Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.
Blue, blue is the grass about the river
And the willows have overfilled the close garden.
And within, the mistress, in the midmost of her youth.
White, white of face, hesitates, passing the door.
Slender, she puts forth a slender hand;
And she was a courtezan in the old days,
And she has married a sot,
Who now goes drunkenly out
And leaves her too much alone.
One of my father’s real social skills, however, was carving out space in a crowded bar. Someone would pivot slightly and there he’d be, one elbow on the mahogany, clearing somebody’s highball glass out of the way with a sophisticated sleight of hand, a twenty-dollar bill materializing in its place. Given this small opening he then managed somehow to look for all the world as if he’d been right in that spot since the building was erected. The illusion was so overpowering that those he displaced often apologized when they discovered him there.
He began to pace every room, like a happy lunatic, waving his hands and reciting the film in great shouts. We listened to him, dazzled, and it seemed we could see the images, like flocks of phosphorescent birds that he set loose for their mad flight through the house.
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.
For those (like myself) who still read Twain with a kind of absorbing awe, and also those (not like myself) who read academic writing, I’m quite proud to point to this month’s issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, which features a lengthy work of mine titled “The (Magical) Voice of Community in Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger,” in which I argue that Twain was America’s (and perhaps the world’s?) first magical realist novelist, and also that magical realism itself is little more than…well…how southerners talk.
In the clearing around the shack were high mounds of junk. There were stacks of bald tires, car bodies without hoods, rusted hubcaps, foaming car batteries, splintered wooden ladders, broken sheets of fiberglass, brown bed springs. It was interesting to look down from the top of the embankment at all that junk, because a lot of it you couldn’t even identify and it was fun to see if you could figure out what it had once been used for. Sometimes stray dogs found their way into that clearing and sniffed among the mounds, looking for the right place to lift a leg. When you tossed pebbles down from the embankment, they believed in God.
…from The Risk Pool, by Richard Russo. Years ago, my friend Ramon (a lanky man with a startling gaze, chaotic hair, and a philosopher’s taste in video games) handed me this book in a Hong Kong beer joint. It took me half a decade to read. The lesson, as always, which I should have remembered from the decaying, hungover afternoons of our youth in Southern China: when Ramon hands you a book with the both of his hands, read it immediately.
Strait’s version, the only one that most people will ever hear, is masterfully plain. He occasionally approaches a syllable from above, using a mournful grace note, but he has an easy, conversational way of putting a melody across, as if he were singing to keep from talking.
The first section of this New Yorker article on George Strait contains some of the most enlightened music journalism I’ve ever read.
He’s come to make love on your satin sheets
Wake up on your living room floor
He’s the last of the hard-core troubadours
…decades later, and this song still makes me want to start a band. Hard-Core Troubadour, track 2 from Steve Earle‘s 1996 album, I Feel Alright, which is Lesson #1 in Rock & Roll Songwriting, both for its lyrical content and for containing all five of the Top-5 Greatest Drum Punctuations in history.
I like men who have known the best and the worst, whose life has been anything but a smooth trip. Storms have battered them, they have lain, sometimes for months on end, becalmed. There is a residue even if they fail. It has not been all tinkling; there have been grand chords.
Oh! many are the Fin-Backs, and many are the Dericks, my friend.
…from a tedious book about a fish.
There was a game he liked that he had once played all the time. It was who could get you to cry in the fewest words? There was a line in The Three Sisters: “You mean, I’m being left behind?” But Irwin always quoted the article by Gay Talese about Joe DiMaggio: On their honeymoon in Tokyo, Marilyn Monroe had gone off on a USO tour and come back and said, Joe, there were a hundred thousand people there and they were all cheering and clapping; you’ve never seen anything like it.
Yes, I have, DiMaggio said.
I try to summon her and all the letters with their girlish script, the pleas and admonitions, gossip of friends, endearments, exaggeration. Sometimes it seems that all that has happened since is less vital than what we were, and the luster of her eighteen years, the tawdriness I wanted to immerse them in, to stain their glory and make them immortal. She was, for a season, mine, and I was drunk with it. I had the hussarlike luxury of being bored by the genuine thing, and though places have vanished, where she stands is where she has always stood and I carefully place her story where it belongs, before the rest.
At the Grammy’s last year, “Burning House” by Cam lost Best Country Solo Performance to the regrettable “Traveller” by Chris Stapleton, the dull lyrics of which somehow, miraculously, manage to be emotionless and sentimental at the same time (though perfectly crafted for shallow listening), and the title of which is spelled incorrectly (unless you’re British).
“Burning House,” however, is a magically crafted song, and a wonderful example of why mainstream Nashville songwriting teams exist. It’s beautiful, precise, and never says more than it needs to. It’s clearly based on real human experience. Its arrangement is in perfect harmony with the soul of the song. It’s the type of song I wish we only received from Nashville.
Nevertheless, I’ve been racking my brain for the last half hour, trying to determine why songwriter Cam, not to mention her two co-writers, left the final line of the chorus hanging…
I’ve been sleepwalking
Been wondering all night
Trying to take what’s lost and broke and make it right…
I’ve been sleepwalking
Too close to the fire
But it’s the only place that I can hold you tight…
In this burning house…
Tonight? Why not fulfill that rhyme? It’s easy, obvious, and satisfies the circularity extended by “night” in the first line of the chorus. Yeah yeah yeah, silence and longing and desire and all that, but if that’s what you’re going for, why not only leave it hanging at the very end of the song? Why not give the listener that sense of auditory fulfillment in the middle, and then leave them hanging at the end? Would it create too much space before the beginning of the next verse? To me it’s the difference between a sad thread of hope…and utter despair. To me, it leaves the listener staring, instead of crying.
And no, it’s not a valid argument that the song would then be indirectly rhyme-linking “night” and “tonight.” They’d be at opposite ends of the chorus, with a plangent beat of silence before the resolution. Trust me, no one hates more than I when a song rhymes a word with itself. That’s not the case here.
Really, though. I love this song…but why? What drove that decision?
I got the guiltiest conscience
Listening for a savior on a Saturday night
I got my ear to the ground
You got Easter Sunday in your eyes
And I apologize if I seem a little overwhelmed
I’m thirsty, but the holy keep on pissing in my well
I had a purpose and a song that was true
But I ain’t ever had a lick of sense when it comes to you
…from “3:59AM,” track 5 off of John Moreland‘s miraculous 2013 album, In The Throes, which came out the same year as Jason Isbell‘s Southeastern, is lyrically and compositionally similar to Steve Earle at his best, and which was released at the tail end of a flood of songwriting the likes of which America hasn’t seen since Ryan Adams beat music with 29.
Nothing’s as far away as love is,
not even the new stars,
Though something is moving them
We hope in our direction, albeit their skin’s not on fire.
Moments like these remind me of Don Williams’s classic song from 1980, “Good Ole Boys Like Me,” which is in my estimation among the ten or so greatest country songs ever written. Its chorus begins: “I can still hear the soft southern wind in the live oak trees, and those Williams boys they still mean a lot to me, Hank and Tennessee.” This lyric is stunning for ten thousand reasons, but strikes me in a personal way, as this is precisely how I feel about the Wright boys, James and Charles.
At the end of a dark corridor
There is a lit match in a trembling hand
“I still have stage fright,”
The beautiful woman says,
And then she leads us past wardrobes
With mirrors and creaking doors
Where whispering dresses hang,
Whispering corsets, button shoes –
The kind you’d wear while riding a goat.
What is left of all of it?
Blind hoboes sell American flags
And bad poems of patriotism
On Saturday evenings forever in the rain,
Between the cathouses and the slag heaps
And the river, down home.
Oh Jesus Christ, the Czechoslovakians
Are drunk again, clambering
Down the sand-pitted walls
Of the grave.
Despite the perpetual rain, the sordid merchants, and the Homeric vulgarity of its carriage drivers, she would always remember Paris as the most beautiful city in the world, not because of what it was or was not in reality, but because it was linked to the memory of her happiest years.
The moon drops one or two feathers into the field.
The dark wheat listens.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine
Despite all my Sunday learning
Towards the bad I kept on turning
Till Mama couldn’t hold me anymore…
On January 1, 1958, Johnny Cash played his first ever prison concert, at San Quentin State Prison in California. In the audience for that show was a 20-year old on a 2-year stint for burglary, his 4th incarceration since the age of 11, and a stint that began with a daring escape (and eventual recapture), as well as his administration of a gambling racket and an in-prison beer-brewing venture .
A few years earlier, that 20-year old had gone to see Lefty Frizzell in concert, finagled his way backstage, and sang for Lefty in such a way that the country music icon refused to perform without allowing that teenage ex-and-future-convict to sing a few songs.
In the end, however, it was a stint in solitary confinement that inspired that 20-year old to pursue a new life, one which produced 38 #1 hits, helped steward one of the state of California’s greatest cultural-musical products, and became the inspiration for an Oscar-winning film.
Yet none of this matters in the shadow of Merle Haggard’s voice, which even today, on the date of his passing, is still perhaps the greatest in country music history.