The gift my mother gave me

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I have a really, really wonderful mom. I don't know how much of it was natural for her and how much of it was her willingness to learn how to parent the kid she had, but she did a great job. Often, when I am asked about some good trait I have, I can draw a straight line from it right back to her. I think of these traits, in general, as the gifts she gave me.

One of those gifts, perhaps not the most important one, but the one that I am lately feeling the most thankful for, is an appreciation for lyric. My mom is a music lover, but more than anything, she's a lyric lover. She can't play an instrument, she can't sing (but don't tell her that, because it doesn't stop her), and she can't dance. She's into music for the words. And I am exactly the same way. I don't get much out of a song with no lyrics, and I can't necessarily tell one bass line from another, but I always know the words.

Some of my earliest memories are of my mom singing along with albums (and yeah, at that point, they were literally albums--I'm old). She had a varied collection, but the ones I remember the most clearly are these:

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(Lest you think mom's taste was country specific, the other album I remember clearly, which I can't find online anywhere, was a live Holly Near record.)

To this day, I know every song on either of those records, and on the Kristofferson one, I can still remember the places were the album skipped. I remember very clearly my mom asking tiny me (maybe I was five or so?) if I didn't think the following was the most beautiful thing ever:

I have seen the morning burning golden on the mountains in the skies.
Achin' with the feelin' of the freedom of an eagle when she flies.
Turnin' on the world the way she smiled upon my soul as I lay dying.
Healin' as the colours in the sunshine and the shadows of her eyes.

Yeah. I do. I still do.

I absolutely believe that this early, constant exposure to poetry, in the form of songs, is why I'm a writer. I know it's more likely to be about the books she read me or exposed me to (this is same mom who let me read Sophie's Choice when I was about 12). But that doesn't resonate with me the way the lyrics do. I knew, from such an early age, that you could take a few pretty words, twist them so they meant exactly what you were feeling, put them to a beat, and make people feel it with you. There is incredible power in that.

I've written before about how I found my own music taste, reaching into heavy metal, pop, and even electronic music in high school and college (I have a brief, embarrassing memory of trying to get my mom to recognize the genius of Faith No More at some point). And I still don't quite have the same taste as Mom does (I just don't get Jimmy Buffett, for example)--but I've always come back to those early albums. I never, for a minute, stopped loving Kris Kristofferson. When Mark was excited about A3's version of "Speed of the Sound of Loneliness," I argued with him for days about its inferiority to John Prine's original (though I really do love A3). I've been known to quote song lyrics at length (though I don't share Mom's habit of breaking into singing them whenever anything brings them to mind). And every time I discover a new artist who strikes that cord (most recently Jamey Johnson, before that Dale Watson--it doesn't happen very often), my mom is the first person I tell about it.

I've written here before about classic country music as part of my legacy, my heritage. This is more than that. It's not necessarily even about country, it's about paying attention to the words. My mom taught me to do that. And every time I write a line that doesn't suck, a little piece of my heart thanks her for it.

3 Comments

Well said, Grace.

I had to laugh about "Mom's habit of breaking into singing them whenever anything brings them to mind..." because my mother does the SAME thing.

I love lyrics too. I also love the music part and had an early in life love affair with classical music which still endures though I listen to it a lot less often now. But lyrics are so important to me and they really are a special form of poetry and have had a profound influence on my life as a writer too.

I don't like They Might Be Giants but Max and Philip love them and so I listen to them and there are some lyrics they write that I loathe, they just irritate the ever loving crap out of me and so even if the musical part was pure genius, I can't get past the lyrics which I think are stupid but which my guys and a huge proportion of my friends really love.

I love "The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness" but have never heard the original. I am only familiar with Nancy Griffith's version which I think is beautiful.

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