Wilco, Whiskeytown, Blind Boys of Alabama: Random Shuffle

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“I AM TRYING TO BREAK YOUR HEART,” WILCO (YANKEE HOTEL FOXTROT, 2002): My wife and I have done quite a bit of traveling in our decade+ of marriage. We’ve seen a little over half of the U.S., plus bits of Canada. At different points in our lives, we’ve lived in France, Belgium and China with healthy ventures through those continents while living there. I’ll no doubt tell lots of travel stories in these pages over the next months, years, etc., and I hope they are at least half as much fun reading them as it was living them.

I love to drive. There is something brilliant about getting behind the wheel and just going. Whizzing down the highway past town after town, zipping past slower cars while weaving in and out of interstate lanes is its own sort of addiction. I’ve always said that I’d love to have a job just driving around the country. That might work out, if I was comfortable behind the wheel of anything larger than a mid-sized Miata Funny thing that there aren’t any jobs driving around the country in small cars, listening to music — at least none that I’ve found.

Better yet than driving is riding on trains. We don’t do a lot of that here in the states but you can travel in style on a train all over Europe and Asia. The thing about a train is you get much of the pleasure of driving, without any of the hassle. There’s no pulling off the interstate looking for a gas station or toilet. There’s no maddeningly slow car driving in the fast lane barely passing all the ridiculously large trucks. If you need to pee, there’s a toilet on board. A snack? Visit the meal car. If your legs get tired you can just stand up and walk around.

I love it, I really do. I love to take a seat by the window and watch the world slowly slip by as I travel to new, wonderful destinations. On long rides, I like to take a good book and slip the hours away through stories.

One also needs some good travel music. Only certain kinds of music will do on a train. You don’t want anything too heavy or fast, as that doesn’t jibe with the pace of the train or the scenery passing by. Super slow sad music doesn’t work either, as you don’t want to fall asleep and miss that quaint little town with the beautiful church on the hill. And nobody wants to see another man cry on the train.

I like mid-tempo art rock, with perhaps a hint of folk when I train. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is my absolute go to music when I’m riding. The first time I heard the album was on a train, actually. Me, my sister, her husband, and my wife were traveling from Barcelona to Paris by way of half a dozen little bergs in France one summer. The sister had a copy of this album and I borrowed it and played it over and over. It blended so perfectly with the French countryside that I still kind of think Wilco made it with that ride in mind. There were all of these green rolling hills passing by, with cows roaming the pastures and vineyards dotting the land. It was just gorgeous and Wilco provided the perfect soundtrack.

“HOUSES ON THE HILL,” WHISKEYTOWN (STRANGER’S ALMANAC, 1997): My father is a house builder. At this point, he’s basically a contractor because he’s too old to do any of the physical work. Growing up, I saw how demanding his career was. He worked long, grueling hours. He’d spend the day working in the hot Oklahoma sun (or the bitter cold winters) then come home and have to draw plans or meet with customers. His skin was deeply tanned and hard as leather.

He used to ask me if I wanted to grow up to be a house builder, as well. My answer was always no. I knew that kind of work was not for me. He’d always laugh at that answer and say “good,” knowing I was right.

A few months ago we packed all of our belongings, moved back to Oklahoma and I started working for him. It wasn’t what we had planned to do, it wasn’t what I really wanted to do, but it was something I wound up having to do.

The wife lost her job at university, and she decided that she wanted to stay at home with the toddler — which meant I had to get to work. I tried desperately to find something in Tennessee, where we were living at the time, but a 38-year-old man with no measurable skills and a resume with a giant blank on it for the last five years doesn’t get a lot of call backs. So to Oklahoma we went, and to Oklahoma we are.

Its not bad, actually. The work isn’t too hard since we pay younger, healthier people to do the heavy lifting. The hours can sometimes be long, and random, but if I need to take my daughter to the doctor or have a long lunch with the wife, that’s not a problem. There’s a certain beauty in the finished product, as well. To stand looking at a well-made house, knowing you were a part of its construction is something sort of awesome. Those things will stand for a lot longer than I will, and that’s a legacy I’m willing to take on.

I SHALL NOT WALK ALONE,” THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA (HIGHER GROUND, 1997): My wife likes music, but she is not nearly as obsessive about it as I am. As such, I tend to be the one who brings in new music to the household. Used to, I’d make her an annual mix-tape filled with all the songs I loved over the previous year. I’ve not done that in awhile mainly due to the fact that I’ve not listened to all that much new music of late. But for her birthday this year, I decided to make her one.

I sorted my iTunes to show me all the songs I’d not listened to over the last few years and stared randomly putting those songs on my iPod. Driving around all day for work, I put the tunes on shuffle and made note of songs that might work for her mix.

When this one came on, I was immediately interested. As the Blind Boys harmonized over the chorus, I was knocked out. Without looking I knew who it was, but I didn’t know the song. I assumed it was something my brother-in-law must have given me when he was last in town. (We have a habit of trading songs whenever we see each other.) I was surprised to learn that it was from this album, one I’ve owned for years, listened to many times and actually reviewed on my blog way back when.

Its kind of shocking to think that I didn’t recall ever hearing that song before, when obviously I had. I’ve come up with a couple of reasons why this might be — other than I’m going senile. The first is that while I rather like the first half of the album, the second half is kind of a drag. “I Shall Not Walk Alone” is the second to last track and I suspect by the time it came on I had grown bored, placed my attention elsewhere and had never really noticed the song.

While not overly religious, the chorus finds the Boys reaching out for Mary (presumably the Mother of God.) I grew up Church of Christ, and we don’t really pay much attention to Mary. We don’t pray to her, certainly don’t worship her and for the most part pretty much pretend she never existed — except to give birth in a barn. It’s quite possible that explicitly calling out her name in this song turned me off back then. These days I’m much more flexible in my faith and my doctrine and, while I still don’t personally pray to Mary, I can completely understand those who do.

I can certainly understand that harmony, too, and am bewildered that I managed to forget it for so many years. It’s strange how we connect to music in that way. A song that means nothing to you in your youth can resonate in a meaningful way many years later. Or it’s the other way around, and the old gray-haired man scratches his ears wondering what his younger self found in those songs so long ago.

I’m glad it’s that way. It keeps me searching. And listening.

Mat Brewster

Mat Brewster

An Oklahoma-based writer who studied at Faulkner University, Brewster has reviewed music and movies for a number of sites, including Blogcritics and his own Bootleg Nation, The Midnight Cafe and Brewster's Millions. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mat Brewster
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