Torch and Twang

willie-nelsons-greatest-hits.jpgLet’s be real, here. People who grow up like I did are not often country music fans. Aside from my mother’s odd taste for the sounds of the Grand Old Opry (acquired during her years at Wellesley, no doubt) I knew no country music unless it was from one of those “Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits” ads that ran constantly on our local CBS station. Well, sometimes I caught a little bit of “Hee Haw” if no one changed the channel in time. Suffice it to say that “another somebody done somebody wrong song” was never my music of choice.

I like irony, subtly, and a literary lyric. Like my tea, I tend to like my music un-sweet, unless the sweetness is only one of many layers and has no cloying quality. There was a kind of song that made me queasy from the time I was very small:  ”Baby, I’m a want you,” and “Cherish” come to mind. Well, and that other kind; the kind where a dog dies and is carried out to sea, or someone (or something) named “Wildfire” is apparently lost. There was a kind of broad, needy, whiny quality about those songs, and that Ick Factor seemed to exist in every country song I heard. “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain?” Seriously?! Every song seemed to be a celebration of Good Ole Boys, brainless women who perpetually fell in love with (and were jilted by) Cads, and a blessedly unfamiliar world of tractors, church, and girls made to wear hideous homemade garments and/or sell themselves to feed their families. It was hyperbolic, sentimental and ridiculous.

joni-mitchell.jpgJoni Mitchell sang “I wish I had a river/That I could skate away on,” and I knew exactly what she meant. I did not require her to explain that she was unhappy, why she was unhappy, or that she was unhappy because she had broken up with a guy named Jeff. I got it. I spent hours parsing Beatles’ lyrics for meaning (stymied mainly by my inadequate supply of psychedelic drugs) and posting lyrics I loved on my bedroom walls. “Skating away on the thin ice of a new day;” “I have become comfortably numb;” “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.”  The words were poetry, and they spoke to me, as good poetry does, in beautiful abstract tongues that offered me the answers to my adolescent problems if I was willing to do a little thinking. I had no truck with musical pablum.

In college, at the peak of my black-wearing, Marlboro-smoking archness, I took a break from my regular classical show and filled two-hours of radio with a mockery of country. I assumed a Southern drawl, used the name “Candy Memphis,” and played anything country that I could find in the record closet. I spun “Stand by Your Man,” and got my friend Wallis (who is really from Memphis) to call in live and request something called “This Bed’s Not Big Enough for the Three of Us”  in his more authentic accent. It was one of the finest mornings of my young life.

In the mid 90s, I met Cassie. She was the secretary in the law office below mine (I couldn’t afford a secretary), and we went to lunch together most days. She was a revelation to me, with her tough life story, her big wedding plans, and her propensity to dip her fries in her Frosty. She was un-ironic, an open book, untouched by cynicism or snark. Her fiance watched Nascar races and football games, and she watched with him. She had a cat named “Squeaker” and kept pictures of him on her desk. She read bride magazines, and went to blockbuster romantic comedies. When we took her car to lunch in the summer (my 10-year-old Honda had no air conditioning) we listened to country music.

By the end of August, I had fallen in love with country music. It wasn’t the old-style country of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty; it was the first wave of “new country.” I listened to Garth, Clint, Shania, Trisha, Lorrie, and Alan. I loved the sad stories, and teared up the first time the car was filled with the melancholy strains of  ”Don’t Take the Girl.” I smiled at “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial.” I belted out “Friends in Low Places” and invited my (imaginary) drinking buddies to “Prop me up beside the jukebox” when I died.  With kd lang and Mary Chapin Carpenter as gateway drugs, I Went Country.

pamtillis1.jpgThere was something I needed in that music, something about sweetness, and wholesomeness without edge or cynicism. There were songs about the joys of summer days, falling in love, staying in love, and raising a family that were some kind of balm for my single, 30-year-old heart. I remember sitting in my own car at the end of a work day, hearing Pam Tillis sing “Sweetheart’s Dance,” and bursting into tears. I didn’t really want to be what I was any more, I didn’t care about being cool and detached, I wanted a sweetheart. I wanted a sweetheart and a house with a porch, and a pie on the windowsill and a jar full of fireflies. I wanted Aunt Bee next door, and The Saturday Evening Post on the coffee table, and a boy who played baseball. I wasn’t necessarily going to wear gingham and call everybody “honey,” but I was sure as hell not seeing myself in a black suit with 3-inch heels and The Virgin Suicides as bedtime reading.

Within three years, I was married to my sweetheart, and the mother of a potentially baseball-playing boy (We tried, but I think that part of my fantasy life is over). I now have a house with a porch, and although there is rarely a pie on the windowsill…there could be. I have swung back to some kind of center, musically and personally; there’s a little Keith Urban and a lot of old Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson on my iPod, but it coexists with “Vampire Weekend,” “Spoon” and a little Jay-Z. I still admire the incredible voices of most country singers, voices that put Britney and Gaga to shame. I also admire the singer-songwriters who craft poems and set them to music in ways that are sometimes as sublime as anything I loved in my youth. I have choices, about what I listen to, and whether I’m feeling more Edie Sedgwick or Aunt Bee on any given day, and that’s part of what makes life worth living.

countrymusic.jpgI guess something just had to give, back in the days when I Went Country. I don’t know that it happens to everyone, and it certainly doesn’t happen in a 120 degree car with Pam Tillis on the radio. I’m sure that during that 3 minute song I felt myself change. I understood something, I  took a leap of faith from the safe ground of self-protective cynicism to the unknown territory of admitting that I wanted something as common as a family and a home. I identified with that raw, patent need for love and safety that I had dismissed and mocked for more than thirty years. I would never, in my current incarnation, pick country music as my favorite genre, or even my second favorite. It might make third behind classical and alternative; then again, it might get bumped by classic rock. In a Tom Petty-George Strait smack down, well, never mind. All I know is that when I needed a catalyst it was there for me in all of its resplendent sweetness and spiritual generosity. For that I will always be grateful.