Why am I crying?
I’m commuting home after a perfectly average day. My local country station has served up the song “Drive” by Alan Jackson.
All memories of my Dad letting us drive on our learner’s permits with him in the car are tense or miserable—there’s one particular family low point that took place with my sister driving our family’s tiny stick-shift lime green Chevette, killing it repeatedly mid-intersection in Terre Haute, Indiana, with Mom and I crammed in the backseat and Dad shouting increasingly panicky instructions on How To Release A Clutch.
He didn’t like how we approached curves. He never trusted that we saw stoplights. He was sure we were too close to the parked cars’ mirrors.
So there really is no reason I should be crying.
But get me: [sob sob]
Is it because learning to drive is a particularly emotional moment—good or bad—that happens to occur in a generally emotional time of life, when the parent-child relationship is changing? A happy-sad-happy-sad switch flipping back and forth?
Is it because the pictures he draws are so vivid and personal—am I responding to the sheer art of his imagery?
Is it because even though Alan Jackson’s experiences are foreign to me, he is somehow forcing his nostalgia into my soft spot, force-feeding me his fond memories until Stockholm Syndrome occurs and I identify with him, my captor?
I think so. But I think it’s more than that, too.
I think it’s partly the little pause and jump in the melody on the eponymous word in the phrase, It was just a dirt road with trash on each side/But I was Mario Andretti/When Daddy let me [pause] [“I Wanna Hold Your Hand”-ish melodic leap] drive. . .
Why do things that have never happened to us make us cry?
Sometimes it’s just the music.
I cry at a certain point in certain jazz or classic works, works that are more or less devoid of denotative meaning. I’m not devout but lots of hymns choke me up until I can’t even sing the hooks (and man, do some hymns have killer hooks).
But the potent combo is music hooked to sentiment and possibly examining some parent-child relationship—think of those much-mocked “Mama” songs.
Back when my kids would sit still and watch the Henry IV, Part I/Hamlet mashup that is The Lion King, there was one part that would kill me, just kill me, reduce me to a choked-up weeper unable to speak. It’s at the beginning, when all the animals are arriving to see Simba presented by Robert Guillaume. Tim Rice and Elton John have provided a bunch of African musicians the words and music to “Circle of Life” and it’s all clicking along no problem, big production number, yeah yeah, we get it, until all of a sudden we arrive at the part where the zebras kneel.
I have no particular feeling about zebras.
But I swear to God, the side-maneuver chord that Sir Elton moves to under the soaring melody, and the general sense of Fate and Family in the lyrics which have something to do with “the path unwinding” are a collision of emotions and sounds that reliably undo me. Every time. While I’m typing this, I can reproduce the next-word-unexpectedly-caught-in-my-epiglottis experiment in my mind: “… and the path unwiiiiinding.” I don’t even know exactly what they’re talking about.
But the music tells me.
It’s that damn chord change, an unexpected lateral move that makes it all so grand and melancholy.
To make someone cry, and to earn it, is maybe the noblest songwriterly aspiration.
I usually panic and go for the laugh. It’s safer.
But to take on the responsibility—to risk sincerity—and bring someone to tears: it’s a daring move. It’s like shooting the moon in the card game Hearts; if you manage to achieve it, you win big, bigger than you would have otherwise. If you don’t quite do it, you completely lose worse than if you hadn’t tried it.
Therefore, with cautious pride I say: I’ve made people cry with a song.
I didn’t set out to.
I hope it was earned.
It’s a country song. I don’t think anyone ever reached a heart-got-involved emotion during one of my rock songs. I think my rock songs went for the brain’s greedy pleasure center square on.
The part of my country song that makes people cry is in the midst of an aging parent story, a song based on the fact that my dad, now in his eighties, is trying to manage two farms and six low-end rental properties with no exit strategy. So I dreamt up an exit strategy for him and wrote it in an AABA-formatted country song.
The teary part comes in the latter half of the B section. Auction-goers are carting away the singer’s Dad’s stuff. Under his hat and his sunglasses clip/He might fight back tears but he won’t let ‘em slip/Or at least we’ll pretend not to notice so he can act tough.
It’s not meant to be maudlin. But by that point in the song, I think it gets people. People who know me.
Only people who know me?
That’s the concern.
I’m still not so far along in my Country Career (I wish you could hear the self-flagellatory spin I’d give the capitalized phrase if I were speaking) that I really have a decent idea of the song’s independent ability to make someone feel something other than strained patience, waiting for the next funny song. So far the only people who have reported tears have dealt with me enough to know that I generally try to keep things light.
For them, the song’s a sucker punch.
My New Jersey songwriting friend Liz wrote this on Facebook when I was being aw-shucksy about my ability to perform: “Chollie, You reel ‘em in with your wit. Your audience is the smart, insightful crowd. I can’t picture you singing Dad Without the Farm without getting weepy. That’s your charm. If you can get a rise out of cynical me—It’s beautiful.”
Thank you, Liz. It’s nice having nice friends.
Who knows what it is that does it, when it does it. Maybe it’s just the high “D” the melody hits in a song where the singer hasn’t yet risen above a “B.”
Right now the best evidence I have that something’s working with the song—the story, the chord progression, something—is a surprise I discovered just a couple weeks ago. I was googling myself when I should have been working. (I’m basically competing with the Charlie Hopper who runs the Upper Peninsula of Michigan’s official pasty website; a ‘pasty,’ I’ve learned, is a small meat pie much enjoyed by the men who built the Mackinac Bridge, currently the third longest suspension bridge in the world.)
Over on Google’s third results page I discovered something I didn’t know: “Without the Farm” got an honorable mention in the 2008 John Lennon Songwriting Contest, one of apparently about eight honorables mentioned in the “Country” category.
Hey. How did I miss that?
Hopefully some beleaguered judge who’d been listening three straight days to country music executed to varying degrees of craft and restraint busted out a sob when my fictionalized Dad squeezes a tear out under his billed cap on auction day.
I hope that counts as Earned Emotion.
Otherwise I still don’t really know the truth: do you have to know me and/or do you have to be in a run-down, emotionally vulnerable place?
Could, for example, I “get” you—O Irony-Fortified, Dispassionate Reader—with a tale of indecision, aging and loss? Even though you have no personal experience with Dads who can’t let go of their farms?
How many chord changes with melodic leaps in the midst of realistic stories of child-parent relationships does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a human being?
The world may never know.