Driving home from a show late at night with the windows down offers its own music if I’m paying attention:
A frozen lake breaking apart in the middle of winter …
The angular song of an unseen screech-owl …
Half-crying stars out on the interstate, semis blowing their horns below …
The sound of the highway brushing against the car window, with daylight
still miles away.
A train blazing the tightrope strung across the interstate doesn’t sing her song so much as murmur it beneath her steely breath in a whisper bordering on an ambient hum. Her words, those sparks flying off into the still dark fields, remind me that I’m held aloft on a tightrope myself, and the rest of my life is far below me. For this moment I know where I’m going, just like that train, but who knows about tomorrow?
The owl, the stars, the train: Life is filled with sweet message bearers, bringing and imparting grace. You have only to wait, they will find you. And when they do, you will keep searching for them everywhere, for years, while right beside you, the tracks they are leaving resemble notes of a mysterious song.
My latest song was inspired by a lovers’ spat I witnessed outside the movie theater here in town. It’s about a terrible, terrible betrayal, and the possibility of moving from the brokenness to happiness, if only for a few moments.
When you’re a songwriter living in a small town you hear more things, about all sorts of people —
Those two parting angrily on the street, leaving their love affair hanging by a thread …
The grammar school teacher who retires after 36 years … the heartworn glow of the movie marquee that says, “Thanks Mrs. R for everything” …
Old timers settling world affairs at the donut shop, their opinions steeled with stubbornness and age …
Young girls, beautiful as warm countries, cheering on the school basketball team on a Friday night, living life as it is, thread by thread.
So many of the songs I make up are tapestries of other people’s threads. Nothing but the musical strand that binds them is my own.
Sometimes I think I need a large city. But you see so little of the world there: we slip easily into our private lives, drift into minorities. In the little towns there just aren’t enough folks for that.
In the city, I would only have read about things in the paper. I wouldn’t have picked up all the threads.
Live performance is writing in pencil on a small postcard.
It’s transient and something that the audience may not remember exactly but may talk about, years later.
It comes with surprises and no guarantees. It’s an entirely different way of being in the world.
The worst seat in the house belongs to the singer: on stage, I am as a mockingbird alone upon the house top. I feel the pain in my fingers, the rawness of making sound.
At the same time, it’s the best seat in the house: what I experience is something so unbelievably pure, which is before the sound actually happens. I hover, like prayer.