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Random thoughts, settings, characters, situations, perhaps leading somewhere

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Snapsongs: “Medicine Hat” by Son Volt

Friday 7 February 2014 - Filed under Snapsongs

2003. I’d heard Son Volt from a friend in the late 90s, and I appreciated what I’d heard, but I didn’t really get into Jay Ferrar’s solo alt-country project until a few years later. In the interim, a girlfriend of mine had owned Straightaways, which I found intriguing. Much later, after we broke up, I found Wide Swing Tremolo during a CD-buying binge at a local record store, and figured, what they hey?

It was a good purchase. I already preferred Ferrar’s vision over his former bandmate’s style in Wilco, so if there’s any residual feud over the two halves of Uncle Tupelo, you know where my loyalties lie. Son Volt was more country than most of my music, but by this time I had made my peace with my earlier stylistic chauvinisms, and had embraced all manner of music that my younger selves would have snubbed. Roots, early country, electronica, techno, some dance, some folk, I had become more catholic in my choices. The only genres that were still anathema (and still are) were pop country and R&B. Pop country was easily enough avoided, but mindless R&B with mind-numbing vocal layering and simple, repetitive lyrics had already secured its place at the pinnacle of the pop idiom. What radio I listened to quickly dropped to zero. The radio was out, so it was albums all the way. Even to this day, I retain a preference for 44.1 KHz 16-bit CD audio over compressed iPods tracks.

As with many of my musical memories, this one centers on driving. This is not all that surprising. Even as this is a car culture, various points in my life have involved long commutes or long travels alone behind the wheel of whatever conveyance I had available to me. I’d driven to Mount Rushmore, Las Cruces, and Chicago alone, and I’d lived for all of my driving life in a large, sprawling Western city. Music came naturally to such spans of time. For this particular situation, I was commuting daily between my apartment in San Marcos, Texas to my job in Austin. This involved at least an hour and a half of traveling per day. Quite a few albums’ worth of music is necessary to negotiate the distance and the traffic involved.

So… the open road. To make it even more cliche, I’ll even capitalize it: The Open Road. Vast Texas skies, tan fields, the typical detritus that collects around interstate intersections: billboards, gas stations, XXX video shops, churches and strip malls. This was something of the perfect backdrop for Son Volt and the vaguely weary-but-persisting endurance that alt country portrays. But it wasn’t whiskey, women, God and trucks in Jay Ferrar’s universe. There were travels, philosophies, murders, decisions, tears and epiphanies along the way. It was this deeper layer to the lyrics that really attracted me to the genre. Nashville pop is porridge for patriots, cliche after cliche in a repellent celebration of a stagnant status quo with hollow verities. This was much different, much chewier. There was thought behind the words, despite how low to the ground the speaker was crouching.

It was surprising how relaxing I found it. I was finally over the earlier unfortunate relationship that had taken my heart for a dive; I was moving out of the era of personal anomie that had surrounded my failure as a small businessman five years earlier; I was successfully melding my schedules of art student, freelance designer and prepress technician; I was slowly settling in to the realization that I actually could be an artist, could actually explore the more esoteric desires of my curiosity without hiding, apologizing or deprecating them. I had been able to purchase a band-new Honda Civic hybrid, and I felt like George Jetson as I cruised along I-35 playing little games with hills and the accelerator to try to maximize my mileage. (The best I ever got was 46 mpg, but I was never a hard-core hypermiler: my average was around 41-42.) It was an interesting time, still a little tender and wounded, but finding strange optimism and enjoying a brand-new feeling that the future might not be all that bad.

“Medicine Hat” is perhaps an odd place to find optimism, but it was there. The lyrics present a litany, a cadence of set-pieces, a sequence of truisms in a vaguely sing-song list of bullet points. Careful craft had been paid to the scansion and rhythm of the words and phrasing, and each line encapsulated a single idea, a single observation before moving on. There was no direct narrative link between lines, but the pensive and descriptive musings were similar in feel. It was a cataloging of human situations, some good, some bad, some indifferent, some luminous, some dark. The choice of language made it exquisite.

The music was a perfect accompaniment, not too rushed, not too overblown. Simple progressions and solid craftsmanship provided the setting for the words. The rests and simple drumfills between verse and chorus allowed the ear to breathe. Bass and drums were well within the pocket. The guitar had in its overtone hallmarks of other “heartland” tracks from Tom Petty or John Mellencamp. It was not a flashy song, but it was an excellent song.

And the basic summation of the feeling of optimism comes from the chorus: when circumstance conspires to make things happen, let’s hope that the hat that drops is medicine. May the headgear that falls into your lap be a feathered and beaded shaman’s cap, one that allows you to channel the energy of the universe and of nature into a healing vibe. Regarldess of where you’re going, where you’re traveling, may the Great Spirit come into your life. And in the summer and fall of 2003, I felt that maybe, just maybe, I could feel that finally happening.

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2014-02-07  »  Edward Semblance