Junebug versus Hurricane


She’s Got To Be

She’s Got To Be

Taylor Black

July 2011


When I was very young I wanted to be a witch.  No, not in the sun and moon-worshipping, pentacle-wearing way, but a real witch, the kind you see in movies.  In fact, my obsession was specifically with the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, and until I was around seven or eight years old I not only idolized her mentally and emotionally but also dressed as her more often than not.  Cloaked in black, witch’s hat in place and riding around my family’s house on a broomstick, I felt most at home in my own skin.

As the years passed and all the confusing feelings and sensations brought on by puberty began to wax, all the imperiousness and dark glamour that influenced my idea of myself as a young witch transformed into what might be generously called a bourgeoning gender and sexual identity.  As I ceased riding around on broom sticks and began to ponder my life as a matured adult being I then began to slowly cultivate a different idea of myself as a person found myself drawn to women that were, like Miss Witch: cold, commanding and horribly imposing.

I then spent the rest of my teenage years basking in the glow of these women and this wicked, feminized vision of myself.  Luckily, I then found myself able to manipulate my icy form of majestic detachment as a sort of self-defense mechanism as I hurtled through all the drama one might expect for a depraved young faggot growing up in the oppressively masculine, drab Bible Belt South.  More tragically, I suppose, I also felt a certain distance —from other people, from lovers, from myself, from my own body.

Living in the ivory tower of my fantasies, I began to feel all alone.  And then soon I was.  Everything would be okay, would stay in its rightful place, so long as I didn’t look into a mirror.  Sex felt alright if I didn’t have to be touched or feel anything good.  Friendships were okay if I did all the talking but none of the sharing.  Being a member of my family was fine just as long as no one mentioned or thought about my future as a human being, much less as a gendered one.

Fast-forward to my sad, stony face staring around New York City, my new home.  Running just as fast as I could out of North Carolina and pointing my toes, or my broomstick, due north, I landed on its shores at age 18, expecting something of a community and some kind of solid sense of identity to come my way.  The queer world I found myself in was not one I was able to fold myself so easily into.  Drunk on (post-)identity politics and the prescriptive narratives and vocabularies that went along with it, I felt even more failed than before.  Knee-deep in sinners presumably like myself and settled into a community of queers and a city full of failures, I still felt my obvious lack of identification and hope for my sorry state of sexual abjection and gender dysphoria to be a burden and a source of that same loneliness I’d become so accustomed to.

Which brings me, however belatedly, to the song that I intended to focus squarely on this week, but that got waylaid by this little confessional.  Not just the title for this mistaken autobiography of mine, but also the title of the second song off of Amy Ray’s most recent solo record Didn’t It Feel Kinder\”She\’s Got To Be\” is the closest to an anthem or to a trans/queer audiobiography that I might be able to relate to.

Odd as it is, I find a lot of myself in this road-weary, road-worn song Amy Ray has written about her butchness and her own relationship to gender dysphoria.  Across generations, bodies and sexualities, I find this very personal, yet complicated and even cagey, “anthem” of hers comforting.  For better or worse, the song stands out on the album it appears on, but also in the whole of Amy Ray’s catalogue.  Following behind the image

the bass and the beat comes Amy Ray singing in a boyish falsetto.  Her voice is deceptively sweet, sounding almost like some sort of fucked up version of David Cassidy or Donny Osmond.  If you don’t listen carefully to the lyrics in the first verse it would be easy to think of the song as a love song for another woman.

She’s got to be with me always

To make sense of the skin I’m in

Sometimes it gets dangerous

And lonely to defend

Marking time with every change

It’s hard to love this woman in me

The first time I listened to the song was at a concert, standing just a few feet from Amy Ray and her band as she closed her eyes and started in on this devastatingly personal and personalizing ballad to her self.  Mind you, I’d heard the song a whole lot of times in the weeks leading up to the show on record, but I hadn’t listened to what it was saying.  More than that, though, I don’t think it would have willfully occurred to me that a song sung about queerness might have anything to say to me, isolated as I have become in my mixed-up, useless image of myself.

Amy Ray’s song romances the sadness I’ve always had but never clearly felt or understood.  “She’s Got To Be” is everything I need it to be: an anthem about losing gracefully.   It is resigned, undone, incomplete and, at least to me, absolutely gorgeous.  As I’ve said, you can’t sing a song in praise of some-thing about yourself that you didn’t create or do.  If you try and sing triumphantly about a game you can’t win, you’ll lose out in the end.  You lost before you began.  But, what you can do is sing in the name of your failure—not to over-essentialize or lionize it, but to wrap yourself in it and feel at home.  You can stop fighting against yourself if you stop pretending you might be able to win.

She’s the one that stills the seas

Finds the truth in this anarchy

Dives the depth of every age

Keeps this body and knows the shape

The chorus sounds anthemic, but is really more of a spell that Amy Ray casts in her singing of it.  Instead of celebrating, it’s creating. It’s resolving.  You’ve got to be to be free.

I will love I will protect this love

It was hard to get

I will love and I will protect this love

And it’s anarchy

Standing at the show, drunk on gin and staggered by the weight of what I was suddenly hearing, I began to cry quietly—something, as you might imagine, that doesn’t come naturally or easily to me.  The revelation in the song is in Amy Ray’s willingness to give in to herself, to stop fighting and start becoming.  Central to my own melancholy regarding any queer or trans narrative I might be able to apply to myself is a recognition that my fantasies and desires—of my self, my body and my sexual expression—can’t translate into anything.  This song, like me, is resigned to its failure and in love with its chaos.

The thing that made me cry is the impossibility—of gender, cohesion, language, existence—Amy Ray realizes and demonstrates in her performance of the song.  I cried not because I was sad for her, though, but because I knew what she was expressing, felt what she was admitting to have failed at.  From my early years on a broomstick to my isolated attempts at finding a home for myself and a useful meaning for my desires, I stood rejoicing in this sweet little song of hers about giving up and staying put.  In order to love yourself and become you’ve got to learn to leave well enough alone.  Instead of breaking you down, failure can be full of capacity,  a way of being and becoming in and of itself.

As I have come to believe in my twilight: when there’s nowhere to go it can feel a lot less lonely and horrifying to stay put, to remain right where you seem to belong.  “She’s Got To Be” isn’t a queer anthem, but it’s an anthem to queer-ness; to self-love, instead of misguided self-praise.  In place of the noise of rebellion and the silent echoes of loneliness came this song of self-love and affirmation to save me.  In every subsequent listen, I remain to be wooed by its sweet sounds of failure, caught up in the romantic melody of resignation.

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“The Second Time Around” for Amy Ray’s “Laramie”

— Again

Elena Glasberg

November, 2010

hunting season's over

I’ve got a queer hangover and it is NOT getting any better.  Actually, it’s getting harder and harder to be me.  I mean at 51, finally the world cannot stop speaking of my categories in the most emotional and righteous of ways.  If it’s not Israelis killing innocent Palestinians in the name of God-knows-what, it’s gays beaten and killed by “neighborhood bullies.”  Or, as some lament, not being allowed to kill (unlike those universally conscripted Jewish Israelis) for their country.  And now, “gay suicide”: gays killing themselves before anyone gets the chance.

Life for gay kids was once easier.  Before the “It gets better (so you can become normal)” tidal wave gathered and struck.  I remember as an undergrad at Purchase College in the late 1970s I had a chance to take a course on gay culture with a now-foundational anthropologist.  She was a Jew and a butch.  No way, I thought.  Why would I want to study what I already knew?  I was so dumb!  I could’ve caught a case of identity studies as it was on the rise and begun a profitable career in my self.  But no.  I took astronomy and Medieval literature, though I was neither sidereal in nature nor was I of the past.  I was just trying to live my girl-obsessed punky little life.  I showed up one time to the (newly forming) gay undergrad club that met in a room in the basement of the dorm.  Scanning the room of fatties and dweebs and seeing not one female who didn’t make me hate myself almost as much as I was likely to come to hate them if I stayed, I fled back to the light of apolitical prettiness and joyful exclusion.

Forgive me, Amy.  I didn’t know any better.  I was a rocker.  Loved Lou Reed and Patti Smith.  Television, Neil Young.  Screaming guitars.  Lucinda, Dylan.  I did not associate with lesbian-feminist women’s music festival any more than I could tolerate Melissa Etheridge’s middle American high school version of the lesbian loner peeking in straight girls’ windows.  Earnest and direct politics worked for Woody Guthrie.  But for everyone else, it’s musical death.  But with typical missionary zeal, Junebug showed me the error of my ways.  Now the scales have fallen from out my ears holes, I can hear Amy Ray’s commitment and her experience with multiple communities and genres: rural kids, Homocore, women’s music, bluegrass, Native land rights, protest songs, anthems.  And as it turns out, she was weary, weary of the coerciveness of communities of outlaws and of the highjackings of injury and loss of the normative movement of gay politics.  Given the recent and seemingly natural (or as they say on the internet where everything happens now, “viral”) expansion of national gay rights production of an evidential “epidemic” of gay bullying and suicides in the “It Gets Better” videos, it just might be time for a second time around with Ray’s 2001 Song about Matthew Shephard’s murder, “Laramie.”

Amy Ray sings the connections of the US landscape, from the old fields and plantations, dirt roads, and highways.  She’s been riding the rails between a place called home and the road, like a good American troubadour.  When she’s on the road she’s dreaming of a dirt road.  When she’s sitting at the end of that dirt road, she’s singing about getting back on that open road.  That’s what troubadours do; they trouble space and the air with their songs.  When she’s not hurrying on to some woman down that road or trying to make her way back to the one she shouldn’t have left, Ray’s road songs are actually thinking about those spaces, fences, and networks that trace and create the political landscape of the US. Now is the time to revisit one of those places at the end of a road, Laramie.

The road to Laramie is a weary one.  “We all heard about that mess.”  We’ve been hearing it and replaying this dirge of young men martyred in the name of hatred.  Or was it freedom?  The campaigns for so-called “gay” marriage and for open military service and the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell policy more than ever define gay politics.  These moral, political goals leave behind the “mess” of actual sexual politics as it forms bodies and classes of people not unlike the way barbed wire created the Plains by fencing things in and keeping things out.

Laramie’s liquid la la syllables invoke the “open plains” of cowboys and Indians.  Of course cowboys and Indians has never been a simple set of stories.  Laramie’s associations of conflict, enmity, and racialized hatred have deepened since Matthew Shepherd met his end on the side of a road, leaned up against a barbed wire fence, the same cheap and flexible fences that helped create the “open” space of the plains and a cattle industry.  The same fences that helped drive under Native ways of living on that land.

The “road to Laramie” comes at you with a heavy downbeat.  It comes with Neil Young’s electric guitar distortion, catching at your mind like the barbs on the wire catch at the animals, the weeds, all the lives trying to pass through.  And it comes now with a new myth, one to replace the dead Indians and the wide open: a little blond boy beaten to death by ignorant, hateful and doubtless desirous white thugs from hometown Laramie. 

With a dolorous atonal chord Ray calls out, “Hey coalitions/ Lay down your mission/aries” to skewer the morality of the aggressive new missionary mode of gay politics.  And it applies even better to this understandable but no less lamentable recent move to counter-missionize “at-risk” youth.  The viral “It gets better” videos point to the truth of the slur that gays “recruit.”  They missionize.  Of course they do.  Surely, MS was on a mission that night at the bar in Laramie – to get laid, to find friends and acceptance.  What he ran into were the fences and the barbs.  But Laramie wasn’t any different from the rest.

it gets better

Ray won’t give into urban-centered myths of freedom: “those boys just doing what the fancy people think.”  They’re the cowboys who unrolled and strung out the bales of wire fencing that made the plains.  But more often as not they’re just frat boys now, bewildered and diminished manhoods roaming the range to which Amy Ray aims another wall of noise: “Hey motherfuckers! Party season’s over…” Not just for them, but us too. Those boys in Laramie are not a party, a people “out there.”  They are not an enemy.  And not only are we not martyrs, the martyrs are actually not us.  Despite the outpourings of facile identification and developmentalism implied in the “It gets better” viral reproduction, no one really knows what it was like for the suicides.  Or for Matthew Shephard.  Further, these deaths and failures to connect, victimizations and murders may not add up to anything we know call homophobia.  For example, few consider the persistent utility of homophobia in the expression of so many religious leaders as more an effect of historical sectarianism than a real hatred of gay people.  In fact, with the “It gets better” campaign the public gay movements now slavishly imitate religions, states, and as the term campaign also suggests, military strategy.  In other words, Ray suggests that the Coalitions are missionary.  Imitators of what they seek to upend.

For coalition, Ray offers Neil Young, a connection through rock n roll, distorted guitars, songs like “Pocahontas” and “Powder Finger.”  And it makes sense Ray has been covering these relatively obscure Young songs for her young-er audience, carrying on the tradition of redressive resistance.  “Pocahontas,” despite its creepy moccasin-fever, animates the myth of the dead Indian: Pocahontas is a living, seeing presence in the aural landscape.  “Powder Finger” is a Faulknerian take on coming of age with Civil War.  From its opening alarm, “Look out Mama, there’s a white boat coming down the river” it tells the story of the brief life of a boy caught up in a war that comes to his quiet town.  American history never sounded like this, it never looked like this.  The boy might have just as easily been on the banks of a river in Viet Nam, too.  All the rivers, like all the roads converge on a young man “just turned 22” and not going to make it to the last line of the song, dying in a war he had no idea of.

There’s a connection Ray is trying for, between Young’s generation of the Vietnam War and civil rights protest movements and the contemporary resurrection of that national sacrificial figure.  Now, post-nation, “post” civil rights, we get gay martyrs as representative of a real rights-bearing category of civil life.  Before “all [this] mess,” Matthew Shepherd might have been another boy dead from war, drinking, class anger, syphilis, AIDS.  But now that sexuality fights its way through injury towards a rights-bearing condition, a gay martyr emerges from the murk of people just doing wrong.  And it is no accident that he was – and is – that type of the white male citizen, soldier, martyr.  Yeah, we all heard about that mess.  “But that town ain’t any different from the rest.” The sentimental attachment to male martyrdom and to suicide in particular distort understanding of what can change politically – and for whom — in the area of sexual freedom and policy (or rights discourse).

Laramie was also the end of the road in the gay rights imaginary—both an impasse, or a turning point in time where they said ‘enough’s enough,’ invigorating their homonationalist campaigns for rights at the end of the century.  Imagine all the concerned left and east coast homos who descended on Laramie in the years following the incident like ‘49ers, picking at the memory of this poor dead boy and mining that poor dead town for all the political and cultural metaphors they could fit in their knapsacks and take back home with them, back on the campaign.  Can a town’s political metaphors/usages be stripped mined out until the landscape is bare?  Will the fair-haired white gay martyr continue to be the gold standard of the gay rights movement at the expense of the all the land, the rest of the people, a fuller accounting and connection through history and geography?

When this country or this gay rights movement can use a different kind of martyr, well, the need for civic sacrifice will itself most likely have died out.  “Party time” will one day be over.  In that case, with Amy Ray, I say RIP.



World Without Tears: A Devotional, Part 1

World Without Tears: A Devotional, Part 1

Taylor Black

May 2010

    Coda:

    I climbed all the way inside

    Your tragedy

    I got behind

    The majesty

Of the different shapes

In every note

The endless tapes

Of every word you wrote

Preface: Misery Loves Company

Just as that tired, worn out old saying says: misery loves company.  While the remark is normally intended as a kind of passive-aggressive jab directed at the kind of person who tortures their friends, family and really any poor charitable soul who will listen with a never-ending sympathy of complaints and woe-is-me’s, for me, it’s a way of life.  As you plunge your self and your own sympathies into this piece, you will see that my own love of misery’s company is really the motor behind all my thoughts and affections, weepy and strange as they may be.

And another thing, dear reader: whether or not you’ve figured it out by now, the string of ideas, gushes and aphorisms that might otherwise be politely referred to as a “paper” will be largely—and, I hope, wonderfully—self-indulgent. There will be more affection in my writing than analysis, and I will concern myself more with how things feel and sound as I say them than defend them as ground-breaking ideas or concepts—I will be writing about music after all.  At the very least, I hope you read things you want to hear and that the sight of me wallowing in my own wickedness is entertaining.

We are entering dangerous territory, or, rather, I should say I am entering into a project that’s about my absolute favorite album done by my absolute favorite artist.  Why is this dangerous?  Well, as most of my previous “academic” work has been conventionally analytical, I haven’t spent much time or intellectual energy lingering on the things in my life that I love.  I will shamefully admit that for a long while, my interpretation of doing scholarly work has been about making arguments about things or situating myself into theoretical discussions that have been raging on in one form or another for-probably-ever.  In this state of blissful recalcitrance, I found it easiest to make my arguments and my very defensive(?) claims about things I felt a certain detachment from; the idea of responding to and writing about something I love so religiously as music and a figure I identify with so wholly might lead me into embarrassing, confessional territory.

So, with all of that said, I would simply like to emphasize the fact that with this new turn in my work (let’s call it my musical turn for the time being), I am pushing my thoughts and my academic productions away from its defensive, readerly roots towards somewhere and something more celebratory.  The joke I brought up in the first sentence will not be, at the end of all of this, on me; as I ruminate on Lucinda Williams’ World Without Tears I will hold it up as an ode to loneliness and despair, all the while doing my own part to draw out and wallow around in the loooove in “Misery Loves Company.”

In terms of a method, mine will be not be very methodological.  For starters, you will detect a stark lack of citation in what lays ahead of you—this is not because (believe it or not) I don’t care what other people have to say about Lucinda or any of the musical genres her music and my depictions of her engage with, but because I want to resist the rather litigious urge in academic scholarship to prove what’s said critically and creatively by citing, engaging and situating compulsorily.  My thoughts and indeed the sonic space inside my head where they reside and are generated have not come from a vacuum.  In similar ways that songwriters can say that this or that piece is inspired by this or that artist or genre, there is a kind of interplay between this paper and the texts—in this case, Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queens Throat, José Muñoz’ Cruising Utopia, Jimmy McDonough’s new Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen and Hélène Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing— I have been inhabiting during the writing process.  While I engage with these pieces to the extent that their thoughts and modes of writing ring in my mind and my ear while I myself do work, I will not attempt to condense or be totally responsible for them, as I try and work with this model of residual, ghostly intertextuality through my own thoughts and feelings.

Secondly, I will confess that the idea of explicitly explaining, describing or deconstructing Lucinda’s music and the album I am approaching gives me even more angst than attempting to be responsible for the contents of a book.  Music, like literature and academic scholarship alike, is a process of creativity and failure, and its products and productions should not be approached in order to determine what is they represent or explain, but instead honored for what they do, as well as for what sensations, feelings, misgivings and thoughts they create in the hearing of them.  So, just as these authors and these books will be singing their songs in my head while I write, so too while the contents of World Without Tears play while I move from word to word and page to page.  As I move ahead, I will rarely approach a song in any literal way or attempt to take it apart—either lyrically or otherwise.  Instead, I will let my thoughts and feelings flow against the backdrop of particular tracks on the album, which I will dutifully and possibly excruciatingly play on repeat while I construct the different spaces of my piece.  When I have done so, I will list the song and request that my reader try and listen while they read so that they too can sense the rhythm and the affective space with which this piece comes to be.  When I do sense a particularly cogent or uncanny relevance of Lucinda’s lyrics for these songs, I will chop them up and place them—in italics—throughout the piece.

With all of that out of the way, I promise not to defend myself or my feelings anymore throughout this work, which is really more like a religious devotional than any kind of academic prose I can imagine.  I’m sure I will contradict myself here and there, and my love of Lucinda and tragedy may confound or even fatigue my reader, but I do hope you will at least appereciate my earnestness and the purity of whatever feelings I express here. But why?  And shouldn’t I be ashamed at such a disgusting display? Isn’t all of this self-loathing instead of self-loving?  Or am I just being ironic?  One very easy way to get out these pointed, if obvious, slew of accusations and doubts about my so-called love for misery and the truly miserable would be to revert to some kind of psychoanalytic explanation about being from the Bible Belt South and having internalized and maybe even romanticized all of the most terrible components of the melodramatic Fire and Brimstone culture I was brought up in; or worse, I could simply lean on my identity as a homosexual man and sight some well-known, meaningless tropes about queerness and tragedy as a way of placating you and letting me and my work off the hook as “camp.”

Her Wonderful Wickedness

(Listen to) Righteously

          • Think this through
          • I laid it down for you every time
          • Respect me I give you what’s mine
          • You’re entirely way too fine

In all kinds of rather obvious ways, my decision to undertake this Lucinda record is a mistake.  First of all, it’s not her most beloved body of work; 1998’s Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is the one album critics and journalists love to love.  With its cinematic, narrative songs that weave their ways in and out of moldy, humid corners of the Delta region of the American South, Car Wheels combines just the right amount of folksy realness with meticulously high-brow literaryness to please the kinds of critics who felt invested in roots music but isolated from the explosion of decidedly middling, middlebrow pop music coming out of Nashville.  Here you had something as conceptual and sophomorically intellectual as a Bob Dylan or Neil Young album falling from the heavy, weary lips of a woman who had not only conceived of, but actually lived the very southern stories she sung about, all delivered in her thick, muggy southern drawl. Even more exciting for journalists and critics alike was the gossip surrounding and the drama that weighted down the production of the album; taking over four years, three different incantations, three different producers and countless victims employed along the way, once Car Wheels finally came out, Lucinda had managed to gain a reputation for herself as a bitchy, histrionic perfectionist—and (the mostly male) world of rock criticism and journalism still, to this day, can’t seem to publish anything without using that “perfectionist” word, just like no one had ever said it or thought it before they regurgitated it.  Leave it to them.

    • Arms around my waist
    • You get a taste of how good this can be
    • Be the man you ought to tenderly
    • You’re entirely way too fine

You see, or as you already assume or expect, our Ms. Williams is a bit hard to take.  For one, she is a perfectionist, and, leaving all gendered epithets aside, doesn’t hide her emotions very well.  While most of her fans and critics are both men, their relationship is totally different, and what they see and hear in Lucinda varies completely.  For the detached rock critic, weighed down by their strange mix of irony and corporate professionalism, Lucinda’s story is sort of a joke on her, something to talk about ad nauseam.

When you run your hand

All up and run it back down my leg

Get excited and bite my neck

Get me all worked up like that

You don’t have to prove

        • Your manhood to me constantly
        • I know you’re the man can’t you see
        • I love you Righteously

I

The song “Righteously” that is blaring in my ears while I write this is an anthem to power and glory through abjection.  In some ways related to Tammy Wynette’s epic song of total, devastating and, in the end, failed devotion to her man, Lucinda’s song is, in some ways, a promise of hers to the man she’s got in her life.  However, it’s also a wicked line of flight away from the sentiments expressed in “Stand By Your Man”; beyond and behind her coy promises of righteous love is the real power of this song, which actually, magically stimulates, entices and interpellates her man’s devotion. For the middle aged white men I see at her shows, however, there is a spark in their eyes and a look of abject devotion on their face that lets me know they get it: they don’t look down on Lucinda, they look up at her, and while the sad and sorrowful definitely falls out of her whenever she opens her mouth to sing, it is her fierce, flirtatious and wicked delivery and composure that transforms her tragedies into an elixir that draws her devotees in and brings them down to their grateful knees.

Arms around my waist

You get a taste of how good this can be

Be the man you ought to tenderly

Stand up for me

Approaching Lucinda, Our Beautiful Loser

(Listen to) Sweet Side

      • So you don’t always show your sweet side…

Just this side of strange in comparison with the other men at Lucinda’s concerts, I will admit that the main reason I enjoy myself at her shows, though, is mitigated through my sense as well as my perception of her anxiety that is normally—almost ritually—played out each evening she performs in a certain chronology.  When she finally makes her way on stage (always very belatedly, in my notable experience), she brings with her an unsettling sort of presence.  Lucinda’s affect and disposition is weighed down by a stony, stoic, silent stage fright for the first third of the set, as she moves her way through a handful of amazingly slow, overwrought, plodding, pitiful old songs (the kinds anyone else would tell you to not perform in concert, much less for the first part of the damn set!) allthewhile averting the gaze of the audience and dissociating her from the stage she is performing on.

        • You run yourself ragged tryin’ to be strong

You feel bad when you done nothin’ wrong

Love got all confused with anger and pride

So much abuse on such a little child

Someone you trusted told you to shut up

Now there’s a pain in your gut that you can’t get rid of

After this, thanks to nerves and/or whatever liquor she’s got in her cup up there on stage (she says she drinks Grand Marnier to coat her throat, so there’s at least that…), our once sheepish heroine warms up a bit, maintaining her anxieties and displeasures about her surroundings.  Peppering—or, if you’re not into such tenuous forms of spectatorship, cluttering—her performance with false starts and vulgar outbursts, Lucinda has come out of her shell a bit (the last example that comes to mind is her, very seriously and angrily, stopping mid-song to say “Who do I have to fuck to get a fucking fan up here? It’s fucking hot!” Other times I’ve heard her scold people for talking during her set, asking them if they’d like to “fucking do it” themselves)—finally opening herself up to the crowd, only to turn, venomously and breathtakingly, against them.

You were screamed at and kicked over and over

Now you always feel sick and you can’t keep a lover

        • You get defensive at every turn
        • You’re overly sensitive and overly concerned

Few precious memories no lullabies

Hollowed out centuries of lies

A Lucinda Williams concert then, and finally, comes to an end in a flurry of hard-rocking, loud songs that are as frayed at the edges, but orgasmically so.  By the time you’re ready to leave, Lucinda has certainly done what a good showman is supposed to do, which is give you your money’s worth by keeping you on the edge of your seat and the tips of your toes.  The angst and constant fear of total disaster that guides both Lucinda and her audience through the evening come full circle by the final bows, as she drags out the blaring, cathartic portion of the evening until everyone is drunk and damn well spent.  Bill Buford, in his—confused, rather patronizing—depiction of Lucinda published in The New Yorker not long after the release of Car Wheels summed up one of her shows in this way:

    “. . .it’s still possible to see a live show in which she gets a little carried away-and she always seems to be on the verge of getting a little carried away-and hear almost the entire oeuvre, as was the case about eighteen months ago at New York’s Irving Plaza, when Williams’s [sic] encores went on longer than the act, and the audience emerged, after nearly two and a half hours, thoroughly spent, not only by the duration of the program but also by the unforgiving rawness of the songs.”1

What I cannot grasp here—and indeed what I intend to turn on its head, is this very expected, boring depiction of Lucinda as merely a crazy bitch who happens to have written some amazing songs—that being a fan of hers or even being in the presence of her is a thoroughly harrowing thing for someone to be put through—is the lack of empathy that Mr. Buford carries in his self-confessed appreciation of Lucinda’s music.  And, of course, he’s not the only person or journalist to put Lucinda and her concert performances in such a glib light (incidentally, a Time Out New York blurb that hinted at possible trainwrecks and meltdowns at one of her concerts was the cause of a night of drama and bitching from Lucinda, who did not get over or stop mentioning it for the entire evening); perhaps this condescending sketch of Lucinda-the-crazy-person is their backhanded, backwards way of complimenting the strength of her music, which they appreciate and understand through very staid tropes of the beautiful loser: the outsider/tortured artist whose brilliance shines in spite and at the expense of themselves (think: Townes Van Zandt, Janis Joplin, Billie Holliday, Tammy Wynette, and on and on).  You see, for these folks, Lucinda and her music alike are only fascinating because she’s a train wreck; all descriptions of her, in turn, quickly become cautionary tales.

        • You’re tough as steel and you keep your chin up
        • You don’t ever feel like you’re good enough

Well, as I’ve said and will say again and again, this tale about our Miss Williams will not be a cautionary, ironic or detached one.  In order to love her music, you’ve got to appreciate the angst, romance in the disaster and wallow along with her as she moves through her songs and makes them work.  True listening is an act faith on the part of the listener—and when the image of the singer/songwriter is just as present in the song as the notes and the lyrics that guide them through, a determined empathy and, dare I say, a religious affection are both completely necessary.

    • I’ll stick by you baby through thick and thin
      • No matter what kind of shape you’re in

Cause I’ve seen your sweet side…



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.