It doesn’t matter whether your generation sailed away with Styx in the ’70s, said goodbye to Hollywood with Billy Joel in the ’80s, or tore up its heart with ’N Sync in the ’90s—if you loved the songs you grew up hearing, then listening to them now probably dredges up memories.

When Rob Sheffield (Grad ’91) stumbled on his mix-tape collection after unpacking during his move from Charlottesville to Brooklyn a few years ago, he was shocked and inspired. The result is Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time (Random House, 2007), a memoir that tells the story of Sheffield meeting and falling in love with his late wife, Renee Crist Sheffield (Grad ’90), and how Sheffield dealt with his grief after she died suddenly at age 31.

“Just holding [each tape], I remembered all the people I listened to this music with, the person who made this tape for me, all the people who orbited around [Renee and me],” Sheffield says. “It was so dizzying and evocative, how each tape was telling a story.”

Rob and Renee Sheffield

The book covers the time from when the couple met in 1989 to when Crist died unexpectedly from a pulmonary embolism in 1997. Sheffield begins each chapter with a drawing of a mix tape, upon which is scrawled the name and artist for each of 10-20 songs. Those songs serve as the touchstone for that chapter’s memories, and he relates at least one of the songs to moments he remembers from the couple’s relationship. 

The title of one of the chapters, “Big Star: For Renee,” is the title of the tape that Sheffield made for Renee after they met at the Eastern Standard bar in Charlottesville. He liked her immediately, or, as he puts it, “I fell under the spell of Renee’s bourbon-baked voice.”

As much as the book is a written memorial for Crist and a detailed portrayal of ’90s culture, Love is a Mix Tape is also a tribute to Charlottesville.

“I definitely thought about it while I was writing the book, that I love this town to an absurd degree and wasn’t going to hide it,” Sheffield says.

Love is a Mix Tape reminds readers who never lived in Charlottesville of how quirky their own small towns are and invites them to see how universal those nuances are. Sheffield said a song by one of his favorite rock bands, The Hold Steady, captures this dynamic well and served as an inspiration to him as he wrote. 

“They sing about specific towns, and when you hear it you feel like you’ve been there because of your friends, roommates, girlfriends—all the people you scatter around you as you go through your 20s,” Sheffield said. “That aspect of The Hold Steady had a huge effect on me as I was writing it because of the way they evoked those towns.”

Sheffield hopes that showing the intricate connections between music and his life would remind readers that their own passions are important. 

“If it’s not music, it’s figure skating, it’s indoor hockey, kitten breeding, bird-watching. Everyone has something they geek out about,” Sheffield says. “Everybody has those weird passions in their lives, and those are so key.”