Aug. 28 2013 12:00 AM

A rock ‘n roll bus tour heats up in John Abbott's 'The Last Refrain'


John Abbott taught guitar at Marshall Music before he became a writer. He melds his two loves in his debut novel, “The Last Refrain,” about a family musical group that is on the cusp of either breaking out or breaking up.

Abbott, 32, who lives in Kalamazoo, grew up in the Lansing area. His last name was Wilensky until he changed it when he married. Abbott graduated from East Lansing High School before getting degrees in English and writing from Michigan State University and Western Michigan University.

“I learned in writing that more than anything else, you have to have a distinctive voice — sort of like music,” he said.

The title “The Last Refrain” sounds ominous, but readers should enjoy a bumpy bus ride behind the scenes of the rock ‘n roll life.

Abbott admits that his own band experience is limited to a few minor gigs, but that has not kept him from writing an imaginative novel about the trials of a rock family.

“The Last Refrain,” published by Sweatshoppe Publications, follows the misadventures of the fictional folk-rock band Shiloh Red, a one-hit wonder with hopes for one more run at the top of the charts. Four of the five band members are family, while the fifth member, Griff, is an outlier in more ways than one.

Abbott insisted that he didn’t model the story after any particular group, but the Cash and Partridge families come to mind right away.

“When writing, you can’t help but soak in different references in history,” he allowed.

That might be Abbott’s way of signaling to the reader to expect sex and drugs along with healthy doses of rock ‘n roll.

We join Shiloh Red at the beginning of a butt-busting summer-long tour of county fairs, beginning in Lake Odessa, Mich. We soon learn that Griff has a history with one of the family members, Brianna. Ken, the father, drinks too much. Teenagers Dana and Lucas are perplexed, not only about the future, but about their own sexuality.

“I wanted to write about country folk and reflect the values of a working-class background of family,” Abbott said. The fictional family hails from Hammond, Ind.

Abbott’s sensitivity to music suffuses the book on more than just the plot level. In many scenes, he is careful to note the music playing in the background, as in this interlude in a barn where Griff and Brianna try to repress an upwelling of mutual attraction:

“The radio station had gone to a commercial, and Griff walked over to it and turned the dial until Creedence Clearwater Revival was singing ‘Midnight Special.’ He picked up the radio and came toward her again…” The sometimes — OK, always — tawdry county fair circuit makes a good setting for tubulent family drama. Slowly, inevitably, the bus heats up and becomes a rolling oven of emotions as the tour heads into fall.

Abbott said he was able to capture the gritty reality of tours from hanging around musicians while he taught guitar and from a former professor who toured with a well-known band.

“I was fascinated by the lifestyle and how the performance aspect of music energized people at concerts,” he said.

The novel also centers on deception and secrets that gradually emerge as the tour winds down and the family gets more bound up in its peccadilloes.

One key deception drives the tour: Does the band have a recording contract or did Ken fabricate it to persuade the group to take one more stab at stardom? It doesn’t seem to matter at first. A few weeks into the tour, the band catches on and the buzz fills the stands. One song, written by Ken, gets attention from Rolling Stone magazine. The band’s weaknesses seem to provide the edge that may push them to the top.

When everything seems to be going well, the old snare of sex and drugs, often taken in combination, threatens to knock them off the track. It’s the same old music business cliché.

Abbott teaches writing at Western and Kalamazoo Valley Community College. He still keeps in mind one of the first lessons he learned in his writing classes at MSU: “Read more than write, at least at first.”

He gives a lot of credit to noted author Stuart Dybek and National Book Award winer Jamie Gordon, two of his teachers at Western.

“They forced me to expand my writing horizon,” he said.

With “The Last Refrain” put to bed, Abbott is doing just that. Between reading and teaching, Abbott is well into the second draft of his next novel. Again, a family is at the center of the story and mysteries are involved, but the emotional dynamics are quite different.

A man dies suddenly and leaves his estate jointly to his former wife, a new lover and a daughter. They all have to come together to settle matters.

“They learn a lot they didn’t know about the man in their life,” Abbott said.

Abbott eases from one project to the next with admirable smoothness. His working method is summed up in his advice to young writers: “Try to develop a routine, but still have fun.”

Adopting that simple advice, Abbott took a page from one of his favorite writers, Elmore Leonard, who died only last week, on Aug. 20. Leonard, who turned out more than 45 books, said much the same thing about his prolific career: “It’s fun.”