‘We Are Alive’: Six Longreads About Music

The soundtrack of my life goes back a long way. Here are six longreads about music, for the love of it.

By Krista Stevens

My earliest memories involve music. At first, we had an ancient turntable, a penny taped to its arm to prevent it from skipping. My dad loved Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Elvis. My mom was into Simon & Garfunkel and Jim Reeves, a guy I thought profoundly uncool in his knitted cardigan. Later, I remember waking up early on a Saturday morning to watch cartoons, the Creedence Clearwater Revival 8-Track still kathunking along, blaring “Bad Moon Rising” and “Down on the Corner” hours after my parents had gone to bed following a night of beers and tunes. It took both hands for me to yank that tape out so I could hear the TV. Later still, I recall dance parties at my auntie’s house. With the dining room table pushed to the side of the room, adults and kids alike would be twistin’ the night away along with Sam Cooke. It cost almost nothing; it was fun we could afford. Everyone was happy. I still know all the words to all those songs.

Let me tell you ‘bout a place
Somewhere up a New York way
Where the people are so gay
Twistin’ the night away

Later in life I learned to play guitar and bass, forever chasing that singular thrill of being immersed in music I love. I wanted to get to know it more deeply, from the inside. I’m forever obsessed with all things musical: artists, their inspiration, their craft, their dedication, their instruments, their foibles. When a piece appears on any of these topics, I can’t resist. So here, for the love of it, are six pieces related to music.

Here they have a lot of fun
Puttin’ trouble on the run
Man, you find the old and young
Twistin’ the night away

 

Trigger: The Life of Willie Nelson’s Guitar (Michael Hall, Texas Monthly, December 2012)

For 52 years, Willie Nelson has played the same instrument: A 1969 Martin N-20 classical guitar called Trigger. In this masterful profile, Nelson and Trigger share equal billing as Hall recounts the musician’s career and the meticulous maintenance that keeps Trigger in tune, after more than five decades and thousands of performances.

Erlewine looks forward to Trigger’s semiannual physicals. He oils the bridge and cleans the fretboard, the wood of which is so eroded it looks like waves between the frets. Then comes the lacquering. The mottled area just above the sound hole shows the effects of fifty coats of lacquer applied over 35 years. The darker parts are colored by dirt and dead skin that can’t be removed; the lighter parts are where Willie has dug deep into the spruce. Erlewine carefully rubs the gouges in the wood that run parallel to the strings between the bridge and the sound hole, a sign of the force with which Willie plays.

Like A Shovel and A Rope (Michael Ramsey, Oxford American, November 2019)

In the fall of 2019, we attended a small music festival outside of Athens, Georgia, to see Shovels & Rope, a husband and wife duo who handle all their own guitar, vocals, keys, and percussion, trading duties often during the show. When he’s singing and playing guitar, she’s behind the kit with a stick in one hand and a shaker in the other, singing harmony. When you’re standing there, in front of the stage, and the music envelopes you, it’s hard to believe that there are only two people up there making that magic happen in such an intimate performance. Ramsey’s piece takes you backstage and introduces you to Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent in an ethereal braided essay that intersperses his personal experiences along with the story of the duo’s musical career.

Most rock songs, you imagine either that you’re the singer or that you’re the one being sung to; with Shovels & Rope, you imagine the gate is open and the backyard is full and you’re singing along.

Many of their best songs have a deliberateness on the topic of how to build a life, both wistful and hard-edged. “Making something out of nothing with a scratch and a hope,” they sing on “Birmingham,” their origin-myth anthem, “two old guitars like a shovel and a rope.”

The Spirit of Neil Peart (Brian Hiatt, Rolling Stone, January, 2021)

At Rolling Stone, Brian Hiatt wrote a loving tribute to Neil Peart, the late drummer for the Canadian band Rush, published one year after Peart’s death from brain cancer. What I loved about Hiatt’s piece is that despite the fact that I have never been a fan of Rush, I came away with huge admiration for Peart as a music professional. Here’s a highly acclaimed drummer with decades of experience who remained a student at heart, always wanting to improve as a musician.

In May 1994, at the Power Station recording studio in New York, Peart gathered together great rock and jazz drummers, from Steve Gadd to Matt Sorum to Max Roach, for a tribute album he was producing for the great swing drummer Buddy Rich. Peart noticed one of the players, Steve Smith, had improved strikingly since the last time he had seen him, and learned that he studied with the jazz guru Freddie Gruber. In the year of his 42nd birthday, while he was already widely considered to be the greatest rock drummer alive, Peart sought out Gruber and started taking drum lessons. “What is a master but a master student?” Peart told Rolling Stone in 2012.

Meet the Revolutionary Women Strumming Their Way Into the World of Flamenco Guitar (Lavinia Spalding, AFAR, June 2019)

As a music student, every new song I learn, every new technique earned, is a small victory. (I’m looking at you, groovy and challenging bass line to Taj Mahal’s “Diving Duck Blues.”) I can’t imagine flying across the world to show up at a master’s door hoping to gain a particular kind of instruction, but that’s precisely what Lavinia Spalding did when she traveled to Spain to become a tocaora, a female flamenco guitarist. Dedicated music students will be able to identify with the sweetness of improvement, often evidenced by the physical discomfort that accompanies it.

I’ve been in Spain only two days, and already my fingers hurt. It’s a prickly, high-pitched sting, like when a fallen-asleep limb returns to life. The sensation delights me. It means I’m doing something right.

Living With Dolly Parton (Jessica Wilkerson, Longreads, October 2018)

How do you question a living legend? With grace, care, and deep respect, as it turns out. For Longreads, Jessica Wilkerson took a closer look at the business interests of singer, songwriter, musician, and philanthropist Dolly Parton. There’s no question that Dolly’s work for literacy and science has done a lot of good. But, could Dolly do better? Wilkerson thinks so.

The love for Dolly that I learned was one without doubt. To question one’s devotion to Dolly Parton is to turn the world upside-down. Indeed, it is to question one’s investment in, and rehearsals of, mythologies of whiteness, which are rarely spoken, rarely noted as white. “Whiteness is an orientation that puts certain things within reach,” Sara Ahmed writes. Dolly Parton was crucial to my own orientation.

Because my grandma is right — inquiry is seductive — I needed to question Dolly Parton’s meaning in my and our lives.

I needed to confront Dolly Parton’s blinding, dazzling whiteness.

We Are Alive (David Remnick, The New Yorker, July 2012)

The first time I saw Bruce Springsteen live was on October 31st, 1992 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, about 20 years before David Remnick would write this stunning profile. It was a momentous evening — they wheeled Bruce out in a coffin perched on a dolly, and he popped out to start the show with “Spirits in the Night.” It was the first of many performances I’d see in Minneapolis, Fargo, and even Milwaukee, thanks to being married to a Bruce fanatic. I appreciate Springsteen’s music, but I’m not a massive fan, until I get to the show. Anyone who loves music knows it has the power to move them, be it to tears, to sing along, or to dance. At Springsteen shows, I’ve felt my heart and spirit soar when the Fargodome roof almost blew off during the show closer “Light of Day.” I’ve had the hair stand up on the back of my neck with the opening strains of “The Rising,” an experience that was so intense it continues to this day, happening whenever the song comes on the radio. What I love about Remnick’s profile is that he makes Bruce seem like a regular person, despite being someone whose superpower is conjuring life-altering feeling and emotion in even the most casual fans. He’s a guy whose job happens to be running the E Street Band, the Boss who pays their salaries and struggles at times too — both creatively and with his mental health. A man who, even though it doesn’t seem like it sometimes, is one of us.

After all these years onstage, he can stand back from his performances with an analytic remove. “You’re the shaman, a little bit, you’re leading the congregation,” he told me. “But you are the same as everybody else in the sense that your troubles are the same, your problems are the same, you’ve got your blessings, you’ve got your sins, you’ve got the things you can do well, you’ve got the things you fuck up all the time. And so you’re a conduit. There was a series of elements in your life—some that were blessings, and some that were just chaotic curses—that set fire to you in a certain way.”