Thursday, October 8, 2015

Nuclear Country

"When we talk about country music, we have to differentiate commercial music and just music," said James Talley, giving a brief history of country music by way of an introduction to his workshop and performance Tuesday night in Paris at the Fondation des Etats-Unis. Talley is decidedly of the "just music" camp. It is perhaps for that reason he has a low profile outside of true folk, country, and blues enthusiast circles (though one online biography mentions some bad business advice in the 1970s). I admit that I didn't know who he was when I took my seat to hear him play. A quick search during intermission made me surprised that I didn't: in addition to his own 40-odd year recording career, which included B.B. King's first Nashville sessions as lead guitarist on Talley's third album, Blackjack Choir, his songs have been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Gene Clark, Alan Jackson, and Moby (why not?).

"Richland, Washington" tells the story of Talley's early childhood, when is father took a job as a chemical operator at the Hanford Plant, a Manhattan Project site in Washington State that produced the plutonium for the "Fat Man" bomb dropped on Nagasaki at the end of World War II. When introducing the song, Talley tells how his father decided to leave the job after five years or so, fearing ill effects on his health from radiation exposure, which was known but not widely well-understood at the time. The family moved to New Mexico, where Talley's father was diagnosed with lung cancer, which led to his death at an early age. Talley explains that he wrote the song to explain to his own children, and to himself, what had happened.

You can watch Talley himself tell the story and perform the song in Frankfurt in 2010 here.

In the first two verses, the singer relates the story of his childhood; Talley's narrator tries to tell a tale that makes sense, that explains how his father's job led to his premature death. And yet, the lines of each verse don't seem to quite add up. Rather than forming a fluid narrative, each stanza is made up of only fragments that do not form a whole: I started school, we went to church, we bought groceries, paid the rent. These banal bits of memory are haunted by the repeated line, "My daddy worked at the Hanford plant."

In the final verse, the children respond to the story they've just been told. They can only respond with a series of questions, for the story seems to not be a story at all, but scattered remnants of an unidentifiable past. Each piece of the narrator's disjointed memories are rephrased as a question: "What's plutonium? Where is Richland? Where is the Columbia River?". The last question, which falls harshly on the listener's ear for breaking the rhyme of the preceding lines, is "Who is this man we've never met?"

The song revolves around this absence: the part of the story that would turn the first verses into a coherent narrative -- the father's death -- is never mentioned aloud in the song. This dark moment is never betrayed by the even, steady cadence of the voice. Instead, it lurks in the gap between the initial and final verses, in the change of voice from the singer to his children.

In a 1975 radio interview with Mike Hanes on WKDA, Nashville, Talley suggested that all human experience could be divided between love and the blues. Though "Richland, Washington" sounds for everything like an upbeat country song, it is infused with the blues. This is the source of the song's strength, what enables it be at once light and flat, steady and unsettling, lively and morose, all in a bizarre balance, an uncanny zen that leaves the listener to wonder at the song about a void.

And yet, that's not quite the end. Between the performance I attended on Tuesday, the video shot in Frankfort from five years ago, and the WKDA interview from 1975, the story that Talley tells to accompany the song has stayed remarkably similar. In a way, this spoken introduction is a part of the song, or a part of its performance. The spoken narrative succeeds where the song fails at putting events in a linear, causal sequence. It makes sense, or at least some sense, out of the contingencies of living that put people in situations that do them harm, because they need to by groceries, pay the rent, take care of their kids in school. But what the introduction cannot do is create the feeling of the absence that the song calls up for the singer, his children, and the listener. The song and the story are foils, always appearing alongside each other, one trying to complete the other, trying to make a whole, yet always remaining some distance apart. Rather than closure, it is unresolvable tension that holds together song and story. They do not smooth over the difficult facts of living, but give expression to the contradictions of at once living and telling a story through different narrative forms.

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