Book review: A Song to Die For by Mike Blakely

Creed Mason had come so close. He’d had a top ten country hit with his partner Dixie Houston and their band Dixie Creed, and their future looked bright. But then he’d been drafted and sent to Vietnam, where he saw some horrific things, killed a man, and ended up with a gruesome bullet wound that got him sent first to Japan for a long recovery and then to Texas, USA.

It’s now 1975. His old partner Dixie has gone on to huge solo success and wants nothing to do with him. Creed is trying to make it on his own in the burgeoning Austin music scene as part of the nascent Outlaw Country movement. Willie Nelson (just called Willie here, but it’s Willie Nelson) recommends Creed for a plum gig–band leader and lead guitarist for Luster Burnett, a country music legend who vanished entirely from pubic life many years prior but who is now eyeing a comeback.

Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, the innocent niece of a Vegas mafia kingpin witnesses her uncle and his psychotic son Franco murdering one of their henchman who had fallen out of favor. She flees to Austin, hoping to get help from one of her former University of Texas sorority sisters. However, both end up dead as Franco tries to tie up loose ends.

Trying to find answers in these deaths is Texas Ranger Hooley Johnson, a curmudgeon approaching retirement age who nonetheless is deeply affected by the waste of two innocent lives with so much potential. Hooley is begrudgingly partnered with Mel Doolittle, a young, black, intelligent but wet-behind-the-ears FBI man from the Vegas office.

 A Song to Die For is neat–these two tales, the two musicians trying to make a comeback and the crime story, run parallel with no crossover until very late in the book. For most of it, it’s like reading two entertaining novels in different genres simultaneously, keeping the reader wondering and guessing about when and how the two paths will cross.

The fun is enhanced by Blakely’s writing style. He does not spend a lot of time describing things. Does a scene take place in a honky tonk? He’ll give enough detail to add some character, and let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. Everyone who hasn’t been in one has seen them on TV or in movies and knows what they look like–why describe every spiderweb or initial carved into the bar? This efficiency helps the pages go by quickly, with a lot more action packed in than one would expect even in a book that crosses the 400-page mark.

The story is not always realistic, but Blakely’s exercise of his artistic license is well-deployed. It’s doubtful that a crackerjack band could come together as quickly as it does here, and Blakely knows this because he’s a musician himself with several albums to his credit, but it’s necessary to keep the two stories in sync, and who wants to read about months of practice?

It was fun for me to read about my town of Austin back in the ’70s, which was a pretty legendary time around here–I wasn’t around but people still talk about it. (It’s also nice that for the most part the geography is rendered correctly!) I’d like to see Blakely, who primarily writes Westerns and is a Spur award winner, tell a few more tales about my town in that time. He’s got plenty of good characters who could appear in another music story, another crime story, or another combination of the two.

A Song to Die For is an under-the-radar gem that lovers of music and/or crime fiction will enjoy, and those who know Austin will get an extra kick out of it. Worth checking out.

By the way: “Written in the Dust,” Creed Mason’s one hit song, is based on one of Mike Blakely’s own songs. I caught a couple of other Easter eggs, and I’m sure there are some I missed.