Country Western Blues

Matt Evans Chelf
August 13, 2023

Stephanie Clifford’s March 2023 novel The Farewell Tour follows the journey of Lillian Waters as she attempts to reboot her career as a country western star after receiving a devastating medical diagnosis: a polyp in her throat may end her singing career. This diagnosis sparks an existential journey, one last tour that starts in the American South and concludes in Walla Walla, Washington, Lillian’s hometown. Dread pervades Lillian’s homecoming, forcing Lillian to examine her abusive childhood. Clifford braids past and present, youth and middle age, two Americas.

Like many existential protagonists, Lillian is hard-bitten, polarizing, and scrappy. She speaks plainly and directly—questions and challenges her audience, and is not always particularly friendly or interested in being liked by her bandmates or even her fans. She does what she has to do to survive as a woman in the country music industry: one that alternately excludes or pigeonholes her as a model of domestic female respectability. Her life, as we discover in the chapters set in her upbringing, details her fight to make it as the “one woman singer” on a label.

Lillian’s behavior exposes double gender standards within and outside the music industry: from record deals to whiskey drinking and to larger social-historical questions about who is remembered and omitted from the canon. From the first pages of The Farewell Tour, Lillian turns a feminist eye to the patriarchal myths of the American West: “The Pacific Northwest is …a virgin field of wonderful possibilities for men and capital.” As much as Lillian loves her home and valorizes it as a bulwark of honesty and freedom against Nashville’s musical and ideological hegemony, Lillian recognizes that women and minorities are subordinated by its allure of prosperity. Lillian asks, what is the role of women in his history of the West? “Girls must sacrifice for their families” is the oft-repeated answer that haunts Lillian and is what she is determined to resist through music.

Clifford shows us that country western, or “hillbilly music,” is not as white and parochial as is commonly thought by illustrating how Lillian’s musical career intersects with other marginalized communities and traditions. Lillian’s first significant musical experience was Ma Rainey’s “Bo-Weavil Blues.” Two members of Lillian’s first band, an all-girl group called the Snoqualmie Sweethearts, are Black and one, a transplant from Appalachia. These are working-class women who ventured from east to west, to Tacoma, Washington, in search of opportunities during World War II. One of the most satisfying segments in Lillian’s story is this unsung ode to wartime Tacoma, a time when women occupied public space, the workforce, and the possibility of solidarity.

The heft of The Farewell Tour resides in those chapters that detail Lillian’s origins. Many chapters set in Lillian’s 1980 farewell tour are poetic overviews that gloss over tour dates and traveling. Clifford’s blend of historical novel, feminist bildungsroman, and music biopsy sometimes prioritizes the past over the present. For this reader, this structure raises the question of what is possible in the past and what is possible in the present—as Lillian reckons with her past, the reader, too, feels disabused of faulty memories and lies. The present, perhaps by its nature, is more open-ended.

The Farewell Tour is available from Harper.

Matthew Evans Chelf resides in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches at Portland Community College. His work has been featured in Five PointsHobartRabid OakRevolution JohnThe HungerArmstrong LiteraryRandom Sample Review, and elsewhere.