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  • Writer's pictureSusan Koehler

From Banjo to Book: A Creative Journey

It all started with a handmade wooden banjo. It was kind of heavy, covered in dust, and made completely of wood except for a small circle of animal skin that was held in place by rusty nails. Four wooden tuning pegs protruded from the headstock, but no strings had ever been attached.

The banjo had been made by my Uncle Elmer, a man known for his craftsmanship with wood, but to my knowledge, never for any interest in making music. Uncle Elmer was no longer around, so I couldn’t ask questions. But from the moment I first held his unfinished banjo, its creative energy became a part of me.

Years later, the banjo resurfaced in a story and came to life in a book. On May 6, 2023, Charlie’s Song was officially launched as “a novel for all ages” and a testament to the power of curiosity and creative energy.

Charlie’s Song is set in rural North Carolina during the Great Depression. The Harrell family lives and works as tenant farmers in the fictional community of Lothian Mill. Dahlia, the young narrator and protagonist, struggles to keep up with her peers, both socially and academically. She feels threatened by the girl at the top of the social chain, and she fights a nagging sense of being “less-than.”

When Dahlia’s brother Charlie is diagnosed with scarlet fever, the family must quarantine temporarily, removing Dahlia from her daily routine and increasing her fear of slipping into meaninglessness and obscurity.

Enter Uncle Ennis. This self-proclaimed traveling troubadour shows up, banjo in tow, and brings his special magic to Lothian Mill. Dahlia feeds off the light that emanates from Uncle Ennis. Charlie begins to heal, Mommy smiles and hums, Poppy's hard edge softens, and music awakens joy in these weary tenant farmers.

But Dahlia’s image of her larger-than-life uncle is shaken when suspicions surround his presence in Lothian Mill. She must realize that like everyone else, he is flawed. Like everyone else, he has secrets. Wrestling with a heart full of doubts and questions, Dahlia becomes determined to find the truth, no matter how painful it may be.

As the title suggests, the narrative weaves itself into a song. The lyrics to “Charlie’s Song” are part of the book, but bringing the words to life required music. For that, I needed a creator who could read the words and absorb the ethos of the people and their time.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to look far. My son-in-law W. Heath Fowler is a musician. While his typical style differs from what the song required, I had complete faith in his enormous talent and creative instincts. Who better to trust with your own passion project than someone whose heart is part of your own?

I’m as proud of the song as I am of the novel. “Charlie’s Song” – lyrics by Susan Koehler, music by W. Heath Fowler, performed by W. Heath Fowler – was played live at the book launch and is now available on multiple streaming outlets.

May 6, 2023, was a beautiful day. Our local independent bookstore, Midtown Reader, hosted the event. Family, friends, and people who had read about the book in the newspaper gathered for the celebration. The Piebrary at Midtown Reader concocted a couple of specialty drinks in honor of the event. And beta readers – both adults and children – gathered to celebrate along with me.

I would like to express my gratitude to everyone who had a part in making this book launch special…

  • to Mrs. Bonell, fourth grade teacher at Holy Comforter Episcopal School, who reads to her students and encourages their love of literature, both collectively and individually, and who found three students who were willing to read and offer insights on the bound white pages of a manuscript.

  • to Eloise, Isabella, and Barrett, 4th and 5th grade students who read the manuscript and provided feedback.

  • to Midtown Reader, a wonderful independent bookstore, to Sally Bradshaw, its owner, to Caylee Wilson, the events coordinator, and to every staff member at Midtown Reader and The Piebrary who work to make our little local store such a special place.

  • to publisher M.R. Street of Turtle Cove Press, who manages a small, independent press focused on bringing well-crafted literature to life and giving authors a personalized approach to a traditional publishing experience.

  • to W. Heath Fowler, who knows how much he is loved and who also hopefully knows how much his talent is revered.

  • to friends and family, beta readers and encouragers, and young readers everywhere.

Thank you for being a part of the journey from banjo to book.

Charlie's Song, a sequel to Dahlia in Bloom, is available at Tallahassee's Midtown Reader and other select independent bookstores, as well as from multiple online booksellers, like, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-a-Million.

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