Monday, July 21, 2008

OXFORD CONFIDENTIAL:
Life's Nothing More than a Lyric to a Song Sometimes...

" Folks said I grew up early, and the farm couldn't hold me then; So I stole ten bucks and a pickup truck and I never went back again."

- As recorded by ROY CLARK, Dot Records, 1970,
(Country music legend and actor from Meherrin, Virginia)


OXFORD, Ohio (ZP) -- It's damned near impossible for me to operate any sort of vehicle without some sort of music to guide my mechanical reflexes.

You see, there's a switch in my brain - one that has colloquially been referred to as my Virginia Gene or, alternately, as latent Southern instinct - that prohibits me from driving machinery without the ability to hear a song, even if that means that I have to sing those songs myself.

I didn't even realize that I was singing along to the song on the radio, sitting there at the stoplight, belting out a gravelly impromptu duet with the singer-songwriter as the compact disc played his Sunday-perfect "Cold Cold Ground" loud and crisp.

And I, of course, didn't realize that my pickup truck performance had drawn an audience, three very attractive young brunettes in a sedan in the turn lane beside me. I turned my head to check my side mirror and, embarrassed, I let my voice die back down to a hum.

"Hey, don't stop!" the girl in the front passenger seat hollered. "You have a nice voice! Whatcha listening to?"

I tried to ignore the question. I felt myself sliding down into the bucket seat's upholstery, felt my hands reach up to pull down the brim of my LSU Tigers baseball cap.

"Hey! WHAT. ARE. YOU. LISTENING TO?"

"Tom Waits."


"Oh. Cool."


The light changed. I glanced over at the car beside me before pushing onward towards the grocery store. The brunettes waved and, well, laughed amongst themselves.

As soon as they were out of sight, my hum slipped back into its gravelly, off-key duet.

* * * *

When I was but a kid, the veritable knee-hugging grandma's boy, my grandfather used to take me with him on his weekly trips to the farmer's co-op, out in the tiny town of Burkeville, Virginia.

He'd load me up into his old orange-and-creme colored pickup, pull my little cowboy hat down tight around my ears, make sure my shirt was tucked in and my shoelaces were tied. He'd climb up into the cab himself, check his mirrors and gauges and blind spots, with all of the mechanical precision of a surgeon - or, more appropriately, like the CPO surgeon's assistant he'd been during the Allied invasion of Sicily - before turning over the engine.

And as soon as we were halfway down the mile-long driveway, at the edge of the alfalfa field near the entrance to the woods, he'd chomp down on one of his cheap cigars, cock his cowboy hat to one side, and turn on the radio, tune the dial to Virginia's legendary WSVS 800 AM.

"Well, hot damn!" he'd say. "You got that purdy singing voice ready to sing?"

"Yes sir," I'd say.

I was, believe it or not, a very polite, well-mannered child. No clue what happened.

And how we'd sing along to that radio! Humid piedmont air would whip through the cab of that pickup as we belted away, the grandson and the grandfather, out through the truck's open windows, out towards the passing tobacco and soybean fields, the peanut lots and the field corn.

Those magical old-time country songs came out naturally, with lyrics like Hank Williams' eerie Alone and forsaken, by fate and by man / or Lord if you hear me, please hold my hand... and the Carter Family's crackling prompts of Stand up, boy / And listen to your crime / Gonna send you up to Richmond / To serve out your time.

A thing of beauty, always, those trips with my grandfather out to the farmer's co-op in Burkeville. There were other trips, too, down to South Hill and Chase City to bid on cattle, sojourns to Keysville for soft-serve ice cream and the mandatory military-style haircut.

When my grandfather died in July 1987, I spent many a lonely evening curled up in the cab of his old GMC Grand Sierra, listening to old country and bluegrass songs on WSVS, trying to sing through tears.

Sometimes, you just have to sing your heart out, even if for no other reason than to simply make room for something else.

* * * *

I pulled into the grocery store parking lot, still singing away.

Actually, better yet, I was now chanting and rapping along to the radio. The homemade compilation CD had switched to another track, a not-so-old favorite, Los Angeles emcee Awol One's "The Rules of the Week."

A Los Angeles-based ex once surprised me with a last-minute flight out for a visit. We went down to a club to see the guy perform live... fun night and good memories, despite how that fling ended...

As I sat there in the parking lot, I felt myself being pulled backwards in time, let my mind zone out for a bit, exhale the past within the framework of its very own soundtrack. Finally, as the song ended, the memories were returned to their rightful, nostalgia-free place. I killed the engine, opened the driver's side door, and returned to the real world.

As I sauntered across towards the grocery, I couldn't help but take notice of my surroundings.

There were other voices, you see, singing along to other car radios, in harmony, loud and crisp through humid Sunday summer air.

A pair of children - a preteen girl and a young boy - sat in rusty blue van in one of the handicapped spots, up near the front doors, an elderly woman in the front seat. They looked to have just come from some church service, dressed in dresses and ties. And how much fun they looked to be having, waiting for whoever the driver was who'd left them alone to sing in the car.

The girl was singing into a hairbrush, the boy into an empty soda bottle, and Granny was just a' rocking to a windshield audience. They didn't have a care in the world, didn't care who heard their family rendition of the so-not-gospel 2004 R&B/country hit, "Over and Over," by Tim McGraw and Nelly.

Well, hot damn! I thought to myself. I friggin' love that song.

I spent the entire shopping trip humming that tune to myself.

Stupid Virginia Gene.

Can't even operate a friggin' shopping cart without a song stuck in my head.

- # # # -


5 comments:

Cat. said...

Dood!! I've been to Virginia exactly twice, both times as an adult, both times briefly, and I have always sung my BRAINS out in the car. ;-) I dance too, if provoked (by a good song)!

As for being "very polite, [and] well-mannered" I suspect that you still are both as an adult...when the situation calls for it. But when it doesn't, you aren't. Maybe?

coyotemike said...

Maybe it's just a rural thing. I've never been anywhere in the South, and I do the same thing. Only when I got caught, I was doing an arm-waving rendition of "It had to be you" (Harry Conick, Jr. version from When Harry Met Sally), while stopped at a stoplight, when I saw a couple of girls in a convertable off to my left. Instead of stopping, I gave them the big finish and took a bow when they started laughing.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

May or may not be a rural thing. I have been known to do it as well. As for the polite as a kid, happens we grow up and realize some people just may not be as deserving, so to speak.

My memories are along the lines of sitting on a balcony in my godfather's home where they would sing old ballads (he played guitar. Actually, thinking about it, so did another aunt of mine. And dang, I did not get that musical gene to play an instrument). Anyhow, the result is I can sing stuff (in Spanish, we are talking things like boleros) that kids today just have no clue. But that's another story.

Best, and keep on blogging.

pia said...

My father--born in Manhattan and spent his entire life in the NY metro area constantly sang a love song about an armed robber. For many years I thought all fathers sang such songs as lullabys and for nieces and nephews

When a new generation of kids came he would be asked--begged really--to sing it and refused

He finally told me that armed robbery just wasn't bad enough anymore

When I was a geriatric social worker I mentioned the song to a group of old ladies--I facilitated their "woman's group" Turned out

Sad sad and lonely
if I had the wings of an angel
over these prison walls I would fly


was a popular song in the 30's

Thanks Jason for making me remember that--and Tom Waits is a great person to channel

The ZenFo Pro said...

Cat:
Gotta just love the unifying, liberating power of a good song.

Caught me. Yeah, I guess I am fairly well-mannered, actually :)

Mike:
I think you're right - we always attributed it to a Southern thing but it is a rural thing as well.

And hey. Chicks dig the Harry Conick.

Angel:

Speaking of behaviors we used to have as children...

Ooh Ooh! Boleros?!? That kicks ass!!! I dated a woman a long time ago whose abuela (who refused to speak "dirty English") used to sing and strum the most beautiful boleros and a lot of traditional Texas/Mexico folk ballads.

Pia:
Lol, yeah, ya grow up and ya finally start understanding the lyrics...

The Prisoner's Song!

In my case, it's the "Ballad of Jesse James." Lord, for years I thought that "that dirty lil coward/ who shot Mr. Howard" was the only one responsible for layin' poor Jesse in his grave. I won't even get into the House of the Rising Sun - hell, who would dare risk some less cultured, more media-influence schoolteacher's wrath by teaching their kids the words to a song about a friggin' brothel?