I live far away from where I came from and my family doesn’t visit. Each year, if I want to get a dose of family or home I have to suit up and make the long drive there. Tough thing is I feel like I’ve been gone from “there” for so long, I don’t really know where it is anymore.
For years now I’ve been trying to pin down “home;” this incredibly grounding notion of belonging that some folks seem to answer with a reflex-like certainty. My experience has been a bit different – when I left for college my dad took my house keys, and halfway through college he and my mama sold that house and moved away from the rural Georgia town where I was brought up. Years before, he sold the farm where my sisters and me learned how to navigate big animals, big machinery, and big feelings…where I cultivated my first sense of self. I haven’t gone back to any of these places in nearly a decade. Property lines, I learned quite young, don’t make a home.
Trouble is, I never really learned what does.
With the exception of this summer, my being homeward bound has been casual visits with friends on east coast porches between Massachusetts and Georgia. The only consistent element of this journey has been a southward momentum: driving through the Blue Ridge mountains, two-stepping at a honky-tonk in Nashville, soaking in Southern accents, boiled peanuts, fresh tomatoes, and slowness. I’ve called it my Southern Rejuvenation Tour and talked about how the Southern sun nourishes me in a way these New England summers can’t, but for some reason this year I stayed. I didn’t leave. I didn’t go searching for something I can’t name.
The results of not making the pilgrimage to reconnect with my southern self left me feeling restless and wild; untethered and estranged from the things that have always been familiar. It’s crazy-making to feel like you are a daughter of nowhere. But sometimes we get gifts in these moments of uncertainty and deviating from my traditional route allowed me to attend the Newport Folk Festival, which for the first time this summer made me feel a little less lost and a little more found.
I spent my first day in Newport in a small non-festival-like atmosphere called the Museum Stage. It was the “Nashville to Newport” show organized by Joe Fletcher, a gritty songwriter from Providence, RI who united his Northern and Southern musician families for a few hours of music-making. Dusty men and polished ladies hailed from all over, but the Nashville contingent was strong enough to help me forget I was still in New England for a bit. The show was personal and intimate, unshaven friends harmonized and scooted on stage to accompany one together, twang and sass collided in a real informal way, and I made myself at home to the sound of Spencer Cullum on the slide guitar. Amidst songwriters like Andrew Combs, Jon McCauley, blues man Patrick Sweany, and the honeysweet voice of Amanda Shires I felt like I was congregating with a community of family sort of folks – the kind that wouldn’t have to say, “You’re not from around here, are you?” and it was satisfying. The performers closed the show by piling onto the humble stage and paying tribute to Levon and the boys. As they took turns singing verses to “Cripple Creek” I stood on a window box stomping my bare feet, slapping my thigh, and not thinking twice about whether or not it was acceptable but just sort of knowing it’d be alright.
It wasn’t until the midday heat of my second day that I was struck by that feeling of belonging that I haven’t known for a long while. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott took the stage and in my sweaty silence I marveled at a legend as he brought that feeling of home right up to my doorstep. He sat on stage telling stories that reminded me of Doc Watson’s performance a few years back, he laughed at his own jokes like John Prine did in 2010, spoke of old cowboys and saloons and Woody Guthrie, remembered friends and the mistakes they all made, and most importantly he shared the lessons they all learned. In doing this he reminded me of a long legacy that precedes him; the same legacy that has influenced me and anyone who may have found themselves in these stories or these songs. Those old twisted up cowboys have been singing me back home since longer than I can remember, and more distinctly since I left the South four years ago. It’s their songs I learn to play myself, it’s their wisdom that grounds me, that reminds me I’m never too far away from whatever I oughta be a little closer to. Ramblin’ Jack reintroduced me to myself and as I stood sweating and silent in a sea of strangers I remembered home as a feeling I had long since forgotten.
Then there was Bonnie. Bonnie Prince Billy, my favorite creative Kentuckian, was the nail in my coffin of that feeling of home. Him and Dawn McCarthy came together again to pay tribute to the Everly Brothers. I sat front and center on the grass, and let them shatter my old heart with the sweetest harmony I may have ever heard to an old Everly Brothers tune called “Kentucky.” I sat on the damp grass holding my knees to my chest and took everything they had to give me: heartbreaking harmonies, tributes to the song-makers who’ve paved the way, dedications to kind strangers, their undeniable sense of place and pride shining in those smiles that sing about it. As I walked away after the show I told Will Oldham that I appreciated him, and I’m not sure he or I fully understand all the reasons why.
Between the Nashville group, Ramblin’ Jack, and Bonnie Prince I rediscovered an incredibly important truth. Tearing up the grass around my ankles as Bonnie strummed my full weekend to a close I remembered that I came from somewhere. I came from places and times and experiences that primed my heart to be open to the songs of others who have similar stories to tell; kindred spirits we call them. I came from places and times where I learned some of the same hard lessons that those fine ladies and gentlemen sing about, where a smoky barroom does actually feel like home every now and again. Places and times that have inspired story after story of hard work, tough breaks, and sometimes small victories in the ramblings of men (and women too). I feel lucky to have rediscovered that feeling that the music can offer a solitary Southern transplant up North. On Sunday I stood alone hundreds of miles from all that has been familiar, years removed from my Southern existence, and surrounded by strangers, but felt at home right by myself.