SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There's starred reviews and much anticipation - Publishers Weekly, Oprah's O Magazine, Elle and more - for Dawnie Walton's "The Final Revival Of Opal And Nev." It's an oral history of the rise, fall and revival of a rock and roll duo that is so detailed, layered and compelling, you might be moved to look up the band and try to listen to their biggest hits. But you're in the grip of a great novel. "The Final Revival Of Opal And Nev" is Dawnie Walton's debut novel. She has worked at Essence, Entertainment Weekly and studied at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and joins us now from Brooklyn. Thank you so much for being with us.
DAWNIE WALTON: It is an honor to be here, Scott. Thank you.
SIMON: What put this story into your mind and heart?
WALTON: Well, in 2013, I was actually just at home. I was watching concert footage from Talking Heads' 1984 concert film "Stop Making Sense." And you see, you know, David Byrne, of course, who I love, and then to his left, you see his background singers, two Black women whose names I later learned were Ednah Holt and Lynn Mabry. And I had the urge to stick my hand into the screen and literally pull one of them to center stage with David Byrne and watch what kind of magic would unfold for the rest of the concert. And the voices just started coming from there. Opal's voice came first. I describe her as the kind of artist I would have loved to put up on my bedroom wall when I was a kid. And then Nev came after and then just a chorus of people around them kind of telling their story.
SIMON: What does Nev - Neville Charles, the British guy, the musician...
SIMON: ...Hear in Opal Jewel? He sees her at an amateurs night - Black woman, baldheaded, Detroit, summers in Alabama. What does he hear in her?
WALTON: I think he hears something that he would like to hear in himself, which is something completely strange and interesting and compelling. She is someone who - like, you can't take your eyes off her, but you can't really describe what it is exactly that she's doing. And I think that, you know, together, he thinks that they will really make a splash.
SIMON: This - I didn't want to call it a concert. This event that's at the center of the narrative - event with music and mayhem - is a showcase for acts in the old - boy, this sounds real (laughter) - Rivington Record Label. Opal and Nev are part of it. So is an act called the Bond Brothers.
SIMON: And they have a stage prop which isn't just a prop, right?
WALTON: It is not. Yes, so the Bond Brothers are sort of a reflection of the Southern rock of the era. And I was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, which is the hometown of Lynyrd Skynyrd. But they were very sort of famous for having the Confederate flag on their stages, on their albums. Of course, as a Black person, it's a very complicated thing to have grown up around all my life. And so the Rivington Showcase was sort of, you know, the idea of bands that were completely different - I mean, had completely different fan bases - and sort of putting them together in this one event and seeing what would happen.
SIMON: And what happens is - well, I don't want to give away too much, but it's hard. And of course, you must have finished this novel a year ago, but it's hard not to think of events of January 6.
WALTON: Well, you know, I had so many people who had read the novel and saw the images of the man kind of parading through the Capitol with, you know, the literal flag of traitors in the Capitol. It was, you know, quite interesting.
SIMON: How long has this novel been a part of you?
WALTON: Oh, my gosh. You know, Scott, I think it's been a part of me since I was a teenager and drawn to music that felt taboo for me to like, you know? I grew up loving alternative rock, indie rock, music in which I didn't really often see myself because there is sort of a more clear tradition of Black men and rock. Of course, you have Jimi Hendrix. You have bands like Bad Brains and Fishbone, but the women are largely sort of marginalized or erased. And it was interesting to get older and sort of learn that there are women that have always been part of the legacy of rock and roll.
SIMON: Yeah. Well, they've been there every step of the way.
WALTON: Absolutely - Big Mama Thornton, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, you know? Every rock and roll band can trace their roots to something in that music, in the blues, in the church.
SIMON: Does music reveal who we are or who we want to be?
WALTON: I think at one point when I was growing up, music was such a part of your life that it was almost like a lifestyle. Like, it could define your friend circle and the way that you dressed, and it could even reflect sometimes, like, your political outlook.
SIMON: Boy, that's right. Yeah.
WALTON: Yeah. I don't know if it works the same way anymore, though.
SIMON: Now, you've got me thinking about that, and I asked the question.
WALTON: (Laughter) And now, like, music is - it's a bit more disposable. I think, though, that it's a good thing that it's not as defining of who you are because it means you can like whatever you like, and nobody is sort of questioning things about you.
SIMON: Yeah. So Dawnie Walton, give us an Opal and Nev song to go out on.
SIMON: (Laughter) We'll try and find it on Spotify, but I don't know.
WALTON: (Laughter) Well, you know what? One of the things somebody - a friend of mine was like, it's going to be so awesome. Like, you might have a band make up - like, write a whole song based on...
SIMON: I wondered.
WALTON: Yeah. Wouldn't that be amazing? I would love to hear "Red-Handed."
SIMON: Can you recite or...
WALTON: (Laughter) I only know the one line from "Red-Handed," and it's, I'm not the girl who can be caught. I'm not the girl that can be bought.
SIMON: It's a great line. Dawnie Walton - her debut novel, "The Final Revival Of Opal And Nev." Thanks so much for being with us.
WALTON: Thank you so much, Scott.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.