Tony Tost is a writer, author, showrunner, and historian. Born in Springfield, Missouri, Tost has lived all around the U.S., in double-wide trailers, houses, and apartments alike. He has worked as a custodian, in food service, and as a dishwasher. He is a wizard with the written word.
The 47-year-old Los Angeles-based Tost has earned a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Arkansas and he has a Ph.D. from Duke University. In 2011, Tost wrote a prestigious 33 1/3 book on Johnny Cash’s American Recordings.
He’s also been a writer and a producer of the popular television show Longmire, and he was the creator, executive producer, and showrunner of the USA Network show Damnation.
But most importantly, Tost is a music lover who knows that songs have impacted his career in big ways. We caught up with the artist to ask him about his biggest and best musical influences. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the top 10 songs that made Tost want to be a writer:
“Growing up in the 1980s, we lived in a series of single and double-wide trailers. Sometimes in a trailer park in town (Enumclaw, Washington, population 11,879), sometimes on a piece of property way outside of town. We didn’t exactly have a ton of books around. I mostly recall a Chuck Yeager autobiography, an old encyclopedia set my dad retrieved from the elementary school dumpster where he was head custodian, and some 1970s sportsbooks from yard sales and thrift stores. Outside of school, I can’t recall ever seeing anyone read anything other than a newspaper. Yet, somehow I grew up to become a writer. First a poet, then an academic and critic of sorts (I wrote a book about Johnny Cash), now a screenwriter.
“How does something like this happen? For me, my literary sensibilities weren’t formed by school. School almost killed my inner writer before it had a chance to emerge. I hated the books assigned by my teachers. I didn’t have friends who were readers, either. Instead, I first got the literary bug from country songs. Hidden amid the sappy or merely clever hits playing in my dad’s pickup truck, occasional gems of genuine poetry would emerge. Here’s my personal top ten list of country songs that made me want to become a writer.”
– Tony Tost, 2022
1. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, “Pancho & Lefty.”
My parents had a cassette tape of Willie Nelson’s HALF NELSON album of duets. This Townes Van Zandt-penned stone-cold classic was the first track on side one. Willie’s duet with Ray Charles on “Seven Spanish Angels” (which easily could’ve made this list, too) was the first track on side two. When home alone, I’d sit and listen to “Pancho & Lefty” then fast forward to side two to hear “Seven Spanish Angels,” and repeat the process over and over again. Line by line, the song is completely understandable, but there’s so much mystery embedded in it: Who is the narrator? What is the relationship between Pancho and Lefty? Why did Lefty have to kill Pancho? Why are the Federales so cavalier? What does it mean to sink into your dreams? Why does time slip away so quickly from us all?
2. Don Williams, “Good Ole Boys Like Me.”
Written by Bob McDill, my favorite songwriter, and sung by Don Williams, my favorite country singer. I think I was first drawn to this song because it described the childhood I wanted to have. I was born in the Ozarks but moved away when young. I wanted to go back and be in this imaginary south of my earliest memories and of this song. Where fathers read the Bible and checked on their sons as they slept and spoke to them of honor. Where Thomas Wolfe and Tennessee Williams— just names to me then—were the psychological furniture of one’s life. When I was young, I clung to this song as a future I wanted, “But I was smarter than most, and I could choose. Learned to talk like the man on the 6 o’clock news.” As I grew older, I clung to it as a defiant badge of my rural hick background while circulating among the sophisticated, well-heeled, effortlessly affluent literati. “I guess we’re all going to be what we’re going to be,” I’ll mutter to myself when not knowing how to order food or behave at an expensive restaurant when eating with another industry type, “but what do you do with good ol’ boys like me.”
3. & 4. George Strait, “Amarillo By Morning” and “I Can Still Make Cheyenne”
Taken together, these two rodeo songs make for a cowboy The Odyssey. The wandering hero in search of glory and the Penelope waiting for him at home (except, in this case, Penelope has had enough). The poetry is less overt on these tracks, befitting George Strait’s straight-shooting persona and delivery, though I will say George Strait’s unsuccessful rodeo cowboy recounting that I lost my wife and a girlfriend somewhere along the way tells an entire short story about his mindset and his late nights in a single seemingly throwaway line. But what really hooked me on these songs—one emerging in my childhood, the other in my teens—was that they dramatized something I felt but couldn’t articulate: obsession. Strait’s rodeo man—I like to think it’s the same narrator in both songs —can only feel alive when he’s chasing his rodeo obsession. He recognizes and accepts the damage that this obsession brings about, but he can’t stop trying to become who he knows he can be. This conviction—art and writing for me, instead of rodeos—rings as deeply and uncomfortably true now as it did then.
5. Merle Haggard, “Kern River”
The power of understatement. Here’s the entire story: Haggard’s narrator goes swimming one night in the Kern River with his sweetheart and she drowns. So he refuses to swim in that river again. That’s the entirety of the narrative, but it’s done with so much subtlety and mastery that it feels epic. Now I live in the mountains, I drifted up here with the wind. I might drown in still water but I’ll never swim Kern River again. If you truly listen to songs like this, you start to understand that saying less will often result in your audience feeling more.
6. Dan Seals, “Everything that Glitters is Not Gold”
Another Bob McDill song. Another masterful narrative. But like “Kern River,” it’s not some kind of episodic story with plot turns. It’s a slice-of-life story of a single feeling, primarily the weight of loss. Once again we’re in the romantic world of inglorious rodeo cowboys. Here, the narrator sings to his former wife, who has abandoned him and their daughter to achieve greater career success. What devastates in this song isn’t the narrator’s bitterness, but how that bitterness mixes with both longing and recognition of his wife’s glory. When Seals sings but oh sometimes I think about you and the way you used to ride out in your rhinestones and your sequins, with the sunlight on your hair, he sings it with a sweetness that makes the more bitter following lyrics of and oh the crowd will always love you but as for me I’ve come to know: everything that glitters is not gold, hit all the harder. I couldn’t articulate it as a kid, but what this song achieves is emotional tension: how can he be so moved by her rodeo queen glory and nurse such bitterness?
7. Bobbie Gentry, “Ode to Billie Joe”
This song predated my childhood, but it’d seem to play all the time on country radio. Once again, it’s a narrative. And once again, it’s the mystery embedded in the song that drew me in each time as I’d try to piece together exactly what happened “off-screen” in the song. Famously, it’s the question of what exactly is being thrown off the bridge that people get fixated on. And for good reason. But that open-ended question doesn’t quite work if the entirety of the song isn’t so saturated with tiny, finely observed details about the daily banality of their lives. It’s not just Billie Joe jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge that makes the song; it’s that suicide paired with the narrator’s dad shrugging off the tragedy while asking for the biscuits to be passed to him that makes the song.
8. Tom T. Hall, “Homecoming”
A plainspoken monologue without a chorus or really any kind of hook—and it was a hit. And it deserved to be. Tom T.’s narrator is a country singer on the verge of maybe really making it. He decides to stop by the old homestead while making the juke joint circuit. One parent has passed away and he missed the funeral. He tries to make himself at home, but even he can tell he doesn’t belong here anymore. And as he hasn’t fully arrived yet as a star, he’s not at home out there either. If he fails, he’s got nowhere to go back to, really. If he took the time to really think about it, he’d probably have a nervous breakdown. But he’s got a show to get to, so he hustles back out the door to hit the road. As a kid, it felt like a glimpse into how adult minds work. As a middle-aged small-town writer plugging away at it in Hollywood, it now sounds a bit like Tom T. has been reading my mail.
9. & 10. The Highwaymen, “Highwayman” and “Silver Stallion”
Mt. Rushmore comes to life. Once again, the story + mystery connection in the immortal “Highwayman.” Not just a badass narrative, but a cosmic philosophy of eternal recurrence. And not just that, but a stoic acceptance of death. If I didn’t have the sorts of relationships I wanted with either my biographical father (left when I was a born and spent much of his life in prison and died without us ever properly meeting) or my adoptive one (it seemed neither of us could provide to the other what he wanted), then I had Willie, Waylon, Kris, and Cash to model manhood for me: how to be tough without being unfeeling, how to be poetic without being pretentious, how to maintain dignity while still recognizing your limits. As for “Silver Stallion,” it’s just one great fucking one-liner after another, all wrapped up in absolute badass cosmic cowboy poetry in the chorus: We’re gonna ride like a one-eyed Jack of Diamonds with the devil close behind. I mean, holy shit. The only way that’d sound cooler is if Val Kilmer was saying it in Tombstone.
11. Marty Robbins, “El Paso City”
Marty Robbins’ most famous song of course is “El Paso,” a piece of folk poetry and a great western death song about a gunfighter who falls in love with the wrong woman and dies for it. It was so successful that he then cut an eight-minute song from the woman’s point of view called “Faleena.” Fifteen or so years later, closer to the end of his own life, Robbins revisited the subject matter again in “El Paso City,” which became his first No. 1 hit song in six years. But instead of returning to the old west narrative, this track goes in a wildly unexpected direction: the narrator is on an airplane that’s flying over Texas, fully in the present day and he looks down and believes he can see El Paso itself, and he remembers a famous song about a gunfighter: “I don’t recall who sang the song but I recall the story that I heard.”
Of course, Robbins himself sang (and wrote) the song, as he’s now singing “El Paso City.” And as he flies over the landscape, he starts to wonder whether he actually was that gunfighter in a former life and whether that song was actually a memory, and he starts to believe that death awaits him yet again in El Paso. If you start thinking about the metaphysics at play here, “El Paso City” soon stops being an agreeable minor country hit from the ’70s and starts feeling like a Jorge Luis Borges infinite puzzle-box contemplating artifice, fate, and death. Like a lot of the songs in this list, it sneaks a kind of cowpoke mysticism into the listener’s head and lets it hang there, unexplained.
12. Rosanne Cash, “Seven Year Ache”
Humility is a key component of the country music aesthetic. Or at least the performance of humility. If you’re going to dress like say, Dolly Parton or Dwight Yoakam, you’re expected to rib yourself about it at the same time. This holds over lyrically, as very few country artists will even bother reaching for Dylan-esque figurative language. They’re much more likely to reside in a Hank Williams-esque mode of plainspoken understatement and control. All of this makes Rosanne Cash’s almost confrontational lyrical swagger in this song all the more bracing. First lines of the song: You look like you were just born tonight, face down in a memory but feeling alright. That’s a lyric Mick Jagger would love to wrap his lips around. I wonder what Roy Acuff thought of this song? Ostensibly about a woman appraising her good-timing lothario lover, what “Seven Year Ache” is really about is Cash’s dexterity and verbal tightrope walk, stringing one killer couplet after another. Most country songs rely on emotional sentiment to get across. This one relies almost entirely on attitude and lyrical invention.
Photo courtesy Tony Tost