Focus on the song: “Look at Miss Ohio”
Yesterday, after hours of engrossing myself in the new Dave Rawlings Machine album, A Friend of a Friend, I turned to my Gillian Welch collection. I got caught up on “Look at Miss Ohio” – a song I’ve certainly heard a thousand times before.
It was the drum part which snagged me this go-round. There in its somnambulist rhythm, keeping the whole song at a pace that feels half a beat from breaking away. It holds the melancholy, pulls it indisputably toward liberation. But, it doesn’t come in for so long. It’s sneaky and sudden on the second refrain, after Rawlings has poured through his first lonesome solo. Until then, it’s Welch’s chunky strums alone, which plod the song along. It’s all very hesitant, lacking any confidence. When the drums drop out toward the end of the song, giving Welch’s strum momentary prominence, it’s a moment of repose. Like Miss Ohio is rethinking the whole thing. That the song ends with the drums in step anyway seems a fitting and daring conclusion.
Then, of course, there are the lyrics. It’s always the phrase “I wanna do right but not right now” which holds me tightest. What’s endearing about the narrative here is that it would seem to tell the backstory of a beauty queen. We all like to be given a peek into the truth behind the makeup, the imperfections which lurk under the surface of those who otherwise seem to have it all together. We all struggle with deciding on the “right thing to do.”
But, it’s more interesting to me to consider the possibility that the song has nothing at all to do with beauty queens, but is just about a woman, like any person, with a substantial appearance or reputation behind which she feels inclined to hide. It’s this scenario which makes me understand the song’s profound and universal appeal.
The woman in the story feels powerless to the expectations of her mother (who’s “pushing that wedding gown”) and her lover (whose arm is wrapped around her like “a regimental soldier”), and whomever else goes unmentioned in the breaks between verses, the things she knows but doesn’t say and, instead, hands over to Rawlings’ guitar. This version of the story seems even more melancholy to me, because she doesn’t want large unattainable things. She’s merely looking for a different kind of workaday life. It’s a song about the grass being greener on the other side, in other words. She doesn’t want to conquer the world – after all, her fantasy is in Atlanta.
Then again, maybe it’s in Atlanta because that word kind of rhymes with “fantasy.” Maybe I’m overthinking the whole thing. What do you think? (Aside from the fact that you’d like to see a new Welch record already, which I think goes without saying.)