Brilliant Songs #4: Jason Isbell’s “If We Were Vampires”

There are times when a song or a phrase, a picture or a wisp of cloud, a gnarled old tree or a glance from a stranger, hits us like a bomb, but a good kind of bomb—one that shakes us out of the stupor we too often descend into as we forsake sharing with our own lives the precious gift of our true and careful attention.

And so it was, apparently, with rootsy singer-songwriter Jason Isbell and his complete absence from my radar (Just how did that happen?) until late last night when my music aficionado friend Kevin saw fit to send me a link to an Isbell song, and the bomb exploded.

The song—“If We Were Vampires”—helped Isbell and “The 400 Unit” of musicians that serve as his backup band win a trio of awards the other night at the American Honors and Awards Show in Nashville. Best Song, Best Album (which contained the song) and Best Duo-Group of the Year.

All well and good, but in the case of a...

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Big Honkin’ Transitions: Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends”

“If I could just freeze this moment!” It’s such a human sentiment, to feel overwhelming joy, peace or contentment and want it never to pass. To hold tight to the bliss. Alas, there is no capturing lightning in a bottle, no holding back the ocean’s tides. Change is the coin of this realm, the only constant. A line from a Shel Silverstein poem, which you can read en toto below, is worth chewing on here:

“There is a place where the sidewalk ends and before the street begins.”

That’s a profound image, that interim between one zone, one solid unchanging thing, and the next. It’s a place of transition, migration, crossing over. When you’re no longer tethered to one place but not settled in the next, either.

That in-between place can have tremendous impact. You have to be careful there: the footing can be dicey, and it’s easy to sprain your ankle and worse.

Attention must be paid.

So now it’s t...

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John McCain’s Call to Our Humble Better Angels

So many words now about John McCain. Soaring, eloquent tributes, bitter reminders about his less savory words and stances, implicit rebukes at yesterday’s memorial to the relentless degradation of our democracy and basic decency by he-who-was-not-named.

McCain was many things, but in the end, among the countless stirring images and words from the proceedings of the past few days, what has perhaps struck me most is what a master strategist he turned out to be. Taking the full measure of his own demise, the man orchestrated down to every last dotted “i” and crossed “t” his own powerful rejoinder to the travesty of the current administration while reminding the assembled legislators in particular of the responsibilities they bear in pursuit of the common good.

Not, mind you, “the Republican good,” or the “Democratic good,” but the common, American good, the people’s good.

Toward that end, I ...

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A Music All Their Own: A Punch Brothers Appreciation

There are bluegrass bands, country bands, indie, hard rock and alt rock bands, roots bands, pop bands, blues bands, punk bands, dance bands, soul groups, jazz combos, chamber ensembles. Genres on lists as long as Kevin Durant’s arm.

And then there are the Punch Brothers.

Oh sure, their foundation, as it were, may be in bluegrass, usually with a “progressive” fronting it, and it’s a handy enough label when looking at their classic bluegrassian instruments: mandolin, guitar, banjo, bass, fiddle.

And while bluegrass is a perfectly fine genre, the Punch Brothers bust through that label early and often in their concerts and albums, with all the ease of schoolboy football players tearing through those paper barriers that purport to separate their locker room from the field under Friday night lights.

Perhaps you have heard or seen them, or at least heard of them? If not, let this post serve as an intr...

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The Vilification of Hillary Clinton

I used to watch Roller Derby when I was a boy. The fastest skaters would race out ahead trying to lap the pack, and if they did, their teammates would work to pick off the opposing skaters with body slams and worse, so that the speedster could pass them and score a point. Pass four skaters, get four points. Meanwhile, if the opposing team’s speedsters were approaching to try scoring some points of their own, the lead skater on your team could pop his or her hands down crisply on their hips and thereby “call off the jam.” This would end that particular play, with all the skaters then cruising a few laps before the referee started the next play.

I’ve found “calling off the jam” a handy metaphor ever since, both for my own private distempers and for larger public activities and conflicts when it struck me that we would all benefit if the main antagonists could only place their hands on their ...

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