there ain’t no boat, there ain’t no train
to take us back the way we came
ain’t no shelter from this hard rain
the cure for the pain is the pain
Writing this I am weeks away from the death of a high school friend, taken by cancer in ugly fashion. I sat by her bed two months ago, wishing it away while knowing that wishes don’t work when things are that far gone. This week we learned that another friend welcomed hospice into her home in preparation for the inevitable. She’s already been through so much, and there’s more to come. There really isn’t any cure for the pain, but the pain. There’s no way around it, no way over it, no way under it. You have to go through it.
We are equipped to make the journey. A pastor once told me that Grace is the ability to get through something so bad if you’d been told ahead of time it was going to happen you would have said there’s no way I can make it through that. But you can, and you do. You go on, you get through it, and along the way you find the beauty of it, even if the beauty is dark, even if the beauty is black.
Gretchen Peters has helped us along with her new record, due out February 10. It speaks to us about the unspeakable, about loss, about death, about life, and pulls no punches. In the title cut, black crows witness an act of murder using “our father’s gun and a heavy piece of rope.” Kerosene and fire are also involved. Ms. Peters says the song is about “the aftermath of generations of pain”, and she employs some heavy guitar to underscore the darkness of the lyrics. “Black Ribbons” is an ode to the BP disaster, done right. Nothing preachy about it, just the vision of those black ribbons down deep in the water and the human cost of disaster. In the middle of the record is a wonderful duet with Jimmy LaFave, “When You Comin’ Home”. They both sing “when you comin’ home baby, when you comin’ back to your girl” and you can feel the too-thin coat and the winter cold that freezes those water pipes. “Jubilee” testifies that even when all is lost and death is near, there is a transcendent holiness if we have love. Ms. Peters sings us into that deathbed and beyond, to glory.
And then there is “Cure For The Pain”. If Ms. Peters hadn’t already been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, this one would have had them ringing her phone. It’s about the craft, knowing how to put the pieces together so that they look like they’ve always been that way. When we listen, we know these words have been together forever. Truth is what seals it, though. “It’s not like you think it’s gonna be, not like the movies that you see, ain’t no soaring violins, just machines and medicines.” Yes, we know it, we’ve been in that hospital room, or in that house where they’ve brought in a hospital bed. We’ve seen the readings on the machines as we held the hand and looked into those eyes. We know the feeling when we realize things aren’t going to get better. “Goddamn this losing fight.”
I’m a lyrics guy, and I’d trade away sound to get the poetry, but with Blackbirds that bargain is unnecessary. Eliza Gilkyson says “It’s the most musical recording I’ve heard in ages.” It sounds really good. Ms. Peters, Doug Lancio, and Barry Walsh co-produced it, utilizing their own talents plus Jerry Douglas, Will Kimbrough, Jason Isbell (who sings harmony on “When All You Got Is A Hammer” below), Kim Richey, Suzy Bogguss, Mr. LaFave, and several others. Bravo!