Sometimes with the travel changes, the dull roar of right now, the
clinging to what you know, you miss something profound, something
soul-stirring, something that is the last bastion of hope… or faith… or
fairytales. In my currency, it's usually one of those songs that just slips
through your fingers like water, quiet and cool and gone to the ether without
a blink or moment of consideration.
And so it was with a song called "I'll Be," ultimately from a wondrously
titled album named Misguided Roses. Terri Clark, the full-tilt country girl
singer, says it's one of the only songs to make her cry… and confronted with it under
the worst conditions, it took my breath away.
Florence, Arizona is probably not a tourist destination unless there's
something else tacked on, some raison d'etre for people looking to escape for a bit
from the grind. And for the Country Thunder Festival -- four days of
big headliners and lots of secondary acts -- it was a site that was far
enough from civilization that it allowed for the campers, the festival
aspects, the beyond-the-city-limits freedom without the encroachment of
With the whirling dust, the scorching sun, the nettle weeds, the white
plastic chairs a vast sea of mocking nonattendence for the early acts, it was
the most brutal communion of them all. Those who wish to connect with those
almost too far away to reach. The headliners tucked away in beautiful climate
controlled tour buses. And the catering tent a hodge podge of whatever, marked
most overtly by extra large mosquitoes who could hang almost motionless above
you like blood sucking hovercraft.
In the midst of this, the Clark Family Experience -- now trying to work
the utterly more succinct Clark -- brought what they had to the baked and
baking. 4:30, fresh from the recession of the heat of the day, yet far too
early for any kind of reprieve from the intensity of the elements.
Harshness is something the 6 brothers from the tent show revivals and
bluegrass festivals understand, having spent 18 months slogging through
bankruptcy court, trying to make sense of bad business deals gone worse.
Harsh enough that 6 of the most talented, most beautiful young musicians to
perhaps ever grace Nashville are scattered across the country, hand-to-mouth,
unable to make a living at the thing God put them here to do.
Ranging from 19 to 29, looking like Russian dolls, singing like mountain
angels, playing like white fire and lightning, the Clarks could be considered
a total package. The kind of act that is a sure bet -- save for these nasty
And the time apart doesn't do their ability to bring it together any
favors. Still, there's no denying the way they play, the way they sing… and
when they catch an updraft, it's watching eagles soar frozen on the currents
of the canyons. "Silver Wings" delivered with a pang even Merle Haggard
couldn't get to. A revved-to-the-breaking-point turbo-acoustic turn on
"Crossroads." A 6-part a cappella "Yesterday" was as much a witness to the
golden glow of what was as an ache for what's lost.
The beauty of these gifted young men is this: in the sprawled wreckage of
what should have been, they've never reaped the bitterness that would poison
They've never leaned on recriminations, they've merely kept
their eyes on the horizon and believed that in the end, it would all be okay.
So, it was that Edwin McCain's big hit -- a song somehow I missed
changing lanes and planes and clients -- actually penetrated my unconscious.
Six brothers, each more beautiful and talented than the next, stood onstage,
faces wide open and shiny, the best that life has to offer… the resilience of faith
on their soul… the magic of loving the music making them fly without ever leaving
The oldest brother with an acoustic guitar lifting his voice to paint
small pictures of moments, images that are where love explodes, immerses,
overwhelms. The lyric alone -- "The strands in your eyes color them
wonderful/ Stop me and steal my breath…Tell me that we belong together/ Dress it up
with the trappings of love/ I'll be captivated, I'll hang from your
lips instead of the gallows of heartache that hang from above…" -- is
jaw-dropping in the way it steals too deep inside and rips away the last
barriers to the vulnerability and the willingness to subjugate one's self for
the need to strike that bond.
But when you put that lyric in the voice of a boy who has seen much,
who's not been able to stop moving or exhale in ages, it becomes an ardent
plea. It is a yelp for delivery, for recognition of that which matters, an
outreach for something to elevate all that is -- the glitter and sparkles and
softness and warmth and kindness -- to a transcendent place.
Alan Clark has a voice like that. Ragged enough to be real, sweet enough
to make you want to listen, to surrender, to collapse into his arms when you
can't go on or to sweep the sweat-soaked overgrown ebony bangs from his eyes
when there's just not much more he can take. That it's a simple voice -- not complicated,
not nuanced, not conflicted in what its supposed to be -- the emotion is what it carries.
In a world of artifice, someone who can hold up a chorus of "I'll be
your crying shoulder/ I'll be love's suicide/ I'll be better when I'm older/
I'll be the greatest fan of your life" without flinching, without
self-consciousness, without doubt may very well be the strongest kind of
person of all. There is no looking back, no looking down, no consideration
except this thing that can indeed offer the missing piece.
It is common language, used in uncommon ways. It is a basic voice, made
riveting by the intensity of the honesty that informs it. It is a pledge and
a promise, a seeker finding something they weren't sure existed, a moment of cowboying up,
of a need that goes beyond the lyric to the very atoms that
exist at the core of this quiet boy who has nothing to offer but a truth that
is both profound and penniless.
Just when you're sure it can't break your heart any more, Alan's brother
Ashley slides in with an even gentler, more soul-stirring harmony. Ashley has a voice that
is spark and court, dignity gone mad by the intensity of what he
feels, yet controlled because there is no choice. These are witnesses to how
hard it can be, refusing to relinquish the notion that there is a refuge in
love, in another heart that's as true, as alive, as willing to throw itself
into the abyss.
It is the sound of a gate opening, of a cloud clearing, of rain falling.
It is the possibility that we all look for, need, refuse to think may be out
there waiting to be recognized and delivered -- yet can't quite write off for
that emptiness would consume in ways far more maddening than the mocking of
Songs have a way of showing up when you most need them, infiltrating the
essence of your soul, pulling back the drapes on a stormy night to show you
stars turned to diamonds with one moment of recognition of something to then unseen.
"I'll Be" is such a song at such a moment.
When you hurl yourself at life with an intensity that makes a difference,
much falls beneath one's wheels. You don't look down or around for there's no time
and the vertigo sets in. You lose yourself in all that you do, hold the
victories aloft, find the joy where you are able and savor the difference you
And it's enough. It's enough. It's enough. You, the gunslinger madonna,
midwifer of dreams, faithful acolyte of the power of music to deliver and
define, shoot out the lightster, dreamer and dancer and laugher with gusto.
You are so present, so there… that it all goes easy, you land softly, you fly
when you want to on the soles of your shoes and the sweep of a hand in the
What you want you never consider -- another's breath soft on your neck, a
hand held and petted in the quietest hours, looking up at someone through the
sprawl of your hair across your eyes -- because there's never time or pause or even the need.
Then a client says the song makes her cry, and you trust their song sense, so you listen.
Maybe the song is perfectly matched to the singer -- and the honesty exponentiates.
Perhaps the notion that someone else seeks or believes makes you think that it's not
such an odd thing to desire.
Next thing you know, you're three dates into the start of a high-impact
tour, waking up in a bus lot in Indiana -- you know that 'cause you're smart
enough to check the locals' license plates -- and your brows are furrowed
trying to remember what it was about that damn song that you can't even quite
remember that's haunting you. How did it seep inside, and what does this hostage-taking
of your subconscious mean?
A neon circus, a wild west show, the very best pipes maybe to ever grace
country music, a whirling dervish presence on stage and an industrial
strength muscle of music that hits it hard and sends people home spent and
euphoric -- shot straight from the heart of Saturday night. It's all
happening, and it's all mine for the taking -- and I do, filling my cup and
my dancing shoes to the brim night after night after night.
Yet, like some dimestore junkie, I'm slinking from local to local looking
for a record store within walking distance. Chastened to realize that their
not knowing about something so close to where they work probably mirrors my
own unconsciousness about where I live. And finally, determined to revisit this
thing panging at my soul, I just start walking…
Across a parking lot, by the Showgirls 3 Lounge -- a breast bar that
promotes fellowship amongst the patrons with an actual golf outing -- and an
abandoned donut shop, across a major intersection and waist deep into the
kind of strip mall cancer that's devouring our nation. But the beauty of the
homogenization of retail, you can always count on certain chains to remain
Lured forward on the promise of a Borders, I found a Best Buy. And in
that software/hardware conjunction, there was Edwin McCain's Misguided Roses --
along with the just issued DVD of "Standing In The Shadows of Motown," for the
long bus ride back to where I'm from. So you pay your money, you retrace your steps,
you hope it wasn't a hallucination whose ephemerality will yield nothing more than an
overly ardent young man so needy that it can only make the object of said song flee
for fear of drowning.
But it's not. The Clark Family were true witnesses to what Edwin McCain
intended. At 10 minutes to 4 -- miles from there, still not quite here --
it's on eternal return: that slightly lumbering song of everything love
should be, if we'd just stop making it so damn hard.
The shadows of doubt that lurk behind you. The betrayals that orbit and
mock you. The fear of looking silly. The need to have no risk involved. All
those things that conspire against a pure moment, a true release of all the
things that bind us down.
With the warm sax that slithers through like some vestige of resolve and
McCain's slightly muscular read, it all comes back. That rush of "oh, dear…"
from the side of a brutally hot stage landing squarely, but softly in my lap
as the miles give way to Bobby our driver and a state of the art Prevost that
was built for Steven Tyler.
"You're my survival, you're my living proof/ My love is alive and not
dead," says one more man of abandoned faith, one more heart closed down to the
possibilities -- delivered by who knows whom? But obviously a survivor of the
write-it-all-off-and-shut-it-all-down-sweepstakes, desperate to make the
And when Edwin McCain confesses with no shame, just the exhaustion of the constantly moving,
"I've dropped out, burned up, fought my way back from the dead/ Tuned in, turned out,
remembered the thing that you said…," there is hope for us all.
Hope for us all -- the drifters and the damned, the running and the
scared and the scarred. Maybe it's the quietest leaps that are the most
terrifying, maybe it's knowing that salvation of the human and humane is
putting one's faith in someone else and allowing them to elevate you rather
than being sure they will consume you, destroy you, pull you down under the water.
As a woman who's recently had her faith scorched, her heart kicked in,
her good will devastated by a callousness that almost defies humanity, just
the notion that this could exist makes my blood flow backwards in my veins.
Yet I know, too, that I need to believe, to accept, to dream and perhaps
mostly cherish this notion.
Yes, I live with the wolves and the jackals and the wild things who hunt
or are hunted. But even those things can be tamed on a level -- with patience
and stillness and a sense of the gentle currents of what is meant to be. The
poet/songwriter Rodney Crowell once wrote me that "it's the biggest hearts
that break the hardest and take the longest to heal…," but he also promised a
return to innocence from that sort of decimation. Maybe in being cut to the quick
and incinerated to the ground, much ultimately falls away
Chipping away the ashes and hard shell, this song beckons me to believe
Redemption with a sweeping melody, a lyric that offers everything in a
few scattered images and plain spoken pledges, an unremarkable voice forever etched
like a torch in the darkness. "I'll Be" becomes one of those balming comforts that can hold
you soft and warm until the real thing comes along.
Sometimes with the travel changes, the dull roar of right now, the