The radio soundtrack of the weeks after my dad died in 2008 turned up something rare for those days: a song I liked.
The song was being played on the country stations, which I was just on the verge of quitting. The death of the old “I ain’t the one lost am I?” spirit that lay at the back of “don’t tread on me” had been coming for a while. By 2008, country, as it had existed since it came down from the mountains to Knoxville and Bristol in the late twenties, was lying down, wheezing itself to a noisy death, to be reborn as a pale imitation of modern pop, which is itself a pale imitation of Tin Pan Alley that operates as though rock and roll and soul (and, for that matter, country) never existed..
I’m speaking vocally, of course, but it seems to have affected the songwriting and production styles as well. Vocals always do. In the absence of distinctive voices, which are just conduits for distinctive spirits, everything else dies too. That’s why the overlords are always pathologically invested in reigning voices in, if and when they can’t shut them down. (Sending Elvis off to the army was the most notorious example of this, but hardly the only one.)
So it was odd that the song I liked, at that personally and existentially depressing moment–my dad dead, the economy in free-fall, the war in Iraq being sold as a “victory”–was by Montgomery Gentry.
Montgomery Gentry were two guys who had been enormously successful representing, maybe defining, the “dude-bro” division of Nashville’s modernity. They were a duo: good singers pumping up average song-mill material with the usual fake passion that such material deserved. They got it just right exactly once, with that year’s “Roll With Me.”
Did it help (or even matter) that their names were writ large on a huge billboard just south of Dothan, Alabama, that I used to pass once a week during the several months when I was riding around to various hospitals and doctor’s offices, trying to straighten out the tangle of bureaucratic mendacity at the back of my dad’s stack of medical bills?
Big sign or not, string of gold records or not, I barely knew who Montgomery Gentry were at the time and I barely know who they are now. Without their one moment, I’d have no reason to recall them at all. One way you know a form is dying is when it can produce big stars who leave no trace and country, like every other form, had plenty of those from about the mid-nineties onward (after having few, if any, such in the decades prior–you might not care for Jim Reeves or Eddy Arnold, might not think them “country” enough, but you couldn’t dismiss them).
Which all just means there is no way of fully explaining “Roll With Me.”
But a partial explanation lay in its second verse, which summed up the contemporary fakery so skillfully it laid it wide open. There were a few pedestrian lines about a mother losing her son, the singer attending the funeral, him realizing “we all just have our time.” Perfectly cliched.
Except, in the fall of 2008, with a “change” election looming (which would, of course, change nothing), it was impossible to hear the careful avoidance of specificity–and the uncharacteristically subdued passion in the vocal–as anything but a pure damnation of sending soldiers to die for fake victories, decade after decade, that dovetailed with the singer’s world-weary acceptance of losing his ability to care about anything but his own specific future with the woman he wants to roll with.
We all just have our time, indeed.
One of the things that happened in my father’s time was we took a driving trip from Florida to upstate New York (a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame). On the way we made several stops coming and going. My brother’s place in North Carolina, Washington, D.C. ,Gettysburg, Times Square (a long story for another time–my dad could produce ’em), Chattanooga.
Nice memories. Dad had just retired from mission work (my mother had passed two years earlier), so it was a period of what the shrinks call “closure.” I don’t know if my dad found it for himself. I don’t even know if he was looking. But he may have delivered it to someone else.
I had seen the Viet Nam Memorial, in D.C., in the summer of ’87, but dad hadn’t and he wanted to. That was the main reason we stopped. We went down the wall, the way people do. We stood around and contemplated the tragedy of it all, the way people do. We couldn’t think of much to say, the way people can’t.
At some point, we were standing at the back of the crowds, the small groups coming and going before the wall itself. After a time, I wandered off a bit, lost in my own thoughts, staring at nothing.
Dad stayed where he was, his hands characteristically folded in front of him, a pleasant, habitually unreadable half-smile on his face. When I started back towards him, I saw a man who looked to be in his early-thirties walking alone, straight through the crowd towards my father. When he reached him he simply collapsed into dad’s arms. I walked up just in time to hear dad say “Your brother?” The man couldn’t speak. After a while, he nodded.
This is where we like to say “the Lord works in mysterious ways.” I’ve known hundreds of “better” Christians than my dad. Not one of them would a roughneck good old boy from Georgia have walked to, straight through a crowd, seeking comfort from a stranger no less total than anyone else by that wall. (“Atlanta” he said when my father asked where he was from. “Tallahassee,” I said, as my father, who was really from Tennessee, nodded. All of it, down to the nod, was code for Southern born, which is code for “born to be the shock troops.” In this case, as we didn’t have to say, “like your brother,” who I also didn’t have to say “could have been mine.” It’s the same code, whether you were a conscientious objector, like dad in WWII, or a skeptic like me, or lost a brother in Nam like some and it doesn’t even matter if we’re not the only ones. We all know how it’s “supposed” to work. And even if we’re not the only ones who know, we’re the first Americans who also know what it’s like to lose and, worse, what it’s like to lose in the name of history’s near-sorriest cause. Never kid yourself it doesn’t make a difference.)
There was nothing really to say after that. We didn’t have any long conversation. A few words of condolence. A good-bye. A southern-style see-you-down-the-road by which we mean in heaven because we know it doesn’t have a chance in hell of ever happening here. My dad didn’t say he was a minister. He didn’t have to. Some things those who were born to be the shock troops just know.
We waited until he was long gone. Then dad said it was time for us to go, too.
That was 1989. Closure. Maybe.
By 2008, we all knew there weren’t going to be any more walls to commemorate the dead. A lot of us knew that the present war would be never-ending. Some of us even knew it was planned that way, because, well, how else?
And these days, I can pull up the video for “Roll With Me” on YouTube (missed it entirely the first time around, country video never was my thing), and see that Montgomery Gentry didn’t leave the obvious interpretation entirely to chance. What was merely implied in the song–that the mother was gold star, the son a fatality of a war that was, is, and always will be, fought for no purpose except to punish whoever is willing to sacrifice)–is made explicit in the video.
Specific or not, though, every bit of that was in my air–and ninety percent of it was in everybody’s–when “Roll With Me” came on the radio a few weeks after my dad died, nearly twenty years after he comforted a boy who lost his brother in the last useless war. And, of course, nothing has changed since. Except for the rate of decline–now stalling, now accelerating–nothing will.The only question left is whether we’ll leave enough to provide a guide-map for the mullers and the seekers the next time round.
Now that I think about it (and why today, I have no idea), hearing “Roll With Me” may have been the first time a certain phrase entered my once cautiously optimistic mind. Yeah, I think that’s right. I think they might have formed the first time I heard that blues lick and didn’t even care what was coming. My pre-conscious mind at work, saying “Goodbye us.”
Hope for better next time around.