I. Slow Burn
My friend Max got married this year. True to the couple's style, it was ceremoniously un-ceremonial: Instead of a wedding, we took a guys' trip after the fact to the woods of Washington to celebrate via the ancient male bonding ritual known as 'getting honked out of your gourd under the stars.' And so I found myself contemplating the place of my relationships within the vastness of the cosmos, wondering about the future and telling myself that the only way to check the news would be to take the 20-minute drive to the nearest town and pick up a newspaper, which of course would be absurd. I also found myself, one afternoon, trying to take a much-needed nap as Max listened to music from his phone speakers in the other room of the two-room studio we'd appointed as our headquarters.
The music, of course, was Kacey Musgraves' Golden Hour; it was, in fact, just about golden hour then, and these specific hours were golden ones, and we are, like Kacey, in the golden hour of young adulthood, when it's all coming together and by extension the shadows of the expectations you have for your life are starting to loom. At this age, you increasingly notice how things once were a certain way, and now they are not that way, and there was nothing in particular that made everything different, just a subtle progression from one phase to the next. You realize that you have maybe experienced enough time to see a little better how time works. It's phases and stages. It's a slow burn. What I'm trying to say is, Max and I have now been friends for a long time, and in this moment of hearing "Oh What a World" filter softly from the other room, I gained an appreciation for that fact.
An essential role for a country artist—for any artist, really, but especially the ones you entrust to do things like sing "Neon Moon" in front of a stadium full of people—is to understand life, in its vast and contradictory complexities. Over the last year, Kacey Musgraves cemented herself as the key torchbearer of this tradition, in the vein of, oh, say, Willie Nelson, during an era that needs said understanding of such basic feelings of, like, being happy and sad at the same time. (I mean, she did to me personally, and I should add as proof that she won the CMA for Album of the Year, but who's counting?) And so it's to her music that my mind returns as that year draws to a close, as we inevitably contemplate the passage of time and what's going on with that.
The computers—the phones and the algorithms and the damn neural net—they're all conspiring to erase time, to introduce an efficiency so good that time ceases to exist, thus rendering such concepts as idleness and saudade and tradition obsolete. They don't want something classic, even something as cool as junk store velvet Elvis wall hanging, unless it's marketable. This should be your first sign that computers are not as cool as Kacey Musgraves, who has identified that very item as all she ever wanted. Another sign is that while Kacey Musgraves will play music for you if you buy her record, the most innovative new computers prefer to play music for you if you put them in your house to spy on you and thereby better suggest products for you to buy when you're wasting time scrolling through the computer in your pocket. This is lauded as progress, although it sets you up for dilemmas like: what to do if you invite your friends over for dinner and they vocally and successfully use the speaker computer to order ten gallons of lube to your apartment. I mean, I can assure you a computer has even less of an idea of what to do with ten gallons of lube than you do. But I digress.
When it comes to the computers, we, the humans, have to fight back! We have to fight back with idleness and saudade and tradition. And so, this past year, I generally spent a lot of idle time sitting around feeling vaguely melancholy as agents of the bad news machine did their best to stir up more meaninglessness in the world. And I listened to Kacey, and I listened to Willie.
What else is there to do, in times like these?
II. Phases and Stages
On "Sister's Coming Home / Down at the Corner Beer Joint," Willie Nelson's sister—his older sister and role model, Bobbie, who also plays piano in his band—is handling a change:
My sister's comin' home
Mama's gon' let her sleep the whole day long
Well, oh, the whole day long
My sister's comin' home
Mama's gonna let her sleep the whole day long
My sister's comin' home
Mama don't like the man that done her wrong
Well, oh, that done her wrong
My sister's comin' home
Mama don't like the man that done her wrong
I listened to this song a lot this year. It's honky-tonkin' gold. But isn't life just like this? It's absolutely full of these stages, of victory and defeat and post-defeat and pre-victory and so on. And then those become phases, as you move on. Sister's back in town, but just that phrasing, "back in town," implies transit, that she is going to be somewhere else eventually, even if for now she's home, sleeping late, going out and dancing at the corner beer joint. She's experienced change—her jeans, as all of ours do, fit a little bit tighter than they did before—but she's still sister, and her story isn't over despite its current bummer conclusion with that man who done her wrong.
The challenge is that phases, stages, circles, cycles, etc. take time, and, boy, is that in short supply these days. Every day of 2018 was filled with some urgent news story of impending or currently unfolding disaster. There was always a fire or a humanitarian crisis or a geopolitical quandary set forth from an unhinged tweetstorm. There's never been a day in history where something bad wasn't happening somewhere, but it used to be a little easier to at least be grateful that something bad wasn't happening where you were at that exact moment and stick to the business of going about life, of sitting around in your underwear, Shotgun Willie style.
Now we're plugged into the bad news machine of the entire world, and we have to watch the bad guys get away with it because they always do. I mean, there are people literally getting tear-gassed—tear-gassed!—at the border. Every couple of months a new report informs us that the seas are rising and the storms are getting more intense at an even faster rate than we previously thought possible, and meanwhile the politicians in power blithely go about accelerating the problem. How can anyone have the temerity to try to fall in love in a time like this? What hope is there to find time for mourning when everyone everywhere is yelling at you about their own big time problems, not to mention the earth's?
Which is why we need the music, see. It's always a good year to listen to Willie, and this was a good year to listen to Willie. "Bring us your foreign songs, and we will sing along," he sings on "Living in the Promiseland." There's "room for everyone," he reminds us. Hell, in 2018, at the age of 85, Willie even made a song about how much Ted Cruz sucks ass called "Vote 'Em Out," and he played at the campaign rally, and it almost worked, except evil is always working overtime. But the good news is that, like all of Willie's songs, this one is timeless, and we can play it and take its message to heart again and again and again.
Also, though, the phases and stages stuff: If you can just slow down for a moment and think about, like, "The Last Thing I Needed the First Thing This Morning" or "Sad Songs and Waltzes" or even "Pancho and Lefty," with its morality tale about personal mythologies, well, that might help you make it through the night. Try to understand, time can still exist on a human scale, on a planetary scale, on something other than an algorithmic scale. We need this music to remind us that even though we are hurtling toward self-destruction of titanic proportions, there's still a reason to try to keep ourselves off of said obliterative course.
There's love, Kacey says, like "flowers in the concrete." There are all kinds of magic. "These are real things," Kacey says. "These are real things." Circles, cycles, phases, stages—I don't need to tell you that computers don't have these, that computers aren't real.
III. Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys
A note on tradition, since we're scootin' toward that big cyclical marker known as the Winter Solstice, and traditions are one of the principal ways in which we, the humans, mark the cycles that differentiate us from the aforementioned computers. Because it's all well and good about the passage of time stuff, but the reality is that tradition—say, "burning coal to get electricity," or "not listening to women when they tell you they feel unsafe"—is how we got into this whole mess with the computers and the environment and the president and the bad news in the first place. That's the thing about traditions, to quote an old country song: You've gotta know when to hold 'em, but you've also gotta know when to fold 'em.
So it's not like I'm saying we need all those bad old traditions that involve hating people for who they are. What I'm saying here is, if we're going to beat the computers at their own game, we've got to use to our advantage the tools at our disposal, viz. our long-running history of human values like love and compassion, which brings me back to why we're talking about Kacey and Willie specifically rather than just any old crooners of ballads. More than ever, we need all those old Willie songs about understanding what it means to be a person, about friendship and lost love and regret. We need an ear that teases that understanding out of the old songbook, that builds human connections through space and time. We need "Pass It On" and "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and even and especially "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys," which tells us that maybe those cowboy dreams aren't always such a good idea.
For all that Willie is associated with rollicking good country western times—and deservedly so, with "On the Road Again" and smoking a doob on the roof of the White House and all that—his true insight has always been his understanding of loneliness and regret and the dissolution of relationships through neglect. His best stuff—"Always on My Mind," "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain," all of Red Headed Stranger really, "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys"—is all about this. The reason, for instance, mamas shouldn't let their babies grow up to be cowboys? "'Cause they'll never stay home and they're always alone / Even with someone they love." Willie has always been a guidepost of understanding as we amble down the tragic road of our own self-destruction.
But while Willie's musical insight and compassionate interpretation of the Great American Songbook are immeasurably valuable, they are not endless. At one point this year, Willie literally lost his voice and had to stop touring. He made it back on the road again, of course, but someday he won't, and when that happens, where will we be? Since Kacey first encouraged America to roll up a joint—or don't—on "Follow Your Arrow," she has appeared the heir apparent to Willie's country tradition. She has confirmed that reputation by showing that country music can modernize without bass drops but rather by expanding the conceptual universe that includes Hank's pain, Dolly's femininity, and Waylon's rebel spirit to be one that also understands new moral codes and expressions of identity.
Kacey's country is a place of both lived tradition and cosmic understanding. Her cowboys are they of "Space Cowboy," astronauts, maybe, but mocking admonishments to the drifters of Willie and Waylon's songs, definitely. That song, the highlight of Golden Hour, doesn't refute tradition but rather feminizes it, changing the perspective to be more broadly human. "Go on ride away / in your Silverado," she laments, curses, sneers, poking at tradition but, in the keening pedal steel, finding something beautiful in it, too.
Space is big enough for lots of human understanding; the future is big enough for lots of traditions; the pantheon includes this, then, but also that, the acid-swirled dedication to her mother and her mother's mother and the whole long reach of history back through the oldest and greatest tradition of all, motherhood. The real values for the future aren't all that complicated, although they might require a slightly new perspective. Kacey's "Rainbow" isn't so different from a Willie song, because the best of those are always simple: "Hello Walls," "Pick Up the Tempo," his friend Leon's old number, "A Song for You." This is how you beat the computers. This is how you carry on, simply, humanely. The album ends with "Rainbow." On the final line, Kacey sings a standalone coda to the rest of the song: "It'll all be all right."
IV. Space, Cowboy
A couple weeks ago, my cousin had a baby. Earlier this year my friend Leslie, who is the one who had the story about the computers and the lube happen to her, did, too. How great is that! Life goes on! Real, human stuff! Like I said, Max got married, and so did my friend Kate and my cousin Kate, and can I tell you how earth-shatteringly happy I am about all of this? I mean, all kinds of future-facing concepts happened this year probably, especially if you count the psychedelic far-out thinking zooming around our collective consciousness. I mean, really good material that the computers could never dream of. This generalized societal anxiety will pass, become a phase. Maybe this stage is the pre-defeat one, and things will just get worse. But we're gonna try to beat the bad news machine, and then we'll see.
Say what you will about the past, but the best way to make sure a better future comes to pass is to continue shaping the present. You can critique forever, or you can do the best you can to make the thing you want to see. I mean, look at this cool and awesome music that Kacey Musgraves made! And look at Willie! He just keeps going. He just keeps making albums, more or less every year, which are always making important arguments like, hey, maybe the way to survive in the world is to understand what Lefty Frizzell had to say about it or what Aretha Franklin was getting at on "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man." He just made a new album this very year called My Way, of songs often associated with Sinatra but that are really just part of the whole big America thing now.
One of my favorites on there is "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)," which has a nice end-of-an-era charm to it. The narrator of the song laments a lost love to the bartender, there's nothing much to say, just sad, stoic, really classic bar stuff—really classic country song stuff, too, although it took Willie to make the association for what is known more as a jazz or R&B standard. It's a twilight years wink, this song about saying goodbyes and shutting down the bar, but it's also an invocation. It's a gesture to the past, an homage to what has passed. It's a song about time and tradition and longing and nostalgia and all those human things we've been talking about here. And it's a song about the future because that's what is implied, the act of moving on. These are the phases and stages and circles and cycles; this is how they happen. The solstice is coming, see, so here's one for the road.
Kyle Kramer has been so many places in his life and time. He's written a lot of blogs and he's made some bad rhymes. But he's online now and he's writing this blog for you. Don't follow him on Twitter.