Occasionally a song grabs you so hard you feel like part of it could be yours, like its a secret. The verses land and you could swear they’d been there all along, but you’ve actually just been waiting to intersect with them. When a song hits you like that you might, especially at a young age, seek out the right person to play this song for at a loud volume while sitting and doing nothing else, in part just to confirm you’re not crazy for loving it the way you do.
I experienced this pattern often as a youth in Arkansas–most significantly the night i played my favorite Mountain Goats song, “Riches and Wonders for my high school girlfriend. We were parked in her parent’s driveway in our shared hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas drinking warm Diet Coke. It was a scene that could’ve been fodder for a Mountain Goats song itself.
In junior high, the closest my friends and I got to cool was an evening-long stalk of Clunk Music Hall’s parking lot during tour stops for The Faint or Melt Banana–but we were equally excited and satisfied by the frozen yogurt at TCBY next door. A harbinger of my musical taste around that time was the great pleasure I took in listening to an American Eagle sampler CD from the mall; I’m pretty sure it included an early Linkin Park single and I‘m pretty sure I thought it ruled. In fact, I received this commercial disc the same way I would received a mix of low key Wesley Willis hits–not over a counter but from a smiling, sun bronzed crust punk elder near the mall food court.
Arkansas’ reputation as a fly-over state may be rescinding a bit, but the bedrock remains. Many bands skip the state altogether on tour, or schedule a day off there to bathe in the natural hot springs and get tangled in the psychedelic collection of valleys and streams known as The Ozarks. Jordan Lee of Mutual Benefit has a good story on the mystic pull of the area. Jack White has another one about deciding to play a White Blood Cells era gig at Fayetteville Club JR’s on September 11th, 2001.
As is the case with many midwestern natives, it took spending a harsh winter away from said girlfriend, finishing out high school in far-off Michigan, to fully realize that I was and will always be very much one with this place. The place where outlaws like Pretty Boy Floyd sought asylum, the place where outlaws like Johnny Cash and Levon Helm were born. During this era, I went wildly deep into the Tori Amos discography, and even deeper into At The Drive-In. But it was the wayward busted-lip Shakespearean hicks in John Darnielle’s universe conjured that conjured particularly vivid memories of small Arkansas towns, eerie in similarity regardless of the song’s setting.
A friend made me to listen “All Hails West Texas” in the dark one night and then we couldn’t sleep, instead getting high off our dissection of the record–the words, the tape hiss–trying to understand why it made us feel the way it did. I would take buses and tiny planes between school in Michigan and Arkansas to see my parents and the girlfriend with the driveway. Trudging through comical snow drifts in a misguided tweed blazer and Birkenstocks, I discovered my CD walkman and the accompanying stack of sharpie smeared CD-Rs were an unexpected gateway to my identity as an Arkansan and thus, a traveller.
On one of those nights, when she wasn’t really paying attention, I snuck a Mountain Goats CD-R into the dash, filling the car with Darnielle’s lo-fi relics. I skipped ahead to the album’s eighth track, the aforementioned “Riches and Wonders,” which is quite possibly the world’s most achingly sincere, maudlin song to put the it’s not you, it’s me mantra to tape. At a certain point, it becomes clear Darnielle may burst into tears while recording the song–and likely did as soon as he pressed stop. I think this song belongs in a museum somewhere on account of how perfectly sad it is; it’s also not the kind of thing you play for your girlfriend in an effort to patch up a relationship fraying due to distance.
On the track Darnielle sings “I am happy / I am whole / But I have poor impulse control,” and while that sentiment felt revolutionary to me for its bravery, it no doubt annoyed the hell out of my girlfriend for its cloying familiarity. By the time that verse had rolled around, it was clear that my lazy attempt to transfer my experience onto her was not computing, and she had, perhaps found the song deeply upsetting. As the song came to a close, I felt as exposed as if I’d written and performed the song myself; we both looked for a trap door through which to vaporize, but none opened up. Only the closing lines of the song ran out, sympathizing, but offering no mercy: I want to go home, but I am home.
By the end of that year I was sussing out another home in New York City, colliding with new songs and different avenues for sharing them. More than a decade later I revisit All Hails West Texas much in the same way I return to Arkansas–with subtle trepidation, with gratitude, with respect for decay, with reverence for the unchanging core.
This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state.