I live in Baltimore right now, but I’m from the Birmingham area. Well, I only spent ten years there, but saying that doesn’t really tell the entire story. I mostly lived in Upstate New York before 1995, when I was fifteen and my mother moved my two little brothers and I down to Alabama. It isn’t really important why were in Upstate New York. It was never really my home in any spiritual sense. Both my dad and mom grew up in different parts of Alabama and almost all my extended family lived there. I spent a lot of time in Alabama as a kid when we went on vacations. Moving there for the first time was already a sort of homecoming.
I barely listened to country music while I lived there. I was too busy listening to bad metal and pissed-off nihilist music. Maybe I started listening to country as a way of connecting with the place after I finally left. Because sometimes these songs, whether I want them to or not, make me think of home. Here are a few of those songs:
Merle Haggard – Sing me back Home
A sweet little tune, this one. It’s a grim one, though. Take, for example, the first few lines: “The warden led a prisoner / down the hallway to his doom / and I stood up / to say goodbye like all the rest.” It’s a song about a condemned man and his last request. He asks the narrator of the song to “sing me back home before I die.” The song is about the power of music, about its ability to take us so completely outside of ourselves that we actually forget we have bodies. Good music makes time travel possible. This song takes me to Alabama. Hoover, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham. It’s a totally involuntary response. The song just takes me there.
Rebel Son – 1-2-3
Rebel son is the kind of band I hate to love. They’re basically a rockabilly band on steroids. Mucho heaps of testosterone. Caveman stuff. Their lyrics are base and juvenile and at times they seem to actually promote violence, rather than just writing about it. But, fuck it. They rock. Plus, their tunes remind me of the mindless hell-raising teenagers that I knew in Hoover. They were complete morons, mostly, without a dash of sense between them, but most of them are still probably having a better time on a Tuesday night than I do all month. “1-2-3” is mostly about getting drunk and fighting. OK, well, that’s really all it’s about. First, the narrator gets drunk in some backwoods bar somewhere, beats the shit out of some yuppies and then, when the cops come, he beats the shit out of them before getting hauled off. In the last verse, the guy gets into a fight with some prison guards. It’s weird how I got such a kick out of being around mindless fuckers like this, especially since I liked books and Star Trek on top of getting drunk and breaking the law. Well, so it goes, I guess.
Willie Nelson – Always on my Mind
This song makes me think about the girls and women I loved or came close to loving when I lived in Alabama. “Always on my Mind” is among the greatest ballads in country music—a genre with plenty of good ones. It begins with just soft piano playing and Willie’s nasally singing. Then it adds instruments as the song builds to a climax. “Always on my Mind” isn’t a breakup song. It’s a last-chance song. I can just picture Willie singing this song as if it’s the only thing keeping the woman in his life from walking out the door for the final time. I’ve heard this song probably hundreds of times but it always brings me to the verge of tears. This song contains the emotional memory of love lost but still remembered. Which is always more important than the strict facts of the case.
Hank Williams Jr. – O.D.’d in Denver
“O.D.’d in Denver” is a good ‘ol honky-tonkin’ song about the devil’s powder. It’s a fun song, but sad. Which is probably as it should be. It’s about a guy who meets a woman and spends the night with her. She might have ended up as the love of his life, but there’s one problem: he “just can’t remember her name.” Too much coke and now the potential for love is gone. I’ve never touched the stuff myself. Done plenty of other stuff, but I was never interested in turning into a zombie. For some reason, a bunch of my friends got into this shit. One of the even sold his guitar (he was a very good musician) and ended up homeless and miserable. Thank Thor he finally kicked the habit and now lives in Austin with a wife and a job in a recording studio. Damn that cocaine, man. Don’t do it, kiddies. Psychedelics are much more fun anyway and they won’t leave you with a monkey on your back. But everything in moderation, OK? Nobody needs another hippie on their hands.
Jamey Johnson – Stars in Alabama
I know, it’s got Alabama in the title, so naturally it would remind me of the place, right? But there are plenty of songs about the place and they don’t all take me back the way this one does. Anyway, it’s really just a song about longing for home. Which is to say this song can bring you back, no matter where you’re from. When we used to go down to Birmingham for vacations, my mom used to literally get out of the car and kiss the ground as soon as we’d crossed the state line. Seems a little weird, but what the hell, right? I probably don’t need to tell ya’ll that I don’t do that. But my heart is never so warm, my body never so comfortable as when I’m in that crazy swampy humidity. It’s like Johnson says, “’Cause God put stars in Alabama / you just can’t see in Tennessee.” Indeed, sir. Indeed.