My Dad is a Depression baby. He arrived at the idea of moving the suburban family he was raising in the 1970s to a farm as a strategy for coping with that decade’s famous economic malaise. Perhaps you remember Gerald Ford’s campaign to end that malaise which resulted, ultimately, in the cashier at the grocery four blocks from our old house handing out “WIN: Whip Inflation Now” buttons along with the S&H green stamps.
Should Inflation fail to be effectively Whipped, Dad figured we could at least raise our own radishes and chickens and eat black raspberries from wild brambles in the sunlight, and survive.
Mom had recently finished reading Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs and analyzed my father’s behaviors according to his astrological tendencies. One feature of Being a Libra (and man-oh-man is this ever true of my charming-but-ornery Dad) is a frustrating impulse to take the opposite side in every argument—and if it’s not an argument when the conversation starts, there’s no reason it can’t be turned into one with a little effort.
So Mom, my sister and I adopted a clever strategy: none of us wanted to move to the farm, so we all said we did.
What could go wrong? He’s a Libra!
Cut to the scene of us unpacking a black and white television to watch Nixon resign on the night we moved into the old Hayden house on forty acres five miles west of everything I used to be able to ride my bike to.
Country kids across the street buzzed around without shirts on little mini-bikes, climbed trees, yelled, fought, groomed horses. A Pennsylvania Main Line train would diesel past a couple hundred yards from the house four or five times a day, sometimes setting the cottonwoods on fire in the dry season. Dad’s Black Angus cows frequently needed herding, either because they’d eaten all the fescue in the pond field and needed to be let into the Old Interurban field, or maybe because they’d gotten into the hayfield or the cornfield—one fun moment from this period is the time our big, mean, lethal bull came running toward my Mom as we tried to move the herd from one field to another, and Dad shouting “Head him off! Head him off!”
Mom chose not to.
Anyway, I spent a lot of time in denial or just behaving like a plain lazy adolescent in order to get out of farm work. So I wouldn’t present myself to you, the world, as a Farm Kid.
Still, I guess all that farm stuff is a pretty rich vein for country music writing, huh. For some reason, for a long time, I hesitated to mine it.
Because it’s getting really personal.
Which is something I’ve rarely done. Or if I’ve done it, I’ve encoded it in pseudo-poetry—for example, here’s one verse of a love song I wrote when I was in a rock band:
“She likes to iron, she likes to fold/She likes a chest of flat clothes/She used to work in a lingerie store/She must be an expert in that, I suppose/Somewhere she’s out in the dark with her laundry/Against a machine in the delicate rinse/I like to picture her reading a People/Thinking about laundromat kids, me, and Prince…”
Of course, like anybody giving advice to anyone writing anything, the classes and seminars kept at me: write what you know.
What I know is that my Dad still runs a farm at his age, and it can’t go on forever. Especially given that his inclination, his true constitution, is that of a tweedy, truculent, bawdy, story-loving man of letters: he’d much rather sit, read a biography, and discuss—meaning “argue about”—what he read. He wants someone to bring him a cup of coffee. He wants someone to keep his house clean. He wants the cabinets that he never cooks anything out of, nor washes and returns dishes to, to be organized brilliantly in a manner that he agrees is brilliant.
It drives my mom nuts.
I’m frankly surprised I don’t have a bunch of songs that I could fill with perceptive details and insights into d-i-v-o-r, etc.
So my Dad, at his Depression baby age, has this acreage that always needs attention. He’s hanging onto it for my sister and me, kind of, but he knows that we don’t really have time to run a farm.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy (read: a herd of cows) is loosed upon Rural Route 1, Box 475.
And there sits my Dad, slouching, reading a book on the Civil War and wishing that Fox News would say something outlandishly conservative which he could call me up and repeat through the phone wires to whip up a little argument. Cleaning thirty years of rusty, decaying items from his jumbled chicken shed is not what he wants to do.
And yet, it’s hard to imagine him in a normal house in town.
He believes he has survived as long as he has, overweight, with high blood pressure and a tendency to panic, because there are certain chores on his or any farm that simply have to be done. Every day. Hot or cold or windy or snowy or beautiful and bright. You have to get out there and get your blood pumping.
He thinks the farm has kept him alive.
So… yeah. I finally did write a song about Dad and the farm. Even typing that is sort of awkward for me. I try to keep things light, in my life, with my friends and family. As I was recording the first demo of that song (it’s gone through several rewrites) I got all hot and embarrassed in front of the friends who were helping me. I bailed. Quit halfway through.
It’s a new sensation, trying to express in plain language something both emotional and personal. And not automatically building to a punch line.
Yet the song is one of the three or four that I’ve written that consistently gets a good response when I play it for people.
Hmm. I should take note, shouldn’t I?
That’s probably important.