August 17, 2000
Country Roads, Take Me Home
Something quite unexpected has happened to my musical taste. I've gone country.
Not cheesy Garth Brooks country, but deep-down throaty, hard-livin' Lucinda Williams country. Just the name of her recent album, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" makes me feel like I'm part of a twangy sisterhood of wise, world-weary women hitching down the road of life, acoustic guitar in one hand, poignant lyrics about heartbreak in the other.
It's been three months or so since I divorced all other forms of music. I'm now a little bit country, a little bit more country. I can't explain this jarring change in the soundtrack of my life; I can only tell you that it accompanies a powerful and omnipresent fantasy of myself.
In the fantasy, I work as a waitress at a truck stop diner somewhere in central New Mexico. I live alone, just me and a temperamental horse named Suicide. I have an on-again, off-again relationship with a rodeo star, but he's usually on the road. He's not the sharpest spur in the boot, but he has dimples and cooks me big steaks when he's in town.
After my night shifts at the diner pouring bad coffee, I return home to pen my memoirs on an old typewriter I bought at a pawn shop. At the local saloon, the bartender calls me "Sweet Cheeks" and asks if I'd like my usual.
Or, as the Dixie Chicks put it, "Cowboy, take me away!"
The only problem is, I'm a city-dwelling Jew who drives a Ford Taurus. And I'm a vegetarian to boot.
I've never been to Louisiana or Alabama. None of my relatives makes moonshine. I don't know one person named Tex. I don't hitchhike, because it always seems like a good way to end up in a ravine wrapped in duct tape. Wide open spaces inspire in me an acute sense of agoraphobia. Still, somewhere inside, there's a cowgirl waiting to get out.
I've often heard cross-dressers and transvestites claim that the first time they put on a dress, they felt as if they were home. That's how I felt when I bought my first cowboy hat (from Fred Segal, but what's a city girl to do?). It's a big old straw number that allows me to squint up at strangers with a knowing expression, very Clint Eastwood, very "Make my day."
I don't know what it is about this music that makes my day, I just know that the first time I heard the Lucinda Williams song "Can't Let Go," I went out and bought the album, smitten. Shelby Lynne and Emmylou Harris albums followed. It was over.
That song is no Lilith Fair-style ballad. It's hard-driving and self-knowing, and it's not pretty. Here are some lyrics:
I got a big chain around my neck
I'm broken down like a train wreck
Well, it's over - I know it - but I can't let go.
It speaks to me, what can I say? A teacher once told me you have to be over 40 to truly appreciate Chekhov. Maybe you have to have endured some requisite number of heartbreaks to be moved by country music. Maybe it's just that the music is rugged and individual, the narrators survivors who weather loss and go forward wizened but wiser. Maybe these are the qualities I wish I had.
Everyone has his or her "cry" song, that song you play over and over when you just need a cathartic breakdown because you got dumped or fired or both on the same day, which has happened to me, believe it or not. If misery loves company, it reveres country music. If you think you have it bad, one of these women has had it worse. That could be the appeal, although it's not just the sad songs I love, it's the whole world, vast prairie fields from my own.
The world of country music is totally free of mutual funds, PIN codes, DMV renewal slips, cable bills, stupid frozen coffee drinks and guys who put too much gel in their hair. Life may be hard, but it's simple, like a great poem is simple.
I'm too scared to leave my life for that diner in New Mexico just yet. For now, I'll just ask my country music to take me away. And it may seem a little silly on account of her dual air bags and all, but I just might start calling my Ford Taurus Suicide. It's a start.