Randall Knives, Desperados & Homegrown Tomatos: Guy Clark's Gone

Guy Clark was the Hemingway of the Texas expats, living beyond the confines of structural Music Row hitmaking. A Grammy-winner, painter, man in full, his songs capture pathos, small pleasures and what it means to be heroic over the course of almost a century. Today, he died. I look back on a longstanding friendship and the kind of person he was.
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Matraca Berg: Dreaming in Fields, Falling & Chasing The Angels

            I shouldn’t be writing this. It’s not right.

            You see, I first met Matraca Berg -- as Delbert McClinton wrote – in a warehouse in West L.A. She was, at 26, a wildly accomplished songwriter with several #1s, including her first written at 18 with no less than the legendary Bobby Braddock. She was on the verge of her debut record, and they’d called me to write the bio., to capture the story, the music and weave it into some kind of narrative essence.

            She was tall, thin, pretty. Giant eyes, brown hair tumbling down around a heart-shaped face – and when she looked, you knew she knew. Everything. She understood. It made her a powerful voice for young women self-reliant beyond their years, banging into real life and realizing the bruises that come with learning the hard way. Romantic in spire of knowing, willing to keep wading into the rivers of real life, she held a light on so many of the unseen: the late middle-aged beautician of “Alice in the Looking Glass,” the lost girlhood of “Appalachian Rain,” as well as the liquid desire of “I Got It Bad.”

            That was 20 years and several labels ago. A lot has happened. Life has deepened – to the good and the bad. Triumphs for certain – the first woman to write 5 #1s in a year, becoming a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame – as the tragedies deepend, too. Not that she talks about them, but they permeate many of the songs she writes.

          And I know. Of course I do… I’ve been there for all of it.

          See. Matraca Berg said to me in that parking lot that day all those years ago, as I was ruing moving to Nashville, knowing how cliquish it is and how not like the typical girl I am, “I’ll be your friend.” She meant it.

            I arrived July 3, my good silverware heavy in my carry-on bag – about the only possession I had of any real value – and the exhaustion all over me. Confronted with a sea of bad Christmas tree perms on the rush of women coming at me in the airport, I broke down crying in the arms of the man from Tennessee Car & Van Rental.

            July 4th, I was at her Aunt Sudie’s house for chicken and too much family. An only child, I wasn’t used to the tangle of loud talk, big laughter and people pecking at each other, It didn’t matter, they took to me like they take to everyone.

            Since then, we’ve been through everything. Bad lovers, a husband who I’d written about since I was 19, illness, broken engagements, career success, bolstering each other and taking up against those who would detract when the friend wasn’t there.

            Matraca scored 5 #1s in a single year, won the CMA’s Song of the Year for “Strawberry Wine” and made her network tv debut on the “CMA Awards” with the aching ballad of recognizing the harshest part of old age  “Back When We Were Beautiful” that same night from the album Sunday Morning To Saturday Night. By the end of the year, that album wou;d be on TIME, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, People, The Tennessean and The Chicago Tribune’s Top 10 Albums of the Year in ANY genre – and her label would be out of business.

            The best of times, the worst of times.

            An almost recluse, she’d had enough chasing the fame. She went home. Sunk into the complicated dynamics of extended family. Wrote more songs. Didn’t look back. Her ego didn’t need it; her soul couldn’t take the bruising.

            But, damn, she was still so good. Still a paper cut on your heart kind of wincing compositional proposition. As the best writing is, or should be. And so she remained. Even as she stayed out of view, hidden and thinking about what the Nashville she was raised in – one where the creatives only came out after dark, studiously avoiding the suits, Kristofferson had just risen from the janitorial ranks and Red Lane, Sonny Throckmorton, even  Mel Tillis who were regulars around her mother’s house – meant.

            See, Matraca Berg wasn’t raised like other kids. She was being dragged to recording sessions up and down Music Row by a single mom who knew her daughter had “game.” She was drafted for Neil Young’s snaggle-tooth hippie country Old Ways tour – along with Hargus “Pig” Robbins and Anthony Crawford , back-up singing with Mother Earth’s Tracy Nelson at Live Aid. She knows the difference, and she knows what’s gone.

            Which is why there’s The Dreeaming Fields, an elegy for too many ways of life. The title track is about her grandfather’s dairy farm – the scene of the virginity losing summerscape “Strawberry Wine” -- being parceled off for pre-fab houses, the family farm no longer a part of the America we live in, while “Racing The Angels” is a living person’s pining for one who has passed, palpable and passionate in the heartbreak and sustaining ardor and “Clouds” is the reality of knowing what’s coming, the tears and good-byes, yet willing the end even with the inevitable pain that’s comes with it.

            Matraca Berg has never been afraid of the pain. She recognizes the common currency among women is just thatL courage to move through it, to maintain dignity in the roughest places and the strength to withstand anything. On The Dreaming Fields opener, “If I Had Wings,” the long-suffering battered protagonist hits her limit: “Everyone knew one day it’d be him or me…” as she confesses, “My mother said call the preacher, I just said ‘Call the law…’,”

            These are hard scrabble women. They – like Berg – know no other way.

            It is not an easy life, but it is their’s, and they live it fully. On “You & Tequila,” the song’s heroine honors the hold that one certain someone has over her – “You & tequila make me crazy, run like poison through my veins/ One is one too many, one more is never enough…” – and buckles to the craving, knowing how bad the morning after’s gonna feel.

            Mortality, humanity, kindess, sadness. It is all part of the sum total. On “South of Heaven,” a mother whose son has been sent home covered by a flag sees no point in losing children to battles she can’t understand, for principles that have nothing to do with how she lives or holds her ground. “Father, You have given Your only son,” she sings as the voice of the woman whose truth is all recrimination and seering love for her child, “but you are not the only one…”

            To take a point and skewer it through the listener’s thorax is no small feat. To do it with an essentialism of how we all live is an art. Matraca Berg is a humanist, an everywoman, a seeker and the keeper of people’s secrets. That she keeps them is one thing, that she also recycles them into compelling glimpses of life – the quavering places, moments of doubts,  total surrender – is why she is, inspite of her hiding, so important.

            Not that it’s always dire. “Fall Again” is the fault=line of desire and desolation. You hear how brittle the love has become, and how much she needs to set it ablaze – not to burn it to the ground, but to rekindle what was there. The urgency is one of not losing something so vital, and it comes through in torrents of unquenchable desire.

            Indeed, even the piquant “Your Husband’s Cheating On Us” – a sketch of the other woman’s visit to the long-suffering wife – is a portrait of turnabout in the realm of betrayal. The irony of the hunter getting quartered by the game is a delicious send-up of the wronged being abetted by the betrayer.

            Who we betray, how we do it, indeed, how often the betrayer is ourselves… She understands. Indeed, the woman whose first album in 14 years takes its seeds from Joni Mitchell’s Blue, from Neil Young’s Harvest, from Emmylou Harris’ Pieces of the Sky recognizes how often in doing the seemingly right thing, we so sell ourselves short.

            The Dreeaming Fields contains “Oh, Cumberland,” a song that was originally recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with Emmylou Harris for their Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol 3 – and it is a love song to a place one has left, but can never leave. In a place where the dream is theoretically to be had, there is that nagging sense of loss of self, a genuine feeling of ache for where one comes from, for places that make one feel whole and settled.

            It is not about the reality we’re sold – glossy Hollywood living, which mostly only makes one tired, but the roots of where we come from, rivers that barely move and places we can stop and just be. Exhaustion permeates the chase, comfort anchors where we’re from.

            Where we’re from is the whole point, Who we are at our core is everything.

            In a world hurling itself down the stairs of something so two-dimensional, so devoid of deeper meaning, but ooh the shiny high gloss coating of faux emotion and almost reality, we can forget who we are at our broken places – until the dazzle wears off and we’re even more empty than when we started, another cure-all failing us.

            It’s at those times that an album like The Dreaming Fields matters. It gently, humbly, honorably tells us the truth… wincing for us when it stings and encouraging us softly when we need the help to go on. Sometimes it is in the knowing that we can begin to heal, to climb, to seek.

            To me, those have always been the records that mattered. Why I return to Rickie Lee Jones’ Pirates or Steve Earle’s Guitar Town, Julie Miller’s “Broken Things” or Alex Bevan’s Springboard again and again… in the lost hours… looking for equanimity and balance in the flood.

            To have someone who knows, who sees and who tells us it’s okay, and it’s up to us to change the dynamic, but also suggesting that we can: that’s everything. For Matraca Berg, who reached back into a dusty paradigm of resonant steel, guitars that waver, pianos that ripple and sustain and vocals that echo like they’re coming down a holler, it is everything, too.

            She knows the difference, and like Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Match Girl, she has taken this album and held 11 matches aloft, hoping the flame will contain everything she loves about one of Nashville’s most fertile periods musically – so people will see, will know, will breathe and embrace something that matters so much to her.

            In the end, what she loves is what makes us strongest in our banged up places. All you have to do is listen. That’s how powerful these spare songs are. But don’t listen to me… I’m the girl she befriended straight off the plane, and surely I couldn’t be objective, even with all the years of writing for places like The Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone, Trouser Press and CREEM, Musician and Tower Pulse, indeed so many great music magazines too long gone, but absolutely measures of the things in music that makes us more as people.

            Making us more is what music is supposed to do. Listening to this record, I remember that. I wonder about the futility of greatness cutting through the dissonance, and I don’t care. It’s why I’m writing about something I shouldn’t for people who might not be able to embrace passion for small rules that make them feel safe – but miss the hardest tilt of the best stuff of what music is, how songs can hit you and the reasons records like this truly matter.



Emmylou Harris

"If you live by the charts, you die by the charts," Emmylou Harris, the silvery voiced roots songstress who dissolves genres and owns a dozen Grammys, says conspiratorially. "Let me tell you…" There are a lot of things Harris, whose Songbird is a 4-CDcollection of rarities, demos and collaborations, can tell you about American music. Whether it's being the acolyte Gram Parsons left at the station when he OD'd, the muse for Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst and Willie Nelson, the nurturer of writers and musicians ranging from Rodney Crowell, Patti Griffin to Ricky Skaggs or Lucinda Williams, Harris has been siren for much of what is good about the music that exists beyond the mainstream. It's mid-afternoon in Nashville, and the sun pours into a living room filled with chintz upholstery and floral wallpaper. It is a cozy, welcoming place -- where Harris, now 60, lives with her mother Eugenia and daughter Hallie from her first marriage. Three generations under one roof bustling with cats and dogs, guitars and the last of a second photo shoot that's gone on earlier in the day. Harris, who's been a major part of records with Neil Young, Mark Knopfler and Elvis Costello over the past year, is taking a year off. Laughing, she confides, "Sometimes just changing your routine is the same as taking a sabbatical, Johnny Cash told me once…" Though she toured this year, the time between her own albums has given her the opportunity to consider the breadth - and magic - an odyssey across American music. From embarking on a folkie path out of college - including Gliding Bird on indie Jubilee Records - to being swept up in Gram Parsons' iconoclastic hippie-hard country axis through her run as the woman making country safe for the rock & roll masses, the Linda Ronstadt/Dolly Parton Trio projects and the ethereal Daniel Lanois produced or -influenced post-Nashville projects, Harris has walked a line of her own muse. "Look what she's accomplished: she freed country music from stereotypes and showed rockers that country was okay," says Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Director Kyle Young flatly. "And she showed country people rockers weren't infiltrators… She sang country without irony when country, rock and folk were worlds apart because she does it without fear, without an agenda. It's just the things she likes, the cast of musicians, songwriters and artists she brings with her… whether it's the Louvin Brothers or Buck Owens, Sam Bush, Buddy Miller, Gillian Welch or Patti Griffin. "Because Emmylou likes it, you know it's good." Abandoning studying theatre for long nights playing music in cafes and fellow pickers' homes, Harris embraced the communal nature of life in the service of songs. Returning to Washington, DC as a single mother with a baby, she was playing 4 sets a night - sometimes in different clubs - when Chris Hillman told Gram Parsons she might be the girl singer he was seeking for his hard country solo project. Their collaboration is now legend. Yet Harris cautions, "It was very quick… that time… We did GP… we did the tour… we recorded Grievous Angel… and he was gone…" Ironically, the woman who kept hearing reasons why the initial sessions kept getting postponed and at the initial sessions found herself thinking, "What is this?" because "He wasn't very together; he was drinking a lot and I couldn't believe this was going to turn into a record…" didn't get it initially, though she loved the Louvin Brothers' songs he turned her onto. Finally, it clicked. "One day, I really heard the genius of his voice, the beauty - and all that music opened up to me. 'Angels Rejoiced' just did it… I was gone, so converted." Their last conversation was about the song, which appears for the first time on Songbird. "He knew 'Angels Rejoiced' was my favorite song; he called to tell me it didn't fit the album, so they were putting it on the next album. We hung up, he went to Joshua Tree… and that was it." The woman, named a Beauty by celebweekly People, pauses for a moment, "It was very unresolved. There was no proper way to grieve - just throw yourself into music." So she did. Returning to the vibrant folk/bluegrass scene that was Washington, DC where her friend John Starling, of the legendary Seldom Scene, suggested, "Come here and make your mistakes where you're safe and people care for you… then when you're ready…" Rodney Crowell, who'd been flirting with Nashville as an "understudy" ex-patriate Texan alongside Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and a kid named Steve Earle, found himself on a plane from Austin to DC to meet the woman whose harmonies on Gram Parsons' solo records stunned him. Originally Crowell's demos were given to Brian Ahearn for Anne Murray, stumped for songs the producer played the unknown writer for Harris. "She was doing something edgy," Crowell said, about learning it was the new girl, not the hitmaker, who'd expressed interest. "I knew how good that stuff was… the music was just passion. It was more folkie, too, which is was more Texas -- and after I met her, she came through Austin with the Angel Band. "After the gig, she said, 'Hey, I'm going to LA tomorrow and I've got an extra ticket… You wanna go?' "I went the next day, and stayed for seven years." Her muse took Parsons' hard country of "Country Baptisin'" and "We'll Sweep Out The Ashes" and seamlessly applied it to the Beatles and Paul Simon. That same equal opportunity truth generated her blazing Hot Band and a creative hotbed surrounding her Lanai Lane home where everyone from John Hartford to Mickey Raphael to Snuff Garrett came to jam. That spontaneous combustion gave Crowell open door demo reality -- catching the ear of the Dirt Band, Mary Kaye Place and Bob Seger. That musical curiosity energized everything -- as long as it had passion. "Nicolette (Larson), Linda Ronstadt was there," Crowell recalls, "I remember Bob Dylan calling, saying 'Emmyloooouuuu, you've got a song on the hit parade…' Then she went off and did Desire with him. It was like that. And she did everything she could to push all of us out front, too. "Emmy inspires such loyalty," Crowell continues, "because she has so much integrity. She's a poet -- even before she started writing songs -- and that's what we all respond to. Even more than that voice and the passion is the poetry, the timelessness, choosing the heart over commerce." Harris' choices have at times defined conventional wisdom. When country was slick, she made the unbending Blue Kentucky Girl, then followed it up with the Ricky Skaggs/Whites-laden bluegrass triumph Roses In The Snow. Inspired by Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska and the Glyn Johns-produced The Ballad of Jesse James, she made her own self-penned concept Ballad of Sally Rose. Sally Rose came on the tail of a string of gold-certified Warner/Reprise albums, but "It was a huge commercial disaster… I literally did not have enough money to buy a house." Producer Paul Kennerly gently suggested returning to building a record around her voice, and the acoustic gospel Angel Band - featuring Vince Gill, Emory Gordy and Carl Jackson - was born. "You have to pay attention, not set your agenda in such concrete that you miss what's really supposed to happen," Harris - who continued to tear up the road with Chuck Berry's "C'est La Vie" and Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On" - concedes. What she did best was wearing thin. Starling suggested unplugging, getting acoustic: the Nash Ramblers, featuring New Grass Revival's Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and a young man named Randy Stewart (now CMA Song of the Year writer Jon Randall) was born, recording At The Ryman, another Nashville legend fallen on faded times. A move to Asylum Records - "where they thought they could put people like Guy Clark and I on the radio," she marvels - led to more closed doors at country radio. "There comes a time when you're no longer invited to the party," Harris explains. "It happens… to other people, too. But if this is what you do, who knows what it'll be?" That album -- Cowgirl's Prayer -- caught the ear of Melodie Ciccone, Daniel Lanois' manager. Harris, who'd been hooked on Dylan's Oh Mercy and Lanois' Acadie, was game. Wrecking Ball, their collaboration, sold poorly, racked up raves, won a Grammy and opened the door. "There were these very turbulent rhythms in a live situation. The first thing we cut was 'All My Tears," which was just dripping with soul and atmosphere -- and I didn't know that kind of experience existed," explains the woman who'd recorded with George Jones, Neil Young, the Band and Waylon Jennings. "I didn't know what it could be, but I wanted to find out…" Again set free and afire, Harris wrote the emotionally excavating Red Dirt Girl, recorded with friends, created Spyboy, helmed by Buddy Miller and a few unlikely but potent players. "Her openness is revelatory," says producer/guitarist/artist Miller. "Ten years ago when I joined up with the band, she was always listening to something -- and not just in terms of what we were playing, but just music. "And she gives of herself in a way nobody else does. I actually met her when I asked her to sing on my first record and was told she couldn't because of a European Hot Band Reunion Tour," Miller remembers. "Then I heard she really wanted to… and then, literally the day she was leaving, she came and sang on my record. Over 10 years, that's her over and over again… You can hear it in the music, in the shows: every night, the set would change because she wants to make it about the music and the moment…" "I do believe like souls attract like souls," Harris says of the collaborators who've crossed her path. "I was fortunate in that I had this creative safety net, people who trusted my instincts and supported me… You've got to believe somebody's in charge, writing the script for you… and when I look around what else could I think: If I wrote this stuff down, no one would believe it could've happened that way." The weekend prior Harris had been at a wedding in Canada where Linda, Camy and Teddy Thompson sang "Dimming of the Day" on a tiny stage. Just talking about it, the woman fourth decade into making music is aglow. That essential joy in the songs still gets her; making the quest to illuminate songs that "maybe weren't singles or played live, but made my records what they were" as something special. "James (Austin, the project's A&R anchor) kept sending me things I'd not heard in years and years… 'Mama's Hungry Eyes' with Rodney, Chrissie Hynde and Beck on the Gram Tribute record we did, a version of 'Immigrant Eyes' that was Guy Clark's 60th birthday present, the stuff from (The Legend of) Jesse James, 'Softly & Tenderly' from the Trio sessions from a project that didn't come out in '78, the demo of 'All I Left Behind,' 'Sonny' with Dolores Keane and Mary Black which was a #1 track in Ireland…" Her voice -- every bit as iridescent in conversation -- trails off. These aren't just songs or moments: Harris can tell you every detail about where, with whom, what happened for each. "Looking at the tracks," says Jed Hilley, Executive Director of the Americana Music Association, "the breadth of experience she had, the songs, the music… it's so vast, yet it's all such pure integrity. There's that siren voice, and then there's what she does with it." "It's really the same thing as in the beginning," Harris says. "You know when something's right, and you'd be upset if you lost that… The devil is the voice inside your head telling you something different, that you can get away with it. "It always has been about the poetry…," she continues, defining how broad that can be. "There's poetry in my mother's poundcake and her pie crust. I am 60 years old and have been doing this for a long time -- and it's harder and harder to get inspired in some ways, and in others, well, all it takes is one song." One song is cutting it pretty short. Songbird alone contains 68, each sparkling in its unique beauty. These are the songs that've never been part of a compilation. These are obscure treasures, not-obvious moments - and with a new album slated for sometimes in 2008, there is still more to come. Watching her talk so gently, so warmly about her journey, the notion of music as refuge is as obvious as the sweep of snow white hair that curves around her pristine jaw. She recognizes the Cinderella nature of her story, too. "Maybe I'm guilty of glossing over the facts," she begins, then resolves with the quiet firmness of a true Alabama belle. "But when I really look at all of it, well, this is what happened."
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New Friends, Old Loves, Reasons To Believe

Ronnie Dunn found a Jack of Clubs out there in the desert, where New Mexico rises into mesas and falls into chasms that spill into the Rio Grande River. A weathered card that promises good times and late nights, pitted by sand and wind and life -- and he smiles when he lifts it off the ground, forgotten by the person who brung it, turning it over and displaying the truth.It is a truth he knows by heart. Because while Dunn might be a country music king now, he spent years as a wild-eyed Jack -- sowing sparks and fire, neon and kerosene on the heart of Saturday night as a jukejoint, honky tonk flamestarter Stealth and not being so visible often the truest ally of those who would chase the night. Ali Berlow, mom, wife, NPR sensualist/food essayist, leans back into her seat on the plane lifting off the narrow, cracked runway at Martha's Vineyard Airport and closes her eyes. Her life lies below - and she's spinning into a new orbit for a few days. It's a place where the ponies run wild, the music is life's blood and the friendships form fast and hold fast, starting in the middle And there in Pittsburgh, Bruce Springsteen holds a hushed and holy altar call for the blue collar faithful. He's a solitary man in his unbuttoned low black gypsy shirt, leather chord knotted around his neck, guitar slung low, too. He is handsome in a rugged way that says high plains drifter even if he's more Jersey shore refugee -- and that low flame dignity is what makes him the patron saint and embodiment of the working classes almost 30 years since Born To Run became a classic. Bruce Springsteen understands the dignity of the common schmuck, just as he's not afraid to walk through the valley of his humanity. And it's somewhere between those extremes, the valor of lives overlooked emerges, and it does. For not everyone is bold-faced, back-lit, air-brushed, fluffed and buffed and puffed to perfection. In a world of the real, it is the real who most often get ignored. Not because people aren't dying for it, but because it is so seemingly unexceptional, so common, so not worth noting. Yet in those moments that are the slightly dog-eared just like everybody else -- only maybe a little more distraught -- Bruce Springsteen brings it all back home. As Lester Bangs tells young aspiring writer William Miller in Cameron Crowe's coming of age as a baby rock-crit flick "Almost Famous": "All you have to do is listen." Indeed. To the heartbeat, mocking you with the echoing of that great big empty chamber you can never quite fill.. To the roar of the room in the enveloping silence. To the way the sweat beads and collects in the moments of desperation from too much boredom and not enough prospects. Springsteen's world is where the ceilings are too low -- and the only freedom is the vast expanse between here and the horizon. Two lanes of tar covered ribbon tearing up what lies in front, orchestrating an escape, four bald tires gripping for everything they're worth, self-contained exit a matter of pressing the pedal and not looking back. Within it, though, are truths. Deep essential truths about who we are and how we live our lives. Truths about the scraped, bruised, dinged things that are more precious than rubies -- in part because they are the things we love, but just as importantly because they are within the realm of what can be attained. There are pipe dreams, and there are brass rings. One is just so much ether to make you high, make you forget, wake you up emptier than you started, mocked by an aspiration that was grounded in less than nothing. But the other, well, that is a whole other truth -- the ability to push one's limits, to seek something better, more -- and perhaps if the risk is weighed properly, a ship that could come in. Bruce Springsteen's losers have dreams that could wash up on the shore, that could slightly cracked, definitely chipped, certainly faded come true. As the scrawny, scraggly-headed Romeo pledged to Mary, the object of too many lost souls' desire, as he raged against the less than status quo he's being told to accept, "We're pulling out of here to win," it was about jettisoning the shackles and soaring on opportunities made with one's sweat, muscle and dreams, soaring on the thrilling power of what real love, true love -- the kind of love that lets you know you've truly been seen, seen as you are, not as they try to marginalize you -- embodies. Passion plays. Acts of faith. Ties that bind. Moments that make everything matter more. Revelations that drop illusions. All of it unnoticed, except for the ones caught under the weight of the experience -- or recognition. The people Bruce Springsteen sings about -- the rebels who refuse to die, who get home from work, wash up and go racing in the street. The ones for whom it's not about pink slips, so much as breaking the inertia that pulls you down, that holds you frozen until its beyond too late. And the crisis of faith turns into the clarity that forges steel wills and iron strength. The man in "The River," triumphantly laid back this night at the University of Pittsburgh is reborn of the eternal flame that burns when you see that life ain't a trap, it's a heroic thing if you'll let go of the side, let it wash you clean and feel the power of its smallest triumphs. This is a man who got captured by circumstances, served a meager fate and yet refused to now bow his head. In that eyes aloft pride, he becomes everything powerful about a man. Not that everything is such a test of mettle as that. "Two Hearts" serves as joyous a romp for the music man as the sobering reality that is "Matamoros Banks" illuminates the plain brutality that Springsteen sees as the migrants' fate, or "Youngstown," his moaning a portrait of a proud man who worked hard for the factory only to find that his time was up and his effort meant nothing -- in spite of the high water promises of the ones for whom he contributed to the prophet. But it's in the middles, the recognition that with every tie that binds, there is a knot that gets caught in one's throat, that we can relax and choke down, swallowing whatever comes with it, or merely set and let be what will be. How we choose to deal is as much an element of our priorities as the circumstances we're cast in. Active decisions, though, are where we define the way we live -- and even teetering on the brink only cashes the check The Bible promised, the one about an untested man being neither good, nor evil, but merely unproven. For it is in being decisive that we are defined. Say "Yes." Say "No." Say "When." He'd not yet played The Tunnel of Love's "One Step up," a song about how hard it is to keep the faith, to be married and present in the face of the inevitable erosion of real life -- but recognizing that as easy as it is to fall, it's a damn sight harder to pick up one's gaze after the fait accompli. Sure there's a girl at that bar who's looking single and a focal point narrator who ain't feeling too married -- but in the end, the ties will hold, the honor last, the temptation passes and, hopefully, he goes home to make it stronger. "This one's for Kenny," he says, cryptic, a reference no one understands. "Thanks for the card." The card. Another article of faith. A note about why Bruce Springsteen mattered to a kid from Luttrell, Tennessee who was the slowest running back in the history of Gibbs High School. It was a note that spoke volumes about the power of music to transform the unseen -- and also to validate the power of the connection the makers' of music have to the power of their music being recognized as it reflected their life and so many other's in the process.. The note was 4 years old. The power of its "what those songs mean" message held for a man who's beyond a legend. The power of "what those songs mean" held for everyone in the room, everyone who'd ever believed in a "Thunder Road" or "Mary Queen of Arkansas" or "Sandy" -- and Madame Marie, "Cadillac Ranch"es, floating up into "The Rising." At one point, I look over, and Ali Berlow is crying. She a grown woman of the world, an inhabiter of Africa, a windsurfer in Tobago, a mother of two, a lover of a font maker, a friend, a cook and a nurturer to a changing coterie of strays and fascinating fellow travelers of the world Ali Berlow is lovely -- falling somewhere between Emmylou Harris and Kim Bassinger, and she can teach you to taste things in a fleshy, juicy plum you never imagined existed. She is a pool of unruffled water, depths barely suggested from the surface, yet willing to whoop and dance in front of whomever might watch should the spirit rise. Ali Berlow is a woman so many wish to be. And she is a woman they hardly know. What simmers beyond the obvious is where her treasure truly lies. How many miss it, caught in the dazzle of that which is easily seen? And so Ali Berlow runs off for moments with the circus -- trapeze flyers, true believers, hungry hearts and lion tamers who beckon come on, hungry for the tranquility and the mothering she sows without even knowing, drinking up the thrills they take for granted every day. It's an even trade, this. But also a trade that makes each more. Not just more, so much more. More alive, more vital, more vibrant, more aware of everything around the other. It is more than a halo -- or an aura that is "so purple." It is a truth that makes you see how precious every moment is, every person, every look or smile or tear. It is the reason Ronnie Dunn, too successful for his own good, can find the kick inside and the exuberance of putting it down, pushing a sun-parched blue highway as hard as it can go with the Allman Brothers' Live At the Filmore East set on stun. It is yowling along with the abandon of being 14 and your parents not knowing you've got the car, the liberation of the speed and the sound and the communion of two voices -- one perfectly pitched, powerfully landing square on each note, inflection, intention there, the other person's slightly bent, just missing it by "this much," yet bringing so much heart to the table that accuracy doesn't matter. Ronnie Dunn, preternaturally cool, inscrutable behind those streamlined dark glasses, letting go of the "Ronnie Dunn," descending into the unfettered rapture of songs and moments and an exhilarated uncalibrated soul slung wide across the moment. He's come to Santa Fe to dissect hard truths for a tv camera -- the polemics and dichotomies of growing up in a church-anchored family driven by a truck-drivin', wild-cattin', honky tonk squalorin' father. Ronnie Dunn, who will shoot impossibly high end tequila with the mystical Western artist Bill Worrell at the 5 star Tudor Adobe hotel La Posada, eat eggs at a diner downtown where he knows every waitresses' name, visit the self-portrait of pioneering renegade Indian artist TC Cannon -- cast in blazing indigo and tangerine and lemon and crimson -- he now owns, and can't even believe his luck. Ronnie Dunn is the intersection of contradiction, a man who lives high and lives low with equal appreciation, and that is what makes his art stick. For whether you were a part of the strip mall honky tonk revolution -- with its loud, primary-color block-cut cowboy shirts and herky jerky line dancing -- or maybe didn't scan except as the dudes with attitude and cowboy hats on the Corn Flakes box all those years ago, Brooks & Dunn have been the sterno on the hotplate of country music's fast-forward evolution. Big guitars, bold sonics, crashing cymbals, throbbing bass -- they took everything rock & roll and brought it straight to the behind-chicken-wire beer joints where the jukeboxes bled neon for a hybrid that blew it up. But for all the propulsive throbbage of classic hillbilly music -- figure Waylon Jennings set to 11 with a back of Johnny Cash's thrompier moments -- it was about what Brooks & Dunn meant to the working people. Maybe not as eloquent as Springsteen, but every bit the rallying cry for hard work, American made domestic shoulder-down, sweat-soaked and bliss-within-it-all reality-based programming. Their 3 chord, a cloud of dust and the truth performances were a lot about taking the corner on two wheels, extensions of the F-or-fight club that's Hell on weekend nights, but also true believers in the power of one's own hands getting it done, taking care of one's family and bringing it all back home when the rubber meets the road. It's when you get to "Red Dirt Road," the last song the two both put their names on, that the higher elevations come together. It's the truth about what goes on in the flyover, the places where "I drank my first beer/ It's where I found Jesus/ It's where I wrecked my first car/ I tore it all to pieces" -- and it's also the place that couldn't be jettisoned fast enough only in a perfect siren's song of revenge drew the singer back with even deeper truths than that first motherlode of life, love and lessons. "Red Dirt Road" has a happy ending. The singer gets the girl he never should have lost in the first place. But he also comes to realize that salvation isn't "just for high achievers," a fact that means happiness is found along the way -- like the flowers that grow through the cracks in the sidewalk. Not something that'll go for hothouse prices, but is even lovelier for the circumstances that they bloomed through. That's the thing about these true people truths: they work where they're realized. There is nothing fancy about arrival or awareness or delivery; it happens when and where it does, and you can't be the same after. It's the reality of not being able to not know once you know. Look at Springsteen. All these years later, still showing us the things most people miss; and in those shared visions, overlooked in the blur of getting by, we find out that what makes us similar, special, precious is not just attainable, it just is. And in those visions, seconds, connections, all the futility, invisibility that we feel fades away. In being a number, we become part of the tide of life. Invisible, yet seen by the larger frame condition. Indeed, listening to the Sacred Heart of the Stone Pony strumming that acoustic guitar with a resonance so grand it fills up the University of Pittsburgh's Events Center, it's the things that go unseen that become larger than life. The truth, though, that saves comes at the very end. After performing "Homestead" with the Iron City's troubadour rocker Joe Grushecky, Bruce dug back into the tautly brooding Darkness on the Edge of Town portfolio for "The Promised Land," a song that puts the power of a bankrupt American dream into the manifest destiny of the man witnessing it. "Gonna be a twister to blow everything down/ Ain't got the faith to stand it's own ground," he wails. The anti-hero of "The Promised Land" sees how bereft our way of life has become; recognizes it's barely scraps and getting by for so many factory-men and 9-to-5 women; sees the diminishing rewards for hard work, blue collar values, believing in the promise inherent to this nation. Even as he sees it, though, he's not going to give in. He won't accept what they're selling as the status quo. It is one of those John Steinbeck stark American awakenings. When the song's object raises his fist vocally to declare, "I'm no boy, no I'm a man/ And I believe in the promised land," it is a profound coming of age. Not just for one young man in transition, but for a way of life that plants its truth in the ground -- and is willing to walk the walk of mattering. Because until we recognize and profess our own value, how can we expect anyone else to see it, or more importantly, treat it with the respect we ourselves have not imbued it with? That is the beauty and the brutality of the unseen. It exists beyond cognizance, every bit as precious and valuable, but it isn't worth anything at all, because no one even knows it's there. No, when we are willing to stand up and be counted -- not in insurrection, though that certainly is a truth that holds, but in celebration of all that we are -- we become that which matters. It is in seeing, recognizing, accepting the deepest grace, the proudest reality of our humanity, that our situation no longer defines us. No, we're not just a man, we're golden, we're light, we're everything good and weak and proud and profane about the human condition. In that moment, in that commitment to who we are and the greater commonality of the human truth, where we are is where we need to be. The promised land isn't just where we're standing or trying to get to, it's a state of arrival that is dignity in the downlow, heaven in the here and now and the deliverance of knowing where and what we are is enough -- and enough is more than plenty.
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