life, how hard was it keep the book from veering into a thinly-veiled-memoir ditch?
I probably got into that a few times. Subsequent drafts cleansed that more and more. This was a lot more about me needing to express philosophical commentary, social commentary than it was about personal commentary.
What’s a band that made you love music early on in life?
“Appetite for Destruction” changed my life. No way I could’ve seen Led Zeppelin in concert at age 13 in Huntsville but Guns N’ Roses came to Huntsville. They were also the perfect band for teenage boys. Whereas Jimmy Page was off playing sitars and smoking hash, Axl Rose was just pissed off and didn’t give a shit. But my musical tastes are all over the place. Stevie Wonder was as much an idol for me at certain points as Axl. R.E.M. had a huge impact.
Who are some writers that mean a lot to you?
John Cheever had a huge impact on me because he wrote real. Jonathan Franzen, similar thing.
There are significant cancel culture and social media related subplots in “Free and Clear.” This idea people can be one tweet away from ruining their lives or just one DM from connecting with a hero.
I liked the idea that if you wanted to destroy somebody overnight you could do it, given the right research. Or you could go a long way toward that, at least soiling someone’s reputation for a time. I don’t have that fear. But I can see a larger personality, the vulnerability but also being strong enough in your art or career to deflect it. Also it was very convenient. I needed a way to ruin Ben’s career overnight.
“Free and Clear” is available in $14 paperback and $3 Kindle versions via amazon.com.
MORE ON MUSIC
10 notable debut albums that were also live albums
New Huntsville all-ages music venue ready to rock
Jason Isbell concerts to use pods, but not ‘Spinal Tap’ kind
Next wave Alabama musicians: An angry band for angry times
20 new songs by Alabama musicians to know