Cowboys roping in baseball caps, and empty spaces on McNally Maps. Dry creeks and history on the page. Sycamores and prickly pear. Barrel racers with great big hair. Horses swishing flies out in the sun.
Those aren’t my words. They’re Dave Stamey’s words.
It seems like the whole town has come out to hear the cowboy songwriter, and not just because it’s the best thing going on right now. Nearly every seat in the big room at the Headwaters Center is taken. He has us in the palm of his hand.
“It’s a place, it’s a feelin’ and sometimes it’s just a state of mind. It may not be what you were lookin’ for, but it’s here in what you find. And it’s all these things. It’s the West.”
I get just a bit choked up at that, and I’ve only been here for 10 years, for crying out loud. The words and the music reach down somewhere to grab at me the way a good song can. Somehow I feel a longing for something that I haven’t yet lost. In fact, I’ve barely begun to experience it.
Stamey takes a pause to take several jabs at a popular old song, “Riding Down the Canyon” by Smiley Burnett, which has featured in Western films and in recordings by many famous country singers. He recites a few of those lyrics.
“When evening chores are over at our ranch house on the plain, and all I’ve got to do is lay around,” he quotes. “Well, I don’t know where that ranch is, but when evening chores were finally over at our ranch, the very last thing you’d want to do is saddle up and ride down a canyon to watch the sunset.”
There’s a knowing chuckle from the audience, and I join in — not that I’ve ever done a single chore at a ranch. My only experience at ranches was as a dude, where I relaxed while others did the chores. To folks at their radios or in movie theater seats, the song evoked a longing for a laid-back, heavenly way of life that didn’t actually exist.
“These songs were not written by cowboys,” Stamey adds. “These songs were written by little bald men at their pianos back in New York.”
Well, I do know a thing or two about that. My Dad was once a guy at a piano in New York.
There he met my mother, a lovely young classical singer trying to make her way in the big city, having grown up on a farm in Nebraska. She would have enjoyed Dave Stamey.
When they met, Dad was making his living by working for a Broadway composer (who probably was a little bald man with a piano). As time went on, Dad wrote many fine songs of his own, although they weren’t cowboy songs. He had sense enough not to write about what he didn’t know.
They include this one, ironically called “City Longing,” which is actually about longing to leave the city. The frenzied, self-promoting feel of New York disenchanted my soon-to-be parents, and they left to teach at colleges in the Midwest.
I’ve always found it ironic that New York is where I ended up spending most of my life. Being the only child of two classical musicians, of course I grew up loving that kind of music. I learned several instruments. I used to play in string quartets and orchestras.
That is one of the very few things I miss about New York. In a small way, I do long for it. Watching an orchestra performance now is a sort of bittersweet torture. Nonetheless I crave it. So I impose it on myself, when I can.
A few days ago, I took a lovely ride over Togwotee Pass to Teton Village near Jackson, to watch the dress rehearsal of Mahler’s 3rd Symphony at the Grand Teton Music Festival.
Musicians crowded the stage: 9 string basses, 10 violas. Two sets of tympani. Lost in nostalgia, while I listened I watched them at work and relived it all: the feel of the tremolo on the string, the sound of counting bars inside my head, the sense of eyes flicking up to the conductor over the top of my glasses.
This kind of nostalgia I can explain. Other feelings puzzle me.
When Mahler wrote his third symphony, he was living in his mountain retreat in Austria. He used to go there in the summer to escape the pressures of his daily work life. We lived in Germany for a few years, so I speak both his language and his language of music. And now I live in the mountains, having retreated here from the pressures of our daily working life in the city.
In the third symphony, Mahler said, “the whole of nature finds a voice.” He described the final passages as “the peak, the highest level from which one can view the world.”
In Mahler’s music, I felt I could hear him speaking from the grave. He wrote pictures in sound: deep, rich, and complex–sometimes ominous and foreboding, at other times whimsical or light-hearted, with the strains of forest birds and distant trumpets. Sometimes he launched into the bouncing chords of a Tyrolean oompah band.
In my work as a science writer, I learned that neuroscientists have found that music touches the same nerves in your brain (I’d rather say “strings in your heart”) that trigger deep emotion.
It’s one of those things that scientists find out which you sort of knew all along.
I truly don’t miss living in Germany at all, but (as for many people who admire Mahler) the music overwhelmed me with feeling. He swept me back to Germany and into the mountain woodlands, leaving me with a feeling that I had experienced and gained something profound. (But what?)
A few days earlier, alone on the stage strumming on one guitar, Dave Stamey had evoked the feel of the entire American West with a few simple words and quiet melodies. And he had demonstrated how music can also evoke a longing for experiences that people haven’t even experienced.
No doubt a musicologist could parse way these two different musical languages differ in their grammar. But that wouldn’t explain how they can speak so distinctly inside my one little brain, somehow triggering those little hairs inside my ears to play on my neurons in ways that can summon up two entire worlds, separated by years of time and thousands of miles.
I might start pondering that again next time I look up at the stars or out over the valley. But of course I won’t ever figure it out.
© Lois Wingerson, 2018
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