Thursday, April 7, 2011

Talkin Country

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
       love what it loves
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

It's a rainy spring/winter day here in Colorado.  I have been laid out with a case of the end-of-winter musings, eating lots of cheese and staring into space for the past week, but yesterday the spell broke.  Since then, it feels like my feet haven't hit the ground. 

I recently dove headlong into Roseanne Cash's memoir, Composed. Reading it feels like stepping into a best friend's kitchen.  Like the best of art, or the best of friends, her voice and insight strikes to the very core of my heart, and I'm not ashamed to say I teared up reading its first pages. 

I also read a book by Karen Maezen Miller during my weekend stupor (fittingly a book on engaging more deeply with your daily life...Note to self: mindfully get up off the couch).  The book was called Hand Wash Cold, and something she wrote keeps cycling through my head.  This is a paraphrase, because I already returned the book to the library.  She says it takes a mother to heal a daughter, and a daughter to heal a father.  Reading about Roseanne Cash's relationship to her father moves me not just because of a life-long obsession with Johnny Cash, with whom I share a birthday, and whom my friend Colleen and I used to call JC, jokingly usurping Christ's initials for the purposes of a different worship.  I appreciated Cash's honest reflection upon her father because reading about any earnest look at parent-child relationships really moves me.

And so, when I got to Cash's summation of country music and song-writing, I felt a shiver pass from the bottom of my spine up my back, and felt it rush out of my arms.  Cash writes: At the heart of country music lies family, lies a devotion to exploring the bonds of blood ties, both  in performance and in song-writing...Country and roots music treat family as a rich and fascinating source of material...

When people first learn that I am writing a novel, a lot of them ask what it's about.  I used to smugly answer, "A family."  It is still my sincere answer, my umbrella answer--one part goofy and one part hide-out.  Superstition rules more moments in my life than I like to admit.  "Your family?" some people ask.  "No, no," I say.  "A family."  What I mean is, Family.  I am writing a book about Family. 

When I was little, I called my mother to the television to see a country singer performing on a show.  I was pretty excited about it.  My mother made it half way across the room before covering her ears and just about running away.  Since then, I've tried to come up with explanations for why I love country music so much, because as I grew up, I recognized that our love affair--country music's and mine--is a little ironic.  Like the scene in Kissing Jessica Stein, when the two main characters are trying to define what "sexy ugly" means.  Country is sexy-ugly to me.  I know it's not Brahms.  I know it's not Radiohead, not Weezer, not Beck.  (But it is Wilco, is Dylan, is Jack White wailing on a guitar while Loretta Lynn warbles into the front mike.)  Where I come from, country is not what the cool kids are listening to, and I know this all too well. 

But lately I've given up wondering why I blast Alan Jackson through the house whenever I come home.  Or why I have not stopped playing Tammy Wynette's greatest hits for the past five days.  I make no apologies.  My downstairs housemate, who is an actor, is rehearsing for a musical. When the clock strikes noon, I know it is time to bolt from the house, because soon he will play the same two songs over and over, singing choral refrains in the laundry room, in his bedroom, in the driveway...It is both a fascinating glimpse of an artist's life and a daily reminder that creativity is a home-grown force.  In any case, for this reason, I play Stand By Your Man like a clock striking the hour, and feel no remorse.  Tit for tat.

I think I know who to blame for this passion--my friend from college.  A shy soccer player from Masachusettes, Liz introduced me to the great car songs of our college life--country musicians I had been hiding from in my leafy Connecticut perch.  I had been born into a southern heritage--my grandfather's heavy radio dialed to twangy guitars and whining lyrics while he ate banana sandwiches for lunch, peanut butter crackers with glasses of milk for a snack, in between round after round with his riding lawn mower--but when I was five, my family moved to Connecticut.  There, my mother could escape the music that had become so ludicrous to her.  She joined a choral group and sang show tunes at nursing homes and schools with a collection of sassy women.  My father could scan the Times as he rode the train into New York every morning.  We bought scarves to cover our tender ears the first winter.  We took pictures at a snowy beach on our first Thanksgiving, after we ate in a restaurant--one little clan of funny-talking children led by two sweet sweet adults.  In the spring, when daffodils came up in my grandmother's garden, we were 600 miles away.  When her tomatoes came up in the summer, we were driving the 600 miles south to eat them by the peppered slice.

People ask me where I am from, and I say to them, North Carolina.  You don't sound like you're from North Carolina, they reply.  I know.  But trust me.  I am.  My grandmother's house, her kitchen, the big ass radio and pristine white carpets--if there is any hometown left in this traveling heart, it is there.  And country music takes me back there, delivers me to my first home--to the south, the place where everything is a little bit broken, a little bit off, and sometimes, if you look too closely, a little bit something to be ashamed of...especially to an outsider's eye.  But I don't have an outsider's eye.  There is no accusation left for me--just pure adoration.

There is a yogic saying--This is perfect, that is perfect.  If the perfect be taken from the perfect, the perfect remains.  I think that's what I love about country music - the exaggerated brokenness, and the reverence for that very thing.  It is redemption, I guess you could say.  In true southern fashion, it's a straight shot of Jesus, chased with a spot of sun through the porch screen.

Last night, I heard Robert Plant and Alison Krauss's version of Your Long Journey (off of the album Raising Sand) and immediately imagined singing it with my mother.  We used to sing together before bed every night, and though we have not sung together much since, she has a voice as delicate as crystal, and as clear, and I am so grateful for the gift of song which she passed on to me.

In honor of Johnny Cash, and artists everywhere, I leave you with these words by Roseanne Cash: ...what I understand more clearly now, is that it's not just the singing you bring home with you.  It's the constant measuring of ideas and words if you are a songwriter, and the daily handling of your instrument if you are a musician, and the humming and scratching and pushing and testing of the voice, the reveling in the melodies if you are a singer.  More than that, it is the effort to straddle two worlds, and the struggle to make the transition from the creative realms to those of daily life and back with grace.  My father did all of those, as a habit of being.  He provided a template for me, of how to live with integrity as an artist day to day.

May we all give thanks to our teachers, to our roots.


  1. Oh, Kara! there is so much to take from this. as always, I love the poems you choose and the way you bounce from idea to idea--making it all connect and work somehow. and now i must go find that robert plant/alison krauss song.

  2. Yes, that song is amaaaaaazing. P.S. hope to make Mexican Bimbibap tomorrow. Let you know how it goes.


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