The Good Doctor

The Good Doctor

I’ve seen my share of shows with musicians who would qualify as historic. I saw Bruce Springsteen on The Rising tour with nothing between me and the stage but a cameraman. I’ve seen U2 a few times. Bob Dylan. Pearl Jam, of course. Third Eye Blind. Wait, we were talking about historic. Scratch that last one. Double strikethrough.

Of Springsteen, I will say that the concert was an epic. His energy level was astounding and I almost passed out by the end (though that was probably more related to having been standing on concrete since sometime in the mid morning than to being overcome with an ecstatic fit).

U2, especially the first time, was nearly a religious experience. Which, I think that was most of Bono’s point.

Bob Dylan was actually a little disappointing as he grabbed the wrong key harmonica on nearly every song and even then and all the songs kind of sounded the same. Still, Bob Dylan: check.

Pearl Jam, well, they’re Pearl Jam. I almost passed out the first time I saw them, too. Near the end of Alive. That may have been more on the ecstatic end because my acoustic-noodly, DMB-loving mind was undergoing an instantaneous and electric metamorphosis.

All that said, I think the historic musician that I will remember most fondly is one I saw in a small club in Louisville, KY not too many years ago and, sadly, close to the end of his life. The great Dr. Ralph Stanley.

When you consider voices with an unmistakable, inimitable tone, Ralph Stanley has a dark, lonesome tenor that sounds like it issues forth from the heart of a mountain. I would put him in that unrivaled pantheon with the likes of Paul McCartney, Freddie Mercury, Billie Holiday, or Otis Redding. He may not have the acrobatics or the celestial aura of fame, but you know exactly who you’re listening to. He occupies a spot that nobody else can nor probably ever will.

And, he was just as much a pioneer as anyone from the British invasion or that unlikely soul corridor that stretched from Motown to Muscle Shoals. Coming out of the oft-forgotten and wholly otherworldliness of Appalachia, bluegrass music shares with jazz a very high distinction of being a true born-and-bred American musical movement. Ralph Stanley helped cut the trail that brought the sound down from the mountain where it had incubated since pre-Revolutionary times and into the public consciousness. Whether banjos and church harmonies are your cup of tea, there’s no arguing its a clarion call of American experience.

Then there’s the show itself. Dr. Stanley up on stage with his son and the rest of the band (the Clinch Mountain Boys). They played through a set and spent the rest of the night as a live jukebox. You could call out literally any song they’d ever done and they’d fire it up. Tunes were called that you can’t even find recordings of anymore outside of chance yardsale vinyl finds and they’d rip through it like it was their latest single. That’s no small feat for a solo artist, much less a seven-piece band. The sound, the joy, the complete mastery of the bluegrass canon, that voice. It was a special evening.

All this came to mind because I looked Dr. Stanley up last week and found, to my sadness, that he’d passed away over a year ago. I came to his music late in his life and still he’s brought me a great deal of joy. I’m glad I got to see him. I may never see The Rolling Stones and the chance to see the real Led Zepplin was gone before I was born along with so many other early rock and roll flameouts. But, here’s the thing. Rock and roll, love it though I do, has a hard time with aging. Vocal chords get shredded. Tinnitus sets in.  Hedonism takes its pound of flesh. Ralph Stanley was cut from a different cloth that only seemed to improve with age. At this time in my life, that’s the picture I want to hold before me. A little quieter though no less rich and so built to last. Steeped in history and rooted in place. Peculiar, even, but for that all the more cherished and rare. That’s the American experience I hope to have and Ralph Stanley proves the possibility.

Brief Thoughts on The Nashville Sound

Brief Thoughts on The Nashville Sound

My copy of Jason Isbell’s new record came in the mail Tuesday night and I’ve been able to listen to it a couple of times since then. My first impression is that The Nashville Sound is a sonic gem. The vocals are recorded pretty dry at times, especially on the opener and the lovely “If We Were Vampires”, and it gives a cottony intimacy to the quiet songs. It’s a sound I just can’t get enough of. The double-tracked vocals “Chaos and Clothes” are another excellent choice. The record is also louder than its predecessor. The electric guitars come out more often, which is just fine by me.

And then there’s the songwriting. Isbell has traded in some of his storytelling (which is superb) for more commentary and that makes a few of the songs hit pretty on the nose. Some people might find this troubling. When Isbell is telling stories, he comes at the poetic heart of what he has to say at an oblique angle. That distance on his part allows the listener to get in right up close, so to speak, and sop up the imagery and let it flavor their own longing and memory.

But, on new songs like “White Man’s World” and “Hope the High Road”, Isbell isn’t showing as much as telling. For 3-4 minutes, it’s about him more than you. He gets right up close, and in order to keep the same space between artist and listener–space that let’s the listener feel a sense of belonging with the song, space that Isbell provides free of charge with fiction songs–the listener needs to shift. Understandably, some might not like this affront to their sit-back-and-consume habit of listening. But, I’m ok with it. I’m willing to work at approaching the songs from a distance because I trust Isbell as an artist. So, here’s what I make of the aforementioned tunes.

Isbell and his wife (who sings and plays the violin in the band, which lends a heartbreaking dimension to that vampire song) have a daughter, their first kid. And so the music isn’t just art anymore, it’s legacy. It’s not an offering to some disembodied audience, it’s evidence of the kind of man Isbell is within his time. Evidence which his child will gather with a Holmes-like prodigy. Our kids are the master sleuths of who we really are, and Isbell wants to be found out to be good.

So, for me, these uncomfortably direct songs aren’t just about what Isbell has to say (and I do happen to agree with a lot of it, awkward as it feels), it’s about why he’s saying it. I feel that fatherly panic of wanting my own sons to find me out to have been a good man in the end. What forays I make into artistic expression (like this very thing you’re reading and all the other things in the same digital attic) I make with more than half an eye to how they might guide the boys I love. I’m glad Isbell broke the show don’t tell rule. I’m glad he went that route. It shows me that he’s the same kind of father I am no matter what he’s telling.

Neighborly Hope

Neighborly Hope

It strikes me that any politician only wins by the slimmest popular margin (and sometimes not by a popular margin at all). Their use of power–and this is the inherent nature of power; it cannot do otherwise–will please half of the population and send the other half into bouts of depression and paroxysms of outrage. So I cannot for the life of me figure out why anyone who claims to be a Christian would throw any flamboyant support at all towards any politician, much less the mode of the in-the-highways, in-the-hedges gloating and mocking and general mouthing off that passes for political speech these days. In doing so, these professing Christians (of all political stripes) are showing themselves willing to alienate half their neighbors just so they can feel like a winner in a losing game. Talk of depression and outrage, that pretty much does it for me.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t have political leanings or even an idea for what kinds of policies would best serve the common good. I’m just saying, what happened to that ambition to live a quiet life? To do your level best to live at peace with people? Have we so bought into the narrative that politics is the final arbiter of riches and ruin–a narrative that, mind you, tilts awfully heavily in favor of the politicians–that we are too afraid to laugh at such a preposterous notion? And live out that laughter by being decent neighbors?

We’re too caught up in the utopian, the treadmill lies that we’ll get there just around the next bend, but only if the right people hold the reins. We need a good does of the apocalyptic, the settled realization that, based on a few thousand years of pretty much ceaseless and fruitless power struggle, things are pretty well going to flame out long before we get anywhere so we’d best look away from the squabbling in the dining car and consider that ghostly spirit seated up in the engine. Christians are supposed to believe God is that one up there with a hand on the whistle and a hand on the brakes working to save as many from ruin as will be. It’s why we go on so much about ‘Thy Kingdom come’. It’s because that Kingdom is supposed to be so much more desirable and assured that it cools our jets about wrestling over this one.

What can a government do? They can stop and start the flow of money and they can stop and start the infliction of punishment which is, as I said before, laughable along the arc of the cosmic. And it’s also a real source of suffering for those on the receiving end. Is it really such a good look to be merrily clutching the coattails of someone’s oppressor?

To put it another way, if you’re waiting on the power of kings and presidents, you’re going to be waiting an awfully long time. Anyone in this country who’s been waiting around on a state-drafted and -enacted solution to the human condition has been waiting 241 years and things have only gotten as good as they are now. I mean, we have free wifi just about everywhere, but all that’s really worth is bringing the full scope of human atrocity and pettiness into our pockets and living rooms. We did get penicillin, though, and that’s hard to find fault with.

So, while I realize that the world is crazy and it’s a perfectly good instinct to want to stop the crazy, against the blinding angels of our misplaced hope, nonetheless, I pledge my grievance:

The hope for preventing crime and dissuading criminals isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

The hope for feeding hungry kids and and keeping the homeless from freezing to death isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

The hope for rebuilding the family unit as a stable and reliable source of flourishing society isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

The hope for anyone not already hell-bent on racial hate isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

The hope for anyone not already hell-bent on seeking an abortion isn’t legislative, it’s neighborly.

And, by God, no strong right arm of any legislature will ever be the hope for anyone hell-bent on anything. Then, hope can only be neighborly.

On Tools

On Tools

When you have small boys, you get a window of time when they want to help out with everything (besides laundry and dishes and room cleaning, but, surprisingly, yes sometime to dog-poop-picking-up). When you have an oldish house that you and your wife are slowly renovating–she the design and you the labor–you therefore get a lot of help when you’re sawing and nailing. Of course, saws and tiny fingers do not always make the best playmates and this goes probably quadruple when you’re talking power saws. An electric saw poses a danger even to adults (ask any ER nurse), but they also tend to terrify kids because they’re extremely loud. This all poses a bit of a dilemma because that window when your boys’ highest aspiration is to be a good project helper is a precious time to pass along not just the know-how of completing a carpentry job, but also more broadly the value and pleasure of working and building something.

The solution to this dilemma, I think, is to slow down. Why did we start using power saws in the first place? IMG_2885They were fast and they left a cleaner, more squared edge (although that cleaner, more squared edge really only applies in comparison with a rushed or inexperienced cut with a hand saw). But, in speeding up our work and removing some of the necessary skill, we also removed some of our available company.

A while back, my parents gave me a de-lectrified miter saw they found at a garage sale. It has its limitations. It can only accommodate a 2×4 or a 2×6 at most and it doesn’t always cut smoothly (though that could be user error). But, it does cut straight and fast enough. As I used it earlier in the spring to saw lumber for a bookshelf and my two-year-old squatted right at my elbow to watch, even held the handle and ‘helped’ me make a few cuts, I also couldn’t help but notice that this little hand saw had torn down the barrier of fear that used to keep my boys far from my work (and often crying at the hideous screeching whine).

His presence and interest increased my enjoyment of the task immeasurably and the extra time it took felt golden.

 

Dispatches from the job market: sales

If a field of work (sales) is so notoriously unattractive to applicants (for reasons like cutthroat compensation packages plus the fact that you’d be, you know, the one person people go to great lengths to avoid [you and the door-to-door religion folks]) that you need euphemisms (business development/lead generation) to re-brand your industry in hopes of attracting applicants, then maybe it’s time to dig deep into what really turns people off at the outset. Surely it’s not the five-letter word. Surely it’s the work itself. Can you re-brand that?

Scraps: Awkward Pauses

I had to cut this from something I’m working on, but it’s a darling so rather than kill it outright, I’ll just let it live here. It came from a paragraph about reviving the art of conversation in a world drenched with communication.

You have to navigate awkward pauses (which, the awkwardness might actually be just the realization that someone needs to venture some vulnerability to keep the conversation moving and, to your mutual embarrassment, neither one of you is brave enough. Hence that feeling you both try to disown by calling it “awkward” rather than “mutual and embarrassing cowardice”).

Music as Salve for Campaign Burnout

Music as Salve for Campaign Burnout

As a great artist does, Gillian Welch has expressed most of what I’d say about politics in a three-verse song, and with far more poetry. I’ve listened to it often in the past weeks. ‘Hard Times’ is the perfect song for when apocalyptic prophets climb up on the politician’s stump. When you’re working hard because of the hope hard work gives you; when you’re sheltered from the worry of the world by some kind of pleasure; when hardship has truly overtaken you; the refrain above it all should be, ‘Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more.’ The skill and repetition of the plow preaches the same gospel that Jesus gave to our worry. Each row has enough worry of its own. Just get to the end before you turn around and start back the other direction and you’ll be all right.

Have a listen and enjoy.