Unexpectedly, Bert asked me to move a little closer to him on the seat. I edged over and waited but he didn’t speak. After a long moment he whispered, just loud enough for me to hear, “What do you think of programming for Negro people?”
Pete's banjo plucks the rhythm, Ronnie Gilbert's alto slips into the water, Lee's big bass aches the lullaby. That's all it was to the hit parade, but to Lee, especially, "Goodnight, Irene” was a secret language, "a great notion"—all that could be said for a nation that responded to folk songs with burning crosses, the "drowning" as much of an allusion to Leadbelly's darker words (a junkie's lament, a love gone cold) as Decca Records would allow. For those who could hear, the song was thick with broken-hearted meanings, an elegy for wrong choices and a hope for the sweet, revolutionary bye and bye.
We’d been parked for a good ten minutes in front of the rough-hewn stone chimney of a historic building on Old Highlander Lane, a dirt road outside Monteagle, Tennessee, when a neighbor walked up. He wore a black jacket with fur trim against the December cold and a baseball cap with the letters usa embroidered over a bald eagle and American flag montage. We politely rolled down the driver’s-side window and, at close range, I could make out the fine wrinkles on his pale pink face and the bloodshot blue eyes that matched his hat’s patriotic color scheme. The property we were on was empty and for sale but somehow the neighbor knew we weren’t potential buyers. “It’s just about gone, innit?” he said knowingly.
Matraca listened, absorbed, and dreamed—and she didn't tell anyone she wanted to write. But she slept with an AM transistor radio under her pillow, asking herself: What makes this song work? Why does the melody do that? What are they trying to say? She experimented alone in her bedroom. At sixteen, she came downstairs and told Icie she had a confession. But she didn't talk. She picked up a guitar and played a song she'd written called "Holding You Close With My Eyes."
At the right place on the right night, you can walk into a nightclub in Nashville, start recruiting at one end of the bar, and by the time you’ve reached the other end you’ll have a band that sounds like they’ve been backing you for years. I know because I’ve done it.