I Like America


You could not have called me a popular kid
I was outnumbered no matter what I did
Haven’t backed up a winning bid in awhile
So save your speeches for someone else
I’ll just be over here by myself
Nothing to add to the commonwealth
But a smile

And in a land where majority rules
I won’t be winning any duels

Some people say that they’re through with America
Buying overseas real estate
Threatening to emigrate
Some folks want nothing to do with America
I like America

I like the jerks in the billiard hall
I like the church in the shopping mall
I like the file transfer protocol and Freddie Mac
I like the plastic folding chair
I like the old lady sitting there
Right now I don’t even really care
That she don’t like me back

Because everybody looks tired and mean
In the blue light of the iPhone screen

Some people just get crazed in America
Up all night posting to change some stranger’s mind
I was born and raised in America
I like America

I went to see a card reader
Off the highway in Raleigh
And there she read my card
When the Page of Pentacles came upside-down
Boy did she look at me hard

She said sir you’re surrounded by people against you
People who see you and only feel hate
Maybe you’d better shake free of America
Get free before it’s too late

Out in the middle of Salisbury Street
They were gathered by the sausage factory
To claim that the rapture would pass over me
And my friends

Let me give you folks some advice
America is so wide and nice
It’s gonna take more than one Antichrist
To force the end

And maybe everybody does need saving
From this eschatological craving

You beg and you threaten
And you moan and you plead
Better put down that Bible
Until you learn how to read

Some people carry the cross in America
Straight down to Goldsboro
To whack at Sherman’s ghost
Others just get lost in America
But I like America
I kinda like America

Thanks for Visiting

Raleigh, North Carolina


Tris McCall recommends…


  • A Bike Ride

    When in the Research Triangle, you’re never too far from the woods. Northwest of Raleigh — actually within the city limits — is Umstead State Park, a five thousand acre forest festooned with trails of all kinds. The choice mountain and off-road biking, though, is found on the other side of Interstate 40. Lake Crabtree Park wraps around the northern shore of a picturesque body of water. It’s possible to ride all the way down to the lake, but if you’re adventurous and you don’t mind a little mud on the tires, as Brad Paisley might put it, you’ll want to hit the trails in the middle of the park. They’re challenging; for me, I mean. You’re in better shape, I’m sure, and they’ll be no sweat for you.

  • Vegetarian Option

    Everything at the Fiction Kitchen (428 S. Dawson St.) looks tasty and green, and you’ll probably be tempted to get the noodle bowl that features North Carolina peanuts. I’ll bet it’s pretty good, but I can’t vouch, since my pick is the farro risotto succotash. There’s some kind of nut butter mixed in with the corn and tomatoes that probably isn’t made from Carolina peanuts, because if it was, they’d probably say so. Make sure you get extra cornbread. It’s the New South, sure, but they haven’t forgotten the old stuff.

  • House of Worship

    My understanding is that the Vintage Church (118 S. Person St.) is a rather conservative congregation, even as they advertise themselves as a home for doubters and questioners of all kinds. They’re awfully proud of Downtown Raleigh, which is a selling point, but I’m not sure how I’d feel about them if I lived in the Triangle. About two things I’m sure, though: they attract a young crowd, which is awfully refreshing, and they’ve got an absolutely beautiful building to call home. Just remember, kids: fundamentalism is irreligious, no matter how it’s packaged.

Spread the word about this Musical Almanac:

GENE



Gene remembered the exact conditions under which he wrote the review. He’d been out late the prior evening — James Taylor was at the amphitheatre, and any James Taylor show had to be covered, no matter whether he played the exact setlist he had during his last tour, no matter how many times they all had seen his act before. Gene was there to capture in words the moment Taylor sang about going to Carolina in his mind, and the swell of local pride that always accompanied the song. For the editors, at least, it never got old.

It had rained that night, and Taylor, being a good sport (Gene had interviewed him several times and always found him pleasant and wryly funny), agreed to wait out the storm before returning for his second set. The rain pattered on the steel roof of a pizza stand where Gene took shelter, notebook under his arm, limp slice in his hand. He had a classic midsummer cold: nothing severe enough to sideline him, but bad enough to be a constant annoyance. All the humidity in the area had been stuffed up his nose. An incident in the parking lot between two tailgaters made it impossible for Gene to leave through the press exit once the show was over. He’d had to sit in traffic with everybody else. For forty-five minutes he was stuck behind a pickup with a giant Confederate battle flag draped over the back of the flatbed. His nose ran. Once he ran out of tissue in the glove compartment, he’d had to wipe on old newspaper.

By the time he returned to Chapel Hill and banged out sixteen column inches on the show, it was well past one o’ clock in the morning. He’d blown the early deadlines. Boy Huey would be pissed. Gene re-read what he’d written and felt dissatisfied. He’d added nothing to the wide body of criticism already attached to James Taylor. Nothing insightful or provocative, no unexpected comparisons or vivid metaphors, no reason, to be honest, for the piece to be written at all. An unjustifiable expenditure of printer’s ink that should have been applied to, oh, he didn’t know, maybe a piece on the deficit? Surely there was a deficit somewhere; there usually was.

But there was a paper to make and broadsheet pages to fill, and an audience waiting for a critical judgment it already knew by heart. Hit those deadlines men, Huey had said. For Gene, ill but present in the newsroom the next morning, that injunction meant he had to squeeze out a few record reviews for his Thursday column. Huey wanted to know why Gene couldn’t review every album under the sun. God, Gene protested, it was hard enough to make snap evaluations of the few records he’d had a chance to engage with properly, listen to the lyrics, follow the compositional logic, all the stuff it was mandatory to do if a critic was going to be a responsible steward of his own informed opinions. There were two albums he felt entitled to write about; well, one and a half, to be perfectly honest. He needed a third. Bleary-eyed and coffee-stained, sneezing, fighting back a migraine, he extracted a random disc from the slush pile and slipped it into his CD player.

Only it wasn’t exactly random, now was it? Again to be honest, he’d selected the disc because of the image of the young singer on the cover: long red hair, green eyes, prim little smile, hand on her guitar headstock. Cynthia Cross: Gene recognized the name. She’d lately been a regular attraction on the coffeehouse circuit, playing her songs in the unadorned corners of art galleries, in between the vegetable stalls at farmers markets, at rallies for vaguely purposed NGOs. She’d been part of an emerging voices showcase put together by the Duke Student Activities Committee; Gene meant to go to that, but had had dentistry earlier that day. Cynthia Cross looked a bit like Gene’s high school girlfriend, just a bit now, if she’d been — well, that was quite long ago. Memory did play tricks.

From the very first line he was repulsed by the voice. It was thin, cutesy, breathy, everything he hated about acoustic guitar-strummers. Sing out, dammit, if you’ve got the audacity to ask for our time. Make your message felt, Cynthia Cross, leave a messy thumbprint on my eardrum. But when he overcame his initial aversion and concentrated on the words, Gene found himself revolted. Over and over the singer returned to her preoccupation — the encroachment of the urban and impersonal on rural virtues. There was a number about an old woman in a dilapidated house. Another concerned a man poised to sell the family apple farm to developers. In a third, Cynthia Cross registered her wee little objection to tall buildings on the city edge. Gene stopped the disc and began to type.

“Wow, this is vicious,” said Huey after he’d looked the copy over. “You never pan anything. Girl run over your fucking cat?”

“I’m allergic to cats.”

“You sure you want to go to print with this? You’re gonna really hurt this young lady’s feelings.”

“Huey, I find your entire line of objection here paternalistic and offensive,” said Gene, eyes shut, massaging his temples. “Certainly female artists ought to be subject to the same critical scrutiny we apply to male artists. Anything else is condescending.”

I think you’re just cranky, Huey responded. Okay we’ll go with it. We’re up against it. I would brace myself a strongly worded e-mail from the girl, were I you. Or from her dad.

Gene never got one. But a few days after the review ran, he did hear from an outraged Cynthia Cross fan. Criticism, he was told for the umpteenth time, was for those without the talent to make music themselves. Bet you can’t even strum a G chord can you. How dare you turn your lousy pen against a young artist just struggling to get her voice heard. You who told the world that the show by that worthless Katy Perry at the PNC Arena was worth attending. It was like Gene didn’t even care about real Carolina people. Bullying the locals and sucking up to the stars, that’s what he did. Hope you enjoy hobnobbing with the stars. Hope you enjoy those free tickets for your friends. So corrupt. Shame shame.

By then Gene’s cold had gone away. He replied with a measured message. No, he didn’t trade reviews for tickets: those were provided by the artist’s publicist or paid for by the newspaper. Also, the headline and the deck of the Katy Perry review were misleading, and Gene could see how somebody could get the wrong impression if he or she hadn’t read his review attentively. His evaluation of the show had been mixed — he’d written that Perry had areas to work on. As for Cynthia Cross, it was his obligation to all his readers was to be true to his reaction and call it like he saw it. Others would have different opinions and those were worthy, too. The protective tone of your letter to me suggests that Cynthia Cross is building herself a passionate local fanbase. As a longtime supporter of North Carolina independent artists, Gene was pleased to see this. Her future is a bright one. Surely she is a singer going places.

That was five years ago. More than a Presidential administration, thought Gene. And Cynthia Cross, he admitted to himself, had not gone places. No longer did she play area coffeehouses or art galleries. As far as he could tell, she didn’t play out at all. She may have started a family. She may have broken her hand or developed chronic laryngitis. She might have gotten an offer from a label in Los Angeles. Or maybe Gene, with a spray of a few noxious words, had killed a woman’s dream.


He’d never petitioned to be the music critic. Gene joined the newspaper as a religion columnist. He was a divinity school dropout with a burdensome vocabulary in search of a practical application of holiness. But there were only so many homilies and pleas for humility that the readership could tolerate. Concerts needed to be covered. The task fell to Gene because of the breadth of his tastes and his belief that all music, no matter how repulsive, came straight from God. Country concerts and combative metal, limp, insipid strummers, abrasive rappers, brain-dead electronic dance music, and, worst of all, orchestral classics: nobody in the newsroom could stomach hours of this stuff, but Gene. Even the younger writers at the newspaper — not that there were very many of them — preferred to apply their pens to analyses of video games and restaurants and memes and YouTube sensations. Pop shows felt, by contrast, exhausted of significance. There was no creative latitude for the critic: everything had already been said.

But fans kept showing up. Thousands for Metallica, tens of thousands for Drake, over a hundred thousand for Kenny Chesney and friends at the football field. Dutifully Gene recorded the numbers and inserted them in his third or fourth paragraphs. Huey always wanted the figures higher: right in the nut. If so many Carolina people ratified these events with their presence, it meant that the shows were significant and newsworthy, and it fell to Gene to channel the excitement and communicate it to those on the sidelines, wondering what the fuss was about. This was the job as he understood it — he was an interpreter of mass desires, an explainer to the uninitiated. It did not matter much, then, that his readers didn’t tend to share his preferences. They didn’t have to. All they had to do was respect the tastes of their fellow Carolinians.

The only thing Gene really objected to was his job title. Officially he was a culture reporter. This bothered him. In a decade at the newspaper he’d never covered anything that he considered an example of culture. Stadium shows and symphony galas were all the same to him: people paid money to sit in a crowd and watch trained performers deliver an entertainment product. Music was, as far as he could tell, a spectator sport. This was why it found its commercial expression in the same massive rooms where the basketball teams played. As a young person growing up outside Raleigh, he’d taken it on faith that the Carolinas simply had no culture, and to get it, it was necessary to relocate to one of the great metropolitan areas on the coasts. Then he’d visited New York and Los Angeles, and he hadn’t found any culture there, either. It was all the same: hungry customers and their hired professionals.

“So call it consumer culture then if it bothers you,” Huey said.

“But that’s just it. There’s no such thing, it’s an oxymoron. If it’s just a capitalist transaction, then it’s not culture at all. It’s a purchase, like buying a can of corn in the store. Culture requires full participation and exchange. From everybody.”

“Well who the fuck would want that?” Autumn light made the dirty newsroom windows glow. It threw messy, blobby shadows across the galleys laid across the desk.

“But that’s just what I’m saying, Huey. But exactly.”

You’re nostalgic for some crapola that hasn’t happened on civilized earth in hundreds of years, his editor told him. Look smart guy, there wasn’t even a concept of culture in this country until the nineteenth century when ordinary people began to accumulate money and leisure time. You wanna be a goddam leisure reporter? A man of leisure? I give you a title you can drop at a swank party and this is my thanks. Now get out there and find me a culture story.

Gene did have an idea. Not even one from an e-mail solicitation, or a schmooze from a publicist, or a call from a label: no, he’d gotten it from a circular he’d received in the mail. Old-fashioned but still effective, some of the time; well, to be honest, almost never. But this postcard had been different. It called to his attention a small festival held in a church out past Goldsboro, in the general direction of little Bentonville. And there, in small print, far down on the bill, under headliners he’d never heard of, was a single name of interest: Cynthia Cross.

“Absofucking no way,” said Huey. “You know who’s in town that day. The Beebs.”

Gene groaned. He’d already seen Justin Bieber three times. What could he possibly write that he hadn’t written before? Aw, you’ll think of something, Huey reassured him. You always do.

“I think this is of greater interest to our readers than another story on a pop star we’ve already covered. I do.”

“Whoah you really are nuts.”

“How about that editorial push we’re supposed to be making. To go out into the real America and talk to real Americans. Well, this is out. An evangelical church in the woods, it cannot, by contemporary definition, get more real-American than that.”

Huey stared at him. You don’t really swallow that junk, do you. That’s only for show. Nobody wants to talk to real Americans. Those people are batshit nuts. Look we all know it hurts to be the grown man at the Bieber concert. It hurts. But this is the role you have accepted. Out of arguments, Gene blinked and stared. He would not be able to convince Huey that it didn’t hurt. Gene rather liked Justin Bieber’s recent singles, particularly those that were produced and arranged by Skrillex. He found them a pleasing hybrid of contemporary pop and homegrown electro. He had already made that case in a series of articles. Nobody believed he was in earnest. Uh-huh, Gene, we can read between the lines. We can tell how you really feel. Nice scathing putdown wrapped up in a velvety rave. Asshole kids deserve it.

Well, if he couldn’t cover the show, maybe he could still be a supportive attendee. A good audience member. Cynthia Cross was so far on the undercard that he could probably catch her performance and return to the Triangle in time for the Bieber concert. He wouldn’t even bother to take his car: traffic on those back roads could be a bear. Instead he’d park at the bus stop and travel with his folding dirt bike on his lap. That way he’d be in full control of his destiny. He’d disembark and charge through the pines to the festival, give Cynthia Cross the respectful, enthusiastic hearing that he’d once unfairly withheld, and then roar back. He consulted the bus schedules and decided that it was doable, or at least attemptable. If he missed Justin Bieber’s first few songs, that was okay, Gene thought to himself. He’d seen them before.

During the week before his excursion, Gene’s frequent thoughts of Cynthia Cross turned into a fixation. No longer was she merely a guilty topic he rolled around in his brain as he tried to sleep, a young woman he’d assassinated out of laziness, a wicked black mark on his reputation as a critic. Instead she became a referendum on his basic decency as a person. He would find a way to make it up to her. No, there was no way he could: he couldn’t restore the years his carelessness had stolen, or give back the experiences she could have had if she’d been an acclaimed artist, and not an also-ran. All he could do was attempt to atone. He braced himself for the worst — a drink flung on his person, a full public denunciation in the apse, a bitter song directed his way. The picture that accompanied his column hadn’t been changed in five years. He’d lost hair and put some fat on his face. But he didn’t kid himself. He was recognizable.

These were the thoughts in Gene’s head as he boarded the bus to the deep pines. He had already written the lede in his head: the make-up review for one he’d gotten wrong, a sterling, glittering recap of a show beneath the boughs, in a house of worship. He knew just how he’d describe the hushed, reverential crowd, the near-sacramental parting of the ruby lips of Cynthia Cross, the splash of her red hair, the magnificent resonances of the room built of old wood, good wood, listeners upright in their pews, receiving the blessing of music from an artists whose talents had been hidden from North Carolina for far too long. And maybe he would describe his descent into the underbrush, the ride on the dirt road to a clearing in the forest, the single shaft of light that pierced the canopy of foliage and illuminated the stained-glass window above the door. Only this was an evangelical church; there’d be no stained glass. Scratch that. Huey would run it, Gene knew he would, the day after the Bieber review, there it’d be. Maybe above the fold of the section, adorned with a nice publicity still. Poetry, all of it, ameliorating a prosaic hurt.

Yet the bus route toward Goldsboro contained nothing too lyrical: miles of gas stations, strip malls and chain stores, flat ranch houses with yellow-green scrub in the yards, pick-ups pulling into warehouses. As Gene put distance between himself and the city, the number of riders diminished, and he was able to take the folding bike off of his lap. Right where the parking lots and white fences gave way to broad fields and thick pine copses, a thin man dressed in brown boarded the bus and sat down across the aisle. His goatee looked weedy and unevenly shaved. His nails were dirty and chipped. For a few awkward minutes the thin man contemplated the folding bike.

“Montague Paratrooper,” Gene offered, with a smile. It’s not an abomination, just a piece of machinery.

“How much them things cost.” No rising inflection, not much of a question at all. Only the interrogative arch of an eyebrow suggested to Gene that an answer was requested.

“It depends. Honestly it depends. You can get them relatively cheaply if you know where to look. There’s a place right by the Whole Foods in Chapel Hill that –”

“You buy it a ticket?”

“Huh?”

“It’s taking up a whole seat.”

“Oh!” Gene shifted around but didn’t move the bicycle. “Oh. Look around you. We’re two of what, maybe five people left on the bus.” There was plenty of room.

“Hey don’t act so guilty,” said the thin man. “Less you are.”

Gene huffed and patted the leather seat of the bike. Tell you the truth I do feel guilty. I do.

“What you do, sir, you off somebody?”

“In a sense. In a sense I did.” Gene had already said too much. He might as well spill. “See, I’m a newspaperman.”

“Say no more.”

“I’m a critic. I try to be as responsible as I can be. But I wrote a review of an artist who was completely defenseless. One in no position to overcome a savage hit piece. Which is what it was. I don’t know what came over me. I’m sorry. It was beneath me and I’m sorry.”

In lieu of a reply the man stared at him. He would not look away. Gene counted down from ten. By six he was still staring. Five. Four. What?, said Gene. What.

“Name’s Jake,” said the man, who did not extend a hand to shake. “You headed on to Goldsboro?”

“Bentonville, actually.” Bentonville and beyond.

Ah, said Jake. You know something I am a critic too. Only I don’t write none of it down. Keep it all to myself. Gene nodded. Every man has a critical faculty to exercise, he pointed out. It is important to stay engaged. Not to accept the world you’re given but to always question and evaluate. No one is authorized to be a critic and nobody can count you wrong. Gene had written that to many of his detractors; men and women who’d objected to a review and wondered what gave him the right. I don’t know what concert you were watching but it could not have been the one the rest of us saw. Uh-huh, said Jake, to no one. Bentonville, you know, that was the real end. The bitter end. In a way. Lots of folks think it was over with General Lee at Appomattox but it wasn’t. It was General Joe Johnston, mister newspaper man, who led the last charge, right here in these pines, March sixty five. Three days of the last big fight. Would have kept going too if Lee hadn’t laid it down. Once he did it warnt no use to keep it up in Carolina. You oughta do an article on that is what I think. That’s what I think.

“Ha. Maybe I should.”

“Yessir maybe you should.”

The bus braked at a faceless intersection and the thin man stepped into the aisle. My stop. Jake reached a long arm over the folded-up crossbar of the Montague Paratrooper and landed a paw on Gene’s shoulder. He smelled of wood smoke. Always remember. Just because they stopped shooting that don’t mean the war is over.

Jake grinned nice and tight, like a plastic bag had been stretched over his mouth. Then he strode lively out on to the sandy soil. Gene watched him as the bus rolled away. The road dove into a stand of pines and all he could see was needles.


She had never heard of him.

She knew the newspaper, vaguely, although she didn’t read it; there wasn’t much to gain from engagement with mainstream media. But she was delighted that he’d come. All the way from… Raleigh, was it? Chapel Hill? She’d lived in Durham, briefly. It was a big city with so many different voices. Hard for her to get her bearings. She remembered very little from that period. A feeling of dislocation, a sense that she didn’t belong. But that had all been addressed since.

Cynthia Cross had been alone on the front step of the church when he arrived, sweaty and dusty from a charge up a hill on his bicycle, miles out of anything resembling a town, a little sticky from close encounters with pine sap on low branches. Gene recognized her at once. His first impulse was to hide. But she beckoned him over with a smile. Come on over, there’s nearly no one here yet. Going to sing a few songs soon I am. She moved sleepily but deliberately, with due attention paid to the placement of her fingertips in space. The woman blended into the texture of the day like a moth on the bark of a tree. A piece of the church, an accessory to worship, a hymnal, a gently swinging censer.

Gene did not feel absolved by her ignorance. Not a bit. She may not have read the review, although it seemed impossible that she wasn’t conscious of it; all artists, even world-famous ones, paid attention to reviews. For her own mental health Cynthia Cross may have suppressed the slight. Yet the world around her felt it. Her peers read it and whispered, clubowners and booking agents and managers took note and put the bar on the door, other reviewers at smaller publications knew to ignore her, or worse, decided to pile on. Gene had put a mark on her pretty button-down shirt; he’d burned a brand into her acoustic guitar. He’d dropped a divider between Cynthia Cross and showbiz. And there he stood, on the wrong foot, in the North Carolina pines, a sheepish, accidental gatekeeper.

The church was not as Gene expected. He’d imagined a weathered wooden shack in the woods with a pointed steeple and a bare cross made from nailed planks. Instead the structure was modern, large, and rangy and well-lit and, from the outside, not all that dissimilar to the retail outlets he’d seen on the highway. No stage had been raised inside the church. The performers would sing from a long platform facing a shed. Cynthia Cross led Gene toward the makeshift bandstand, greeting people as she went. Isn’t it grand. Yes, it was grand, they all agreed. Everybody beamed and shook Gene’s hand. Bless you. Thank you for coming. Bless you.

“Are these the parishioners or the performers?,” Gene asked Cynthia Cross.

“Come again then?”

“I notice everybody is holding a guitar.” Nearly everyone was holding a guitar.

“I do say. We all get our turn to play.”

“Everybody?”

Yes, everybody, she said. Even you. If you want to. Don’t be shy, come on up and tell your story. You got one I’m certain. Gene grimaced. Well make no ugly faces sir, the angel will pass and you’ll be frozen that way. Just make your music. Everybody does. Reckon you sing in the shower, don’t you now. Here I’ll put your name down here. Right after me. Is this a free-for-all, asked Gene, a hootenanny? I sure don’t know what you mean by that sir, answered Cynthia Cross. You just follow me. You’re going to want to be seeing what we have inside the church. It’s sure enough special.

She bobbed along to the red doors and swung them open. Paintings, lurid and arresting, hung on every available acre of wallspace, the backs of pews, the steps to the altar. At first blush Gene thought there was a service going on. He soon realized that the room was populated by sculptures and dogs. Sculptures, big and stiff in the aisles; dogs wandering in and out, yapping for food in the churchyard animal enclosure. We have the reptiles too but we earlier shut them away. Kids don’t like them.

“Is it always like this?”

“Oh no, only these art days. We all make an art object. Then we gather by to see.”

Everybody had brought food, too. A long table by the barn, covered in pies and potato salad, three beans with the vinegar, pimento cheese with the tomatoes, pickles and liver, white bread, B-B-Q. Sauce-smeared children had arrived and were happily helping themselves. From the stage, an elderly man picked out a circular pattern on the banjo. It was a warm day for October, a clear day, and the breeze carried the scent of pine and hickory. Gene stepped back and took a long look at his guide — this pretty woman in a plain checkered skirt, unadorned besides a wrist bangle on her strumming hand with a three-quarters moon on it, face unsullied by the rigors of city living, comfortable and pleasant. At once it occurred to him: he’d done her a favor. Prohibited from recognition in the city, she’d enlisted herself in a genuine participatory community. Gene tore up his lede. Cynthia Cross, he decided, was an exemplar of artistic life lived away from the grotesque one-upmanship of the pop scene. Her songs, sturdy and sound, with the clean lines and sturdy architecture of a country barn, were pure expressions of the cooperative spirit.

She’d be grateful to get a review like that, Gene was certain. She didn’t get the paper; well, he’d take down her address and send her a clipping. They’d become correspondents, friends, they could discuss art, religion, the state of music. No sparkly band wrapped around her slender ring finger, he’d noticed that, too. Gene wiggled down into the canvas straps of a folding chair and watched the stage. Cynthia Cross, guitar slung around her neck, waited her turn. Soon she’d step to the microphone and score this perfect day.

Her first notes delighted him. He was mesmerized by the lilt of her voice, the molasses-paced parting of her lips as she purred, the dance of her delicate hands over the fretboard. And he loved the way she shaped her vowels, her sweet and characteristic Carolina O, so round and high, slipping from her palate past the gate of her teeth, to the microphone, to the speakers, to his ears. Even five years later, he recognized the song from the disc he’d trashed: it was the one about the old woman in the house. How much more appropriate it felt in this healthy setting, far from the stink of the newsroom and Salisbury Street, under the open skies. Perfect it would be, were it not for a few clunky metaphors in the verse. But those were easy to ignore, as was the breathiness, the tentative quality, the performative uncertainty, perhaps, that was apparent in her singing. Then there was the slight tone of sanctimony that undergirded all of her words, that surety that life in the country was on squarer, firmer ground than city existence, a vague whiff of moral superiority that could not be wished away. It carried right over into the next song — the apple farm song. Now Gene found himself actively irritated. A nose thumbed at the march of modernity, a cute refusal to play, a rustic fuck you in polite language, all directed his way. Or it seemed like it. Here was the worst kind of reactionary trolling: homespun crapola delivered with a pat on the head and a spoonful of honey. All from a pretty face: a white face, one that looked like it belonged on the front of a civics textbook from the 1950s. He’d been right from the outset, dammit, he’d spent five years fretting, and really he’d had her pegged. Always trust your evaluation, Gene. That’s what they pay you for.

Contempt carried over into song number three. Now he was furious at all of it: the rickety, makeshift stage, the puerile art on the walls, the awful fattening food, the animals running wild, the box church that looked more like a Home Depot than a house of worship, the vacuous, offensively pleasant looks on the faces in the crowd, and most of all, Cynthia Cross herself. Her lyrics: insipid. Her message: simplistic. Her stage comportment: simpering. Her professional talent: nonexistent. What was he doing here, in the middle of the woods, when he should have been preparing for a crucially important concert at the arena that very evening? For a few minutes there he’d been in a cult, a cult, that’s what it was. Luckily it was all so awful that it had deprogrammed itself. Steam poured out of his face as if he was a train whistle. And he kept on fuming, all the way to the end of the number about the tall buildings on the river and the paradise lost, or under siege, by the advance of the city planners.

“And now it’s time we heard today from our guest. Time for a treat. Ready to sing, Mister Gene?” Cynthia Cross beamed and beckoned him up to the stage. He’d forgotten that his name was on a performance list. No, no, he shook his head no. I’m not a singer, I’m just an observer. That’s all right buddy, said the man next to him, you’re among friends. Go on and pick a hymn and she’ll strum it out. That girl knows them all. Go, go. Hands ushering him to the lip of the stage, and then Gene’s butt on the edge, and then somebody slapped a microphone into his hand. Let’s give him a warm church welcome. Mister Gene came all the way down from the Triangle. He’s going to sing… what are you gonna sing us?

How about It Is Well, then. There was one he knew by heart. It had been a favorite of his at divinity school. Cynthia Cross picked up the strum and Gene, still seated, closed his eyes and began to croak. When peace like a river attendeth my way. When sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, you have taught me to say it is well, it is well with my soul. His voice broke on the final line. With furrowed brow, Gene looked out at the expectant faces in the crowd. Could they really want more? That was beautiful, one man said. Beautiful beautiful. All assented. No it wasn’t, Gene contradicted, dammit, it wasn’t and it isn’t, I can’t sing and you all ought to recognize that. What is wrong with you people. Giving a microphone to a stranger. That was not beautiful and I am not a musician. Quit lying to me and lying to yourselves.

“You’re awful judgmental,” came a voice from the crowd.

“Mister Gene,” said Cynthia Cross, placidly. “It’s my own fault, I shouldn’t never have brung you up to sing. I thought you’d have fun. For most of us music is a fun thing we share. I want you to know I’m sorry. From the bottom of my heart I apologize.”

Well I sure made an ass of myself, thought Gene on his folding dirt bike, fast down the hill in the direction of the crossing, and the bus stop, and Raleigh. Though it was a professional obligation, he reasoned, to stand up for criticism in an era where it was dismissed as unimportant. About that he was proud. If one person in that audience heard his protest and determined not to let his critical faculties bend under the weight of an oppressive ideology. About Cynthia Cross: he was relieved of the obligation to worry any further. No he would not. He would change the subject in his mind. In fact he was rather looking forward to the Bieber concert tonight. The pines blurred by as he pedaled harder. Yes, it’d be nice to hear Bieber sing songs he’d heard many times before, backed by tapes and dancers, and silhouetted by thousand-watt footlights. Gene wanted to hear Katy Perry sing about being young forever and Taylor Swift with the red guitar and pyrotechnics fired from a side-stage cannon, and the screams of the little girls who recognized the unfathomable distance between themselves and the stars. Bring him the floating pig and the Jodorowsky pyramid and the multimillion dollar video screens. He’d bathe in the glow. Most of all he wanted a stage, one high and tall enough to keep the performers on one side and the audience on the other. He craved a dividing line. So Gene ached for one, as the wheels bit into the dirt and gravel, until he broke through the final line of pines and bombed back towards the stoplights of civilization, as the city slickers call it, its withering values tight in his white-knuckled hands.

– Tris McCall

Pick our next destination:

 

Pick our next destination:


Ann Arbor, Michigan: “Hopscotch Otters Collegetown Blues”
Atlanta, Georgia: “King of Pops”
Austin, Texas: “Chelsea”
Baltimore, Maryland: “(That’s What I Like About) Baltimore
Billings, Montana: “Tight Times (In the Land of Silence)”
Cambridge, Massachusetts: “You Could Meet Me There”
Camden, Maine: “I Dream Dead Ends”
Charlestown, South Carolina: “He Eats Well”
Chicago, Illinois: “Gurleez”
Columbus, Ohio: “O Columbus”
Dearborn, Michigan: “Unbeliever, Respect the Veil”
Denver, Colorado: “Conspiracy Theory
Houston, Texas: “Houston Calls the Space Cadet
Indianapolis, Indiana: “A Girl With a Bicycle”
Jersey City, New Jersey: “Paul Simon, I Had to Ask”
Las Vegas, Nevada: “All the Money in the World”
Los Angeles, California: “You Needn’t Be So Mean, Baby”
Miami Beach, Florida: “Every Day is Children’s Day”
Monticello, New York: “Sector B”
Nashville, Tennessee: “You’re No Good to Anyone”
New Orlean, Louisiana: “The Unmapped Man
New York, New York: “The Prince of Daylight
Northampton, Massachusetts: “The Blue Door”
Orlando, Florida: “Nowhere to Go But Down”
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: “Backstage @ The Hungry Bum”
Phoenix, Arizona: “On Indian School”
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: “Kate Beaton
Portland, Oregon: “Turbulence at Night”
Raleigh, North Carolina: “I Like America”
Richmond, Virginia: “American Flag”
San Diego, California: “Route 52
San Francisco, California: “Joe Panik”
San Juan, Puerto Rico: “The Tantrum”
Seattle, Washington: “Take Me to the Waterfall
Washington, D.C.: “You Used to Sing About Manhattan”
Wilmington, North Carolina: “Somewhere Down the Line”
Yountville, California: “The Sybarite”