For decades, the country music world has been a proving ground for some of the best male and female musicians. But what happens when a star’s personal demons overpower one’s talent and ultimately cost the artist their career? In Stephanie Clifford’s The Farewell Tour, readers enter the emotionally tormented life of fictional country music star Lillian Waters, whose family secrets and alcohol abuse ultimately cost Waters her mid-career stardom and personal happiness.
The Farewell Tour is a novel about choices. With storylines alternating between 1980 and Waters’ past, the novel’s structure mimics life’s confusing roads that led to Waters’ brief brush with stardom. In each chapter, readers confront, along with Waters, the star’s choices which have led her to her final tour, where small, barely-attended venues like high schools and fairgrounds remind Waters of her has-been fame and stature in the country music world.
It is also an examination of the situations and circumstances — particularly abusive ones — that force individuals to make the choices that shape their lives. Throughout her childhood, Waters lived with emotional abuse and neglect from her alcoholic mother. As farmers in the West, specifically Washington state, the family succumbed to property loss, tragedy and marital dysfunction. As these events unfold in the novel, it transitions into a bildungsroman examining the internal wells from which individuals draw strength and resistance and discover within themselves the power and self-awareness to escape.
Waters’ deep reflection about her own heritage also opens a conversation about the role of women in society. She acknowledges the role women played in the Pacific Northwest’s social and environmental development, even though men’s roles and contributions too frequently overshadow women’s. Waters asserts women, “bloomed into relevance when it was time to bear children who would soon labor or adventure themselves, depending on if they were girls or boys, then quickly receded.” She points out that “women’s trials” were trials which “stayed behind those doors,” an existential philosophy that echoes throughout The Farewell Tour.
These reflections balance Waters’ brief, yet poetic, reflections about the Pacific Northwest’s enigmatic landscapes. Some of the most intimate and passionate passages occur when Waters contemplates the landscapes in the context of her own development, as well as her family’s. Specifically, Waters focuses on the dichotomy between the East and the West. The East is a place of “paved roads” where people “built neat rectangles of fence to tame the land.” She describes the West as an all-consuming force and admits that those who hail from the West “know the earth will reclaim all that when she wants to.” Waters also makes an assertion of which even the most dedicated early American Transcendentalists would be jealous: “The earth is not ours, never was, and she will not submit.” This single, brief passage establishes a formidable feminism displayed in Waters’ unbreakable, albeit worn and weary, character.
Waters’ journey wouldn’t be complete for readers, and especially country music fans, if it didn’t feature some of the most memorable names in the business. Readers watch as Waters meets the musicians who will eventually help her form her own band, and they see her brush the elbows of famous country music women like Loretta Lynn and Barbara Mandell. While these women are Waters’ contemporaries, they are, in many ways, also her nemeses, especially after her career begins to collapse. Thus, the novel dissects the private rivalries and jealousies inherent in celebrity lives, and it portrays the loneliness the formerly famous experience after they’ve left the stage lights. In fact, as readers sit with Waters and the few reporters interested in her farewell tour, readers may feel like they’re witnessing an episode of VH1’s Where Are They Now?
However, The Farewell Tour is not just another post-fame sob story. After Waters begins experiencing shooting pains in her throat, a doctor gives her the news every singer fears — the diagnosis of a vocal cord polyp requiring surgery. As readers witness Waters grapple with her changing physical condition, they view the emotional toll the diagnosis takes on Waters. At these points, the novel waxes realistic, and readers are privy to a vulnerable, humane Waters reckoning with the aging process and her declining physicality. Her story is one with which readers are probably familiar, especially if they pay attention to pop culture headlines.
Seamlessly written, The Farewell Tour reads more like a musician’s confessional memoir than a fictional work. It’s a novel that rock music fans and country music acolytes alike can enjoy — even if they can’t always appreciate one another’s music. Why? Perhaps the answer lies in Lillian Waters’ experiences, which she shares openly and honestly. Her emotional fractures and personal revelations are a reminder that the journey never truly ends. Her struggle to return to the limelight reminds readers that pathways taken are open to reconsideration, and even though second chances are nearly nonexistent, another choice lies not too far in the future.
The Farewell Tour
By Stephanie Clifford
Published March 07, 2023