I've been getting in the habit of making seasonal playlists as the years pitter-patter along, collecting songs as the calendar days go--new singles by favorite musicians, first “whoa-what’s-this” tunes from new-to-me folks, songs I can’t get out of my head, etc. There’s no reason, in the moment, for a choice, but there is certainly a theme, in retrospect. I thought I’d pop a favorite lyric & a little tweet-I-didn’t-tweet-because-I-don’t-tweet for each song. You can find the full playlist here. You can leave me thoughts on these tunes or recommendations for good tunes that got you through this winter. I would like that.
“The Ways of a Woman in Love” by John Prine
“Now when I come to see you, you're sittin' in the light / Doin' all those things I'm dreamin' of / You've got the ways of a woman in love”
FYI: an old John Prine singing a young Johnny Cash song is a good formula, really unleashes the tenderness of the lyrics.
“Be at Rest” by Possessed By Paul James
“For there are battles o in these classrooms, there are battles o in these hearts, if we don’t start to work together, man, this whole damn thing will fall apart”
Normally, it is his feet stomping & his voice howling that excites me most about PPJ’s performances, but this song hoots in its call for camaraderie & hollers through its insightful compassion.
“Texas Sun” by Khruangbin, Leon Bridges
“Wanna feel you on me, can't wait to get back there again / That Texas sun”
On them days when my soft heart yearns for my old Texas life, blurring in this forward momentum & Midwestern cold, I pop this song on.
“Untitled (Play It On Repeat)” by Courtney Barnett
“Tell me, would you even know? / Would you even care? / If you never see me again?”
Then on those days the distance & the paranoia commingle, I rest in the plucking melancholy of this song. Not only is Courtney Barnett (in the words of my wife) “a total badass rockstar,” but stripped down tunes like this showcase how well-knit her structures are.
“That’s Enough” by Janelle Monae
“Let's make new memories / Think of schemes that we can hatch / Make magic out of simple things”
I don’t care if it is a cover of an old song for the new adaptation of Lady & The Tramp, you can just send me every Janelle Monae track here till I’m dead.
“Single Girl” by Charley Crockett
“Fellers, if you’re listening / better not do like I did / just show the world you love her / instead of keeping it all hid”
This is how a good artist puts his own twist on a traditional tune, retaining the antique spirit while still updating some sense of the perspective, this time singing from the husband’s point-of-view.
“It’s Cool” by Lula Wiles
“Don't act like this doesn't matter / 'Cause I know it fucking matters”
It is like if First Aid Kit tried to write a Sarah Shook song, which is to say, “This song is awesome.”
“Sixteen Years” by Vandoliers
“Sixteen years / I've been working for sixteen years / Yeah I'm gonna make it if it takes another sixteen years”
The album cover is a yellow-tinted upside-down photo of some old train tracks & that tells you everything you need to know about this band’s ethos.
“Dead of Night” by Orville Peck
“See, see the boys as they walk on by / As they walk on by, as they walk on by / As they walk on / It's enough to make a young man”
It’s official: everyone’s favorite masked Canadian cowboy has become the soundtrack to both my dreams & nightmares--one where I couldn’t seem to reach my house returning from a walk across the family fields as the sun was setting & another where I sat on the patio of Savage’s Ale House & here comes people I’ve lost touch with.
“Stuck in a Head” by Mean Jeans
“Stuck in a head / How'd I end up this way? / Ding dang dude / I don't know what to say / I'm paralyzed”
Is there a way to find out if I’m the only person that owns multiple Means Jeans records & is a subscriber to the Waking Up app? Asking for a friend.
“Jingle And Go” by Ryan Bingham
“I got the struggle / I got the hustle / Got your lowdown blues and country shuffle”
I had to get over a psychological hump with this feller (he looks a lot like an old friend that drunkenly came to my house in the middle of the night & threatened to kill me), but this has become a go-to song for what we call “the daily dog dance,” the dogs & I bouncing around the property while a boogie plays.
“Neon Moon” by Brooks & Dunn (with Kacey Musgraves)
“If you lose your one and only / There's always room here for the lonely / To watch your broken dreams dance in and out of the beams / Of a neon moon”
Thank you Kacey Musgraves for bringing one of my favorite songs & favorite duos of my childhood back to relevance with your patented electronic hum rendition.
“American Childhood II: Bad Kiss” by Terry Allen & The Panhandle Mystery Band
“It’s just the war/Same fucking war/It’s always been/Never ends.”
In terms of the intersection of expansive concepts & country execution album-to-album, Terry Allen has few peers in the last fifty years of country music. No kidding.
“The Dead Don’t Die” by Sturgill Simpson
“There's a cup of coffee waiting on every corner / Someday we're gonna wake up and find the corner's gone / But the dead will still be walking 'round this ol' world alone / Oh, well after life is over the afterlife goes on”
I saw The Dead Don’t Die (the movie) like what six months ago & I still have "The Dead Don’t Die" (the song) popping in my head-radio daily. If having my favorite Sturgill song be a movie soundtrack tune makes me less-country, then send me back to the city, dude.
“I See A Darkness” by Bonnie “Prince” Billy
“And then I see a darkness / And then I see a darkness / And then I see a darkness / And then I see a darkness / Did you know how much I love you? / Is a hope that somehow you / Can save me from this darkness”
In the darkness of winter / psychological illness / elsewhere, I returned to this thick version of my favorite BPB song (which I just discovered is ((another)) Johnny Cash cover! WTF!) when I awoke from a dissociative spell in my underwear, ankle-deep in snow, mid-scream at the overcast sky.
“After The Gold Rush” by Jeff Rosenstock & Laura Stevenson
“I was lying in a burned out basement / With the full moon in my eyes. / I was hoping for replacement / When the sun burst thru the sky.”
Why am I falling in love with so many covers these days? I don’t know & I don’t care. What a joy to both be reminded of a classic song & too feel swept away by something completely fresh.
“Barbara’s Song” by Ian Noe
“Well, oh my / I'm a train in the sky / Sweet Lord, let me feel no fear”
I get it, there’s a whole bunch of these rambling, scratchy-throated folk singers that aren’t Dylan. I get it & still I can’t get enough. Screw off.
“Pearl Cadillac” by Gary Clark Jr. (featuring Anda Day)
“I remember when I left home in that pearl Cadillac / I was searching for some kinda way to pay you back / For your love, your love, your love / Your love, your love, your love / Your love, your love, your love / Well, I won't let you down, I'ma make you proud”
I was listening to the new Ringer podcast Music Exists & the hosts (Chris Ryan & Chuck Klosterman) asked, “Can a song sound like a place?” This is Exhibit A for me. I’ve never heard a song that sounds so much like contemporary Austin, TX.
“In The High of Morning” by Twain
“In the high of the morning / I discover it’s fine / to be gentle & kind / to myself & my mind”
Yes, I wish Mat Davidson was still the booming-voiced fiddle boy for Spirit Family Reunion, but if we can’t have that, at least we have this: Twain’s singular songs of bearded self-reflection.
“Hard To Be” by David Bazan
“You expect me to believe / That all this misbehaving grew from one enchanted tree / And helpless to fight it we should all be satisfied / WIth the magical explanation for why the living die”
There’s nothing like seeing David Bazan exhale into the mic--”it’s hard to be a decent human being”--& see 100 strangers nod in unison.
“Gates of Heaven” by PR Newman
“Better mind your manners while you’re living it easy / soon you’re gonna have to share”
If the world does me one music-related favor this spring, let PR Newman play a live show while I’m visiting Austin in March so I can see them play this live. Absolutely one of the top-5 bands I stumbled upon in my Austin days.
“Brightest Star” by Lilly Hiatt
“And don’t worry about that other guy / he’s just got the right tattoos / the brightest star in my whole sky / is you”
Maybe I am a skeptical prick when it comes to contemporary country music (I blame the onslaught of Luke Bryan bro-country bullshit), but Lilly Hiatt took some time to break through my thick skull. This song did it for whatever reason, maybe the Loretta shimmer of her voice or the fuzzy-bop-bop of the chorus.
“My Broken Arm” by Futurebirds
“Take the best outta me / Take it as far as your eyes can see / But don't leave me with my broken arm”
It is probably clear by now that I believe the title of the playlist I’ve been working on for close to seven years now--Contemporary Country Music Doesn’t Have To Suck--& songs like this are why, simultaneously recognizable as country music but sticky enough to bring with it several elements from the progress of the music of the last fifty years. See here: the emo-induced crackly voice & chugging guitar of the chorus.
“Milwaukee” by Maritime
“Everyone knows you were going / But I couldn't tell you when / You bought a postcard, your hands were new / And I knew I couldn't take you there”
Can we please band together & get Davey von Bohlen a lifetime achievement award of some sort? The dude was the man in both The Promise Ring (I’ll argue with anyone that they’re on the Mount Rushmore of emo bands) & Cap’n Jazz (noisy sensitive punks that are still influencing people today), & he continues to make incredible true emo songs with Maritime.
“Other Side of Town” by Sam Doores (featuring Alynda Segarra)
“Everybody’s having a party / I’m all alone / I ain’t got no body”
The Deslondes might’ve been the main musical ligament that stitched Diana & I together, so when I heard they are “indefiinitely on-hiatus” (can someone tell me what the heck that actually means?), I was very very bummed. This sad-ass song is somehow a perk-me-up tune, as it signals we get to keep on keeping on with Sam Doores’ good grooves & smoky voice.
“Pick Her Up” by Hot Country Knights
“If you really wanna rock the world / of a pretty little country girl / just remember when you pick her up / pick her up in a pick-up truck”
This is how you use your power & pull for good! Dierks Bentley is bringing 90’s country, roughneck hair metal’s little cousin, to the forefront in 2020. Thank goodness!
“Dust on the Bottle” by Curtis Chambers
“There might be / a little dust on the bottle / but don’t let it fool you / about what’s inside”
I am gonna be honest: I moseyed up to a video of this cover of one of my Mount Rushmore 90’s country male country songs when I was stoned & alone in the garage in the middle of the night & I’ve been addicted ever since.
“Nice to Meet Ya” by Meghan Trainor (featuring Nicki Minaj)
“Sweet, but I get rough, just what I wanna be / What I wanna be, just what I wanna be / I don't know you, but I'm just what I wanna be”
We’ve self-actualized the term “guilty pleasure” out of existence, right? Thank goodness! I’ll sit through the worst pop song (& this ain’t that!) for a NM verse any day
“Easy Money Down in Texas” by Ray Wylie Hubbard
“Roll into Austin about sun-up / Two Torchy's tacos and a Shiner six-pack”
Remember earlier when I was yapping about that question “Can music sound like a place?” For a state, Ray Wylie Hubbard has Texas on lock--the direct Texan references, the blues guitar riffs, the Lone Star-breathed vocals. I rest my case with this Hubbard track.
“Are You Thirsty” by Jonny Fritz
“Are you thirsty? / Are you angry? / Is there something I could do to help you through?
You know how they say humor is the sincerest form of honesty? I don’t know if they actually say that. Jonny Fritz writes some of the most haha country songs that still sincerely pack a pang. I spent January sober with this song as my neverending entrance music.
I'M NOT GONNA WRITE YOU A LOVE POEM
The truth of self-consciousness, it is not
An awareness of the self as this
Single self, or any peculiarities
Summoned forth by that orb wrongly labeled you
But rather it is the hard distinction
Of being aware of being noticed
By others as a you, living-breathing
Stripe of dream, capable of becoming
Covered in hives, or polishing one’s knives
Or sneaking some ice cream by the clock’s glow.
When the tussled angels, the mortified
Martians report to their supreme leader
Whom they may or may not call god, what will they
Say of what was witnessed here on our patch
Of land? A woman reportedly
Flossing with her feet at first appearing
To be replaced by dogs, a man screaming
In various phases--first giving curses
To an object he rammed his toes against,
Later as he swung his arms wildly, beneath
A cascading waterfall, indoors, nude
& finally nearly-nude in the snow
His head tilted back, shouting at the sky.
Two dogs this whole time chasing the burrowed
Mice beneath the ice, taking time to piss
On the Christmas tree stashed to the side.
The last item on the report clearly
States all four creatures doing one last shake
Of the leg before crawling sound beneath
Blankets, visibly dirty, visibly
Unfinished, but right before the male flips
The lights out all smile, hum in unison.
I have been thinking a lot about Kobe Bryant, more than I ever thought I would again, following his retirement in 2016. In the wake of last month’s helicopter crash, some aspect or another has been capturing the conversation around the accident, the career, & the life of the former NBA superstar, often narrowly focused on the primary worldview of the speaker. This winter, I have been engulfed in basketball, playing pick-up games again a couple times a week, watching several games, & listening to an abundance of hoops-related podcasts, unable to get enough of trade rumors, big-night recaps, & waiting for a whisper of praise for the over-achieving Indiana Pacers. Needless to say, the conversation on those airwaves turned grim with the news of Kobe’s passing, & with my hoops immersion, my first inclination was to forefront Kobe, the basketball player.
Yes, Kobe Bryant is easily a top-10 all-timer, probably the second best shooting guard of all-time behind His Airness. In fact, by all accounts he is second to only Jordan in mentality, scoring ability, & winning edge, a combo that led him to five NBA championships (as well as two other Finals appearances), 15x All-NBA selection / 12x All-NBA Defense selection, & the second highest-scoring game in NBA history, an 81-point game in 2006 against the Raptors. Undeniably divisive but also undeniably great at his craft, Kobe Bryant was as polarizing & memorable a player as I have seen in my lifetime as a basketball fan.
Everyone seems to have a Kobe memory burned into their memories, often from him torching their team. As is clear from this blog, my memory ain’t so good, but I do remember being 12-years old, the Pacers playing in the NBA Finals against the Lakers; they were down 2-1 in the Best-of-Seven series, but with a chance to win Game 4 in OT, after Shaq fouled out half-way through the bonus period. Then it became clear that 21-year old Kobe Bryant wasn’t going to let that happen, rattling off two clutch jumpers & a clever put-back off the offensive rebound to seal the game in front of the Pacers home crowd.
This, along with his final game, a sixty-point clear-out fest, are the two memories I most remember of his playing days. Be it the out-pouring of love from the Lakers community & NBA circles (including the necessity of cancelling the Lakers next game) after his death to Bill Simmons’ recollection on his latest Book of Basketball 2.0 podcast of a 2012 phone conversation with Kobe about leadership, Kobe undeniably left a legacy in basketball, one larger than I even understood a week ago.
However, both his life & his death, too, stretched farther than the basketball court, for better & for worse. The startling details of this tragedy have woken people up. Many parents I know have been reminded of the preciousness of that journey with their kiddos, are forced into rethinking priorities & plans, & are filled with sympathetic grief for Kobe’s widow, Vanessa Bryant, & their three surviving daughters. Others have remarked about not letting Bryant’s immense shadow shade out the other eight lives lost (his teenage daughter Gianna, Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter Alyssa; mother and daughter Sarah and Payton Chester; Mamba Academy basketball coach Christina Mauser; & the pilot Ara Zobayan). One of the more honest emotional responses came from Bill Burr on his Monday Morning podcast, where Bill takes the tragedy as a chance to think about his own ambitions as a helicopter pilot, his relationship with his own daughter, & how we view sports in our society.
I am five paragraphs in & I haven’t directly mentioned Kobe Bryant’s sexual assault case; it is clear we, as a society, must talk about the rape allegations. Some folks felt compelled to force it to the forefront, even as the bodies were still literally on the ground; on the other end, others wanted to keep it a footnote. Both the Today Explained podcast & The Outline boldly explored the necessity of including Kobe rape allegations in the conversation around his life & legacy. As someone who has been wrapped up in his own abuse scandal (the online magazine that first published my ex-girlfriend's account has now been folded), one obviously with less social significance, I am particularly interested in how Kobe is perceived in totality, how he moved beyond that horrendous act, & how we make room for everyone to speak, create, & grow.
Can we & how do we hold everything at once? That is a question I often ask myself when faced with a person’s guilt & a longer resume of noble acts, neutral moments, & other not-so-good choices, including my own. Around these situations, I often hear the reminder that just because someone does good, doesn’t mean they can’t do bad. In a deep hole--depressed, hopeless in terms of reconciliation, & even suicidal--I was hung on the end of that statement; after talks with the people I respect most in this world--my future wife, my parents, close friends, strangers who bravely approached me on this topic--I remembered that I was a whole person, capable of & having done both good & evil acts in my life.
In the criminal system, in the public sphere, & especially in private conversations, I am glad we’re recognizing the harm folks cause, supporting victims & opening up about violence, substance abuse, & mental health. As much as we might want to banish people from the planet or wish “they just fucking die” (as one person wrote to tell me), it won’t happen, & even if it did, the ripple effects of harm it would do would be high & the actual good it would do for the victim is likely zilch, squashing chances for reconciliation, growth, & redemption from all parties. If our goal is to reduce violence, increase support for victims, & create better people in general, we have to have nuanced, difficult, & sometimes unresolved conversations about abuse, abusers, & the causes of such actions.
On The Bill Simmons Podcast, J.A. Adande, legendary sportswriter & director of the Northwestern Sports Journalism department, offered grace for how Kobe’s legacy is contextualized, taking in account timing, context, & audience. For instance, it is the manner in which we are talking about Kobe that dictates how, when, & why we mention the rape case; if we are talking basketball, then his greatness is the cornerstone; if we are talking about his life’s story, then absolutely a large bullet point is the rape situation. Regardless, there is necessary room to talk about all aspects of his character & choices.
It might sound silly or reductive, but in terms of celebrities or strangers, I often take the approach of Wikipedia. There is the introduction, which contains the key bullet points, & then down the page holds a larger discussion of personal life, professional achievements, controversy, etc. Looking at Kobe’s page, the opening section primarily pinpoints his rise as a basketball player & his accomplishments, but it does not bury the sexual assault case; there it is in the second half of the second paragraph: “In 2003, Bryant was accused of sexual assault. Criminal charges were brought and then dropped after the accuser refused to testify, with a civil suit later settled out of court. Bryant denied the assault charge but admitted to a sexual encounter, and issued a public apology, but the allegations were considered to have harmed his public profile and led to the loss of several sponsorships.” Of course, that is not the end of the conversation, but the point is still made: this is a moment in this man’s life that matters, on par with his accomplishments.
Though a few online were tweeting about the rape case, surprisingly many people were focused on his tragic death & secondarily, his enormous impact on the game of basketball. Somehow Kobe had seemed to reconcile with larger society in some combination of the passing of time following his acquittal & apology, his continued success in basketball & beyond, & his public advocacy for women, especially the WNBA & his own daughters. Clearly, it still was not definitive, as agreed upon through any sort of deliberate, societal system.
Sam Harris reiterated on his news-break episode in conversation with Paul Bloom our need for a specific system for rehabilitating abusers. In America, we have the penal system as our only real, public course for rehabilitation, both of character & perception, but rightfully so, we often don’t trust that system & recognize its flawed ways--disproportionately incarcerating people of color & the poor, lacking in funds, & often providing more psychological harm than repair. Often it is left to the social media discourse, a field dominated by the loudest, often anonymous, among us, instead of processes for true listening & change.
It seems very clear Kobe did immoral acts in Colorado; that can’t be discredited or forgotten. But is it okay for that to be contextualized in the larger story of Kobe Bryant? I would hope yes. Beyond the trial, he apologized & settled a civil suit. He continued to excel at his craft. He reconciled with his wife & took care of his daughters. He advocated for women, especially young female players in his sport. If that’s not finding a better lane & staying in it, I don’t know what is.
As Sam Harris says in that same podcast episode, Kobe might be one of the prime examples of celebrities who have rehabilitated their image & as someone who wants to make amends for what I have done, has gotten the help I need, & am on a great path to live productively, meaningfully, & safely with a psychological disorder & admitted dark side, I must believe that it is okay to keep on keeping on in a positive, whole-hearted direction. More than rehabilitating my image, the important thing is the process as the progress, right?
I am not Kobe Bryant, both in my mistakes & in my accomplishments, but as a man who caused serious harm to a woman I love, I must continue to ask myself how I can better the world, prevent this from happening again, & give back to the communities that support me. In another episode of his podcast, Bill Simmons says Kobe was always on-brand. Remembering that last game, Kobe scoring 60 points (awesome!) on 50 shots (not awesome!) & winning one last game (really awesome!), his daughters & wife cheering on the sideline, engulfed in that moment, I could certainly agree.
For me, it goes back to values, the driver for brand. Kobe’s mamba mentality, with a foundation of a relentless, competitive edge, & a desire to be the best, carried him as his number one value. In his original Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons called it Bryant’s Fox vs. Wolf, nodding to Michael J. Fox’s movie Teen Wolf, where a mild-mannered boy has the ability to turn into a basketball-dominating werewolf. Kobe couldn’t escape this duality of his character--at once a passionate, intelligent, & hilarious guy also capable of being cruel, violent, & selfish--& ultimately had to face both the positives & negatives of that mentality.
It was a humbling moment the other day, filling out disability paperwork alongside my wife, mine as the disabled, her as supporter of the disabled; after years of denying it, I had to face the facts stacked in front of me--the inability to hold a job for more than a few months, the difficult-to-control paranoia & mood swings, & the weekly sickness (a blending of dissociative spells, migraines, & extreme exhaustion). Back where I started, this is where I’m moving beyond the past, not on from it--contextualizing over condemning, forgiving over forgetting, improving over ignoring--in conversation with the world around me.
If my mentality, both the one inherent in my make-up & the one I’ve nurtured, is intense weirdo / hick artist, then I must see the good & bad in that as a means to be my best self. How can my passion overtake my other values? How does my “weirdness” affect others? What parts of my hick identity are consistent with my values & which are antithetical? How can making art improve the other areas of my life? How can I explore this respectively and mindfully in the public sphere? These are questions I am just beginning to answer.
My incredible wife, the playwright / director Diana Lynn Small, is premiering a new play called House Play in Austin, TX in June 2020; with the help of the likes of The Ground Floor At Berkeley Rep & Salvage Vanguard Theater (SVT), who are also producing the premiere, she's been developing this performance for over 3 years, teaming up with some long-time, awesome collaborators. I am honored to be lending my hand as co-producer / creative support for this beautiful piece of theater.
At the end of February, we’re bringing this magic to my beloved hometown of Elwood, IN to put the final tune-up on the thing before the big premiere this summer, offering limited workshop performances to our local loved ones. Thus, this month, we’re raising money to cover the cost of travel for the collaborators to boogie out to Elwood, as well as to help fund our first leg of the tour after the Austin premiere. This play is meant to tour, so this is truly just the beginning (hint, hint: we hope to bring this show to a dinner table near you soon).
Here’s a little more about House Play:
Like its preceding show, Mad & a Goat, House Play is being developed with artists across the country--James Hapke / Marie Ponce / Paige Tautz in California, Heather Johnson in Colorado, Kate Taylor in Texas, and Diana Lynn Small / Tyler Gobble in Indiana. Following February's workshop in Indiana and June's premiere in Texas, the show will be toured to a variety of hometowns & beloved locations, with an emphasis on places without traditional theaters.
House Play is a new play performed around your dinner table. Part meal and part fairy tale, House Play is a dark comedy that follows three young girls who have been left for dead in the woods as they adopt new identities in order to survive: a Woman, an Animal and a Sibyl. It’s like if Lord of the Flies was a dark comedy, used household items as puppets, and featured female characters.
Would you consider donating to help House Play? Any amount, really ANY! is exactly the love and support we need. Here is the link to donate.
Starting at ten bucks (Instagram shout-out from the House Play account) up to 5000 big ones (for your own private performance of the play), we have lots of fun rewards for donating. At the fifty dollar range, we are offering personalized rewards from the various team members of House Play, including a limited-edition release of Diana's unreleased album Bad News & my offer of a special, made-for-you package of letters, poems, & collages.
Being around these incredible artists has truly enhanced my own artistic vision & zest for living, & I hope it'll do the same for you. Please don’t hesitate to email with any questions or comments. Stoked you are alive.
Again, here is the link to donate.