When Her Dad Died Too Young, Tom Petty Was There

Former RFT writer's audiobook memoir Dead Dad Club is a coming of age tale about grief and music

click to enlarge Dead Dad Club is music critic Katie Moulton’s debut memoir, an audio tale that’s scored by original compositions by Evan Stephens Hall of indie rock band Pinegrove. - Ariana Mygatt
Ariana Mygatt
Dead Dad Club is music critic Katie Moulton’s debut memoir, an audio tale that’s scored by original compositions by Evan Stephens Hall of indie rock band Pinegrove.

During the first moments of her first show as a DJ at community radio station WFHB, Katie Moulton notices that something’s gone wrong. Looking at the unmoving levels of the sound board, she realizes that no one can hear her.

“Dead air, dead air, dead air, dead air,” she thinks, panicking.

But her problem gets diagnosed quickly: Her mic is off. Moulton bounces back.

“‘Good morning, folks, you’re listening to WFHB,’ I said, ‘I’m Katie, this is my first show, and you just heard my first official technical difficulty.’ It’s 9:03 in sunny Bloomington, Indiana. Then I played Tom Petty…’”

The moment — which comes a little before the halfway point of Moulton’s memoir, Dead Dad Club: On Grief & Tom Petty, which Audible published as an audiobook original last month — feels uncomplicated and joyous as it highlights Moulton’s love for music. Over the course of that initial two-hour set, she plays picks from Raphael Saadiq, Neil Young, Father John Misty, Bob Dylan and others, and even vogues around the studio to New Young Pony Club, to which the station’s GM comes in clapping, with some light feedback: maybe not more than one Tom Petty song.

“It’s my birthday,” she replies.
click to enlarge Moulton traces the impact of her father’s death and their shared love for music that they shared, all set against “dad rock” figures throughout history. - Courtesy Audible
Courtesy Audible
Moulton traces the impact of her father’s death and their shared love for music that they shared, all set against “dad rock” figures throughout history.

The importance of Tom Petty to Moulton’s memoir can’t be overstated (see the title), but birthdays also hold serious weight, marking the passage of time and seemingly drawing momentous events toward them — the biggest of which being her father’s death shortly before she marked her 17th year.

Through the memoir, Moulton traces the impact of her father’s death, a system failure brought on by alcoholism, as well as the deep love for music that they shared. It's set in Bloomington, where her parents met, with a backdrop of  “dad rock” figures throughout history and their too-often addictive personalities.

“It mixes personal narrative and writing about music, particularly focused on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” Moulton says. “This is sort of a record of coming of age through grief.”

Dead Dad Club isn’t a memoir of grief in the same way that Year of Magical Thinking is, which reveals Joan Didion’s wrenching pain and gradual acceptance of the reality of her husband’s passing. Though there are moments when Moulton openly shares her grief, she often comes at the topic in an elliptical way, digging more into the impact of his life as well as her story of coming into herself in the same town where her parents  fell in love.

The memoir is evocative of struggle, but it’s not an overly sad book. More than anything, it’s contemplative, with real moments of humor, joy and connection among family and friends. It’s also easy to listen to thanks to Moulton’s narration, which is calm and even, with a background score composed by Evan Stephens Hall of indie rock band Pinegrove.

Moulton, 36, grew up in St. Louis County. She's a music journalist and a seriously good writer who, among other things, wrote for the RFT  beginning in 2009 and later served as music editor for Denver's Westword. Since, she's relocated to Baltimore and now teaches creative writing at Goucher College.

She began working on the book in late 2015.  Just prior, she’d been writing fiction and noticed how certain topics — parents, relationships, arrested development — kept coming up. Gradually, those stories became essays and then a book where she put herself under the same type of lens she’d used as a music critic.

In 2020, Audible picked up the book. Moulton could never have imagined Dead Dad Club would be audio-first, but soon she found herself imagining the possibilities.

“I got really excited,” she says, noting the freedom and reach that the large platform enabled. “For a music-obsessed narrative, the idea that through audio, through audible, through an audio-first narrative, I could actually incorporate an original score with the storytelling was so exciting.”

After signing the deal, Moulton spent the next few months reworking her text to make it audiobook friendly, adding in elements to let the listener know where in time they were.

Having Hall, a friend, sign on to the project felt momentous. Instead of just examining music already out there, she’d be helping create something new through collaboration.

“It was a huge gift,” she says. “His idea was sort of a deconstructed American heartland rock with my narration, my voice as the percussive momentum. So not to get in the way of that, but to enhance it and to deepen the resonance of different parts, and also provide some of those audio clues and that audio flow that can be really useful for the listeners.”

Another gift has been the feedback that has started to come in. Moulton says she’s heard from and connected with friends and strangers alike since it was released, a bizarre feeling after working on the project alone for so long.

But even though that’s satisfying, Moulton isn’t taking a pause in her own work. She’s continued to write and has other music writing projects on the horizon, and maybe even some multimedia ones. "I want to keep doing that and keep growing,” she says. “Maybe I'll go back in the recording studio at some point.”

Listen to Dead Dad Club on Audible, where it’s available at no cost to current Audible subscribers or as a one-time download.

This story has been updated.

About The Author

Jessica Rogen

Jessica Rogen is managing editor for the Riverfront Times. She’s also the editor in chief of Boulevard, a literary magazine.
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