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Invited into a Rich Community: An Interview with Matt Wheeler



We love to shine the spotlight on friends who are crafting something meaningful, and Matt Wheeler’s new album certainly fits that bill. Matt is a friend of the Rabbit Room who is also a singer-songwriter from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, an artist who often leans on literary heroes for his musical inspiration. A Hard History of Love is his new project, a suite of songs and stories inspired by the short stories of Wendell Berry. Read on for our conversation about his love of Berry, the vision for his newest work, and the upside of creative limitations.


Rabbit Room: I want to ask all about the new project, but even you define your own angle, so to speak, as a musician whose specialty is works based on classic literature. Can we begin at the point where you knew that was “your thing”?


Matt Wheeler: I tend to like to read the books that you’re assigned to read in school. On my first few album projects, I wrote a song here or there that was based on a classic work of literature—two songs based on Les Miserables, one based on The Old Man & The Sea, a sea shanty loosely based on The Odyssey, a re-telling of an account from the Gospel of John, and numerous references to well-known writings embedded in songs.


But where it crystallized into being “my move”, so to speak, was in late 2019 or early 2020, after Chris Hoisington from Old Bear Studio—and, more recently, the Rich Mullins tribute project Bellsburg Sessions—reached out to me about working together. Conversations surfaced two main themes: first, the idea of an album where all of the songs are based on stories from literature, and second, spoken essay pieces that would be a cross between stage banter and audiobook narration. The result is my 2021 album, Wonder of It All, based on books like The Horse & His Boy and Watership Down. It didn’t hurt that, at the same time as those conversations, I was also getting to know The Rabbit Room community through The RR Chinwag Facebook group. That helped shape some of the story selections, like the inclusion of The Hobbit, a book I hadn’t read before that.


That album helped me find that literary niche. Some other songwriters lean into that type of narrative folk. Sarah Sparks and her work with Narnia stories comes to mind, but not many that I know of. I’ve found that it is a great fit for me, not only because I’m an avid reader, but because it sets me apart in ways that strictly autobiographical songwriting wouldn’t—or hadn’t. And “I’m a songwriter specializing in songs based on classic works of literature” makes a better elevator pitch than that, too. Also, I’m a husband, a special-needs father, and a full-time college employee, so I find that having something specific to write about—sort of a writing prompt and angle—is very helpful for focusing my creativity in the somewhat limited time I can put toward songwriting.


I’m aiming to write songs that are good art, even if the listener doesn’t already know the literary source material, but that is also that much richer for those who do.


How’d you decide upon Wendell Berry as inspiration for this project?


When it came time to think about what my next project after Wonder of It All would be, I was leaning toward another album with a literary concept. I felt led to write about Wendell Berry’s work. And it may be more accurate to say that when the idea dawned on me, it felt like it had been staring me right in the face. From that point, I was pondering the project referencing Berry’s Port William fiction, his poetry, and also his essays. I was talking with my friend Ned Bustard at his Square Halo Gallery about what may be next and when I told him my ideas thus far, he suggested choosing a few short stories from the That Distant Land short story collection. With that refined focus, I was off and running.


I was introduced to Berry’s work through the songwriting of Jacob Zachary back when I was in college in Virginia. Years later, around the time my son was born, I was laid off from my job, and I decided to pick up Berry’s short story collection, The Wild Birds. I was hooked. I proceeded to check out almost every fiction work by Berry that my local library system had.


In his Port William fiction, Berry invites his readers into a rich community, a fictionalized version of the rural community where he grew up and still lives & farms in Henry County, Kentucky. Each story is a portrait of people who belong to each other and to their place. Berry has a way of winsomely portraying the complex, the mundane, and the sacred in the characters he writes. Berry dignifies good work, genuine love for God by loving one’s neighbor, and a right relationship with land and place. There’s just something that Berry can convey about what it means to be human that I’ve found few writers can match.


Among my favorite aspects of Berry’s Port William fiction is the fact that he has been writing about the same community since 1960’s Nathan Coulter and as recently as 2022—Berry turned 89 in August and released two new books last year!—and that there is such continuity. The stories are set in a wide variety of years, from the 19th century to the 2020s, and yet the stories all form a coherent whole. Imagine being able to do that over six decades. And characters who are main figures in one story may be a supporting cast in another, or we may see a character who is a 5-year-old in one story appear as an old man in another, so you get a multifaceted view of them. I’m not into superhero movies, but I imagine the appeal is a bit like that of the Marvel Comics Universe.


There's just something that Berry can convey about what it means to be human that I've found few writers can match. Matt Wheeler

Simply put, Berry is my favorite living author, and his stories are so striking and vivid that they are fertile ground to inspire music.


I’d love to have you clarify the nature of the project for us, because this one comes with some writing of your own, right?


Yes. Alongside the songs are spoken pieces I wrote that have original music compositions backing them. Four of them are essays—fitting, as Berry is also an essayist—and each serves as a prelude for the song that follows. And there is an original poem titled “Gleanings” that follows the last song. I wrote “Gleanings” in March 2023, during the week of the recording sessions with Old Bear Studios, and many of the words and ideas came from looking back at free-writings that I did a few years ago when I was reading through Berry’s collected poems.


The intended effect of this combination is something more like a concert experience than a standard album. You’re more likely to care about characters in a song or a book or a movie if you’ve gotten to get to know them a bit, and I hope that listeners feel that much more welcomed into the listening experience through the songs-and-stories approach—a little like my favorite type of music bookings to play, house concerts.



Does that make this whole creative experience more fulfilling or more challenging or both?


Limitations can actually be freeing. When I know that I’ll be writing about this specific moment in the lives of these particular people in this distinct place, it narrows my focus. And the short stories that I’m working with here are writing that I genuinely find brilliant, so it’s fulfilling to be able to translate what I find so moving about it from prose into songs, essays, and poetry. It’s a chance to share work I love with listeners in a way that may be their introduction to it, or that may serve to deepen their appreciation of it. So I find the creative experience of this way of writing and presenting the work very fulfilling, and that any challenges in it only serve to make the work stronger.


Has this deepened your own love for Berry’s work?


Certainly. I’ve heard Malcolm Guite speak of his literary influences as essentially his mentors, even those he doesn’t or didn’t know personally, and I resonate with that. There is a sense in which you get to know an author whose work you have read extensively—granted, a one-sided relationship, but it can still be a sort of apprenticeship. Wendell Berry has shaped my own sensibilities about faith, life, place, and art, much as C.S. Lewis has. Reading the short stories and understanding them deeply enough to write convincingly from the perspective of the characters has deepened my affection for them and for Berry’s work, much like getting to know a person’s story over time can have that effect.


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