One of the best albums I've heard in an awfully long time is Jerry Douglas' "Lookout for Hope." The album name is taken from a Bill Frisell tune. Douglas collaborated with Frisell on the latter's "Nashville" album several years ago. I saw both of them at St. Ann's in Brooklyn, the last concert I saw in New York before I left. It was so beautiful that night; you felt like you were floating six feet off the ground. Douglas plays the D.C. area on Halloween this year. I'll be there. If you're not familar with Douglas, please, get that way. He's probably the best contemporary dobro player alive. I've been listening to his stuff so much that I finally broke down and ordered a squareneck not long ago. Playing slide is too much fun.
There are so many great tunes on "Lookout," from covers of "Little Martha" and "Footsteps Fall," to brilliant solo pieces like "Monkey Let the Hogs Out" and "In the Sweet Bye and Bye." But for me, the most touching tune on the album is one written by Hugh Prestwood and sung by James Taylor. It's the story of a farmer, well dressed. I haven't been as moved by a piece of music in a very, very long time.
My grandfather, my mother's father, Ralph McDaniel, was a farmer almost all of his life. His father (that would be my great-grandfather) had come over from Ireland after surviving the blight and settled in Missouri at the turn of the century. The last one. My grandfather eventually moved to Kansas, where he worked in a factory until retirement. All those years at the factory, however, he still farmed. He came from a long, long line of farmers, and he wasn't going to be any different. He got up before dawn every morning, fed the cows and chickens, did what needed to be done in the fields, then drove to work. He'd come home after work at the factory and head back out into the fields and frequently wouldn't be back in until after dark. I remember one summer there was a fire and most of the crops were destroyed. My grandfather, my uncle and a few other local hands tried to control the fire themselves - brigade style, using buckets of water. There was no fire department. After a while it became apparent that the blaze would have to burn itself out, so the men concentrated on keeping the house from burning by dousing it with water. The fire eventually subsided. That was that. My grandparents sold that farm and moved down the road shortly after. It wasn't long before they'd planted a garden and were tilling the soil on the land around their new home.
I didn't spend a lot of time with my grandparents on the farm, but I remember a few things. I remember fishing with my grandfather. Once. I caught the same bullhead twice, threw it back in twice, and managed to fall in the tiny hole where we'd dropped our lines. It was enough to convince me that I was mostly a city boy and didn't have much business fussing with a rod and reel. At some point in his life, so the story goes, my grandfather played fiddle with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. He was also drafted into the Army in World War II, but did not see combat. I have a vague recollection of a black and white photo of him in uniform. My grandfather was proud of the fact that he'd read The Bible cover to cover, twice. He was a deacon in the Baptist church. He had dropped out of school in fourth grade. He had a perfect head of hair, even in his seventies. He used VO5. He had multiple bypass surgeries, but could still take a punch in the gut, and he'd invite you to throw one. His only extravagance was an occasional bottle of rosé. He smoked a pipe (filled with, yes, Prince Albert, in a can) and rolled his own cigarettes.
My grandfather lived on a farm, and he died on a farm. One day my grandfather was out in the field, working the earth, and he fell down onto the ground. My grandmother caught sight of him from the kitchen window, ran out into the field, bent over my grandfather and touched his face. He was cold and his skin felt waxy, she had said. He was gone.
My grandfather's was the first funeral I attended. I was in my teens. I made it through the service at the funeral home okay. Then we all went to the town's memorial cemetery. My grandfather had a veteran's funeral. The men from the VFW were there. There was a flag on the coffin. When the vets folded it up, walked over and handed it to my grandmother, a fountain opened in me and I cried for two hours solid. It was one of the most emotional events I have ever witnessed.
Someone played TAPS. Then, after seventy years tilling the soil, my grandfather was lowered into the ground. We all went to the church and had lunch. I haven't seen most of those people in years. I'm sure many of them have joined my grandfather.
I never went back to the farm. My grandmother sold it a few months later and moved into town, where it was easier to get around, alone. She died a few months ago. My parents have lost their respective parents in the last ten years. I haven't seen my parents in more than a year. I have to change that.
All of us lost a piece of ourselves in the last year. Some have lost more than others. But we've all lost. Personally, I've lost a couple of friends in the last couple of years. I've had another nearly go. I have tried to comfort friends and family wracked with loss. I can't make any sense of it. I'm not going to try, I don't think.
A little while ago a good friend reminded me that life is a circle. You could be saying Hello, you could be saying Goodbye. I think the point is to say something, and mean it. Mean it forever.
It's a happy tune, I think. I've listened to it twice while writing this. I can't help but smile a little, and remember my grandfather working out there in the field. But when I try to sing along, I choke, and I lose it.
It was one of those occasions
You'd have thought he was a governor
Where you had to wear a suit
So his wife drove down to a thrift store
And found him a beaut
Or a man of noble birth
You'd have never guessed his profession
Was scratchin' the earth
And then all his family got into their cars
And followed as he led them down the road toward Lincoln
Even though nobody said a single word
They were all thinking to themselves
How fine he looked
Wearing that suit
It was such a perfect service
A gentle rain was failing down
And it did not disturb his deep slumber
When the vets fired three rounds
Now he wears that suit forever
He truly is a man of note
And he wears the State of Nebraska
As his overcoat
And they let him rest on down there with his folks
And came away from Lincoln with a revelation
That rough and humble tiller of the soil
Would rise out of the fertile ground and meet his maker
Wearing that suit
And it was one of those occasions
Where you need to wear a suit
Say it. Mean it.
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