It’s been said that country songs are all about beer and broken hearts. Nashville legend Harlan Howard said a great country song only needs “three chords and the truth” – a phrase still used by musicians today. For Lillian Waters, The Farewell Tour’s protagonist, it’s about childhood trauma turning into her growing up too fast which leads to domestic abuse which leads to alcoholism which leads to doing anything and everything it takes to get noticed, write, record, and perform chart-topping country music.
Throughout the novel, author Stephanie Clifford seamlessly switches back and forth between present day (1980s) and the timeline of Lillian’s life which begins in the 1920s. Lillian’s childhood years are tough to read about because her abusive mother’s actions drive Lillian out of her hometown at age 10 (something you could get away with back then) and sets the tone for her entire life. It’s horrifying and heartbreaking, but also demonstrates incredible strength and perseverance.
Six pages in, we learn the toll her sister Hen and a mysterious letter has taken on Lillian. And then later we learn why she is the way she is – a woman with a hard exterior who seemingly doesn’t care about anyone but herself. But it’s all an act – her whole life is an act – for better or for worse.
Throughout the book, there are many reminders of how much women weren’t allowed to do for so long such as play guitar (Lillian mentions having to add a pocket to her costumes for her guitar picks), express an opinion, or put hurtful men in their place. It’s gross and makes me even more grateful for the brave women all over the world, from all types of backgrounds, who paved the way. Even country music stars still had to be seen as homemakers back then. It’s also a reminder of how much easier it was to disappear in those days – WAY before cell phones, social media, and the internet.
As Lillian chronicles her life – the ups, downs, and catastrophes – she also climbs to the top of the country music charts. Over the course of the narrative, Clifford flawlessly integrates a long list of legends including Tammy Wynette (“swollen with emotion”), Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn (“bluster and originality”), Dottie West, Jean Shepard, Charlie Pride, Dolly Parton (“songwriting and showmanship”), Kitty Wells, and Ma Rainey whose song “Bo-Weavil Blues” is a constant thread throughout the story. I especially love when Lillian describes hearing Johnny Cash for the first time: “his words almost spoken instead of sung.” As a country music fan, and a fan of music in general, I appreciate all the descriptions and the ways Lillian meets these people and/or is inspired by them.
In terms of style, I strongly believe that talking about these real-life legends, as well as several historical events, makes The Farewell Tour a historical fiction novel. In fact, on page 209 I wrote a note about considering it historical fiction as the book integrates Pearl Harbor, the death of JFK, the Bakersfield sound, and name-checks actual country artists. But on page 331, in the Author’s Note, Clifford states: “While The Farewell Tour is not a work of historical fiction in the strictest sense, I infused the story with real events and real people, and with as much accuracy as I could.” I’m not sure I understand the distinction and I’m unclear as to why Clifford doesn’t think her book is historical fiction.
On another note, I’ve now read enough historical fiction (or just plain fiction) to know that there is always a reveal of some sort. And in this book that horrifying realization happens in chapter 28. I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that the idea of spending one’s whole life doing something or acting a certain way, only to find out that things are not the way they seem, is incredibly heartbreaking. Thankfully, although the hard living has caught up to Lillian (which is why she’s embarking on a farewell tour), at least she has her soulmate (whether she and Charlie want to admit it or not) beside her. Their relationship is my favorite because it exemplifies that, try as they might to ignore it, some people are meant to be together. Charlie and Lillian are true collaborators and soulmates.
While this book is definitely for music fans – one of my favorite aspects is the authenticity of the songwriting stories – I think it’s also for people who understand that things change, time moves on, and the importance of letting go of the past. A theme that runs rampant throughout the narrative is that Lillian always feels that she needs to keep moving (for a variety of reasons in a variety of ways) throughout her life and career. “Movement was my only hope of finding peace.” That’s true for all of us, as momentum is the key to moving forward.
“She was an unresolved note in a chord I couldn’t quite master.”
“You can’t be a public person and just decide which parts of your life you talk about and which parts you don’t.”
“Don’t put a target on your own back, Lillian. Especially not one shaped like a bottle.”
“A good lyric shows up as quick and fleeting as a passing cloud, and you’ve got to be ready when it comes.”
“When I go, when my voices goes; same thing.”
“Dark nights with neon signs, sunrises over low-slung motels.”
“Pride was a joke. Tips were not.”
“Here is the thing about music. When you need it, you need it. There’s no way to moderate it.”
“Bakersfield came alive in neon and rhythm guitar.”
“You can’t be here and also be too good for it…At some point, you’ve got to listen.”
“I gave my audience a show. I gave them all of me – or as much as I knew how.”
“Music – just when you think you know a song inside and out, you play it one more time and it transforms into something new.”