By Neva Knott
I’ve been thinking about music lately, thinking about what it means in my life, the poignant songs that smite my heart, the weight music carries in the world.
Friday, and I’m driving to work. I felt weepy. Don’t know why. The infamous Pacific Northwest rain descended this week, all of a sudden. I’m tired from the first week back at school. Some of the tears belong to momentary realization that I’m still slogging along, under-employed after the recession. So it’s Friday, and I’m driving to work, listening to Pandora in my car…
And I do cry. I’m on I-5 heading south, under grey Pacific Northwest autumnal sky. I’m passing truckers and blaring the music, and trying to cry so my mascara doesn’t run. It’s a beautiful song, written almost like an old spiritual, almost like a hobo ballad. For me, now, it holds all the emotion of leaving my last relationship. Not the emotion I felt, but that I know he did. And for all I know, he did “crawl in a hole and die.” More likely, he crawled back into his Pabst can and his bong. But the music is pretty, so I drive on, sing on, and cry a little more.
The rain stops mid-afternoon, and my weepiness dries as the dampness evaporates from the tree leaves and roadways.
Friday night. I have a ticket to Old Crow Medicine Show tonight. I make it to Seattle in just over an hour. I pull off the freeway and park. The Paramount Theatre is just a block away. I love being in a city at night, and now that I live in Olympia, the world’s most boring town, it’s a treat to be out late evening, just after dusk with people coming and going and neon and restaurants and city sounds. All on one corner there’s Blue Sushi, Regal Cinema, a Starbucks. A couple with a newborn crosses from corner, there’s a steady stream of people–all ages–walking toward the concert hall, people walking in all directions, in comraderie of an evening.
The Paramount is an ornate old theatre. It’s right downtown, on the corner of Ninth and Pine, where it’s stood since 1928. In its heyday, it was called a “movie palace.” For good reason. Heavy doors trimmed in brass, wide aisles leading to the bar the restroom mezzanine, and the seating aisles. Sculpted metal screens provide privacy for the seats in the balcony hallways. Inside the theatre, the ceilings are covered with ivory-colored carved medallions. The stage is framed with red velvet curtains. On the day the Paramount opened, the Seattle Times reported, “Never has such a magnificent cathedral of entertainment been given over to the public.”
Tonight’s crowd pours in. Hipster dudes in plaid, girls all wearing cowboy boots. I have mine on, too. I find my seat along the back wall. The opening band is on stage, their name familiar, and the graphic on the bass drum looks like a design I’ve seen before. My mind wanders to my recent bartending days at one of Portland’s music venues; I think this band played at my bar.
The White Eagle. Bartending as a night manager there is how I made it through the recession. That and returning to graduate school. Fun job. Live music every night, mostly the old-timey made new string style I’m here for tonight.
And all seven members of The Old Crow Medicine Show come on stage and begin to play, simultaneously. The banjo matches the stand-up bass in time and rhythm, the violins and slide guitar and drums…the instruments come together and the vocals harmonize. An old time string band and the newest inductee to the Grand Ole Opry.
The stage lights keep the atmosphere smoking and dim, as if we’re in a bar. The band plays on without stopping between songs. Sometimes, the lead singer inserts an anecdote–about the first time he came to the Pacific Northwest and hiked in the Olympics with his grand-daddy, about how the next song is dedicated to the servicemen and women in the area, how Bob Dylan sent this set of unfinished lyrics we’re about to hear.
As time lilted along, my mind drifted on the notes of the songs, and I began to wonder at my love of music. In my mind’s eye, while I watched the banjo players on stage, I was transported back to the living room of my oldest sister, when I was a little girl. Her husband played banjo and after dinner, he’d pick out songs. The other adults–my parents and my oldest sister–drank after-dinner coffee and the three of us–my nephew Andy, my little sister Rachel, and I–waited to be excused to go play.
I glance across the stage. The band is singing an old Woody Guthrie tune and I silently sing along, and think of my dad playing three-chord guitar and singing us to sleep when we were little, Rachel and me. Hobo songs, cowboy songs, low and winsome songs with simple music.
My parents had a record collection. In the mid-60s, they had a console record player, the kind with the lid that opened upward with the turn-table inside. My dad would take a record out of its cover, hold it up to inspect it for dust, then place it on the spindle. He’d gently place the needle on the vinyl, and then Joan Baez or Johnny Cash or the Mamas and the Papas or some old cowboy ballad would fill our living room. Sometimes, my parents would dance. Sometimes, my parents would go out dancing on a Saturday night and we’d stay with our grandparents. Late into the night, mom would come in to her old bedroom there, would lean in, smelling like perfume and cigarettes and gum, and kiss each of us awake. Dad would carry us, first Rachel and then me, to the car, and then once home, to bed.
Just now, the slide guitar player is stepping forward to a microphone to sing…he has such a rich quality to his voice. He’s tall and seems a bit shy. When he speaks, his tone is deep and hollow, yet when he sings, the low notes that draw out the ends of words sound like a river and like velvet.
The show ends with “Wagon Wheel,” the song Old Crow Medicine Show has made into a country standard.
The music tonight reminds me of gatherings, of people coming together to celebrate life. Though some of it is about the failures along the way.