Author/songwriter celebrates the Carter Family’s country music through his album and novel

By Rita Buettner  |  Photos by Daniel Zampogna

An instructional designer at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health by day, Christopher K. Doyle, ’96, is also an author and songwriter.

He just released an album of original songs, Harlequin Road, and in October 2017 will publish his first novel, Purchase. The novel is roughly based on the history of country music’s Carter Family and how they gathered their songs. The album, Doyle says, “imagines songs from the novel, echoing moods, moments and characters from the text so that a larger conversation between the two works of art takes place.”

Loyola magazine asked Doyle to share his thoughts on his book and album and to reflect on his Loyola experience.

When and how did you decide to write a book?

I decided to write a novel when I was inspired. As an artist, you’re always looking for that spark of an idea, and when I heard that an African-American guitarist traveled with A.P. Carter into the Appalachian Mountains hunting down old songs, I was intrigued. I wondered what that guitarist, Lesley Riddle, felt like traveling into some areas not many African-Americans might have ventured to back then. I wondered about the process the two of them went through in songwriting, as I’m a songwriter as well. I wondered about their relationship and the dynamics of it. And all of that started me writing. All of it inspired a voice, and all I tried to do was follow that voice as it told its story.

Did the idea for the album come during the writing? What was the process like?

It’s funny, when I’m writing fiction I don’t seem able to write many songs. When I stop writing fiction, I seem to write a lot of songs. So after I finished writing the first draft of Purchase, a lot of songs started coming out. And I just went with it, I didn’t try to start writing anything else. I wanted to see how many songs came out and as they started emerging I saw similarities or instances of overlap with some of the characters/moods/moments in Purchase.

Then I thought it would be interesting to put an album out running parallel to the novel and to see if an audience would possibly make connections between the two works on their own, as their own interpretation of the novel and album emerged.

How did you first become interested in the Carter Family?

Ever since I heard them sing “The Storms on the Ocean,” I’ve been interested in the Carter Family. My favorite lyrics in any song ever are in that song and are on the quote page of my novel. They go like this: “Oh, have you seen them mournful doves, flying from pine to pine. A-mourning for their own true love, just like I mourn for mine.”

The Carters were also included in the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music which is kind of like my bible of music, so I’ve tried to hear most everything that they recorded.

Tell me something not many people know about the Carter Family.

A.P. Carter’s full name is Alvin Pleasant Delaney Carter.

What do you do professionally? How did you balance work and family with your work on your book and album?

Currently, I work as an Instructional Designer at Johns Hopkins University in the Bloomberg School of Public Health. I’m working on redesigning an online course about Tobacco Control. I’ve been in the online education industry for a while, and I balance my work by playing guitar and writing songs and stories. My family gets to hear all the songs, the good and bad, and are usually my first (and sometimes) only audience. Luckily, I was able to write the novel in any available time I could get: sitting on a bus, lunch time, in the early morning before everyone else was up—whenever I could eke out a moment, I was writing. This allowed me to still have a family life. The songs come when I’m sitting on the couch or front porch or in the kitchen. So I guess you could say I’ve been able to better balance my fiction writing than the songwriting with my family life.

What did you study at Loyola?

At Loyola many moons ago, I studied creative writing. It wasn’t a full major, so I doubled (or completed) my major with philosophy.

What were some highlights of your Loyola experience?

Some highlights are the great friends I met, spent my days and nights with, and still see in the world today. Some of my best friends were at Loyola with me and we’ve remained close.

Another highlight was hearing Father Sellinger speak. This was many years ago when I was at Loyola. He had been president of the college for decades by then and was like a celebrity, but also quite sick. I played soccer at Loyola and one evening after practice, he came out on Curley Field and spoke to us for a few minutes and it was all very sad to see him suffering through his sickness, but inspiring that he’d take time from his schedule to talk to us as students, as learners.

How do you feel you use your Loyola education today?

I feel the well-rounded, balanced principles of a liberal arts education serve me well in seeing all sides of an issue.

Life, to me, is about being interested. If you are interested in many different things, you don’t know boredom. Life remains vivid and engaging. I think developing those skills as a learner, that curiosity, starts with an education that opens up different avenues of interest. Loyola’s education did that for me.

What are your hopes now? Will you go on tour? Have book signings? Pursue another book or album?

All of the above. I’m hoping to have a book launch party in late October. The book officially comes out on Oct. 17. I have songs I’d like to put together as another album, but would probably release it on its own, not affiliated with a novel. I have an idea for another novel, it’s a draft I wrote in graduate school, so I hope to continue work on that and see if that could become my next novel.

How would you describe your album?

I would describe it as country blues—real country, not the pop country that is so prevalent in America today. My producer and I tried to record the album as you’d have heard it if you stumbled on somebody playing in a barn in the 1920s or 30s. It has a live feel to it and spontaneity we worked hard at achieving.

What reactions have you had to the book and album? 

Well, my editors like the book, but so far not too many have read it, so I’ll have to hold off on saying anything until it comes out.

The album, Harlequin Road, has gotten some nice reviews from family and friends. I just put it out in late July, it’s streaming on most platforms, so I’m hoping as more and more people discover it through the novel that more folks can tell me what they think.

Your wife is a writer. How did she help you in the writing process?

My wife is a wonderfully accomplished writer and published a memoir, Moonface, which chronicled a part of her life which started at Loyola, actually, when she was a freshman and had to get a kidney transplant. She helped me by giving me space. As I said earlier, I found time to write that didn’t hinder my family life too much, but there were definitely weekends when I would hide away to write and she knew it was essential for me to finish the first draft, so she was incredibly supportive in that regard.

As far as my songwriting, she sometimes wishes I would hide away a bit more. I’m an early riser, so singing in the morning isn’t always the best thing for someone who isn’t a morning person (her). But we manage.

Did a faculty member inspire you at Loyola, and if so, how?

I had some great professors at Loyola. I remember Dr. Aldo Tassi quite fondly. He was a philosopher and playwright and opened up the world of the Greeks to me as well as the Dionysian nature of art. Ron Tanner was inspirational as a writing instructor. Timothy Stapleton brought me into the world of existentialism. Karen Fish encouraged me to write poetry. A host of folks helped spark many of the ideas and themes that would later emerge in Purchase and in the songs on Harlequin Road.

What question were you hoping I would ask?

I was hoping you’d ask when I’m planning on reading/singing at Loyola—but I guess that will have to wait!

Learn more about Christopher Doyle on his website.

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