Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs has the lyricism, the cadence, the emotional swelling, the catharsis of any song in the great American songbook. Its lines run through your head long after the story ends. Its words hit like a high soprano note; its characters resonate like a low, vibrating bass.
Like many classic songs, it can also be, at times, overly sweet. The sentiment sometimes comes on too thick; resolutions sometimes have too neat a bow. But that’s OK. The poetry of the story sees it through these patches.
This is the story of five friends, now in their thirties, who grew up together in the 1,000-person town of Little Wing, WI. Henry and Beth were high school sweethearts, who married and had two kids. Henry has taken over his parents’ old dairy farm, and money is often tight. Ronny was the first to get out, joining the rodeo circuit, but a drunk-driving accident put an end to his career and slowed his thinking. Kip has just come back from Chicago, where he made his money in commodities and has grand plans of restoring the town’s old mill. And then there’s Lee. Lee has made it big, becoming a rock star, whose albums over the last decade have sold millions, and flung him around the world on tour, always to return to Little Wing.
Each chapter alternates first-person narrators between the five main characters, giving them a chance to share their histories, their feelings, their sides of the story. So, too, the audiobook employs five different voice actors: Scott Shepherd, Maggie Hoffman, Ari Fliakos, Garry Williams, and Scott Sowers. Each one reflects the nuances and emotion of his or her character.
The five friends shore each other up as much as they tear each other down. They are both there for each other and not. Each character is treated as human. That is to say, each character is fallible. Beth and Henry love each other with the ease of high-school sweethearts. Kip leaks Lee’s intended appearance at his wedding to the paparazzi, violating his trust, as Lee views his home as sacrosanct, a safe place away from the noise of fame. Lee paid all of Ronny’s hospital bills, and pays for his upkeep. Beth and Lee share a secret they’ve long kept from Henry. The whole town has always believed in Lee’s talent, long before he made it. Ever since his accident, everyone keeps careful tabs on Ronny, but not always. Not always.
As rife with emotion, the acceptance and letting go that comes with adulthood, there are moments that spark with the light of youth. Beth and Kip’s wife, Felicia, get drunk, sipping wine out of old jelly jars, amid the clutter of Beth and Henry’s house. This is not the only moment of drinking throughout the book. In a small town with nothing to do, the VFW is the community’s epicenter. No one goes out for coffee. They go out for beers and shots. In the book’s climax, a sophomoric prank plays a pivotal role. This demonstrates Butler’s understanding of human nature and old, deep-rooted friendships. We are never so childish as we are with our friends from high school or college, as if being with them brings us back to a youth we aren’t quite ready to let go of.
Much of the story is influenced by Butler’s own life. He grew up, not in such a small town, but the larger city of Eau Claire, WI, where he went to high school with Justin Vernon, the founder and frontman of rock band Bon Iver. Butler’s in-laws own a large, working farm.
Lee tells young musicians:
Sing like you’ve got no audience, sing like you don’t know what a critic is, sing about your hometown, sing about your prom, sing about deer, sing about the seasons, sing about your mother, sing about chainsaws, sing about the thaw, sing about the rivers, sing about forests, sing about the prairies. But whatever you do, start singing early in the morning, if only just to keep warm. And if you happen to live in a warm, beautiful place . . .
Move to Wisconsin. Buy a woodstove, and spend a week splitting wood. It worked for me”
It worked for Butler too.
Listen to a clip of the beginning of the book, in which Henry talks about Lee for the first time.