I was driving a rented gray Jeep on South Carolina Highway 9. Or maybe it was 38. Or 52. Hard to tell. To an Outsider like myself, the vast nothingness between Myrtle Beach and Charlotte lacks distinguishable characteristics.
The sandy-soil landscape is largely nondescript; empty pastureland that provides the connective tissue between one drive-thru town and the next. Other than its flapjack topography, it’s not dissimilar from my mountainous hometown. I grew up in the rural south, in a farm town nook called Pearisburg. It hides in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountain chain, connecting West Virginia to Blacksburg.
My hometown is one of those Saturday night towns Hal Ketchum sang about, with the front porches Tracy Lawrence said made us all friends.
Time moves slower in these little towns. There is no rush hour because nobody but the occasional passer-through like me is rushing anywhere. I envy that pace, the red light at Main Street, a dashboard warning that the truck needs gasoline, the county sheriff hiding behind the DUI lawyer’s billboard, or a combine in the slow lane, wide open at 15 miles per hour, dust and corn kernels blowing out the back like confetti.
Double-wides on dirt with dogs in the yard, pushing their noses through the holes in the chain-link fence. A cloud of blue smoke and the scent of a brush fire. A chipped-paint cinderblock storefront shaped in an apex, its windows boarded up with weathered gray plywood. I wonder what that building must have boasted the day it opened. Furniture, perhaps? Faith? Churches of every denomination imaginable line this route. Railroad crossings. The Marlboro County water tower rises from the pine forest. The glow of the Huddle House at the only stoplight for miles; a good ol’ boy in dusty boots leans against the wall, a cigarette against a silhouette.
The Marlboro Man, indeed.
A left turn at the green light points me toward a breathtaking sky, swirled pastels like a bowl of sherbet, piercing streaks of pink and orange against fading pale blue. One of those humbling moments where God and nature remind you how small you are.
There is so much beauty in simplicity. You just have to be willing to look.
I drove that Jeep into the twilight, motivated to spend time with my wife, Jack Daniels, and George Strait by the fire pit. But for now, I was sipping Dunkin’ On-the-Go truck stop coffee as hot and potent as a roman candle and as dark and thick as Karo syrup.
I felt alone. And insignificant.
I’d been after it and working since well before dawn. It was approaching dusk now, as I drove home from a football game broadcast on the South Carolina coast. The air was hot as hell all day in Myrtle Beach. The field turf far was even hotter. I was gassed and neck-deep in that vulnerable, almost disconnected headspace that often accompanies fatigue.
I was driving Route 9, while contemplating Route 91.
Typically these days, on long drives I’m a podcast guy. (And within a global pandemic, I’m driving all over creation to this college campus or that, to broadcast this game or that).
I mostly listen to conversations or interviews centering on music creation, the backstories of artists and their paths, and the dogged determination to beat the damn devil and to prove ‘em all wrong and to become somebody.
Those stories inspire me deeply.
Kip Moore is a star. He’s an artist that, in my mind, is underappreciated in country music commercially. But go to his show, and you’ll see the passion he commands from a loyal fan base. There’s an obvious energy exchange; a mutual appreciation for being in the same space at the same time for the same cause. Us against them.
I live for “us against them.”
That loyalty isn’t given; it’s earned. Hard tickets are another man’s money and, more importantly, his time. Hard tickets are the folks Luke Combs sings about in “Without You.” They’re overtime hours to pay for gas, beer, and babysitters with the hope of a song that helps you forget life for a minute while reminding you who you are underneath the layers.
Moore went four years between hit songs but grew his fan base threefold during that same time.
He told me once during an interview, that when he moved to Nashville, he had a writing deal and couldn’t afford heat.
So, he’d lay there on a half-assed mattress in a low rent apartment in the freezing air, watching warm breath leave his lungs and billow skyward into the frigid night. And he’d wonder how he’d change that trajectory. He’d work. And he’d walk in a restaurant and eat an appetizer and drink some water while he’d wait for the family at the next table to leave, so he could snag the uneaten shrimp from their dirty plates.
Survival. To beat the damn devil. Whatever it takes.
Kip Moore drove a Nissan pickup truck with a half-million miles on it. He’d write all day and lay on the floor all night. He’d spend hours listening to the music of Jackson Browne and Bob Dylan and write out the lyrics longhand on notebook paper that he bought at Wal-Mart to study the song structures and how the legends wrote towards a hook.
Beat the damn devil. Whatever it takes.
I love to absorb that unwavering creative energy. That dogged determination. “And The Writer Is…“ is a long-form podcast on musical creativity, hosted by Ross Golan, the 2016 BMI Songwriter of the Year. Golan interviews acclaimed songwriters from all genres about inspiration and process. I listen intently to the country music episodes, featuring chart-stuffers like Luke Laird, Shane McAnally, and Thomas Rhett.
But on this drive I didn’t want the ingredients, I wanted the cake.
I needed the therapy that finished work provides. The release. The escape.
Songwriting fascinates me. I am infinitely impressed by how these unique minds create life-altering stories that run for three minutes.
There are but a select handful of occupations that have the potential to save lives: doctors, nurses, first responders, medical researchers. I believe songwriting is on that list. Music saved my life.
That’s what filled my thoughts as I sped past the gas stations, farms, and fields in Polkton and Olive Branch and New Salem.
For generations songwriters have taken this type of landscape, oft-forgotten and clichéd, rarely respected, that means nothing to most, and channeled its impression to create lasting, respected art about the rural South, the small-town Southern man, his ways of life and his convictions. They’ve perfected the craft of sculpting audible art that makes those of us who love that life and live those convictions feel heard and appreciated and understood.
And when performed live on a stage or in a cow pasture or a parking lot or a bar or a club or an arena or a football stadium, those same words are a connection point to a moment we’ll long remember.
That connection is a noticeable void in my life in 2020.
The live concert experience is more important to my wife and me than we realized before it was abruptly erased by COVID-19. It provides unmatched fulfillment. We feel alive and in perfect synergy and very much in love in those moments, vulnerable and joyous, immersed in those crowds and those beers and those words and those songs, screaming off-key at the top of our drunken lungs.
There is nothing we’d rather do.
We as human beings are created to gather and to unite in fellowship and to embrace. Of course, we miss it terribly.
That’s when I dialed up the latest Eric Church single on Spotify. “Through My Ray-Bans.” Talk about a song that stops time.
Church originally wrote the song with Laird and Barry Dean about the crowds that built him, the legions of country boys in dirty jeans and dusty trucks, working 40 hours a week for less than they earn, dying to tell the boss to go to hell, who saved that overtime dollar to shotgun tallboys and hold their girl and hear a voice that sounded like their voice. It was a song written for the guys who need a middle finger message. It was music molded for the ones who need a hell or high water messenger, who they know damn sure hears them back — and who they believe has their back.
That’s Church. That’s who he is, and that’s how he’s built. It’s authentic in a world where authenticity is so coveted because it’s so rare.
That song now honors a different, specific country music crowd.
The Route 91 Festival. The fans who trekked to the Vegas Strip to lose themselves in the music, who two days later would tragically lose their lives in the deadliest mass shooting in US history. Two days prior to the shooting, Church played to that same crowd in that same place. They were his fans.
Afterward, Church heard the Ray-Bans tune in a very different light. So he, Laird, and Dean reentered the lab to rewrite nearly the entire song in the victims’ honor.
Knowing that fact drastically changes the listening experience from a joyful and carefree release dedicated to the daily grind into an ominous but resilient remembrance of lives lost.
We will gather again.
And when we do gather again, it will be unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. We will feel whole. We will purge anxiety and stress and listlessness. We will breathe in deeply, and we will exhale unbridled joy. We will embrace. We will laugh, and we will cry. We will sing to music that reflects the deepest parts of our souls until we lose our voices.
And I can promise you, we will not feel alone.
The sun has gone now. I can see nothing beyond the hood of this Jeep, the pitch-black night sliced only by oncoming high-beams. I’m 10 minutes from home.
And all I can think about is how difficult but important it is to be present where your feet are planted and to be mindful of the blessing. To cherish and nourish our roots.
And to honor perspective gained by loss.
The battle wages tomorrow, but tonight we got a drink in our hand…
Wish you could stay the way I see you through my Ray-Bans…