And then we sang Red River Valley…

Sometimes in the middle of a life in the middle of America, you are handed a couple of days, or moments, where you are graciously reminded of what is so good and wholesome about a community that exists on the end of a two lane highway with no stoplight, no Walmart, no mall and no place else you’d rather be on a Friday afternoon.

And so I had a weekend filled with small town, mid-west, rural, main street, wholesomeness that began with the execution of an event I helped to plan on Main Street Watford City, ND–my hometown’s Best of the West Ribfest–where I manned the entertainment stage while community members milled around the vendor booths, ate lunch on picnic tables outside Main Street stores, breathed in the scents of barbecues warming and turning their rib suppers and enjoyed games, music and other entertainment on the big stage…

entertainment that included watching me attempt to help call bingo by turning on the bingo blower machine thingy and launching the numbered balls all over the damn street.

Lord, I just wasn’t meant for some things.

Anyway, husband, along with seventeen other businesses, vendors and crazy grillers, participated in the rib cooking contest. And at 5:30, after the judging was done, Bingo was mercifully over, my big sister’s dancers showed us their Michael Jackson Thriller moves, the kids were all settled in for the rest of the evening on those crazy, sweaty, inflatable jumper things, and Lonesome Willy and I sang for our supper, it was time to eat already.

I had a great view from the stage and watched as people emerged from their businesses, ready for the weekend, and began filling the street, up and down, waiting for the smokey, spicy, barbecue tastes of the grilled ribs. The street flooded with neighbors, tourists, new comers, children and pets.


And from my post it became apparent that this was the most people I’ve ever seen on Main Street Watford City at one time. I was proud of our town as I rested my blistered feet that were shoved in my fancy boots for the day and listened to some of the best local musicians around pick a banjo, a dobro, an acoustic guitar, and sing songs about their North Dakota home.

And the music filled the street, the ribs sold out, I announced the world’s longest chicken dance, signed an autograph for a couple of confused guys who thought I was a famous D.J. and then wondered who the hell’s name was on the back of their shirt as they walked away, the big band showed up, the full moon rose, I found myself a beer and watched my community laugh, relax, dance, shake hands, meet one another and enjoy themselves in the middle of the street, in the middle of America, in the middle of an oil boom, in the middle of a season that passes all too quickly around here.

It was necessary. It was appreciated. It was hometown as hometown needs to be…

I loaded up in husband’s pickup and he drove me home, pulled off my red boots, poked at my blisters and then I got up to do it all over again the next day. Because as wholesome as Friday night was, I got another dose as I put on a dress and headed back to town to sing at a wedding at our hometown church and then pointed my car north to meet the guys out at a farmstead near Hazen, ND.

Because we were scheduled to play a community barn dance and, so, when you’re at a barn dance you need the proper footwear. I did a quick outfit change, squeezed on my fancy boots again and followed the highway out of oil country, down a gravel road and into a perfectly mowed, perfectly beautiful, perfectly placed farmyard on the edge of Lake Sakakawea.

And in the middle of the yard stood a white and green barn that reached up the prairie sky and was spilling out people and children laughing and chatting and singing in cowboy hats and boots. The smell of burgers on the grill greeted me as lugged my guitar towards the band milling around outside, waiting for 8:00 to get behind their guitars, behind their microphones and behind their music.

We climbed the steps to the hay loft where the festivities took place and instantly I was transported to another place, another time, where the world still had barn dances, where the table cloths were still checkered red and white, where people danced the two step and sang along with old time country music, where they still wore cowboy boots.

I was on a movie set, you know, like the one where Sandra Bullock wears a beat up hat and jeans and takes photos and drives around a classic old pickup. The one where the small town band sounds straight out of Nashville. The one where she falls in love at the end after Harry Connick Jr. swings her around the wood floor of the barn as the lead singer taps his foot to Peaceful Easy Feeling and the crowd sings along.

Seriously.

But I wasn’t Sandra Bullock. Sandra Bullock was that beautiful blond in the black hat dancing with her boyfriend. No, I was the band.

And the guys playing next to me, some of the best musicians around, picked all the right songs and played all the right beats. Their grins spread wide as the family crowd requested songs the guys knew and then danced and cheered when they played them. The lead part drifted out through the hay loft window behind me and on over the prairie and to the lake as I sang harmony to my dad’s chorus and then a song I wrote and then Red River Valley and oh my, there they were, singing along.

So we all sang together. That family, that community. We sang Red River Valley and then Home on the Range and stomped our feet and clapped our hands as our voices joined together…

“May the circle, be unbroken, by and by Lord by and by…there’s a better home awaiting in the sky Lord in the sky…”

We sang it again…

and again…

and so did they, the crowd, our hosts for the evening. They sang with us too as they bounced their sleepy children, swung around their grandma, slapped their cousin and uncles on the shoulders, and just genuinely enjoyed themselves.

Genuinely.

I headed home into the dark sky, the guys with the band trailer pushing through the early hours of the morning in front of me, with a renewed hope that the world maybe hasn’t changed much.

That maybe in the hustle and bustle of progress, politics, and technology even the fancy cell phones that can tell you what road your on when you’re on it still can’t tell you where you really might be headed…

to a place where people still wear cowboy boots, where time has been preserved in the wood floors of a nearly hundred year old barn, where the only agenda is to laugh and dance with one another for goodness sake…

where the music really matters and so do the friendships.

A place on the end of a paved street with no stoplight, a place on the edge of a wheat field under the moon under the roof of a green and white barn that the GPS would never find…

but that we should never forget still exists…

The music

Last Friday my dad and his band, along with a couple young talented guys from my hometown, got together to play music in one of the local bars. They do this from time to time when schedules allow, so I took the trip to town to tap my toes, listen and sing with them– one of my favorite things to do in the entire world.

Something I’ve been doing for years every time I get the chance.

And it reminded me of something I wrote this summer after driving home from a night playing music in town with the guys. We loaded up the equipment in the pouring rain and drove home to our beds and our families. That night I felt I needed to talk about the music, to really try to get to the bottom of what it means. So I wrote it down, I analyzed, I remembered and thought it out. And then I tucked it away as I went on with the day-to-day and found my feet on the ground I love.

And started writing music again.

So last Friday I dug it out of the archives and I wanted to post it today.

The music

I want to talk about the music. I want to really tell you about.

But I am not sure where to start, and if I do, how to end.

I want to tell you how it takes over, how it tortures, how it aches and thrills and brings me to the highest highs and the lowest lows. How I nurtured it and ignored it. How I whispered it in the night air and screamed it in the hilltops and took it with me on the road and opened the doors wide and let it out. How I shut it in tight. How it haunts me and swells and lulls and crescendos and de-crescendos through my life. I want to tell you how it holds me and throws me down and then picks me up and laughs it off.

I want to tell you all of these things. I want to make you understand this blessing and this curse.

I got home late last night in the middle of a thunderstorm. My dad, with a trailer full of speakers and mic stands and guitars and crumpled song lists, drove me home into the night after an evening of playing with his band at an event in our hometown. It is an eclectic group of men–the band. And I could describe them here for you, but that would be a novel.

That would be an epic tale of triumph and creativity and struggle and friendship all wound up in their very own reasons they get together in bar rooms, around campfires, in living rooms and on porches across the country to play–to show off their instruments, sing into the dark and the smoke the words from the pens of like-minded men and women–songs from their own pens.

They tap their feet and drink from bottles after a long day in the office, in the field, on the road, in the oil patch or at home, alone, and they let it go. They push through worn voices, lines like “come away from your working day,” or “you’re spook’n the horses,” or “long may you run”– each song hand-picked by each man for something–something that matters.

And they get requests. They get requests to sing “Pretty Woman” or anything Garth Brooks or Simon and Garfunkel or “something we can dance to!”

And sometimes they oblige. Sometimes they do. But mostly they sing what ever the hell they want. Because they’ve been here before. They’ve played those requests and sat through sets in bars where the dancers were falling into equipment and laughing and cussing heartily to each other, drowning out perfect guitar riffs and damn passionate vocals and a great steel lead. They’ve driven into the night to get to the next show for the paycheck and the idea this might lead to something bigger. One of them has played to crowds of thousands and slept in tour busses and traveled the world. One of them has spent most of his musical career picking in the living room, looking for the voice to sing it out loud. One went from picking and singing in a traveling band, to alone in coffeehouses and restaurants, to sitting alongside a young daughter as she nervously sang her little heart out in front of her first real audience. All have found a home with the band.

These are the voices that sang to me the music I grew up with. The John Prine, the Lyle Lovett, the Bruce Springsteen, the EmmyLou Harris and the Neil Young came through on weathered guitars and equally weathered voices. I listened. I followed along.

And I fell in love. I took those voices, and started searching for my own at a pretty young age. I could go along here and describe to you the linear, biography type write-up of how I moved into and out of a career focused on music. That is important for press releases and websites, but not so important to me. What I want to explain is that I was never looking for fame and fortune or a chance to wear really great outfits with the songs I was writing and singing.

I was looking for a way to tell myself something.

I would walk out in the hills behind our house and sing at the top of my lungs where nobody could hear me, just to let myself let it out. It didn’t matter how my voice sounded, but I wanted to create something. I wanted to create something as beautiful and heart wrenching and cynical as the world I saw spinning around me. So I flung it out there and with a little coaxing, I began singing with my dad in public, then playing my guitar, then the songs that I wrote. And pretty soon people wanted me as at their conferences, their summer festivals, as their side act, their opening act, and sometimes, their featured attraction. Then I found myself on the road a bit, performing at colleges and as a guest on the local radio and small TV stations. Pretty soon I found myself wanting it too–knocking on doors, making phone calls, asking to play, auditioning, entering in contests, recording my music.

And then I had to explain myself.

“How do you write?” “How does it come to you?” “Did you take any formal classes?” “Who taught you to play guitar?” “Where do you want to go from here?”

And my favorite, “You should try out for American Idol.”

Pretty soon I was 23 and making a modest living off of rationalizing my worth as an artist, playing my music, proving myself and struggling to answer these questions.

But I don’t know how to answer them. I don’t know how to explain to anyone what I decide to write down, how the music comes out and the fact that most days I don’t think I’m much good anyhow. I don’t know how to explain how it got as far as it did, and then, how I stepped back a bit. I was given a wonderful opportunity to travel the mid-west and sing my songs and tell my stories and meet all kinds of wonderful people and see the United States from the inside of my Chevy Lumina. And it was a good gig for someone like me who had no idea what she was doing really.

But to be honest here I was a little lonely out there singing songs written about a place I loved, a place I kept packing up and leaving. And I could have gone on and on like this into my life, with small successes, telling my story, telling the world about what I love and not being there to love it. To live it.

Because to me the music was words and notes and callused fingers plucking the stories out of me and into that world that used to weigh on me, inspire me, scare me a little. To me the music was all of this. All of this and suddenly it was work too.

And so I felt I was being swallowed up a bit by the method of it all. I wanted the music, but I didn’t want to be launched, I didn’t want to be swallowed by it. I didn’t want it to take everything with it as we flew down the road to the next town.

So I backed off for a bit to remember exactly what it meant to me in the first place. To find that little girl singing in the trees again. And I tried to explain. Because some people can’t imagine being given a voice and a passion and not taking it to the bank for every thing it’s worth.

But that’s just it. What is it worth to me? What is it worth to the small town band playing their hearts out on a Saturday night to a bar crowd?

I remember when I was younger getting ready to go sing at an event during a warm summer weekend. I sat in the back seat of my parent’s car as they drove to the destination and I remember my secret struggle with this situation in which I found myself. I was thankful for the gift. I was thankful for my voice and my love for the music, but I thought to myself, at that moment, when I imagined my friends at the pool or hanging out together at the lake, free of the jitters, free of the nervous stomach before the performance, that they had it pretty good. For one moment, I thought maybe I didn’t want this responsibility.

But last night, as I was strumming alongside some of the most talented and rugged and honest men I know, I whispered a quiet “thank you” to God.  Because whatever the music can be, whatever expectations and struggles and disappointments and goals I have and have not achieved with this voice, I am grateful simply for what it is:

Sanity and creativity and holding on and sitting side by side with the people you love and singing into the night songs about traveling and the places you’ve been, songs about learning and death and standing up for a friend.

The connections, the mixing of voices, the harmony of two best friends, a mentor, a legend, a daughter, and a father swaying to the beat of their hearts in time to the music flying out of smiling lips and eyes squeezed shut with pure joy.

It is respect and trust enough to let it take you to a good place, a strong place where your soul speaks and all of the people you’ve loved and lost, those who lifted you up come to life for the moment.

It is finding the sound, taking a breath in unison, inviting strangers to sing along until they are no longer strangers.

It is packing up and driving into the thunderstorm at 1:30 am, rehashing the night, and the notes and the characters beside you. And making plans to sing again.

So I’d like to tell you about the music. I would. But I am sure to disappoint someone here, because what it means to me might not be what it means to you.

Because to me, it means everything.