When I was a kid, maybe eight or nine years old, my brothers and I pooled our saved allowances and bought a really cool radio. It stood about a foot high and was shaped like a rocket. It rested on its tail fins, nose pointed skyward, and out of that nose we drew up the antenna to get a signal. We had that radio for years. For some of the time, we lived in very small towns or on farms, and that rocket radio was our connection with the greater world. I remember lying awake at night listening to music broadcast from the AM super stations out of places like Omaha, Des Moines, Cincinnati, Denver, and Oklahoma City.
Over time, I also owned a bunch of portable transistor radios, and then there were, of course, the radios in the cars my parents owned. As a result, I grew up on Rock and Roll and Rock-A-Billy and all the popular music piped ceaselessly across the AM airways in the 50s and 60s. Better than a time machine, certain songs take me back immediately to a particular moment in the past: “Peggy Sue” and the summer of 1957 when I was in love with a girl named Nelda Griffin; Roy Orbison’s “Cryin” and me trying to hit those high notes just as my voice was beginning to change; Brylcreeming my hair so that I could look like the Everly Brothers, and singing “So Sad” to myself in the bathroom mirror.
When I began writing Ordinary Grace and trying to summon memories of the kind of summer I wanted to create for the story (in the end, the summer of 1961), I went back and listened to a bunch of the old songs that I grew up with. Amazing how effective they were in helping me capture so much of the sense of being a kid back then—the innocence, the freedom, the unbounded possibility, the feel, for an adolescent in small town America, that there was this great world out there far beyond the corn fields, just waiting to be experienced.
The folks at Atria Books, my publisher, picked up on that sentiment and have put together a collection of some of my favorites from AM radio in the 50s and 60s. They’ve created the playlist on Spotify. If you have a free moment, check it out.
For those of us who grew up with AM radio, it’s a cool blast from the past.