Junebug versus Hurricane

Red Dirt Girl

Red Dirt Girl

Red Dirt and Aural Terroir

Elena Glasberg

Two girls singing along to the radio, that American jukebox from before the music industry broke down to alt. country, Emmylou Harris’ niche market.  In the time after “race records” but way before itunes, the radio connected a nation in sound and could inspire two girls to sing along – and to imagine a life beyond their “red dirt town.”  But just you try singing along with “Red Dirt Girl,” and you’ll find that the electronica beat joined by the guitar and then Harris’ sweet voice is deceptively simple.  The lyrics — about a doomed girl named Lillian, who “never got any further across the line than Meridian” — come crowding, relentless and yet achingly slow as grief.

It makes sense that the narrative line of “Red Dirt Girl” is driven, as precisely plotted as a road map.  Harris says the lyrics came to her while she was driving – a road sign for Meridian started her thinking of rhymes.  Lillian/ Meridian, the sounds mixing deep in the red dirt of the border between Alabama and Mississippi.  Fixed as this aural geography may be, it also echoes out across the “great big world” Lillian once dreamed of.  Meridian, Mississippi, like Lillian, also once aspired to a greater world.  During the town’s glory days before WWII, the Mobile and Ohio rail lines intersected there.  Jimmie Rogers, “the singing brakeman” left Amtrak for country music greatness.  But since those days, Meridian’s fortunes, like Lillian’s, “keep on falling/ there ain’t no bottom, there aint no end.”

Meridian, as the name itself suggests, is an in-between state; it’s a place to pass over and like Lillian’s story, it is easily passed over.  It’s the place in-between the wars, in between dirt and sky, earthly blues and gospel’s “joyful sound.”  Even today Meridian has among its foreclosed farmland and dying downtown, a church for every 200 inhabitants.  Jimmie Rodgers’s lonesome yodeling and the whistle of a locomotive still ring through the air.  The red dirt still stains the land; it is a form of terroir — a fancy French term for the trace of origins.  We can taste the red dirt in the “off,” or dissonant, rhymes that Harris thought up that day on the road: Lillian/ meridian.  Alabama/ hammer.  And, Girl/ world – the song’s central dissonance: how to tell a story about a life that isn’t supposed to matter.

“There won’t be a mention in the news of the world/ about the life and death of a red dirt girl.”  But every packed line connects Lillian’s life to the greater world.  Her brother’s “fixin’ up a ’49 Indian” hints at the violent appropriation and pathetic failure of southern whites with little money or prospects wanting to “ride to the moon and back again” on an old fantasy of Native freedom – but all he gets is a trip to Viet Nam.  When the “telegram come” it’s only to tell of the death that predicts Lillian’s own, on the very red dirt from whence she sprang.

Given her losses and sense of entrapment, is it any wonder that Lillian wants to “swing that hammer down”?  Foreign wars and domestic misery – the way that meth labs sprout now in places like Meridian like weeds on abandoned train trestles – resolve when Lillian “laid her hammer down/ without a sound.”  Like John Henry, she too gave up her struggle for significance: “Stars still fell on Alabama/ the night she finally laid that hammer down.”  That hammer, beating you down and beating you up, like the steady beat under the song, still sounds through Johnny Mercer’s “Stars Fell on Alabama,” a hit in 1934, when Meridian still passed as a vital crossroads.  All these times and roads, gentleness and violence intersect in the red dirt, the aural terroir of a lost life that tears at gospel sureties and connects to a relentless, “great big world.”

Red Dirt to Red Dirt: Emmylou’s Ode to Joy and Despair

Taylor Black

Emmylou Harris’ “Red Dirt Girl” from her 2000 album of the same name is a perfect song.  Like any good work of folk music, the song tells the story of people who don’t matter living in towns that no one knows about.  However, this piece is also country and southern gothic down to its core, as Emmylou ruminates on failure and sings the song of sadness.  There’s a beat that begins even before the song itself commences.  It’s a hammer: the same one we sung about in “If I Had a Hammer,” the same one that made and broke poor old John Henry.  In Emmylou’s song she gives a eulogy for a woman she imagines living down in Meridian, stuck in the middle of nowhere with nowhere to go.  She’s a well-meaning woman with well-meant hopes and dreams of getting out of her hometown, who ends up swinging her hammer right back down in the same red dirt ground she came from.  That same simple, yet insistent, beat that began the song turns into a story, a death, a part of history for this red dirt girl.

Emmylou’s version of Lillian’s life makes elegant what is so terrible about the myth of success for those of us born to fail.  You see, there are two kinds of red dirt girls: there’s the one who gets out of Meridian—Emmylou, in this case—and the one who, like Lillian, in spite of themselves and their efforts, has nowhere else to go.  However bleak her future was sure to be, Lillian was able to romance the possibility of success for a certain amount of time in her life, wishing and hoping for a way out of Meridian: “She said there’s not much hope for a red dirt girl//somewhere out there is a great big world//that’s where I’m bound//And the stars might fall on Alabama//But one of these days I’m gonna swing my hammer down//Away from this red dirt town//I’m gonna make a joyful sound.”

Those “joyful sounds” of Lillian’s life are textured over the beat of the hammer, as it hammers away at and through the song and the story.  As opposed to the simple, confident beat, the words Emmylou uses as she sings about Lillian are complex, overwrought and almost too much to cram into the melody they create.  However, Emmylou manages to fit it all in beautifully, poetically and almost magically.  Likewise, Lillian’s attempts at overcoming her position in life—“her joyful sounds”—seems to cast a spell over her condition.  While the beat of the hammer begins, drives and ends the song itself, the sound of Lillian’s life, of her failure, of her desires, is represented by the sound of her quiet failure—of her hammer hitting the ground without a sound, but with some kind of resounding beauty.

All of the noisy fantasies that inspired Lillian’s mundane life before her future became known to her, before it became the past, ended up only representing something like an ontological blues, which, as Emmylou tells us, “keep on falling because there ain’t no bottom//there ain’t no end//at least not for Lillian.”  For Emmylou’s audience, or at least for me, there’s beautiful irony in Lillian’s attempts at optimism and hopefulness.   Even before the song admits it to us, Lillian’s fate seems sealed; as Emmylou puts it, she’s bound to die just as isolated and alien as she was born.  There’ll be no news about Lillian in The News of the World, and that’s what makes the song tragic like any country song ought to be, but also important as a work of folk music for eulogizing a life that doesn’t matter.

The tragedy for Lillian, however, is not so much that she doesn’t matter—the song is a living testament to her.  The problem is all the joyful noise that she hoped would one day grant her wishes of success outside of her predetermined position right there in the middle of Alabama.  What Emmylou does so well in this song is to take these sounds and transform them into something else, something more important and transcendent than quotidian desires.  Emmylou’s voice, Lillian’s memory and “Red Dirt Girl” itself each cast their own spells.  Emmylou sings about tragedy only in order to inspire.  You don’t sing to die, you sing because you’re not dead.