Over the years, Marcus has only gotten better at answering his own question—how must the musician have felt at that moment?—and more assured at describing the experience of listening. His prose, steeped in the disparate languages of academia, prophecy, and record reviews, has always been the fun part, and a few of the essays here mark some of his most vivid, brilliant work in years.
I’d never seen the river Haw was named after, but it felt right, going there with Taylor. Place is paramount in his work, as are what he calls “internal landscapes”—the facts of how we exist in the world, in relation to those around us. While we waited for coffee at a roastery on the outskirts of town, I asked Taylor, who was born and reared in California, if he ever self-identified as a Southern artist.
The best compliment I ever get is people coming up to me after shows and saying they hate country music, but they love what we’re doing. Because, I think, if it’s going to survive and progress and maintain any type of relevance in the future, you have to reach people that don’t even know what country music really is.
In John Henry Days, and in history, this event can be seen—heard—as an unsinging of “John Henry,” with the black man stripped of his hammer, chained to the steam drill, and pulled through the tunnel like a coal car. It’s an argument that any lynching of a black American is an unsinging of “John Henry.”