in which our reluctant heroine considers mothers, mothering, muthahs and music
On more than one occasion I’ve had an argument with my mother that culminated in her listing the criminal rap sheet of a musician as evidence of their credibility (that’s right, credibility) in their field. In order to appreciate the context of these arguments it should be known that my mom is a very devout mormon, full of faith and strict in her moral judgement of all people. Still, good musicians get a pass. The most recent example of this took place last spring in my car. We were driving to the grocery listening to Johnny Cash’s America IV. Somehow my mother was offended that everyone thought he was such a bad-ass ever since the film “Walk the Line” had come out. But he wasn’t a tough guy at all, she said. Did I know that the only times he was ever in jail were for alcohol related charges? Whereas, Hank Williams had actually killed a man in a bar fight. I found myself defending Cash’s music by pointing out how hard he was on his woman and how he nearly drank himself to death but she was unimpressed.
I can’t find any evidence that verifies her Hank Williams story and I don’t know why she hates Johnny Cash enough to fabricate a more criminal background for an imaginary criminal background throw down between the two. I always assumed it was due, in part, to my dad’s dirty revision of the song “I Walk the Line”, the chorus of which goes “I keep my pants tied with a piece of twine. Because you’re mine, untie the twine”. Pretty annoying stuff. But maybe she took issue with Cash singing lyrics she didn’t think he could own up to. Whatever her reasoning, it means something to me that she loves music enough to feel protective and think critically about it. That she’ll argue with me and listen with me. That she once defended Shane MacGowan’s drug addiction because he was, you know, Irish, and they’re a sad people. That the night I discovered the brilliant Junior Brown at a show I also discovered she had four albums of his I could borrow. That even though I connect with her on so few levels, I sense the emergence of her self through this ongoing conversation.
When I was 11 my mom came home with Willie Nelson’s “You Were Always on My Mind” on vinyl, walked straight into my brother Kevin’s bedroom, put on his clamshell headphones and listened to that album repeatedly, sitting on the floor in front of the stereo, singing along with the sleeve on her lap. By then she had had all six of her children. I stood in the hall and watched through a partially closed door while several things occurred to me in this order:
- My mom doesn’t have a very good singing voice.
- I’m watching something private.
- She looks really pretty right now.
- Like a young woman.
- She is having an experience I am not having.
- My mom is a person who is not me.
- I am a person who is not my mother.
I doubt my own daughter will get to arrive so abruptly at the same shocking fact of her separate identity from me. We spend so much time in conversation and I’ve never been discreet. Still, if I can’t pass on every gift my mother gave me I can continue this conversation about music. I can pepper our morning drives with comments as simple as “That’s auto-tuning. Her voice isn’t strong enough to hit that note.” Or as grandiose as “Dylan completely altered our expectations of what lyrics should be.” Or as fundamentally life affirming as “It isn’t a cuss if it’s in a song”.