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ESSAY: Unlikely Lullabies

southern music

“Vintage Wallpaper” by Julie Blackmon.

During the colicky first weeks following the birth of our son, Beckett, my wife and I took turns rising in the night to rock him back to sleep. Without recourse to breast milk or the store of mollifying whispers Emily issued into his burning little ears, I often resorted to dancing with Beckett around the living room of our termite-infested rental on Capitol Hill, all the while singing whatever lyrics I could call to mind.

The one song that presented itself wholesale was “I’m No Stranger to the Rain,” the cantering Sonny Curtis number that Keith Whitley took to the top of the country music charts in 1989. More “Divine Comedy” than “Rock-a-bye Baby,” “I'm No Stranger” is hardly a lullaby. The lyrics chart the path of one maverick’s trek through heartache, high water, and Hades (“I fought with the devil / Got down on his level”).

The Dantean undertones are amplified in Whitley’s rendering for how they dovetail with the singer’s personal misadventures. A titan of Music Row, childhood friend of Ricky Skaggs, husband to Lorrie Morgan, his sound an amalgam of Hank Williams twang and Eddy Arnold polish, he could not, for all his triumphs, ever whip the bottle. He died from alcohol poisoning the summer after “I’m No Stranger” went to No 1.

Night after humid night, unable to summon an innocuous cradle song, I wrangled my voice into a languid Whitley-esque baritone, peered down into Beckett’s tear-shot eyes, and began: “I’m no stranger to the rain / I’m a friend of thunder / Friend, is it any wonder lightning strikes me?”

That I remembered the words was a shock. Although I grew up down the street from the house where Whitley drank himself to death, it had been decades since I had heard “I’m No Stranger.” For all I know, it was one of the countless numbers I learned through osmosis growing up along the ridgeline north of Nashville, a place where country radio carries dandelion-like on the breeze.

Perhaps the reshuffling of the song to the top of my mental playlist was a fluke. Perhaps any old berceuse would have flown. But there is something in me that wants to believe in a living music, a music that advances and prevails upon us at formidable moments, corralling our chaos, if only for three and a half minutes, into the simple, liberating stockade of verse, chorus, verse. 

The truth was that Beckett had been born amid a fit of trials and disenchantments not out of keeping with the litany set out in “I’m No Stranger to the Rain.” This was the summer of 2010. Great Recession. My wife and I had been in and out of work. We had moved across the country, drained savings, strained friendships. We had found footing in DC, but our pride and confidence had taken a bruising. On paper, I was still a green twenty-seven-year-old. In pictures, my hair had turned gravel-pit gray.

Backlit by those debacles, “I’m No Stranger” proved a prescient lullaby. Here was a song a father could sing to his son without feeling like he was lying. The lyrics had—have—verisimilitude. The bridge, in particular, is a frank admission of human frailty. “It’s hard to keep believing / I’ll even come out even / While the rain beats a hole in the ground,” our troubadour confesses, before disclosing, so as to add immediacy to the forecast, “And tonight it’s really coming down.”

And yet for all its straight-shooting, the lingering tone of “I’m No Stranger” is optimistic. Rough handles, after all, produce calloused hands. The rain-soaked narrator has become an ace at auguring the weather and has learned, consequently, how to hunker down. “I’ll put the clouds behind me,” he goes on. “That’s how the Man designed me / To ride the wind and dance in hurricanes.”

Dancing in a hurricane. It is a beautiful image. It is also the least believable line in the song, the one place where the terse poetry takes on a sentimental air. Whitley, for his part, seems to concede as much. His voice peters out at this point in a belch of a bass note.

Still, bliss does occasionally transcend misfortune. There is the biblical story of the prophets who found camaraderie with God in the heat of the tyrant’s furnace. During the police crackdown on protesters in Vancouver a couple years back, a photographer snapped a picture of a man and woman locked in an embrace on the trash-strewn asphalt, their intimacy apparently uninterrupted by the riot.

Of course, these idylls of calm achieve their tranquility in retrospect. Often in the moment, a kiss, much like a dance around a living room at midnight, is an act of desperation. When the trouble comes, we fumble for the weapon nearest at hand, be it a shotgun, a shot glass, or an old country song. The weapon we find reveals a lot about us.  

In the cauldron of one boy’s infancy, when a devil called Colic kept him and the upstairs neighbors up nights, a first-time father cradled the child up into his arms, pulled out a song about rain he didn’t know he knew, and sang it from his heart until the boy went back to sleep. At the time, it felt like a hopeless ploy. In hindsight, he is tempted to call it a coup.

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