Spending just as much time in the air as I do touching the earth, has it’s challenges and rewards. One of the greatest rewards I give myself is the devouring of a delicious short story during layovers, on flights or while waiting to board a plane after the rigamole of having big hair and brown skin at the airport’s security checkpoint.
1. Traveling at Home by Wendall Berry
Wendell Berry was introduced to me by a sweet fella a few years ago. As I lay in a bath unaware of a dormant illness, he read me a short story that more than captured our three years together. The story was called “A Jonquil for Mary Penn” from his book entitled, Fidelity. Years later and with a few extra bucks to invest in poetry, I found myself at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY purchasing Wendell Berry’s Traveling at Home. The book seemed fitting for my constant musical ventures, so I welcomed it into my life by starting to read it on a plane ride to LA where I was to meet and write songs with Booker T. Jones.
It was reading Traveling at Home that allowed me to experience every moment of that journey as a musical experience. Wendell Berry talks about his life on his farm in Kentucky and finding music in nature’s infinite song. The plane’s engine began to hum. The wind around it began to sing. A small child started to holler. The barista’s foam growled from the thought of three more hours on the clock. The car I rented was as silent as any vehicle I’d ever set out on the freeway driving. Although my experience was in the big city of Los Angeles, it was still brimming with music.
2. Reasons and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle
It’s always a healthy habit to read more than one book at a time. I was given a copy of Lydia Peelle’s Reasons and Advantages of Breathing by her husband Ketch Secor when we were recording my EP record, Valerie June & The Tennessee Express. I read the opening story in 2009/2010, but I just settled my spirit enough to really begin heavily reading again this past winter. It was when I hit “This Is Not A Love Story” that I began to realize the role of an artist in this world. I was once told that artists carry the weight of emotion for everyone else on earth so that they don’t have to bear it themselves. I think that’s too much weight for any artist to carry alone. Lydia’s story broke my heart open so wide that past pain from before I could speak my first word came racing through in unexplainable multitudes that lasted seconds, left me silently shedding tears next to a stranger on a plane and relieved me of a much needed catharsis of the heart. The artist’s role is to open the door for the reader, viewer or listener to truly feel and release emotions that are simple, but difficult to process on our own. From laughter to tears, artists beg and encourage us to express our feelings and face our fears as creators having human experiences. Peelle’ work also enveloped me because of the genuine way she captures life in the South, and y’all know how I love Tennessee!
3. Housecoat Diaries: Chicken Scratch for the Soul by John Scoles
In a venture to Winnipeg, Canada, I was invited to perform at a place called Times Changed by a fella named John Scoles. He is a writer of the real world as far as I see it, but he does it in a way that had me laughing out loud like I was at a comedy show. I needed that laugh because I arrived to find my Gibson guitar was destroyed. Philosophy, money and health care can be difficult to write about with a light heart. I won’t tell you too much about his book, Housecoat Diaries: Chicken Scratch for the Soul, other than it made me buy a housecoat and spend a few more days enjoying just sitting still in a chair and looking at the wall, listening to the world move outside my window and watching the rainfall all the while knowing the time would come soon enough to be on the grind again.
Upon meeting Booker T., I first met his wife Nan. I was tossing and turning trying to decide what gift to bear when I met him. Wendell Berry’s poetry was the best boon I had to share. It’s appropriate for a songwriter. In the days before the writing sessions began, I was privileged to chat with Nan. We discussed our love for short stories and reading. When I gathered my things to leave, I met Nan in the elevator. She gave me a book of her current favorite short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri called Interpreter of Maladies. Most of these stories were read in Texas during SXSW. I would come “home” to my rented room (burning for an escape from the crazy days) and read one before drifting away to sleep. Lahiri took me on a journey from America to India and back again. She captures such a vast range of the minute details that distinguish our cultures, but also does an excellent job of delightfully showing how Indian people have assimilated into life in America. It’s the unspoken themes that tear me apart in her work. She leaves the reader guessing and allows for creating your own ending to many of her stories. The final story is called “The Third and Final Continent.. I am on a plane once more as I write about my love for short stories. I have been rambling for so long and drifting for so much of my time here on earth. It is in the close of her book that I am stirred to reflect on my life from Humboldt, TN, a town of 8000, to my many simple and small but wonderful accomplishments.
I hope you have the chance to read “The Third and Final Continent”, and I hope you have the same experience of being grateful for every soul whose path you have crossed, every gift given to you, every moment of your days thus far and every artist who breaks your heart open enough for you to feel any damn thing again.
Hers is a twilight voice, a liquid silk from the heart of Tennessee. It is tailor-made for lullabies and lyric blues; and so, for that matter is Valerie June‘s spirit. For years June quietly built her brand in Memphis, where magnetic Southern charm and stunning stage presence earned her a feature spot on MTV web series $5 Cover. But no reality show could capture the true reality of this talent: a self-taught guitarist, banjoist and songwriter, June has crafted a sound that draws on the best of southern traditions. This is organic moonshine roots music, a warm pastiche of achin’ vintage country and powerful delta blues- and a style she had delivered on three solo albums, including her eponymous 2010 release. Although currently based in New York, Valerie June’s music has been embraced with overwhelming praise throughout the US, Ireland, Hungary and Germany. She is currently working on a new album.