Friends in Low Places

I toasted you, said, “Honey, we may be through – but you’ll never hear me complain!”

It was my favorite line in country music. I could see Garth standing there like a stoic cowboy hero, champion of the sweet one-liner, appropriator of the new guy’s champagne glass. And instead of there being an awkward silence after his miniature bombast or even an accolade from the crowd, Garth was suddenly transferred to a crowded bar of regulars, holding their beers high in communion and all singing together about friends in these “low” places. The contrast of her “black tie affair” and Garth’s “oasis” was so perfect: I had seen myself marrying in such an occasion, denying the roots that were undeniably a part of me. Years of college in a liberal town, a hippie stage of a high political mind, and even snobbery in the fields of coffee, tea, and even nature (www.stuffwhitepeoplelike.com) couldn’t remove my roots. All in all, I loved biscuits and gravy for breakfast, preferring my dad’s recipe above all else (it, in fact, wasn’t much of a recipe as a dance with bacon grease and whatever he could find in the kitchen). I could get down on some crappy diner coffee. And I loved getting my fingers dirty digging for worms in a Styrofoam cup we bought at the general store close to my family’s pond. There was a short period in which I was fearless of sticking my finger in a perch’s mouth, but that time ended quickly and I was forever grateful to the more experienced fisherman or woman who would take on the challenge. These things I loved internally, but outwardly I was the opposite. I never had a pair of cowboy boots in my life (not until they became fashionable to wear on the outside of your jeans in college) nor had I worn a pair of Wranglers. As my sister donned a yellow and blue plaid button up, tucked into Wranglers fashioned with a gawdy bronze buckle, I wore what my dad called “hip-huggers” because I was a “ra-ra” (cheerleader). Courtney drove an old Chevy truck when she turned 16. It didn’t have a muffler. I drove a practical Honda Accord that was 10 years old but ran like a dream (like a 45 mile-per-hour dream). Courtney went to rodeos and I liked movies and music (rock in high school before transitioning to Indie singer-songwritery stuff in college). She hung out at Conoco after school because that’s where the cowboys and cowgirls went, but I usually had cheerleading practice or had to go to team meal.

In college, I came home one day and was singing “Friends in Low Places” to anyone who would listen, occasionally streaming it from SeeqPod and playing it through my iPhone’s speakers (because how dare I have such low-caliber music in my vast library?). My dad, instead of instantly bonding with me like I’d expected, laughed in my face. I was an imposter to him. How could I like such things when I had denied that culture for so long? I had denied speaking “like a hick,” using words like “ain’t” and “dudn’t” and “upere” for “up there” – better yet, I wouldn’t have said “up there” the way my dad would use it anyway: “Ol’ Johnny upere in Nowata.” I would have said something a little more intentional and articulate, like “Johnny in Nowata.” (Oh, did you think “Nowata” was a result of dialect? No. That’s a town. Just like Talala and Oologah.)

A few weeks went by and I forgot about ol’ Garth – mainly because SeeqPod stopped streaming music for free and I refused (though I wouldn’t yet acknowledge the blatant refusal) to buy it off of iTunes. I went off to Spain for the summer to finish my Spanish minor and listened to the only Spanish music I had (Buena Vista Social Club), although it was actually Cuban. I can’t remember what I was into that summer, but I do remember listening to Buena Vista Social Club because I was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (who was Columbian). I knew that my mixture of Spanish language (though I was reading the book in English) was imposing on other cultures, but I didn’t care: it was foreign and it was “Latin,” and it worked. Despite trying to get into the culture, the country roots came back to haunt me hard one day in Valencia.

I was studying in a town called Alcalá de Henares, near Madrid, but I was traveling as often as possible. The two people I was traveling with that weekend were both Okies, just like me, but they were both way more country. It happened on a city bus. We sat in the back, looking out the window more as sightseers than as people with a destination. Perhaps something had happened before; perhaps we were lost. All I know is that I had no idea where we were going and I was exhausted, both mentally and physically. I was sick of translating, sick of being a foreigner, sick of looking at a damn map, sick of Sangria, sick of sleeping in weird beds and using very little water. I was sick of my same five t-shirts, which were starting to stretch out, and I was sick of my stupid unsupportive and painful sandals, which weren’t even cute enough to cause such trouble. Whatever it was, I was sick. And I was very tired. I looked to my left, where Kevin sat, happily listening to his headphones. Instead of asking what he was listening to, I believe I took his left bud and put it in my ear. Waves of emotion and potential responses flashed over me. For some reason, I thought it would be rock. Or hip-hop. Instead, it was Trace Adkins. (Believe me when I tell you that I didn’t know that then, nor did I know it now. As I write this I have three country songs in my iTunes library, purchased within the last week [George Strait’s “Write This Down,” Randy Travis’s “Forever and Ever, Amen,” and, of course, Garth Brooks’s “Friends in Low Places] in addition to the classics that led me to this place such as Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. When I thought about what it was that was playing, I remembered it was a song about lights in the house – a very sad, tear-inducing song. So I Googled what I knew: “What’s that country song about leaving lights on?” Faithfully, Google, or more specifically, jessebo69 on Yahoo! Answers answered with “Every Light in the House is On.”) Audra, the blonde girl with the serious Okie accent, grabbed the other bud and we left Kevin homeless (as in, no longer in Oklahoma in his head, but on a city bus in Valencia) and started the song over, blasting it to overpower the bus engine and the auditory stimulations we were experiencing in our empty ears. We didn’t say anything to each other, just looked out the window and listened to Trace tell us a story. When he busted into the chorus that I was all too familiar with (years of riding and waiting in my dad’s truck as he took us on errands), I started crying. Embarrassed, I looked at Audra. She too had tears in her eyes.

Ev-er-y light in the house is oonn / back yard’s bright as the crack o’ dawn! / The front walk looks like runway lights / it’s kinda like noon in the dead o’ night. / Ev-er-y light in the house is on / just in case you ever do get tired o’ bein’ gone / ev-er-y light in the house is on.

Tears! Tears! From country music! I couldn’t help but want someone to be home with a light on for me. Home, on the twenty acres I grew up on, with five dogs, three horses, two cows (‘til we butchered ‘em), occasional ducks, geese, and a chicken. Home. In Oologah, Oklahoma. Where people communicated through country songs. Where cowboys existed. At my weakest point, a seed had been planted that day in Valencia.

I didn’t listen to country for the rest of the trip. I just needed home at that moment on that bus. The rest of the time was probably filled with Modest Mouse or some Norah Jones when I really felt like belting it out. And, of course, the occasional Buena Vista Social Club when I was reading Márquez.

I had always loved Garth Brooks as a person. When I was a freshman in high school, my friend Mike saw him at Taco Bueno in Owasso. He spoke to him. Said Garth was very friendly. I had heard stories like that before: my mom’s friend’s kids went to school with the Brooks children. He had a house out in Owasso, and though I’d never seen it, I had seen the white fence that bordered the property. Mr. Brooks held a special place in my heart as a “good ol’ boy.”

So months go by. I’m back home, back in school in Norman, enjoying football games and local music. Reading my life away as an English major. Addicting myself yet again to Balmorhea, my go-to for writing music. Soon enough I was interning at a very swanky advertising agency where I bonded over – you guessed it! – music with my mentor. He would make me mixed CDs with music that I loved and was often surprised when I would reference such ridiculous artists as Getty Lee or bring up that I was listening to Animal Collective. My good friend Audrey, who listened to what I called “weird crap,” like what we jokingly referred to as the “whale sounds” of Sigur Rós, introduced me to mewithoutYou around this time and we enjoyed Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, and the Soggy Bottom Boys on a ski trip to Winter Park. My tastes were changing and getting not more specific, but more broad. With my moods and emotions, with the potential of the future, my tastes were broadening.

I got a temporary job right out of college as a counselor at a nontraditional summer camp near Wallace, Idaho. It was there that I listened to Old Crow Medicine show more (originally introduced by my mentor in an email as some “medicine” after I called in sick) as it streamed from my iPod while we cruised the winding mountain roads on weekends or daytrips to sites off camp. Along with that and my increasing interest and reliance on Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Alison Krauss, I realized that I liked this folky-country-bluegrassy stuff.

Still, it wouldn’t be for months that I would buy one song of Garth Brooks. I wasn’t fully encouraged or inspired yet. I was happy with what I had. Then, one day, on a trip from Colorado to Oklahoma, I stopped at a Flying J to get some snacks. It was a cold November night, and I was ready to be home. I didn’t understand why there were so many people at this place: we were in the middle of nowhere, on the border of Kansas and Oklahoma. To me, it was the worst place you could be (I have a strong hatred for Kansas, mainly because of their boring, stupid, slow highways, adoption billboards, and overly-eager highway patrol). But then Randy Travis started singing to me.

You may think that I’m talkin’ foolish

You’ve heard that I’m wild and I’m free

You may wonder how I can promise you now

This love that I feel for you always will be

 

But you’re not just time that I’m killin’

I’m no longer one of those guys

As sure as I live, this love that I give

Is gonna be yours until the day that I die!

 

Oh, baby, I’m gonna love you forever!

Forever and ever, amen.

As long as old men sit and talk about the weather,

As long as old women sit and talk about old men.

I walked around the Flying J trying to find a better alternative to what I had in my hand (half a dozen Krispy Kreme glazed donuts) and singing to myself. How did I know these words? As I looked around, addressing the self-awareness that I was suppressing, I realized I had no reason to be self-conscious. Every single person in the Flying J was singing the song to himself: the people standing solemnly in line with their road treats, the cashiers who knew every item’s code by heart, and even my best friend Sara, who probably listened to African children’s choirs more than country music. I had never felt more at home in a convenience store. I wanted to be friends with every single person in that place, and at that time, I granted them all the positive assumption of good hearts. They were all good people in that store: all good ol’ boys and girls.

I went home and bought Garth Brooks, George Strait, and Randy Travis (and also Coolio’s “Gangta’s Paradise,” because why didn’t I own that?), downloaded a “TopCountry” app for my iPhone that had 100 of the most popular country songs, and dreamt about marrying a cowboy that wouldn’t judge my preppy, Indie past but would take me riding on his tractor.