A quick appreciation of Christy McWilson
These last few days I have been touched by a memory, long distance, circa 1997, when No Depression had presented itself as a career option instead of a hobby, when I was newly lodged in Nashville and could only some days remember how to find the Exit In. This particular night the one and only No Depression tour — the Picketts, Hazeldine, the Old 97s and Whiskeytown — had landed in Nashville, and Peter had flown out from Seattle…or, maybe, he’d driven over from North Carolina, because he followed the tour and has always been more road-prone than me.
In this moment Peter took the stage with his friends in the Picketts to sing along with their reworking of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go,” and I’m not sure I’d really known until that night that Peter really did sing, though I sort of knew he wrote songs. I was nervous for my friend, surprised to see him so comfortable on stage (and hoping — god, no! — that this didn’t mean I’d be asked up, for I cannot sing, not at all, not ever, never in public; it meant not that at all, as it turned out).
Some years later a pitiless academic would use that moment to further misunderstand what Peter and I were about. I managed to purge the book some months back, and so I can’t quote it, nor do I wish to. But she took from us the sense that we were fanboys looking for some reason to share the stage with our heroes. And, of course, she played the academic game and took single lines from what we’d written and used them to prove points we’d not made. But mostly she missed that Peter and the Picketts were friends, that there was no kind of fanboy rock star power differential at work. That it was really the simplest kind of shared joy music brings. (She also missed the fact that I’ve never had much interest in meeting famous people, which probably mitigates against the saleability of any memoir I might some day write.)
Not the point.
The point was that Peter got me to listen to the Picketts, who I’d managed to miss back when I lived in Seattle, and then to Christy McWilson when she left the band and went solo. I’d known Christy’s husband, Scott McCaughey, because he’d written for The Rocket, and not because he’d become an incidental musician with R.E.M., which is maybe the best thing I can say for R.E.M., but that’s another rant. So it ended up that I wrote the longish piece on Christy which ran some years back in the magazine, and that I came to understand a little bit about the difficulties in her life which led to the gloomy music I so respond to many days.
Fast forward to this new Dave Alvin album, the one called Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women. Mr. Alvin, remember, had produced Christy’s last solo album, and somebody forwarded me a few months back a track that I think he produced on Christy, a Nirvana cover. (I should find that. I hope I put it somewhere I can find it. Nuts.) And I sort of vaguely knew that she was on this record, but…
…well, truth is, I like the idea of Dave Alvin slightly more than I like his music. I like the Blasters plenty, because the force and power of their conflict makes the music sing. Swing. (Both.) But the disc was on top of a stack and I’m trying to design a new bookazine (not now; now I’m trying to make my creative subconscious do its work and let go of this scree, this thing I’ve not made time to write for too many days, for so many days it’s forced itself into the foreground), and so I stuck it on for background noise.
And there it sat, through a desultory re-reading of “Marie Marie” and three more tracks, until the moment at which Christy McWilson launched into “Weight Of The World” and I reached over to turn the damn thing up as loud as it would go. (You can hear her again on the penultimate track, “Don’t Make Promises,” and maybe elsewhere, but not prominently, and my advance doesn’t have credits so I’m fumbling and, as usual, I don’t care that much about the details.)
There, in those first words, for those three minutes and twenty-seven seconds…there is life. The thing I want and need and still have to have in music. Begin with the fact that Christy has a phenomenal voice, and it may be better now than ever it has been. But settle into what the song is about, and where it comes from. Again, I don’t have credits, but Alvin doesn’t sing a lick on this song and from its subject matter I’ve got to believe she wrote it (or should have). “Well the weight of the world/is a heavy weight indeed,” she sings, which isn’t much of a line unless you hear what it feels like to sing it. “Well the weight of the world/is that baby being born/for that long eternity/and here we go/another mother’s born…and the weight of the world/is that quilt upon my bed.”
I don’t want to play Freud here, but it’s public record that Christy McWilson and Scott McCaughey are no longer married, and my guess is their daughter is off to college by now. Even without that context, this is a brave song, a powerful piece, a strikingly honest performance managed with the artifice that comes from years of practice. I keep wanting to play it for my wife, to see if she hears in it what I hear in it, what I won’t entirely type here because I want you to hear it. But I don’t, because I’m not sure I want her to hear in it what I hear in it, and I don’t know how I’ll react if she does. (Sorry. I know that’s obscure and oblique.)
Anyhow. It’s one hell of a song, buried in the midst of what seems mostly a pleasant but indifferent record. And it reminds me of what a vital and powerful singer and performer and writer McWilson is, makes me wonder if she’ll ever put out another album, and, if she does, if I’ll stumble upon it in this neo-retirement.
And it makes me glad, glad still to be listening. Glad to have met her that once, so I have looked into her eyes and glimpsed something of where this all comes from, what it means.
If that’s not too presumptuous, too fanboy.