Chapter 1

 

Ever since I was a toddler, I’ve lived as if my life has a soundtrack. In Mom’s car, from a car seat directly in front of the radio, I would watch as she pressed the push-button station selector or turned the dial to lock in a clear signal. And then I would listen. The music generated tingles, and my excitement would grow as each pop song pushed its way to the chorus. Often, the soaring vocals and beds of lush instrumentation excited me so much they made me squeal.

Mom sang along, and she tells me that my first words ever were sung and not spoken. At the end of our rides, I’d keep a tune in my head and hum it silently for hours.

Life became truly cinematic years later when I got my first Sony Walkman. I was in my teens, and by that time I played the guitar. Also by that time, every single one of my memories was set to a piece of music, some of which I had written. I couldn’t imagine life without experiencing music in every moment, so I began working hard for the life I have now.

I write and produce songs. And I’m able to make a living at it. But it wasn’t as simple as connecting the dots of my toddlerdom and teen years and drawing a straight path. My life may always have been richly about music, but my path to this dot was anything but straight. I’m fortunate I got an unexpected lucky break. That it came on the heels of such an unlucky one is the reason I tell this story.

There is one early memory, however, that music does not adorn. It’s my first memory, as best I can tell, one that has popped into my head all my life. It does have its own dramatic accompaniment, though: the sound of a storm. It’s a positive memory, a marker-of-hope sequence awash in blur. And it’s the one I conjured on the day of my dad’s funeral because of the storm and because of the forest green canvas of the funeral tent stained dark by the rain.

The memory occurs one afternoon in the little house on Pee Dee Avenue in which I had begun life twenty-seven years earlier. I was probably two at the time. The awnings on the front of the house were made from the same green canvas. The house was a tiny white-brick Tudor with two bedrooms, and my crib was in a room in the front — a little sitting room my parents had converted into a nursery. Through the small double window, I could look up from my crib and see the awning, and on the occasion of this memory, the rain from a ferocious storm had drenched it black. I remember the awning’s darkness and the room’s shadows, and the sounds of the storm building as I lay in my crib. A relentless wind whipped the awning’s tabbed valance ferociously back and forth, petrifying me as the storm passed over the house.

Stony Gap is a former mill town surrounded by fields and pastures that spread like a quilt over lumpy foothills. Thunderstorms there can be dramatic. Kids rush in from outdoors at the first squirts of rain or the first cracks of thunder, and they watch from a sliding glass door or a large window as the dark clouds cross over toward the small mountains north of town. Lightning dances above the soft ridgeline to the sound of trailing thunder, and buckets of rain dump and swoosh into places you’d never imagine rain could go. These storms are an important resource to the area’s generational farmers, and I remember after a big storm we couldn’t pick up our groceries or walk past the dime store or leave the luncheonette without passing someone who would say, “My, how we needed that rain.”

The town is located in the Piedmont of North Carolina, which is in the center of the state and at the southernmost point of the Uwharrie Mountain range. These mountains are five hundred million years old, among the oldest in North America, and they once reached twenty thousand feet. But over time they’ve fallen back into the earth, west of their coastal beginnings, and they’ve lost their harsh edges; they’ve become the soft, rolling wilderness that distinguishes the Piedmont. People who live there cede that these mountains are only foothills, and their climbers merely hikers.

In spite of the textile mills, we were a rural people, agrarian and earthbound. The land is excessive in its beauty, and everything it offered made us complacent. We relied upon its permanence, but it was easy to take most things about Stony Gap and Uwharrie County for granted. In the summer, dense tree canopies rolled south off of Morrow Mountain and wound variously throughout the town and out the other side, meeting up with thick woods or forming thin outlines around those waves of plough-striped fields. Heavy rains made these fields burst with soybeans and cotton and corn and allowed small vegetable gardens to thrive. Throughout the summer it was common to arrive home in the afternoon and find brown paper bags full of vegetables from any of several neighbors whose gardens had outgrown their ambitions. Generosity was another of those things we could take for granted.

After a good rain in the heat of summer, we would take a cool swim in any number of ponds and watering holes, some of them well-kept secrets accessible only through private woods or pastures, or down railroad embankments. Or we’d dive off pontoon boats into the murky depths of Lake Laurel and pierce the layer of cool water just below the surface.

Winters weren’t much more than a cold wait for spring, with storms adding their bite. For three months or so, the bare and colorless earth stood bluntly against blue and grey skies. Leafless hardwoods and clusters of pines appeared tiny in barbed silhouettes along the ridgeline, and we went about our daily lives, performing our tasks and waiting, regardless of occupation, for the mill whistles to blow.

The earth I grew from bred into me the nature of many things. We were comfortable with how our lives had been for many, many years.

I was finally delivered from the horror of that evil storm. Trusted, loving arms in short, starched white sleeves reached in and lifted me from my crib and pulled me tight against a familiar bosom and close to the familiar breath that in all moments of dissonance would fill me with soothing whispers.

 

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