My mother died in 1977. She was only 57. I was 31. Though I had run hard and far to stay away from her troubles, I felt defenseless against the ravages of a grief buried deep under the walls I had created to ward off the sense of impending danger I’d felt around her since I was a child. I leaned heavily on the music of Steve Young, his songs already my closest companion, to get through the tumultuous year that followed. Steve’s songs cut deep grooves in my experience and made me one with a body of poetry as I had never been before. The songs became a new language for me, a language of sadness and anger, potent streams flowing into the river that ran through my black and blue heart.
August 4, 1977. Barb and I are packing. Tomorrow we will drive from Milwaukee to Jackson, Tennessee to visit my mother. I am hopeful she and I can find some peace between us. I have not spent a night in her house since 1969. Our relationship, already rocky, began worsening three years before when she’d married Elmer, a brutal, racist drunk from Sunflower, Mississippi. After the marriage I return home as little as possible. But in 1969, I find myself confused by a hard year in seminary and needing some place to go. I leave to spend the summer at my mother’s house in Lexington, Tennessee. Mama and I do surprisingly well. She stays off the pills, and we are closer. Elmer is off working on the river most of the time. And when he is home on layovers, he stays drunk most of the day. It’s one of those days, late into the summer, I begin seeing signs she is being battered. I should do something, but I don’t know what to do. I’m afraid of Elmer. I sense a violent criminality, and time and police reports I’ll read years later will prove I had good cause to fear him. Mama gives no sign she wants to leave. The pull of her desperation is great. I have felt it time and again. My heart hardened by all the times I had left before, I choose myself again and go. This time is the most final. I will never spend another night in a house my Mama lives in. When I do go back for brief visits over the years, our days will be mostly full of pills and pain. In 1972, I will knock on her door only to find her so out of it that she won’t know me by my name.
It’s hard to believe, but I have found a reason to be almost hopeful about this visit. Barb’s presence made our luncheon visit to introduce them a little easier. Mama has also told me an old friend has retired in Jackson and is giving her some help straightening out her life. The results look positive. She has divorced Elmer, lost a lot of weight and has gone back to work as a cook on the river. This fourth of August is a Thursday. Barb and I gather our things for the trip believing Mama’s been home and busying herself for the past few days to get ready for our visit. I’d started calling the Saturday she was coming off the river to talk about the route we’d be taking, but I kept getting a busy signal. I’d soon figured out the phone was out of order, so I called the police and asked them to check on her house. It’s been five days now, and I haven’t heard anything back from the station or from Mama. I feel some irritation about the phone remaining out of order, but I figure everything must be fine.
Our phone rings about 7. On the line is a policeman in Jackson. My mother was found dead today, he tells us, and she may have been murdered. I am numb, coldly so, and I will remain that way for a long time. All I can think of is a verse from the song “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”:
Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison.
And I went to pick her up in the rain.
But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck,
She got runned over by a damned old train.
I sit in the living room, naked to the waist with a beer in my hand and play my latest Steve Young album, Renegade Picker. I play “Home Sweet Home (Revisited)” over and over. It’s a song written by Rodney Crowell that Steve fished out of a roomful of tapes at RCA. The song describes the decay of a family in a series of powerful images, a rotting house, a watch that won’t run, an abandoned car and the lost war that continues to define the South. The song is about a family like mine, another one that can’t be raised up when it is in defeat.
The next ten days will be tough ones. We’ll learn my mother died of natural causes. Because they’d paid so many visits to the house on domestic abuse calls, the police had initially suspected foul play. She’d come home that Saturday as she’d promised. She’d suffered a heart attack before she could call anyone or even turn on the air conditioner. Though the police claim to have checked out my call earlier, they hadn’t entered the house until Thursday when neighbors complained of flies at the window.
On Saturday, while Kaye makes plans for the Sunday funeral, I go to Jackson to get the house ready to be cleared out and cleaned the next week. My cousin, Jim Todd, a lawyer in Jackson, goes with me. We can’t know what will await us. The body had been in that house for almost a week during one of the hottest times of the year. This is no job for a son or a daughter, but it has to be done. We rip up carpet, mop the floors, and air out the house as best we can. For a full week, Kaye and I will work in a house saturated with death.
The service that Sunday afternoon is held at the funeral home in Hickman. It’s mostly just family. A few of Mama’s sisters come, but they act even colder than I feel. Mama has drained everyone’s patience over the years, and no one seems to have any room for grief. The sisters talk mostly about how devious she was. Mama, one of them says, took out a large life insurance policy on Elmer. Because he could not pass the physical due to his diabetes, she switched out his urine for hers. I want to believe the policy was a bet on the odds, but others aren’t so sure. She had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for the past 14 years. The family focuses on her drug addiction, an addiction fueled by a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. It had been her mental illness that made both my sister and me so afraid of her so often. She had never tried to harm me, but she threw a pot of boiling water at Kaye the summer after I graduated from high school. Mama, like many mentally ill people, posed a troublesome moral problem: how much of what she did came out of a compulsion she couldn’t control and how much out of a lack of moral character? My mother’s sisters, and even Kaye, seemed to resolve that problem more easily than I could. I will spend my life never sure how much of what she did was beyond her control and worry that in the end, I failed her as much as she failed me.
The music is canned Funeral Home music, made worse by the hiss when the eight track tape is shoved in and out of the deck. Mama, I thought, deserved something like “Rough Side of the Mountain,” a black gospel song no one would have thought to include:
I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain,
I must hold to God, His powerful hand.
I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain,
I’m doin’ my best to make it in.
If Mama had found God again, and there would be some evidence in her house she had, she found him on the rough side of the mountain. The song I sang in my heart was another by Steve Young, “Alabama Highway,” which begins with this a ride through the Alabama red dirt, shacks and cotton fields, and makes the losses of the life real in the drudgery of work that takes away too much and gives too little. In the chorus, the song takes a mystical turn.
Alabama highway, take me on neath the moonlight toward the day
Turn supernatural, take me to the stars, and let me play.
I wanna be free, Alabama highway.
A white funeral in rural Western Kentucky had no place for either black gospel music or a song full of what seems to me to be Native American spirituality. An old family friend, a minister who had known my parents from their early days, performs the ceremony and brings some softness to touch all the hard faces in the room. He remembers Mama in kindly ways, speaking of her service to others as a minister’s wife, but ends the eulogy in 1963, the year my father died. We bury her in the cemetery next to my father as Nell Eason. There isn’t much left of our childhoods among her belongings. Each of us takes a few things from the house, we throw a lot away and sell what is left for $600.
August 16, 1977. Barb and I head back to Milwaukee. We over stuff our little Capri for the trip home. Exhausted by the last 10 days, we talk little. The big news on the radio is that Elvis has died. A lot of old hits follow, though few of them please me. I long for the early Sun recordings. “That’s All Right.” “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” “Good Rockin Tonight.” The music Elvis made before the Colonel came along to make him into a movie star.
Back in Milwaukee, I try to deal with a grief that won’t come close enough to the surface for me to grasp. I’d lost a father I adored at 17 and could have cried rivers for days, but the world seemed to demand a false front of the new man of the family. I gave it the greatest performance of my life. Now, I have lost a troubled mother, and I have no tears. The distance between us should have made her death easier, but it just made her death hard in a new way. Things ended as they did. She was who she was. Nothing could change now.
My own life feels like an incredible contradiction in the year that follows Mama’s death. I spend my days as a fellow at a fancy humanities center at the university. It’s in Milwaukee, but many of the people at the center have their roots in Europe. Most of those who don’t are doing their best to act like they do. My friend Mark Lucius captures the spirit of the place well in a song about one of his hipster friends: “You’ve got that Continental look. Are you sure you come from Milwaukee?” I have one friend at the center, the science fiction writer Samuel Delaney, who grew up in Harlem and has a large generous view of the world. Barb says when we go to the parties, she imagines most of the people are thinking “The Okies are here.” She has the feeling right, but the geography is all wrong. When I tell Sam about this, he replies, “Don’t worry. They don’t have a map of that part of the world.”
I spend my nights in an imaginary world of red dirt roads, kudzu vine and hardscrabble farmers:
My mother’s story is profoundly Southern. A dirt poor girl, barely 16, catches the first car heading out of the hills when a Methodist minister, 10 years older, preaches a revival near her home. They marry and work their way up the bottom half of the class structure of the Methodist Church, spending the first half of their lives together in circuits serving three to five churches. About the time I was born, my father had his first appointment to a single church. For the next 17 years we’ll move through a string of small towns in Western Kentucky and West Tennessee, never more than 30 minutes from the Mississippi River. My mother works and worries her way through those years. Nothing she leaves behind makes me sadder than a big box of yellowed self-help clippings that charted her life. There are tips on how to raise children, give parties, meet strangers, write letters, give talks, wear scarves, arrange tables, make punch, fix hair. With those clippings to guide her and by watching closely, my mother put together a self to face the burdens of being a minister’s wife. Behind the face, she carried some part broken from her childhood. As she aged, that part became more and more painful to her. She tried to dress up the hurt by spending too much on clothes and jewelry. When nothing seemed to work, she withdrew into the haze of a world softened by tranquilizers. When my father dies, my mother falls back down the class structure. It’s a hard fall. Winding up in public housing, she scrambles to get a job. Though her life with my father helped her acquire middle class affectations, she’s still not qualified to do the jobs she imagines for herself. She ends up cleaning, and then cooking, on riverboats that push a string of large barges up and down the river. My mother, more color blind than most southerners, will die in a black neighborhood living with a violent and racist man whose past was so dark that it only bubbled up when he was most drunk.
I am numb throughout my year at the humanities center and only come alive in the imaginary world of song where I find my mother’s story and mine time and again. I listen to the Elvis recording of “That’s All Right” a lot, mostly because of when he died. His mother’s face also reminds me of Mama. “That’s All Right,” is a song directed at a lover he calls Mama, but I hear my own and find myself in song at least able to say “That’s all right Mama, any way you do.” I buy albums by Grand Ole Opry stars I first heard with my Mama, Hank Snow, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams and, her favorite, Faron Young. I listen to Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and David Allan Coe. Still, I find my greatest comfort in the Steve Young songs that describe a world where people are tortured by love, punished by memories, and burdened with an insatiable longing for home.
Steve is a master in capturing the dark side of my ambivalence. It’s there in his wonderful version of the John D. Loudermilk song “Tobacco Road.”
Tobacco Road, I hate you cause you’re filthy
But I love you cause you are home.
Tobacco Road is the Doe Creek Road where my mother grew up. And it’s also all those feelings I carry on my own imaginary road whether I’m going home or going away. The way it touches my own intolerable tensions is part of the music’s greatest appeal. This music, I think, is a music of lines, the ones you can’t cross, the ones you must cross, but most of all the ones you just have to walk.
The only relief I can imagine is my father’s voice telling me what to do. I use another Steve Young song “Many Rivers” about an Eastern spiritual master to invoke my father:
He said, “My son we’ve played the game, and you’ve used a rambler’s name
But you never were a true hard-roller anyway.”
He said, “My son, I have made you many rivers.
And you’ve followed them from the mountains to the sea.
And now I’ll make you one that flows beyond the sun
Oh I’ll make a ship of grace and set you free.”
Songs about being free capture my longings, but they certainly don’t make me free. I remain one of those barroom people Steve sings about in a Guy Clark song, “Take Me to a Barroom.”
Broken hearted people always seem to drink
Tryin’ to drown those sorrows, it ain’t as easy as you think
Living with a liar is a hard old way to go
Laughin’ just to keep from crying ain’t no way to grow
Even though winter has come, the liar I am still living with is my mother. In what should be one of the best times of my life–happily married, my doctorate just finished, a fellow at a prestigious center–I feel doomed. When I find myself standing around on busy street corners pondering why I shouldn’t just step in front of the next car, I scare myself and get some help. Even with help, it is a dark time. Because Steve Young’s voice always makes me feel like someone is really there, he remains my midnight companion.
When I look back, I won’t know how my wife stood this period, which will go on for almost a year. I’m not constantly morose, but I fall in and out of dark moods, and it seems the next one is always close by. Finally, it’s a summer night, and I’m sitting in the living room, listening to “Home Sweet Home (Revisited),” a song that paints a dark future with the lines:
Tomorrow has no home sweet homes
Look what they’ve done to mine.
Barb has finally had enough. “If you play that song one more time, I’m going to leave.” Barb knew a lot about loss and death. She had lost a husband to a motorcycle crash and her mother to a painful fight with cancer. I have never known anyone who suffered such great losses, and there were others as well, with as much dignity. She was, and still is, a strong woman who has borne much. She tolerated a lot from me. When she could get my attention, things usually started to get better.
There would come a day when I’d have to put these sad songs away for a while in order to gain my sense of inner balance, but that would be some years down the road. The good news would be that when I returned to his music, Steve would have gentler songs waiting to keep me company. Still, the words and music that got me through a difficult time, cemented my love for Steve Young’s songs. Even today, those first songs feel like old friends, the kind that put their hands on your heart and say “We know how you feel.” Finding that once at such a level of depth, how could I do less than open myself again and again to the experience of longing for a song?
(This is the second of two essays on the music of Steve Young. I have written this story now three times over almost thirty years. There are sentences in this essay I wrote in 1988, others from 2001, but most of it is new. Sometimes, I feel I will be writing this story until I can’t write. It is not an easy story to tell, and I learn something new every time I tell it. I had some able assistance this time. Mark Lucius and Mark Neumann looked at early versions and offered some helpful suggestions. But the piece finally started to reach its final form with counsel from my writer friend Lynne Butler, who writes as Lynne Oaks. Lynne gave the essay her close eyes that led to a better structure and then helped clean it up considerably. Once again I am thankful for her time, attention and poetic sensibility.)