Set List begins in 1970, when Blanchard Shankles and John Covey come together and start making music in a rock and roll band named Skyye. They were joined in their quest for fame and fortune by their friends Ford Man Cooper, Chicken Raines, Jimbo Tant, Tucker McFry, and Simpson Taggart, and these fledgling musicians set out upon a musical voyage that spanned four decades, fifty states, and uncounted miles as they pursued the elusive success that was always just one song ahead of them.
Along the way the band played the bars and the clubs, the carnivals and the dances, the dives and the festivals, and together through good times and bad, sickness and health, romance, marriage, divorce, birth, and death, they each built two lives: the one out under the lights that they were drawn to like moths to a flame, and the one they came back to when the music stopped and the crowds went home.
The story alternates between present-day north Georgia and the 1970s and is the story of a bar band as told primarily through the eyes of its members. Each chapter is built around an original song in the band's repertoire plus an iconic song from the archives of rock and roll, and together these songs and these chapters form the set list of the band members' lives.
America boasts many authors who can make us feel at home in Buckingham Palace, the Taj Mahal, and various mansions of the rich and famous. There are far fewer artists who have the same flair for making us feel comfortable in unfamiliar yet commonplace happenings and walks of life. In the later decades of the twentieth century, full-time employment as a musician was no longer just for churches, orchestras and music teachers; clubs and restaurants in all major cities supported live music, creating a large number of “blue collar” musicians who had no trouble finding work despite any lack of formal training. Set List takes the reader into that vibrant and colorful era we assumed would never end yet became extinct before our eyes. For those born too late, it’s a glimpse of history. To those of us who lived it, Set List is a nostalgic reminder of all we lost. There is no present-day miracle as wonderful as playing real music on a real stage for real money: I feel incredibly sad for all the coming generations of musicians who will never know this experience. Thank you, Ray Atkins, for remembering those days and their accompanying sound track. As my hair greys, my fingers wither, and my mind is present less and less, it’s great to know that this book will be there to take me back…
—Elaine Drennon Little, author of A Southern Place
After reading Camp Redemption and Sweetwater Blues, I became a serious fan of Raymond Atkins’ writings. With his latest novel, Set List, I may have just become his biggest fan. The novel and its main character are more than a little identifiable to me personally. Blanchard Shankles is a 60-year-old, life-long guitar player who has played in bands for over 45 years. Now the rough life of a rock and roll musician is catching up with him, landing him in the hospital with serious heart problems and forcing him to look closer than ever into the deepest recesses of his own life. Atkins titles each chapter after a rock song, usually the songs that most of us players of that same age have performed countless times, from “Free Bird” to “Crazy Mama,” “Lucky Man,” and “Heart of Glass.” The conversations and nostalgic memories discussed by Blanchard and his songwriting partner John Covey, ignite a fire within those of us who recall the music with love and happiness. One side note that I found absolutely cool was Atkins including actual, complete lyrics of many of many songs penned by Shankles and Covey. Set List is an honest, well written novel for anyone who longs for the days of Grand Funk Railroad, Black Sabbath or the James Gang. A story of life, love, mortality and music. A true rock and roll dream.
—Michael Buffalo Smith, author of From Macon to Jacksonville: More Conversations in Southern Rock
Ray Atkins, SET LIST took me back to the times me and my cousin were running wild on the beach, popping in bars for a few sets and making it on down the road. Maybe on some nights we were the girls that characters like Bad Boy Blanchard had singled out to sing Brown Eyed Girl or Black Magic Woman to. The thing is, the songs, the night, the moment, it all screamed we are young and we shall live forever." And later when we realized as Blanchard does that that may not be so true, the sound of the music always brings us back to possessing that time when life held no stop light. It's also a story of true friendship. That kind of bond that the Celts called a soul friend. Someone who runs with you through all the back alleys and days of your life and knows you better than you know yourself. Atkins perfectly captures that friendship with Blanchard and Covey. Readers will make fast and furious friends with the SET LIST characters, follow them right out to that bus, and eagerly ride along to catch one last show."
—River Jordan, author of Praying for Strangers
Raymond Atkins is a chameleon. This time he is an aging rocker with a heart broken by life and lifestyle but that's not why you read this or any of his books. You read Raymond Atkins to laugh, to marvel at description and insight, to see yourself in each of the characters he swears are fictional, and to understand yourself and your fellow man a little better. This time, however, he's taking his readers back, back, back to long summer nights of little sleep with the hum of a box fan wedged in a window while the dim glow of the green light on a Pioneer stereo receiver plays the soundtrack of youth pressed forever on vinyl. That he can take us back there is but one of his gifts. Shari Smith, author of I am a Town and publisher, creator at Working Title Farm