Bud Smith and Wes Tirey Talk Fake Cowboys, Creative Longevity, and More

The Teenager novelist and the musician/poet catch up.

Wes Tirey is a musician and poet based in Asheville, North Carolina; Bud Smith is the author of Teenager, a novel about two New Jersey teenagers (Kody and Teal) who leave their pasts behind for a cross-country journey in pursuit of their warped vision of the American Dream. The book was published last month by Vintage/Anchor, and Wes’s record The Midwest Book of the Dead was just released as a vinyl double album last week by Mapache Records, so to celebrate, the two hopped on a phone call to catch up about it all. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Wes Tirey: So first of all, thanks, man. It really means a lot for you to take the time to sit down and chat with me. And congrats on on the novel. My first question is: Teenager, to me, is like pure distilled Americana. Everybody is using the Bonnie and Clyde reference, and I was thinking of it more as like Terrence Malick’s Badlands, but as reimagined by the Coen brothers, or like Springsteen’s Nebraska as re-imagined by John Prine. I’m curious: How long had Kody and Teal been living in your head before you brought them to life on the page, and what that process was like once you got started?

Bud Smith: I guess it’s like picking a genre, or writing in a genre and deciding yourself how it comes from you. It’s a lot like when a band decides to go country, or all of a sudden a blues musician has hip hop beats on something It’s that same kind of thing, where I think sometimes an artist, they’re looking over the fence and they’re like, “Oh, that seems so interesting to me. What do I have to say about a crime novel, per se?” 

For me, I’m never interested in the tough guy stuff — like, “OK, we’re going to hit this person with a baseball bat, talk about how tough I am.” I think in reality, most Americans don’t live that life and for some reason, it’s like a fantasy escape. But, yeah, I was thinking about it about American crime — which, the biggest American crime story is just if you look at our history, what we’ve done with the genocide of the people who used to be the original people who settled this country. We wiped them all out, and then we created the American West, the myth of it, while we wiped out people. So it’s like, what’s the greatest crime story to ever tell about America? And I think it’s that story. Not greatest, but the most pertinent. So [Kody and Teal are] these two young people who don’t fully understand their own history, and maybe they learn a little along the way. So that’s really what it is. It’s kind of like the situation creates the people, more or less. 

Wes: Yeah. While we’re talking about the myth of the West, I love the humor that was used in taking down the idea of the West, and at one point — I guess spoiler alert here — when Kody breaks into Bill Gold’s trailer, who he has as this idea of the badass cowboy, and he happens to have a Larry Bird poster on his wall. And he’s like, What the fuck? Larry Bird? And then he finds the jerseys, and the Chicken Soup for the Cowboy Soul. I thought it was such a brilliant way of just being like, “You know this is all bullshit, and has always been bullshit.” And then also how devastating it can be when you’re that age and you find out that it’s bullshit.

Bud: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of that just in the world in general. Talk about, for instance — are you from the Midwest? What state are you from?

Wes: I’m from Ohio. I grew up just outside of Dayton.

Bud: If you’re from a rural area, they’re the same everywhere. When I think about somebody’s who’s from where I’m from in New Jersey — we have people from Pinelands who are just as country as somebody who lives out in Montana. You’ve gotten away from the city and you’re in what I consider actual America. You know, I think sometimes when I’m one of in these big cities, I’m like, Man, I don’t know if this qualifies as America. Like New York City to me is not really America, it’s just the world. It’s [like] everybody in the world feels like they’re on this block — everybody feels like they’re on this block when I’m in parts of Chicago or Los Angeles. It feels like the world is there. 

But as soon as I get a little bit away from all that, I feel like I’m actually in my country, my country that I love. And even amongst rural people, it’ll be like, “This person’s not country enough! This person’s not a cowboy, this person’s not a farmer.” It’s always just this search for the ultimate authenticity. “I have it the roughest, but I have it the realest,” you know. “I’m a real American.”

And of course, Kody has just fallen right into that, where it’s like you can only be this ultimate country American if you’re born on a ranch, it would seem. And where did this ranch come from? It’s on stolen land. You want to talk about authenticity — keep turning the clock back. It never ends when you’re on the hunt for authenticity. 

That’s a thing that sometimes is pretty particular to young kids. I remember when I was growing up, and it’d be a whole lot of people being like, people are posers. Everybody’s a poser. “You’re wearing skateboard clothes, but have you skated at this park in Los Angeles? You’re a poser.” It’s never good enough. What’s in your small town, your small rural community, is never quite authentic enough. Have you found that kind of feeling in music? It must be more prevalent in music.

Wes: Yeah, in a few different ways for sure. One example that I can think of off the top of my head in terms of authenticity and somebody’s creating an identity or a persona for themselves is, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott made an entire career out of the image of a rugged cowboy troubadour, and he was born and raised in New York and came from a well-off family. But he wanted to make that identity for himself. And probably at a certain point, his identity wasn’t where he came from, but what he had made for himself. Which I think if there’s any kind of American ideal or dream to chase, it’s that kind of vision, if you will, of being able to create yourself out of something. 

But yeah, in the scene for sure. I mean, like you said, it’s all over. I see it a lot in the country western scene, the folks that are going full cowboy type shit. You see those posters and those shows around town, and you almost wonder if they’re just trying to out peacock each other. You know, who can be the most authentic in the scene there? Maybe I’m being unfair about it, but…

Bud: I don’t think you’re being unfair. I think there’s something in the pageantry, too, of an artist having a costume. But I think a lot of times, you can tell when [the artist] is taking it pretty seriously and when somebody is kind of purposeful clown about it, like an entertainer about it. Like Bob Dylan is a guy who, he’s serious as an artist, he takes everything he does serious, but he’s been clowning around the whole time. He’s a guy who would continuously reinvent his bullshit story. In interviews, he would say, “I’m from here, I’m from there.” But not at all! And I find that really interesting. 

Wes: He always said he was a song and dance man, and I think out of all of the clowning that he’s done, that’s one of the truest things that he gave us as a writer and performer and entertainer.

Bud: Yeah, I think that’s something to be admired. But sometimes, like what you mentioned, when I see really, really self-serious cowboys — the cowboys are just the funniest to me. There’s a couple writers who are doing the whole cowboy thing. It’s just as bad to me as the crime thing — you know, the guys who’ve the got the fedora on and they might as well have the brass knuckles on, but they’re professors or something. Listen, if you make it a song and dance thing, an entertainer thing, like a wrestler putting on his wild persona, I admire that. I think it’s great. But it has to be slightly tongue-in-cheek to me, because it’s not worth as much as the art is.

Wes: Yeah. See, for me, I’m such a sucker for the cowboy thing, because when I was growing up, it was just what I was attracted to as a kid. I loved all of the cowboy stuff, and to this day, I still have Lone Ranger memorabilia. My cat is named Tonto, I’ve got Lone Ranger guitar.  I was super into Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett — maybe not always the cowboy stuff, but some kind of American frontiersman thing. But obviously, as I’ve gotten older and more critical of how those things affect culture and art and politics and people’s lives, I’m fascinated by folks who can turn that shit on its head.

Bud: Yeah. And another thing — I don’t mean to lash out against anyone wanting to dress up like a cowboy or something, but what I’m saying is, it’s fashion. If it’s not utilitarian and you’re not literally out there with your chaps and your big cowboy hat on because it’s your protection against the rain and the sun, it’s just fashion, and that all it is. And that’s that’s great, too. When you see the punk rockers up on stage in their ripped clothing and their mohawks and stuff, that’s fashion. A lot of the personas that people put on as artists, it’s so interesting as entertainment, but never has the image swayed me the way it sways some people. 

I’ll tell you really quick story: When I was a little kid, my dad had a cassette tape, Madonna’s greatest hits. We’d drive around blasting Madonna’s greatest hits, and I was always just like, It’s weird my dad likes Madonna so much. And then Shania Twain came out, and he would blast Twain. Everything else he listened to would be like rock bands or whatever, but then he listened to Madonna and Shania Twain. I said, “Why do you like this so much?” And he looked at me like I was crazy and said, “They’re so hot. Have you seen Shania Twain?” And I couldn’t understand how that makes the music sound good to my dad, or to a lot of people. He would even say, “Yeah, this song sucks, but she’s so hot,” and we’d drive around just blasting it. That was such a moment when I was a kid where I understood that the image goes farther than the art for some people.

Wes: Yeah. That’s hilarious, man, I love that. I wanted to ask you: I read the interview for The Believer you did with Michael Bible back in 2020, and you guys talked about about films. He mentioned this movie called Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets — I actually haven’t seen it yet, I meant to watch it before doing our interview, but friend of mine who’s no longer with us acted in that movie, so when I saw y’all talking about it, I was like, Oh, no shit, man. It just made me happy that the work was getting some recognition. But I’m curious if film has influenced any of your work, if it influenced Teenager at all? Not just in concept and visualization, but also there’s times where the prose almost reads like film treatment, like you’re reading these scenes as they’re happening. 

Bud: Totally, film influences my writing for sure. I feel like everything influences it, I stay open to everything. I can say films influence things I do just as much as the way — I’ve mentioned Bob Dylan, but singers who are really articulate and do really poetic things with their their verses, the way they can change the feeling of the song, has influenced my writing probably more than even straight poetry. Sometimes I’ll read poetry and I love it, but it feels like it’s maybe too adrift, where a song is a little bit more walking the line between trying to entertain and [maintain] clarity. And film, of course, is usually doing that too. There’s not a whole lot of films where you watch and wonder for more than four or five minutes what is going on. You get enough clues and enough visual information, audio information, that you can pretty much ground yourself, usually.

I’ve always wanted to write a book where people are going to keep reading it without making the thing a straight thriller, straight page turner, dime store book — which, I admire those too. I kind of want to marry the poetic with the thriller in some way and just make it be something that somebody would tell their co-workers to read, tell somebody at the bus stop to read. I want it to be a book that can touch a lot of people’s lives. Some my favorite books I’ve ever read, I had to work really hard to read them. I really had to do deep reading and study them. I had to do so many years of self study to learn how to read William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf; I had to kind of educate myself just to be able to read Ulysses and appreciate it. And I know a lot of people feel so daunted by, [or] excluded from literature, and they feel like maybe all they have is James Patterson or something. And I think that’s a shame. Maybe it’s an outdated literature, too — books like Catcher in the Rye or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, these kind of books that were a little poetic and counterculture at the time… I see them [published now], but they’re usually not as funny as they used to be, or trying to tackle as big a topic as they used to. I feel like a lot of the literature that I read is only focusing on a pinpoint. The scope isn’t usually big enough, I think. And I miss those epic sprawling books that are still easy enough to read. They have a lot of poetry in them, but they’re not trying to say, “This isn’t for you, dummy.” [Laughs.] 

Wes: Right, right.

Bud: Maybe when I get older, I’ll write those. Not yet. So when you sit down and you’re writing a song, what’s going through your mind when? Are you usually messing around with the lyrics first? I know you’re a writer. 

Wes: I’ve tried it all kinds of different ways with varying varying results. I think it depends on where I’m at in the song, where the songs come from, how much time I have — like if I’m in the middle of a work day and I gotta hop on a phone call or whatever. It’s all kinds of shit. I think by and large, the stuff that ends up to me sounding the most effortless, and also sounding like myself, is the stuff where I’m just really not thinking about writing a song at all. And then out of nowhere, it comes into my orbit and I have got my tools sharp enough to be able to sit down and get to work on it. It usually happens with a few lines down on a page, some kind of skeleton melody will kind of show up around the same time, and then I’ll pick up my guitar and just start working. And if it’s a good night, I can bust something out over the course of the night.

But the longer I’ve done it, the less that happens.

It takes a lot more time these days, which is OK. That shit used to drive me crazy — if I couldn’t finish a song in 30 minutes, it was just a fucking waste and I would never come back to it. Which is dumb. I wrote something recently because I was flying back from Boston on a work trip and I couldn’t get connected to the wifi, and I’m like, Oh, I’m just going to go through my notes. I had shit going back to 2015 or something like that, and I came across some stuff where I’m like, I don’t even remember writing this. And then I’m like, Oh, there’s some things in here. And then I got back home and pulled some of that stuff and started writing again. So I used to be convinced that I have to do it in the moment, and I’ve learned that time ends up being your best friend.

Bud: Yeah, that’s a good point. One of the things I hope, though, is that anyone who’s reading this just thinks to themselves, Why aren’t I writing songs right now? Why aren’t I trying to write a song? I love the idea of just questioning yourself sometimes. I feel like if you’re reading this interview and you feel maybe a little bit daunted by it — it’s like, why don’t I write my book? Why don’t I just write a poem? Why don’t I write a letter to a friend? My whole thing was once I realized I didn’t have be good — and I still don’t think I make good stuff, I just make some stuff — isn’t that the most freeing thing? Do you ever sit down and just try to write a bad song? Or every time you sit down, are you trying to write a masterpiece?

Wes: Oh, man, I’m just happy if I can fucking write, you know? It’s a blessing when an idea or an image or a line comes out of nowhere and I know that I can sit down and start working on it. I think this ties into something that I that I wanted to ask you — I didn’t even realize this until not that long ago but I realized the best thing to do when it comes to writing is trust your process. I used to be pretty hard on myself about not being productive enough with my work, and also having a full time job as well. I just thought that I was either being lazy or I had lost my creative spark and it was never coming back again. But I realized that there’s a process that I rely on when it comes to working where I can get loose and I can feel comfortable and I can follow where the song’s taking me. And when you do that, it sounds like yourself, too.That, at least, has been what I have been thinking about the last year or so, is if I trust the process, then it’s going to sound like me. 

So I’m curious, with your prose styling and your voice, was there a time where you arrived at your voice, where it all clicked and you’re like, “This is how Bud Smith sounds.”

Bud: Yeah, I guess it was always the same from when I started. I just kind of write how I talk. Mainly, my writing is usually in the same tone as a joke or an anecdote. I usually don’t really want to write something down that I would feel strange about reading out loud to people. I don’t want it to feel artificial.

You can find your voice, and then you still have to advance what [you’re] doing rather than just say, “Oh, I found it!” How I thought I advanced my voice was getting really comfortable with learning how to improvise in editing — retyping things and using the exact words that are in that draft as a very rough guide for what I would retype. For instance, whatever I had, if I had it on my laptop, I’d print it out and I’d have the stack of papers, and I would put one up on my little clipboard and I would sit here on my typewriter and just improvise on what it kind of said, but staying loose. It’s like draft, but you’re just improvising and staying looser with it the whole time. How does it work with going from your initial idea for a song to kind of advancing the song? Is there a technique for that?

Wes: Yeah. I think that there’s a lot of work that goes into the editing and the rewriting as well. There’s one song on Midwest Book of the Dead called “Wild Blue Yonder”— 

Bud: That’s my favorite song on the album.

Wes: Thanks, man, that’s sweet. I was staying up late one night, doing a writing session on my porch, and I think I wrote four or five pages of verses out on a legal pad, and cut that down to one page. I don’t always write that much content, but I think that there’s always something that’s that’s cut. And you’re having to think, too, about melody and delivery, and [if there’s] a word that may sound strange when you sing it so you switch it out with a different word or it’s got less syllables or whatever. It’s a lot of little different things that inform it. But I think for me, it’s just cutting shit down to the bone. I’ve always been really attracted to any kind of writing, whether it’s songwriting or fiction or whatever, that’s simple and direct, and really punchy and clear and concise. I kind of let simplicity and beauty be the grand arbiter of what’s directing the song — whether it’s a character study or story song or a love song, it’s got to be simple.

Bud: So how did it get to be a double album? How do you decide the project is that large?

It’s the same thing with novelists or filmmakers — “Why is the film three hours long,” or “why is the book 900 pages — it’s not that it’s excessive, but I was just wondering with this particular project is a double album.

Wes: Well, I can say now that I’ve reached the point in my artistic career I’ve done it and got it out of the way, and so I’m not going to worry myself with that much material ever again. It was kind of an accident. It was late 2019 that I recorded the first nine songs ,and that was actually supposed to be a standalone album. I was sitting on the material for a little bit, and then COVID happened and I got the most uninterrupted writing time I had had in a long time. So I started writing more material that ended up being able to go along with what became the rest of the album. I had talked with Dear Life, who initially put [Midwest Book of the Dead] out last spring, about the idea of doing two separate albums, and then we decided that it would make more sense to put them together as one project, and it’d be easier to promote as one project as well. Dear Life just really let me get away with a lot of shit, so I was like, You know, I haven’t had the opportunity to do this much with anybody else that I’ve worked with, so fuck it.

Bud: Yeah, when somebody gives you a chance to run with the football, you should run with it.

Wes: I think that’s true. Hopefully going forward, I still have that opportunity with future projects as well, because it’s a whole lot of peace of mind when you know it’s going to have a home and you don’t have to start the endless search of getting it out there in the world on your own, because it can be really soul crushing.

Bud: Yeah. My feeling, though, is when the first thing I ever did came out, I was just like, Oh, cool, I’m done. I reached my goal and that’s it. The fact that I got to do another one didn’t make me really feel any better or worse or anything — I was just like, What does it matter anymore? I already reached my little goal. My first thing that came out was on this really tiny punk rock publisher — I was so happy and just stayed happy with it. I think the people I meet who are really miserable in art are just fucking so disappointed about every step of the way; they’re mad that what they made wasn’t good enough before it’s even out. 

Wes: Yep. 

Bud: They move on to the next thing, and they’re just so irritated, pissed off. They have these other artists in their mind that they’re competing with or something, but in reality, it doesn’t matter who you’re competing with. It’s a personal thing. You’re making it for yourself, whether you realize it or not. Whoever it comes out with or whoever listens to it, I just hope that I could stay happy with stuff I make and devote enough attention to the thing I make before worrying about the next thing. There’s not a whole lot of money in any of these art things, but people who are like, “Oh, I got this three book deal,” or “this thing’s going on,” and it sounds so good when you read about that stuff. But then I always wonder how it feels then to have to think, Alright, I’m doing this, but I have half my attention with this, and then maybe you’re sabotaging the thing you’re supposed to work on because you’re not there in the moment with it enough.

Wes: Yeah. It feels good when somebody wants to spend their own time and money to put out something that you’ve worked on, and for me, similar to what you said about your first project, when I’m able to find a home for any of the projects that I’m working on and I’m able to get support from somebody who wants to help me put that work out in the world, that feels successful to me. It makes me really happy that I can get those projects out in the world, I can work my job, and then when I’m ready to work on the next thing, I can work on the next thing and hopefully find somebody who wants to support it as well. But I never take it for granted. 

Bud: Sometimes I think with art, it feels so desperate in a way — you feel like, I gotta do this now, I gotta make this happen immediately. And in reality, one of the great things about playing music, one of the great things about being a writer, is it’s one of the art forms that’s good for old men. You know, I’m 40 now, and I think as long as my health doesn’t in decline in some other way, I’ll be able to do this for 40 more years. And my best years of doing this are still off in the distance. I don’t feel like I have to sprint uphill. I can walk up.

Wes Tirey is a songwriter, guitarist, and poet living in Asheville, NC. His latest album, The Midwest Book of the Dead, was released on cassette and CD by Dear Life Records this April along with an accompanying chapbook of lyrics and prose poems. It will be reissued on vinyl by Mapache Records early next year.

(Photo Credit: Bow Smith)