In case you haven’t noticed, I have a page on here that has a constantly changing list of music that I am in love with or just obsessed with for one reason or another. Well, music is something that has been a filter for different parts of my life.
“I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.” -Billy Joel
On sunny days when I was five or six, I could always count on the static filled country twang of our radio playing out of our garage to fill my ears. Without question my father would be out there working on the project of the day; the smell of sawdust often filled the air, like the perfume of my childhood was made out of hours spent cutting and sanding board after board at our house. Those 90s country songs were the playlist of my childhood and there were many times when my dad and I, with the occasional addition of one of my brothers, would sing along to whatever song happened to be playing in spite of our ragtag band sounding worse than some sort of dying animal. The words never mattered to me, even when they were clearly about home wreckers and wearing bear goggles, because for the most part I was too young to understand what they really meant. That lack of understanding never stopped me from joining in when the chorus came along. Shania Twain, Joe Diffie, Reba McEntire, John Michael Montgomery and Faith Hill tracks were all engrained into me during those afternoons with my dad.
Even though my father is no longer in my life, I can still turn on the radio at night and hear the best of 90’s country and go back. There was one song that by Jessica Andrews called Who I Am that has stuck with me since those days, specifically the lines “Should my tender heart be broken, I will cry those tear drops knowing I will be just fine, cause nothing changes who I am.” When I hear that song while I’m driving down the road today, I am instantly taken back to “building” things on my garage floor from scraps from my father’s projects.
I can still smell the sawdust around us and can remember the sound of our voices singing off key to so many of these country songs all afternoon long. The absence of him in the last four years can often be filled with tacky country songs listened to late at night; it’s a fact that I never would have thought was possible until I learned what it was like to miss something. The mind grabs on to whatever tangible thing it can when something goes missing, and for some reason mine latched on to the songs of the south, the twang of a guitar, the forgiveness of a chord heard in childhood.
It was the last night out together before that one high school friend left for college and I was sitting in the passenger seat as we were just driving aimlessly, trying to not think about what came next. We had never really thought about whether things would work out once we lived hours away from each other. The windows were rolled down, letting in the unusually cool early August air. The radio had been playing for the majority of the night, filling in the silences made by neither of us wanting to talk about the obvious; I don’t remember when we turned it off. When he finally asked what we were going to do, I felt everything go still. We pulled into the parking lot of our old high school, only the moon and our headlights breaking up the darkness that was falling around us. In the end, I was too afraid of the unknown and we ended the night with silence between us.
The next day I got a message with just a link to a song on YouTube. It was Mumford and Sons song “I Will Wait”. When the bridge and chorus first sang through, chills went through me, just like they had the night before, but this time I wasn’t worried about what came next. I knew things would work out in time. Now, whenever I hear those first notes from the banjo come on my radio or play from my phone I can’t help but smile. These lyrics I hold close to my heart, “But I’ll kneel down, wait for now. And I’ll kneel down, know my ground, and I will wait, I will wait for you…”
Sometimes it is hard to deny how much of an impact songs from my younger years have had on me. The biggest influence on my life was not a song though, it is my mom. She is the person who has never left; the one with the hard opinions and the loving arms. It’s the morning of my birthday and I already cannot wait to see my mom because I know what the first thing she is going to say will be. She will pull me into a hug and half sing the opening lyrics to a song by the Beatles. “So you say it’s your birthday? Well it’s my birthday too!” will be heard throughout the day whenever she happens to pass me. She only breaks off that first birthday hug to be able to play the air guitar along with her song and I can already feel myself fake grimacing from how cheesy it is. I cannot say where this tradition started, but I know that every time I hear someone ask another if it’s their birthday, I hear my mom’s voice humming out the opening guitar part of that birthday song and I feel her love wrap around me.
The thing about music is it doesn’t matter if the track came out fifteen years before you were born, it can still be a placeholder for a defining moment in your life. On a long bus ride to Washington D.C. when I was fourteen, my best friend and I were rocking out at two in the morning to Journey’s album Escape. When Don’t Stop Believin’ came on, we turned it up as loud as her mp3 player would go and the entire back half of the bus joined in with us by the time the chorus came on. Our chaperones were furious, they just wanted to sleep. But we were completely in the moment, it was one of the few times in my life when things just slowed down and I remember telling myself remember this. The unfortunate smell from the blue liquid coming from the bathroom in the back, the contagious way our voices carried this powerful song from years before we were born and the way we all just seemed to connect in that moment are memories I won’t soon forget. It was the first time I realized that things wouldn’t be this way forever and I wanted more than anything the moment to last. The song ended and we all went back to doing whatever it was 8th graders did on bus rides in the early morning. But I still keep a mixtape I made from songs from that trip with me in my car to pull out on days when I need a little comfort from the past.
There are songs that pick you up, songs that let you down, and songs that are connected to memories that will forever be engrained in your heart. But the thing is, there are also songs that fix you. Songs that somehow open your heart up after it has been closed out of a want to protect itself. There are some songs that have reminded me that I am more than just myself. That I am more than the words on my diploma and more than the tags on my clothes. One night in this past year, internet radio was playing in the background as I just lay on my floor. I wasn’t thinking about anything and yet I was thinking about everything. Considering which way is right and whether what I’m doing is worth it are things that plague my heart like a three year drought and have been a driving force in the need for release in whatever way possible. That magical robot in my computer knew better than I did what I needed to hear, and while I was lost in my thoughts of nothing I heard the words “May these words be the first to find your ears. The world is brighter than the sun, now that you’re here. Though your eyes will need some time to adjust, to the overwhelming light surrounding us.”
Time stopped. I could hear the blood pulsing through my veins. The breath escape my lips in the smallest gasp possible. For some reason, those simple words sang over an easy progression of chords hit somewhere inside me that woke up a part of myself that had been asleep for longer than I was willing to admit. Somehow that song by Sleeping At Last woke me up more efficiently than any set of alarms ever could have. Music is weird like that. We can never really know when something is going to strike a chord with us (no pun intended).
In the words of Ben Wyatt from Parks and Recreation, a soundtrack “Is like a mixtape from your favorite director.” In my case, I am the director and the mixtape of my life tells the story of my childhood and the tale of my first love. These songs can tell a stranger more about me than any movie stub from the summer blockbuster or photograph from some high school dance ever could. I listen to music because like a good book, a beloved song can transport you from afternoon traffic to a moment in time when you first heard that song and things just seemed to make sense.