A Tale of Two Covers: “Lilac Wine”

The list of artists who have covered “Lilac Wine” is long—and ongoing—but there are two who stand apart: Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley. Their versions, recorded nearly 30 years apart, offer evocative interpretations of a song that is as much about atmosphere as it is epiphany.

Composer James Shelton originally wrote “Lilac Wine” in 1950; it would go on to debut as part of the musical revue Dance Me a Song. Knowing its dramatic origins, it’s hard not to read Shelton’s lyricism as a specifically vivid backdrop, with the song functioning as a monologue more than other pop ballads of the period. The opening lyrics, “I lost myself on a cool damp night/ I gave myself in that misty light,” pull back the curtains on a hazy yet detailed scene.

“Lilac Wine” is a potent song about intoxication—its fog and folly—but especially how that clouded state can sometimes get you closer to the truth, or the bravado to face it: “It makes me see what I want to see/ And be what I want to be.” The narrator awaits their love, drinking up the courage to face that desire head on, but when that possibility grows nearer, grows surer, so too does the troubling supposition that they don’t want what they originally thought: “Lilac wine, I feel unready for my love/ Feel unready for my love.”

Simone’s version appears on her 1966 album Wild Is the Wind. She plays the piano  scenically, building it as if it were a thunderous backdrop, while the upright bass accompanying her plucks a punctuating note against that flurry.

In her delivery, Simone wields a touch of sorcery. The song’s trawling pace suits her distinctively dusky voice well, curving toward the self-realization that sits at the song’s center. Pitchfork’s Ryan Dombal attributed her emotional vocals to the tumultuous relationship she had with her husband turned manager, along with the increasingly violent events of the ’60s, which produced “Mississippi Goddam” and Wild Is the Wind‘s standout “Four Women.”

In her voice, I hear a longing for escape. A lover offers one possibility, but absent that option, she settles on lilac wine, which paints for her the fantasy of a different existence—”It makes me see what I want to see/ And be what I want to be.” There’s a central unspoken pang about Simone’s version that has always felt as intoxicating as the drink she sings about.

Buckley’s version appears on his 1993 album Grace. Rather than Simone’s heavy opening piano chord, the strum of his electric guitar stitches a more delicate approach. His voice makes an emotional leap between the second verse and the song’s central confession—the reason behind the narrator’s drinking in the first place—”I think more than I wanna think/ I do things I never should do.” In his pining call, I hear exasperation bordering on contempt.

Buckley’s sustain draws out the instability lingering around the edges of “Lilac Wine.”  “Listen to me, why is everything so hazy?/ Isn’t that she, or am I just going crazy, dear?” he sings, warbling slightly on “crazy.” Given the song’s theatrical underpinnings, Buckley’s cover feels closer to the monologue I mentioned earlier. The way he delivers that confession (“or am I going crazy, dear?”) serves as the edge, before he pulls himself back for the concluding truth about being unready.

It’s not a matter of playing favorites here. “Lilac Wine” is a fluid song that finds its form in Simone’s and Buckley’s respective approaches. The juxtaposition between their registers—Simone’s lower and Buckley’s higher—and their primary instruments—piano and electric guitar—present two wildly different, yet equally heady, renditions. I find myself returning again and again, asking them to fill my glass once more with their haunting and hanging truth.

 

Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”

Shortly before starting grade six, which Americans wrongly call “sixth grade,” I moved to my grandmother’s house in Toronto. My family shifted around a lot thanks to my dad’s work in TV news, but this year was different. My parents had recently separated, and my mother decided to return home. Having little say in the matter, my brother and I came with.

The relocation meant I needed to start a new school, which marked my third in as many years. It happened to be a Catholic institution because in Toronto there’s a wealth of public Catholic schools, though students have to be baptized in the faith to attend. Try going through that at age 11 when your parents are maybe divorcing and you’re living in your grandmother’s attic and you’re being asked to drink the lord’s blood but not really.

So, yeah, it wasn’t the best of times. And yet, a la Dickens, it was.

The school never held dances, so in some strange fit of rebellion, instead of doing more normal things like hang out and watch movies, my classmates and I—all 15 of us—spent our Saturdays gathering in each other’s basements. We’d play music, enjoy pizza and pop, and dance—sometimes to fast stuff but mostly to slow jams. There was Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day,” Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose,” and Selena’s “Dreaming of You.” It was mid-90s power ballad heaven, and we slow danced our little non-chaperoned hearts out.

I came to enjoy these weird basement friend dances because they gave me a chance to get close to Mikey, the cute Jamaican-Canadian boy who was by far the most popular kid in grade six. We often chatted in class and played together during recess, but the dances were different. He’d ask me to slow dance, flaming the embers of my glowing crush as his arms encircled my waist. Even without school officials to supervise, boys chose between hands-on-hips (for friendlier partners) or arms-around-waist. It seemed to suggest something when Mikey went with the latter.

At school, certain classmates and especially my best friend Kalina—who’d moved from Poland a few years prior—used to tell me that Mikey liked me. At times, I thought so too. But in the looks department—and let’s not pretend that doesn’t matter at 11 or any age—it felt as though Julie, the bubbly, blue-eyed girl, would be more his speed. I’d recently gotten glasses and braces, and begun what would become a permanent lean into “bookish.”

At the last basement gathering of the school year, Mikey walked over and asked me to dance to Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” a thunderous, seven-minute ballad about lost love. It’s like he knew I’d one day be a writer and would appreciate its auspiciousness.

That night, I thought Mikey’s ask signaled something more. Rumors had been swirling among our small class that he was going to ask me out before the end of the school year. And that night, I felt the crackle of possibility—of getting something you’ve wanted for a long time. In fact, I specifically remember making myself stare into the fire—I mean, it was a long song—so that I would form a memory of that dance with Mikey. “It’s all coming back to me now,” Celine sings and it’s like she knew what I was trying to do.

But just two days later, as I stood in the girl’s bathroom on the second floor at school, Julie walked in beaming. Mikey had asked her out. Kalina and I rushed downstairs and out to the back field to discuss this hideous turn of events. We didn’t get very far before Mikey found us and asked to talk, sheepishly explaining how he’d been torn between Julie and me for a while, but ultimately chose Julie because she was really fun.

It took an operatic song to match the soap opera of grade six that year, and Celine’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now” did the trick, which is funny because it wasn’t even my favorite song of hers at the time. (Yes, all Canadians must swear to a favorite.) That’d be “Because You Loved Me.” Thank goodness we didn’t dance to that. It’s far less poetic. And terribly untrue.

In the end, it’s a good thing Mikey went with Julie. A few months later, my parents newly reunited, we left Toronto for my dad’s new job in south Florida.

What strikes me, even now, is the potency of this particular memory. I remember bits and pieces from my childhood; I often think that moving around so much—all of that change—affected what stuck. But this one, of our weird basement friend dances and especially of Mikey, has always lingered, and I credit that forced fire staring and Celine’s hyperbolic pining: “It was lost long ago/ But it’s all coming back to me now.”

All Hail King Stitt

When I first started collecting vinyl, I was exceptionally—almost stupidly—lucky. I dug up randos, took a chance, and ended up procuring LPs that would go on to become some of my favorites: Ride Me Donkey, Ted Hawkins’ Watch Your Step, and Brazil Forro: Music for Maids and Taxi Drivers (how can you pass on that title?).

Among that collection was Dance Hall ’63, featuring King Stitt. After I put the album on the record store’s test turntable and heard how the woozy sax trigged a warm beat, I was sold. But I had no idea what joy Stitt would bring to my life.

Stitt overtakes the album with his “toasting,” or hype and chatter which would go on to inform early hip-hop. You can still dance and enjoy the music, but Stitt has shit to say and you will listen.

Some gems: “It’s not magic, it’s miraculous!” and “This sound is on top! On top of the world!”

He also clearly revels in telling the audience who’s playing and what they’re doing. “[Name inaudible] on the saxophone and King Stitt on the microphone,” he reminds dancers. He is as much a star as the music he’s spinning. He’s the MC, hype man, and liner notes, all rolled into one.

A dancehall DJ working in and around Kingston, Jamaica, Stitt (born Winston Spark) was actually a pioneer in the field, though somehow he thought his given name wasn’t suitable for the profession when really DJ Spark could’ve had an equally luminous career. Instead, he chose “Stitt” because of the stutter he’d had since childhood.

According to Stitt himself, he met Clement Dodd (known as Sir Coxsone), the famed Jamaican DJ, in 1955. Dodd was apparently fond of Stitt’s dancing and thought he could be fun on the mic. He had no idea. Stitt began DJing in 1956, and eventually became so popular, he added the “King” that gave him his full name.

I started this post by calling those early finds “lucky,” but really they far exceed that adjective, especially Dance Hall ’63. From my very first time hearing it all the way through, to subsequent listens—usually in mid-summer, after a beach day that soaks past your skin and down to your very core, offering some hint at what perfectly happy feels like—I think of King Stitt: “It’s not magic, it’s miraculous.”

 

 

Kacey Musgraves’ “It Is What It Is”

Sometimes I wonder if my subconscious senses endings before I do and uses lyrics to communicate as much.

Years ago, I wrote about mondegreens, or misheard lyrics, which got me thinking about the equally curious but much more poorly named phenomenon of earworms, or song fragments that churn endlessly—often unbidden—in the brain. On the surface they can be fantastically annoying, especially if you don’t enjoy the song your brain’s manic DJ choices—but underneath all that, could they be a message?

Earworms don’t seem to signify anything more than a recently heard song that’s become “stuck.” For me, these tend to be pop songs, which are repetitive by nature and constructed by masterminds, like Max Martin, who know how to create something not only catchy but catching. One listen to Taylor Swift’s latest single—just one!—and it’ll be with me for a week.

Beyond that, my brain adores language so much that I’ll often link a turn of phrase with a song. Here’s a not-very-interesting example of what I mean: During a scenic drive some years back, a friend said, “This sure is a winding road,” and immediately the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” started playing in my mind. In moments like that, it feels as though my brain is a musical and all the neurons simply waiting to fire and burst into song.

But sometimes the lyrical phrases that affix themselves to my internal monologue (or would it be soundtrack?) feel as though they’re hinting at a bigger picture.

Only a few months into my last long-term relationship, I found myself walking Clinton St. in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Cobble Hill—a path I preferred for its tree-lined escapism—and internally singing the last chorus line of Kacey Musgraves’ song “It Is What It Is.”

The track details a relationship of convenience, one in which neither party is particularly drawn to the other, but they’re both sort of there…so why not? “Maybe I love you/Maybe I’m just kind of bored,” Musgraves sings with a kind of resigned indifference. “It is what it is/Till it ain’t/Anymore.”

The song serves as the culminating moment on Musgraves’ debut album, Same Trailer, Different Park. It’s a quiet track on an album full of reflective moments that don’t rest in more somber poses because Musgraves slips in winks and wisecracks to soften their respective blows. But “It Is What It Is” is vulnerable, raw.

For the longest time, the chorus would break the surface of my mind, and when it would I was tempted to draw parallels to my relationship at the time. We got along fabulously in ways that seemed to matter but don’t necessarily go the distance. Sometimes it felt like we were a convenience for one another, but that didn’t stop us from trying to force something more.

When that happened—when things started to get more serious—I’d feel something in my gut rear up like a wild stallion who’s caught sight of the bit, which is when the song’s lyrics would float up from the ether of my mind and stick in my head for a spell: “Maybe I love you/Maybe I’m just kind of bored.”

Lately I got my record collection back and I added Musgrave’s debut to it, which prompted a more focused kind of listening than I’d previously given the song. Beyond the chorus and its one-two truth punch, the song paints a much larger picture. “We’re so much alike it ain’t a good thing. Too dumb to give up/Too stubborn to change,” Musgraves sings.

The chorus that would often crop up as I walked the sidewalks of New York and ponder the big ol’ “why” of it all was enough to signal a message. But hearing the song in its entirety, it felt as though my brain knew something I didn’t—that it had stored all those previous listens of “It Is What It Is” and kept sending smoke signals via the chorus, obliquely encouraging me to put the picture together.

I’m no neuroscientist or psychologist, but if anyone were to ever study the lyrics that ripple the waves of our minds, especially the why and when of it, I think they’d find that certain songs—at least the ones that tunnel into our being—sometimes act like a message in a bottle. If we’re willing enough to listen.

Flock of Dimes’ “Two”

For anyone who has purposely cultivated their independence, especially in order to create in some way, shape or form, it can feel tenuous to want love. Those two things needn’t be at odds with one another, but oftentimes it can seem as though it’s a choice—either me or we.

Give too much to a partner and you’re left feeling divorced from your creative pursuits; give too much to your creative pursuits and your partner will, understandably, be hard pressed to stick around for very long. In matters of attention, there’s only so much to go around.

The desire for independence and companionship create a tension that’s not easily resolved. In Flock of Dimes‘ new song “Two,” Jenn Wasner questions whether a satisfying outcome exists. “Can I be one/ Can we be two/ Can I be for myself?/ Still be still with you?” Wasner sings on the chorus. I hear in that inquiry a plea of sorts—to keep the parts of herself that feed her creativity and her individualism, while still craving the beauty of companionship, of growing together with someone in a meaningful way.

Photo by Graham Tolbert.

“Two” signals a new direction for the Baltimore-born and Durham-based singer-songwriter, who has her hands in many musical pots these days. Beyond her solo project Flock of Dimes, she forms one-half of the indie rock group Wye Oak and wrapped up a touring stint with Bon Iver before the pandemic upended everyone’s plans. As Flock of Dimes, Wasner’s last full-length album came in 2016, but she released a gorgeous, and slow-burning EP Like So Much Desire last year. “Two” appears on her forthcoming album Head of Roses, out April 2.

Melodically, “Two” stretches Wasner’s craft. The song is richly textured, weaving together upbeat, almost-plucky synths with long, luxurious guitar in ways that mirror the song’s query about wanting two things that don’t fit neatly into the same frame. That everything works so well together instrumentally, in a sort of indie-rock-meets-electro-pop-giddiness, signals to the possibility of something larger. Rather than shrinking into categories of ‘either/or,’ there can be room for ‘and’—or at least, for now, the dream of it.

Maps & Atlases’ ‘Beware and Be Grateful’

Winter inevitably calls up a craving for the Chicago-based indie/math rock band Maps & Atlases and their 2015 album Beware and Be Grateful, despite the fact that I first heard them play in the fall.

I’d just moved to Champaign, where I was slowly acclimating to the midwestern sounds that came out of the steely cities surrounding it. That tour circuit sounded completely different from what I’d heard over the past five years in Louisiana—the warm fais do-dos or spirited brass bands in New Orleans and the folk-leaning singer-songwriter scene in Baton Rouge. It was the sound of cold—not just cool—crisp falls, and the burrowing instinct of winter.

Speaking of temperatures, the night Maps & Atlases came to town was frigid and found me questioning whether I wanted to venture over to their show. I tended to walk the 20 minutes it took to get downtown to the Highdive, avoiding a faster (and warmer) drive so I didn’t have to deal with Champaign’s expensive and convoluted public parking system. But some instinct forced me out into the biting October night, and I credit it with helping me find a band I’ve cherished ever since.

A blurry photo from Maps & Atlases’ October 2014 show at the Highdive in Champaign, IL.

Maps & Atlases’ math rock label comes, in part, from lead singer Dave Davison’s blistering fingering. He skips nimbly over the strings as though he were playing a piano or a MIDI pad controller. (Watch what I mean.) Backed by Shiraz Dada’s warm, husky bass, the combination creates a heady sound that’s always somehow spritely. Layering those juxtaposing textures, Davison’s distinctive, almost-metallic timbre matches his instrument and regularly augments the melody line. It was unlike anything I’d heard up until that night, and the discovery felt like synchronicity.

After I left the venue, I returned to Maps & Atlases time and again that winter, as the months grew colder, darker, and the snow made mobility more difficult. Beware and Be Grateful came to embody the season, even though it’s not a quiet, cozy album. It’s bright and quick tempo’d and signals far more motion than winter typically invites. It felt like an escape from my own weathered insularity, even while, oddly enough, embodying it.

The music you find in—and for—certain moments doesn’t always last. You can outgrow a band or an album for any number of reasons, so what is it that makes something stick? I don’t have a satisfying answer to that question. For some singular reason I’ve never been able to articulate, Maps & Atlases has remained a constant every winter. Beware and Be Grateful takes me back to that solitary winter in Champaign when life was frozen and I was waiting for the thaw.

Weyes Blood’s “Andromeda”

I’ve hinted at, but haven’t talked enough about, timing in music. No, not rhythm. I mean the providence of finding a song (or a song finding you) at the exact right moment. I’ve long thought that, like any worthwhile art form, some songs are windows while others are mirrors. Whether gazing out or in, you’ll only be ready for a song’s perspective if the timing is right.

I mention all of this because it’s timing that reconnected me with Weyes Blood’s song “Andromeda.” The track appears on the California singer-songwriter’s 2019 album Titanic Rising, but its message didn’t reverberate until I heard it in the opening sequence of the 2020 apocalyptic comedy Save Yourselves! The film’s slo-mo dance sequence uses the entire song—a luxurious five minutes—rather than slicing it up to underscore a brief scene. Hearing it in that moment, the lyrics felt crisp and consequential.

Weyes Blood
Weyes Blood, photo by Eliot Lee Hazel.

On “Andromeda,” Weyes Blood (Natalie Mering) depicts the emotional hesitancy that sometimes occurs before the start of a new relationship. Instead of making grand proclamations about starting over, it wavers. It’s an unsteady song, and all the more significant for that vacillation. After all, past a certain age and a certain number of exes, can you really trust that your next relationship won’t follow the same course?

Mering doesn’t reach a definitive answer. “Andromeda” is less about a conclusive “happily ever after” than it is the beauty of willingness—and the resiliency it takes to get there.

The song begins with hazy synths, as though it were a message recorded long ago and only now reaching earth. “Running from my own life now/ I’m really turning some time/ Looking up to the sky for something I may never find,” Mering sings about trying to understand the choices she’s made and where they’ve left her. Having tried things her way, she relinquishes her life to the fates, challenging them, “If you think you can save me/ I dare you to try.” In other words, if the stars have something in mind, she’s listening.

The timing I experienced connecting with the song over a year after its release reminded me of another kind of timing. I never used to pay much attention to whether or not I was ready for certain things. I tended to dive in and figure it out along the way. But being ready is critical. Without that positioning, it doesn’t matter how amazing a connection—or opportunity—you might find.

“Ready” felt like a vague concept for me last year. After ending things with my long-term boyfriend, I certainly didn’t feel ready to date again, especially in the middle of a pandemic. After I moved to Durham last summer, I downloaded Bumble against my better judgment, thinking I’d see what the dating scene was like. But I lasted all of three days before I deleted my account. I tried again in November, striking up a handful of conversations but none that held my interest. That time, I made it a week before I again deleted the app. I wasn’t there yet. Some people can jump into new relationships quickly, but I tend to move slow, as I’ve detailed previously, and have sometimes felt all the more awkward for that pace.

Yet, hearing “Andromeda” that December night I watched Save Yourselves!, I recognized a difference. “Ready” no longer felt nebulous, cast far into the future. Rather, the weight of the past felt less heavy. The thought of a connection with someone new felt more exciting. A certain degree of hope started bubbling beneath the surface.

It was a small comfort to know I’d gotten there on my own, without burrowing down into the distraction of something unhealthy, without moving on too quickly and contorting myself in ways that would only come back to haunt me. On some level, I had trusted that I would get there. And I had. Now, as Mering sings, “More than anything I can think of/ I’m ready to try.” What a beautiful phrase.

Ramblin’ Women

What is it about staying that feels so intimidating? Put another way, what is it about leaving that feels so instinctive?

Compared to most people my age, I’ve shuffled around quite a bit. I grew up moving every year or two thanks to my dad’s job, but I’ve maintained that momentum as an adult. After college, grad school took me to specific locations, and then work became the reason behind relocating. But eventually I chafed at being committed to cities for no other reason than a job, and I set off to try different things: a couple of years in New Orleans, a few in Brooklyn, and now I find myself in Durham because it made sense. But who knows what comes next—if anything does.

I know my life doesn’t always make sense to my friends. To them, all of that shifting around feels manic on some level. Compared to the stability of their choices, I must look a little lost.

But what if some of us are made to wander?

When I first heard Cat Power cover Hank Williams Sr.’s “Ramblin’ Man,” turning it into “Ramblin’ (Wo)man,” I felt as though someone had taken a spotlight to my life. Power turns Williams’ quaint country ditty about shirking commitment for the visceral thrill of locomotion into a heady, jazzy affair. “I love to see the towns go crawling by/ Something I got to do before I die,” she sings against a warbling organ. Although she didn’t write the song, just hearing a woman sing those words resonates in crucial ways.

Women haven’t written about moving or leaving quite as much as men because their boundaries have historically been much different. Forget about the fact that most women have been relegated (cough cough confined) to the domestic sphere since its creation, and consider the dangers that rambling traditionally poses. There’s no up and leaving because that way danger lies.

Maybe that’s part of my exhilaration in hearing women sing about rambling or moving on or just movement for the thrill of it. Miranda Lambert captures the latter on “Highway Vagabond,” a song off her 2016 album The Weight of These Wings. Lambert has always pushed back against the way women should act, embodying a messier persona akin to what more people would see if women could drop their polite, pleasant, personable facades and put their desires on full display.

From the song’s opening bass line, which drops into a steady, pacing drive, it details the sheer pleasure of movement. “There’s something about the way I feel when the wheels go round and round and round,” she sings, drawing out the final two “rounds” to underscore her point. She’s not pulling over anytime soon.

Part of movement, for me at least, involves the unlived lives that run alongside us. Virginia Woolf kerneled that very thought in To the Lighthouse: “And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees and changing leaves.”

Literature has long been taken with the thought of other lives—what happens when a choice takes you down one path and away from another. Most people can shirk those shadows, but moving around—wandering, as I’ve come to call it—feels like a chance to try on a different life, if only for a while. Having lived in some of this country’s greatest cities, I get a taste that most tourists can only grasp at. (Though arguably I’m still a short-term traveler of sorts because I spent a few years there rather than a lifetime.)

What does it take to stay? I have yet to find that answer, but I’m willing to trade understanding for acceptance, embracing—rather than fighting—my penchant for movement. As Power sings on the chorus, “I love you, baby, but you got to understand when the Lord made me, he made a ramblin’ woman.”

Joy Kills Sorrow’s “Books”

Everything gets quieter at winter, stilling to a murmur. As obvious a statement as that sounds, I spent much of my young adulthood in the south, where the closest we got to winter was a chilly day. It wasn’t until I moved to Champaign for a year that I experienced true winter once again—the winter of my childhood in Toronto, Winnipeg, and later Cleveland and St. Louis. Winter that had a weight to it. All of those layers, all of that insularity. It was hard not to retreat, to move slower in pace with the season.

Around that time in Champaign, I found myself retreating into Joy Kills Sorrow‘s reflective track “Books.” I first heard about the band in 2010, when their tour included a stop at Baton Rouge’s famed—and now sadly defunct—venue Chelsea’s. I loved their sound so much I later caught them play in New York while I was there for a brief summer internship. (In fact, that show is famously how I came across Leif Vollebekk, who was one of two artists on the bill ahead of JKS that night.)

My life in Champaign was extraordinarily solitary at times because I didn’t yet know many people outside work—the reason I’d moved there in the first place—so I often passed my free time with lengthy walks between my apartment and the few square blocks that marked “downtown,” withdrawing into the music that coursed through my headphones. During winter, “Books” became the soundtrack for all of those publicly private strolls. 

“Books” appears on JKS’ 2010 album Darkness Sure Becomes This City, and it requires a certain kind of quiet to hear properly. It wasn’t until I moved to Champaign that I got it. The song begins with a hushed mandolin before banjo brightens the melody line and lead vocalist Emma Beacon softly sings the first verse, “I got lots of books/ And my house stays warm in winter/ So I don’t go out too much these days.”

I love when your life grows to meet a song, as mine did that winter. “Yes,” I thought, hearing a scene I knew well.

Now, in the early days of 2021, I find myself returning to “Books” once again. Durham doesn’t experience a traditional winter (aka snow), but it’s been cold enough and pandemic-y enough for that first line to resonate loudly. In a year marked by so much isolation and solitude, “Books” feels fitting once again, though it’s less about the season itself, and more about the care the current moment requires: Move slowly, take your time—things will unfurl in due course.

I feel particularly hungry for that message right now. My life last year would’ve been messy without the added chaos of a pandemic. A breakup and subsequent move to a new city left me cautious, questioning my course and the steps I’d taken to walk it. The song painted a new picture, one I again saw myself in. It wasn’t just about the cozy care of winter, but about the beauty of stillness and consideration. “I move so carefully slow/ Cuz I don’t know where I should go/ And I’m holding on tight to my soul,” Beacon sings, luxuriating over the phrase and expanding its meaning with her delivery.

Choice can be overwhelming and making two big ones, especially back-to-back, requires a certain pause in order to know what comes next. A year ago, that attitude wouldn’t have fit in the larger scheme of things because, cliched as it may be, life moves fast. But not in a pandemic. It’s ok to move slow, to hold tight to your soul for a while and see what comes next rather than force action. For now, I hold tight to this song, which speaks volumes.

Listening for the Echo

What a quiet year it’s been. Musicians have soldiered on, gamely offering live streams and pre-recorded concerts, but the dearth of real, in-person shows has been palpable. I’ve felt that absence while settling into my new home in Durham. (Normally, I’d get to know the area and its venues by peppering my nights and weekends with shows.) But it also cropped up during the only mini-trip I took this year, when I decided to break up a lengthy two-week holiday stretch by escaping west to go hiking in Asheville.

I figured it was a trip I could do safely—driving over by myself, staying in a contactless rental, ordering takeout, and spending my time outdoors in the mountains. But I’d never been to Asheville before, and knowing its growing reputation as a music city, it felt bizarre to prepare a visit without booking a concert or two. Or five.  

That realization grew as I neared the mountain town. All the music we’ve lost this year—the living, breathing experience of it—panged even louder.

Absent any shows, I went looking for music in other ways. Field Report says it best in his aching song “Michelle” (off 2014’s Marigolden): “I went looking for the river, but I only made it to the railroad bend.” In this Wild Year of Our Lord, I took what I could get. I trekked over to Echo Mountain, the former church-turned-studio, where numerous artists—Avett Brothers, Band of Horses, Moses Sumney—have recorded, drawn by the room’s reverent sound.

The morning I set out to see where so many gorgeous songs have been captured, my map instructed me to walk toward French Broad St. But I misread it as French Bread St, and spent the better part of 10 minutes beaming at the name. Knowing I wanted to write about this excursion, I began plotting out how I could use the street’s name as my entryway into the topic. Foiled again! (But, really, who gives a hoot about French ladies when there are loaves to celebrate?)

Situated downtown, at one of the neighborhood’s higher points, Echo Mountain offers a clear vantage of the surrounding peaks, which makes its name all the more pertinent. In Greek mythology, the story of the mountain nymph Echo is a twisted one, but voice and song sit at its center. As the story goes, Echo angered Hera, who’d come to spy on her rapey husband Zeus during one of his cavorting trips, by talking too much and distracting her. Hera’s payback—directed at the wrong person, as always—included stripping Echo of her agency, forcing her to repeat the last words other people said. But although she no longer had autonomy over her own voice, Echo remained a powerful figure, giving substance and form to others’ words and reminding them of their existence. 

This year feels as though it’s taken so much from each of us in different ways—some large, some small. Here’s the part where I say something profound, something to add meaning to a moment that feels bereft of any understanding. But, alas, words fail me. I don’t have anything to offer by way of retrospective.

I’ll take a page from Echo, then, and leave you with someone else’s words—Sumney’s song “Lonely World,” which first appeared on his 2016 EP Lamentations. Throughout the track, Sumney repeats the word “lonely” until it becomes an incantation that builds into a thunderous crescendo near the end. That in and of itself encapsulates this year, but beneath the song’s lament, there’s a kernel of hope bound up in the power of creativity: “And the void speaks to you/ In ways nobody speaks to you/ And that voice fills the air/ Fog in the morning going nowhere.”

The song still hangs around Asheville, resounding and resplendent, and I look forward to hearing it on my next trip—echoes of all the music we didn’t get to hear this year and new melodies yet to come.