First Hit #1: December 30, 1950
Let’s take an opportunity to reflect on my upbringing and the development of my musical taste.
Lots of people who are interested in music, and who surround themselves with it, often speak of coming from a musical family. I can’t actually say that. While my parents enjoyed music, they didn’t tend to listen to much. They kept it restricted to the music played on local radio for the most part. Sure, they had a record player, stocked with Elvis and ’80s hits that my brothers left behind, but recorded audio really didn’t interest them. My mom owns two cassettes – Paul Brandt’s Calm Before the Storm, Prairie Oyster’s Blue Plate Special – which she’d break out whenever we went between radio stations on a road trip and one CD from a Canadian Idol finalist. My dad owns nothing of the sort. It’s not that they don’t like music, it was just never a huge part of their lifestyle.
So I didn’t grow up surrounded by music, and making matters worse the little music I did have was constrained by the local radio selection, which was poor. The majority of the radio available was modern country, which I hated. The reasons for that are likely partially because children are programmed to hate the music their parents listen to most of the time, and partially because it was just so ubiquitous. As a result, I began to stretch out of that country hole in any way I could. The internet helped, of course, as did friends who were in to hip hop and alternative rock. The rare stations that didn’t serve up country influenced my tastes as well. CBC Radio’s more eclectic styles on Definitely Not the Opera Saturdays were a godsend, and I’d listen all afternoon, scribbling down band names I had never heard of who came through with a track that was just fantastic. I’ve also got a fondness for classic rock that derives almost exclusively form that being a station that was not country.
But, in spite of that, I don’t hate all country. On Sunday afternoons my parents and I would often go visit my grandmother a half an hour away, and as it happened the local country station reserved weekend evenings – or, more precisely, the time when we were driving home – for old hits and bluegrass. In spite of my innate hatred of country music, this was different. It’s difficult to describe just how, but it was a lot less processed and a lot more atmospheric. It was also associated with driving home late and being a kid who was kind of sleepy, and had conflicting emotions both about church and about seeing his grandmother. In the time I knew her, my grandmother’s grip on reality wasn’t quite there anymore. She often confused me with my brothers and was frequently not quite able to really converse with us. It was an odd situation to be in as a kid. I vaguely remembered my grandmother before, and some days she recognized me, but I was always a little uncomfortable about the visits, and guilty about feeling that way. The old country songs were the backdrop for a period of reflection, and were almost soothing as they helped me forget about the questions of morality and mortality that inevitably accompanied the weekend.
This weird, half asleep period of reflection is the rough time when I first heard this song, The Tennessee Waltz. It’s a song that stayed with me partly because it has a fairly haunting sound, and partially because the story itself is as quietly sad as I might have been feeling in those car trips. The story of someone who loses their lover in the dance of the title, and it’s quite resigned to fate, as someone watches from the sidelines as things around them don’t go as they would hope. It’s the story of watching something you love be ruined by forces beyond your control – or at least, beyond what the singer feels they can control at the time.
Yeah, it’s a simple lost love song for some people, but for other people it can take on a meaning that is as much defined by context as it is by the words of the song. I wasn’t watching a friend steal my little darling, I was watching the ravages of time take my grandmother, which was much more difficult to bear than even the sad tale of the song. I couldn’t do anything, naturally, because I was a child and she was, at this point, an old woman in her late 80s and early 90s. Just as the protagonist of the song could only watch, the same was true of myself, and the woman spoken of by my parents and siblings and the woman I saw before me on those Sunday afternoons were no longer the same. I identified with the song on those drives home because while the situations were different, the emotions conveyed through the lyrics were remarkably similar. The Tennessee Waltz is just a simple and beautiful song for most people, but for me, it represents two things, an escape from the more popular sound of the day into a world remote and unique, and more importantly, the sound of what I was feeling but didn’t have the maturity to explain. It might have been recorded decades before I was born, but it came at the exact right time, Sunday afternoons, driving home from visits to my grandmother’s, coming to grips with how I felt at the time.