“I’ll Be”, Missed Moments Coming Right On Time

Sometimes with the travel changes, the dull roar of right now, the clinging to what you know, you miss something profound, something soul-stirring, something that is the last bastion of hope… or faith… or fairy tales. In my currency, it's usually one of those songs that just slips through your fingers like water, quiet and cool and gone to the ether without a blink or moment of consideration. And so it was with a song called "I'll Be," ultimately from a wondrously titled album named Misguided Roses. Terri Clark, the full-tilt country girl singer, says it's one of the only songs to make her cry… and confronted with it under the worst conditions, it took my breath away. Florence, Arizona is probably not a tourist destination unless there's something else tacked on, some raison d'etre for people looking to escape for a bit from the grind. And for the Country Thunder Festival -- four days of big headliners and lots of secondary acts -- it was a site that was far enough from civilization that it allowed for the campers, the festival aspects, and the beyond-the-city-limits freedom without the encroachment of civilization. With the whirling dust, the scorching sun, the nettle weeds, the white plastic chairs a vast sea of mocking nonattendance for the early acts, it was the most brutal communion of them all. Those who wish to connect with those almost too far away to reach. The headliners tucked away in beautiful climate controlled tour buses. And the catering tent a hodge podge of whatever, marked most overtly by extra large mosquitoes that could hang almost motionless above you like blood sucking hovercraft. In the midst of this, the Clark Family Experience -- now trying to work the utterly more succinct Clark -- brought what they had to the baked and baking. 4:30, fresh from the recession of the heat of the day, yet far too early for any kind of reprieve from the intensity of the elements. Harshness is something the 6 brothers from the tent show revivals and bluegrass festivals understand, having spent 18 months slogging through bankruptcy court, trying to make sense of bad business deals gone worse. Harsh enough that 6 of the most talented, most beautiful young musicians to perhaps ever grace Nashville are scattered across the country, hand-to-mouth, unable to make a living at the thing God put them here to do. Ranging from 19 to 29, looking like Russian dolls, singing like mountain angels, playing like white fire and lightning, the Clarks could be considered a total package. The kind of act that is a sure bet -- save for these nasty complications. And the time apart doesn't do their ability to bring it together any favors. Still, there's no denying the way they play, the way they sing… and when they catch an updraft, it's watching eagles soar frozen on the currents of the canyons. "Silver Wings" delivered with a pang even Merle Haggard couldn't get to. A revved-to-the-breaking-point turbo-acoustic turn on “Crossroads." A 6-part a cappella "Yesterday" was as much a witness to the golden glow of what was as an ache for what's lost. The beauty of these gifted young men is this: in the sprawled wreckage of what should have been, they've never reaped the bitterness that would poison most people. They've never leaned on recriminations; they've merely kept their eyes on the horizon and believed that in the end, it would all be okay. So, it was that Edwin McCain's big hit -- a song somehow I missed changing lanes and planes and clients -- actually penetrated my unconscious. Six brothers, each more beautiful and talented than the next, stood onstage, faces wide open and shiny, the best that life has to offer… the resilience of faith on their soul… the magic of loving the music making them fly without ever leaving that stage. The oldest brother with an acoustic guitar lifting his voice to paint small pictures of moments, images that are where love explodes, immerses, overwhelms. The lyric alone -- "The strands in your eyes color them wonderful/ Stop me and steal my breath…Tell me that we belong together/ Dress it up with the trappings of love/ I'll be captivated, I'll hang from your lips instead of the gallows of heartache that hang from above…" -- is jaw-dropping in the way it steals too deep inside and rips away the last barriers to the vulnerability and the willingness to subjugate one's self for the need to strike that bond. But when you put that lyric in the voice of a boy who has seen much, who's not been able to stop moving or exhale in ages, it becomes an ardent plea. It is a yelp for delivery, for recognition of that which matters, an outreach for something to elevate all that is -- the glitter and sparkles and softness and warmth and kindness -- to a transcendent place. Alan Clark has a voice like that. Ragged enough to be real, sweet enough to make you want to listen, to surrender, to collapse into his arms when you can't go on or to sweep the sweat-soaked overgrown ebony bangs from his eyes when there's just not much more he can take. That it's a simple voice -- not complicated, not nuanced, not conflicted in what its supposed to be -- the emotion is what it carries. In a world of artifice, someone who can hold up a chorus of "I'll be your crying shoulder/ I'll be love's suicide/ I'll be better when I'm older/ I'll be the greatest fan of your life" without flinching, without self-consciousness, without doubt may very well be the strongest kind of person of all. There is no looking back, no looking down, no consideration except this thing that can indeed offer the missing piece. It is common language, used in uncommon ways. It is a basic voice, made riveting by the intensity of the honesty that informs it. It is a pledge and a promise, a seeker finding something they weren't sure existed, a moment of cowboying up, of a need that goes beyond the lyric to the very atoms that exist at the core of this quiet boy who has nothing to offer but a truth that is both profound and penniless. Just when you're sure it can't break your heart any more, Alan's brother Ashley slides in with an even gentler, more soul-stirring harmony. Ashley has a voice that is spark and court, dignity gone mad by the intensity of what he feels, yet controlled because there is no choice. These are witnesses to how hard it can be, refusing to relinquish the notion that there is a refuge in love, in another heart that's as true, as alive, as willing to throw itself into the abyss. It is the sound of a gate opening, of a cloud clearing, of rain falling. It is the possibility that we all look for, need, refuse to think may be out there waiting to be recognized and delivered -- yet can't quite write off for that emptiness would consume in ways far more maddening than the mocking of calloused denial. Songs have a way of showing up when you most need them, infiltrating the essence of your soul, pulling back the drapes on a stormy night to show you stars turned to diamonds with one moment of recognition of something to then unseen. "I'll Be" is such a song at such a moment. When you hurl yourself at life with an intensity that makes a difference, much falls beneath one's wheels. You don't look down or around for there's no time and the vertigo sets in. You lose yourself in all that you do, hold the victories aloft, find the joy where you are able and savor the difference you make And it's enough. It's enough. It's enough. You, the gunslinger madonna, midwifer of dreams, faithful acolyte of the power of music to deliver and define, shoot out the lightster, dreamer and dancer and laugher with gusto. You are so present, so there… that it all goes easy, you land softly, you fly when you want to on the soles of your shoes and the sweep of a hand in the moment. What you want you never consider -- another's breath soft on your neck, a hand held and petted in the quietest hours, looking up at someone through the sprawl of your hair across your eyes -- because there's never time or pause or even the need. Then a client says the song makes her cry, and you trust their song sense, so you listen. Maybe the song is perfectly matched to the singer -- and the honesty exponentiates. Perhaps the notion that someone else seeks or believes makes you think that it's not such an odd thing to desire. Next thing you know, you're three dates into the start of a high-impact tour, waking up in a bus lot in Indiana -- you know that 'cause you're smart enough to check the locals' license plates -- and your brows are furrowed trying to remember what it was about that damn song that you can't even quite remember that's haunting you. How did it seep inside, and what does this hostage taking of your subconscious mean? A neon circus, a wild west show, the very best pipes maybe to ever grace country music, a whirling dervish presence on stage and an industrial strength muscle of music that hits it hard and sends people home spent and euphoric -- shot straight from the heart of Saturday night. It's all happening, and it's all mine for the taking -- and I do, filling my cup and my dancing shoes to the brim night after night after night. Yet, like some dime store junkie, I'm slinking from local to local looking for a record store within walking distance. Chastened to realize that their not knowing about something so close to where they work probably mirrors my own unconsciousness about where I live. And finally, determined to revisit this thing panging at my soul, I just start walking…Across a parking lot, by the Showgirls 3 Lounge -- a breast bar that promotes fellowship amongst the patrons with an actual golf outing -- and an abandoned donut shop, across a major intersection and waist deep into the kind of strip mall cancer that's devouring our nation. But the beauty of the homogenization of retail, you can always count on certain chains to remain unbroken. Lured forward on the promise of a Borders, I found a Best Buy. And in that software/hardware conjunction, there was Edwin McCain's Misguided Roses -- along with the just issued DVD of "Standing In The Shadows of Motown," for the long bus ride back to where I'm from. So you pay your money, you retrace your steps, you hope it wasn't a hallucination whose ephemerality will yield nothing more than an overly ardent young man so needy that it can only make the object of said song flee for fear of drowning. But it's not. The Clark Family was true witness to what Edwin McCain intended. At 10 minutes to 4 -- miles from there, still not quite here -- it's on eternal return: that slightly lumbering song of everything love should be, if we'd just stop making it so damn hard. The shadows of doubt that lurk behind you. The betrayals that orbit and mock you. The fear of looking silly. The need to have no risk involved. All those things that conspire against a pure moment, a true release of all the things that bind us down. With the warm sax that slithers through like some vestige of resolve and McCain's slightly muscular read, it all comes back. That rush of "oh, dear…" from the side of a brutally hot stage landing squarely, but softly in my lap as the miles give way to Bobby our driver and a state of the art Prevost that was built for Steven Tyler."You're my survival, you're my living proof/ My love is alive and not dead," says one more man of abandoned faith, one more heart closed down to the possibilities -- delivered by who knows whom? But obviously a survivor of the write-it-all-off-and-shut-it-all-down-sweepstakes, desperate to make the hurting stop. And when Edwin McCain confesses with no shame, just the exhaustion of the constantly moving, "I've dropped out, burned up, fought my way back from the dead/ Tuned in, turned out, remembered the thing that you said…” there is hope for us all. Hope for us all -- the drifters and the damned, the running and the scared and the scarred. Maybe it's the quietest leaps that are the most terrifying, maybe it's knowing that salvation of the human and humane is putting one's faith in someone else and allowing them to elevate you rather than being sure they will consume you, destroy you, pull you down under the water. As a woman who's recently had her faith scorched, her heart kicked in, her good will devastated by a callousness that almost defies humanity; just the notion that this could exist makes my blood flow backwards in my veins. Yet I know, too, that I need to believe, to accept, to dream and perhaps mostly cherish this notion. Yes, I live with the wolves and the jackals and the wild things that hunt or are hunted. But even those things can be tamed on a level -- with patience and stillness and a sense of the gentle currents of what is meant to be. The poet/songwriter Rodney Crowell once wrote me that "it's the biggest hearts that break the hardest and take the longest to heal…” but he also promised a return to innocence from that sort of decimation. Maybe in being cut to the quick and incinerated to the ground, much ultimately falls away chipping away the ashes and hard shell, this song beckons me to believe once again. Redemption with a sweeping melody, a lyric that offers everything in a few scattered images and plain spoken pledges, an unremarkable voice forever etched like a torch in the darkness. "I'll Be" becomes one of those balming comforts that can hold you soft and warm until the real thing comes along.
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