About A Girl
By Wendy Brenner
Teenage Girls Wading the Frio Canyon River, 1973, by Marc St. Gil via National Archives, College Park.
A Partial List Of Country Musicians My Sister Rachel Has Met Personally
(“This doesn’t mean I know them, just that I met them at least once,” she clarifies, ever the soul of reason.)
- Vince Gill
- Rodney Crowell
- Rosanne Cash
- Guy Clark
- Gail Davies
- Emmylou Harris
- Sweethearts of the Rodeo
- The Desert Rose Band
- Kathy Mattea
- Steve Earle
- Roy Acuff
- Minnie Pearl
- Brenda Lee
- Billy Walker
- Jimmy Dean
(“Jimmy Dean?” I ask. “The sausage guy?”
Rachel: “Yes, the sausage guy. He was a singer first. He sang ‘Big Bad John’ in the ‘60s.”)
- John Hartford
- Linda Davis
- Jon Randall
- Lorrie Morgan
- Del McCoury
- The Cox Family
- Townes Van Zandt
- Dwight Yoakam
- The Marshall Tucker Band
- Nikki Nelson (second lead singer of the group Highway 101).
- Paul Overstreet
- Hal Ketchum
- J.C. Crowley
- Louise Mandrell
- Amy Grant
- Peter Rowan
- Barry and Holly Tashian
- Robin and Linda Williams
- A whole bunch of lesser-known, local-type performers and session musicians.
While my sister is, inarguably, an “obsessive country-music fan,” she is not a crazed fan. She doesn't stalk people, has never been arrested, doesn’t do drugs, has never auditioned for a reality TV show. She has rented the same Nashville apartment and held the same job—bookkeeping for a property management company—for more than a decade, and she volunteers weekends in a therapeutic horseback-riding program for children with disabilities, and just because she once wrote a song about the ghost of Emmylou Harris’s tour bus and waited after a show to present Emmylou with the typed-up lyrics, and just because she once got a thousand signatures on a petition to keep a Manhattan country-music station from switching to an all-talk format (including, somehow, the signatures of the Marshall Tucker Band—“They were around that week,” she says vaguely, meaning “around” New York), and just because she moved by herself, a twenty-four-year-old nice Jewish girl from Chicago with no savings, connections, college degree, or job, to Nashville, Tennessee, a place she had never even visited, just so she could be close to the music—it’s not like she’s crazy.
To be fair, she met many of those listed before as both fan and employee, while she was working as a production secretary at Opryland Talent, one of her first jobs in Music City. Her position required her to behave professionally and appropriately—she couldn’t, for example, get autographs, which was fine with her. “I don’t do autographs,” she says, with some disdain. She is a purist, that particular brand of music snob for whom it’s all about the music. She actually still listens to her hundreds of vinyl LPs, and her cassettes, and even to her 45s, most of which have been in her possession for about thirty-five years.
The Opryland position was short-lived, and she was growing desperate, between jobs and short on cash, when she met the married duo Barry and Holly Tashian at a Unitarian church; they were selling their CDs, and my sister asked if they’d trade her one in exchange for a few hours of office work. They hired her on as a part-time Girl Friday, and for several happy years thereafter she got paid to immerse herself in their music, a mix of bluegrass, traditional country, and folk/Americana described by reviewers as “gentle,” “soulful,” and “unpretentious,” adjectives that also describe my sister, but don’t usually apply to the music business. The Tashians were neither naive nor novices, however. As a teenager, Barry had appeared onThe Ed Sullivan Show (with his garage-pop band, the Remains) and toured with the Beatles; he later played on Gram Parsons’s solo debut and recorded ten albums with Emmylou Harris. For my sister, it must have felt like she’d landed a job in heaven—and from what she has told me, the Tashians were most certainly her guardian angels, the kind you encounter when you’re too young, or young at heart, to know you need watching over.
It was through Barry and Holly that my sister got a brief gig assisting a local college professor who was writing a book about country music; Rachel’s duties were rote and clerical, securing reprint permissions on lyrics, calling ASCAP and other music- licensers—yet again, she was happy. She didn’t care about getting her own name into print, wasn’t secretly angling for a recording contract. She wasn’t All About Eve. She just loved country music, and in Nashville, it seemed, she could get paid for this.
Several years later, in a professional situation, I met some colleagues of the professor for whom my sister had worked. I mentioned the connection, and watched the shock of recognition, the rapid reinterpretation of me, or whoever they’d thought I was, the polite rearrangement of facial expressions. “Yes, that's right,” one of them finally and carefully said. “She wasn't the usual type of person you see around our department.” Another quickly added, “She was a breath of fresh air.”
Flashback: Chicago, Illinois, Saturday Afternoon, Winter 1977
My sister and I slog through black slush and ice chunks in the gutters of Lincoln Avenue, a busy, sidewalkless four-lane that cuts through our suburb and into the city. We are thirteen and eleven, respectively, bundled in our fake down jackets, my sister in soggy sneakers, me in my new knee-high vinyl fashion boots from Fayva. We are hiking to Discount Records, a tiny, dark, hole-in-the-wall shop my sister somehow knows about and frequents, even though she is too young to drive and the store is miles from our house, on a gritty block of pawnshops and take-out joints and taverns. She bikes there by herself when the streets aren’t so icy, and bikes home with her album purchases under one arm, but I have no idea why she suddenly needs to go in the middle of winter, or why she invited me along—we’re not close, don’t usually hang out together. Usually she’s in her bedroom with the door shut, listening to music or lying on the floor reading, and even if her door is open, trying to talk to her is infuriating. One time I started yelling at her and nearly physically attacked her (which I did with some regularity throughout our childhood) because when I asked what the book she was reading was about, she would only answer: “A girl.”
She conned me into going to Discount Records by casually mentioning that she had recently seen Heart's original, unreleased Magazine LP there—only a few hundred copies were allegedly in circulation, she explained, because of the band's contractual dispute with the Mushroom label. This was news to me; I didn’t read Creem and the other music magazines my sister subscribed to—they seemed slightly dangerous, like they were written in code. (What was up with Boy Howdy beer? I still don’t understand.) But I got excited about the treasure-hunt aspect of the Heart story, the lottery angle. I didn't doubt for a moment, nor do I have any doubt today, that if anyone in America had seen a copy of the original Magazine at a record store, it was my thirteen-year-old sister, but the music itself was incidental to me. I spent my own allowance on unicorn posters and Me! perfume and Bonne Bell Lip Smackers. Yes, I loved singing along with “Magic Man,” poring over the photos of Ann and Nancy Wilson on Little Queen and Dreamboat Annie, wondering where they got their cute outfits, what size bras they wore, but I felt phony, like I was copying my sister when I said Heart was my favorite band, or claimed to even have a favorite band. No matter how strong my love for any music, it would always be a weak imitation of my sister’s.
We didn't see Magazine at Discount Records, and I don’t recall whether we bought anything else. The day’s highlight for me was getting fries and a hot apple pie at McDonald’s. (Per our liberal upbringing, we were permitted to walk miles unchaperoned into the city to buy records, but corporate fast food was forbidden.) I still remember the glorious illicit yellow plastic warmth and light of that restaurant, after walking so far in the damp and overcast cold. By the time we got home, after dark, my feet hurt so much I literally crawled up the stairs to my bedroom. My sister, of course, was in no pain whatsoever, and even then I felt this as a reproach—I was a lightweight.
“In My Room,” Original Lyrics And Score By Rachel Brenner, Circa 1970 1
I like to sit in my room.
In the corner there is a broom.
The ceiling is red
And so is the bed.
My sister taught herself to read at age three, was labeled “gifted,” “the sensitive one” (nobody said what that made me, the other one), was so smart her kindergarten teachers skipped her ahead a grade in school. She wrote poems and was a talented artist and spontaneously composed music when she was seven or eight, perhaps inspired by our mandatory piano lessons, which inspired me only to figure out and play endlessly the creepy, hypnotic four-note theme of Brian De Palma's 1973 horror film Sisters—starring Margot Kidder as good-and-evil Siamese twins—after I heard it one time on TV.
Somehow, though, by high school, she was no longer behaving like a gifted child. She had quit piano long ago (we both tended to abandon every kind of lesson—ballet, flute, guitar—the moment we were allowed to) and spent all her free time shut in her room. She wasn’t doing drugs in there, hadn’t “fallen in with a bad crowd”—she barely had a crowd, just the same few close friends. She moved anonymously through the halls of our giant public high school, amidst the anonymous other 2,500 students, her grades plummeting, her teachers and doctors and guidance counselors offering no diagnoses and scant guidance. There was nothing wrong with her. Her standardized test scores were through the roof. The more my parents yelled at her, the more time she spent in her room. “Rachel’s off in her own little dreamworld” became the family line, repeated over the years in tones of dismay, rage, worry, resignation. (The line on me was “Wendy’s working herself up into a tizzy again.”)
What she was doing in her room, instead of homework, was typing up and compiling into binders the lyrics of every Fleetwood Mac song ever written, clipping and saving every magazine or newspaper article about Fleetwood Mac, tracking down out-of-print LPs by the band’s original members and by the members of all the bands they’d played in before or since, and ordering bootleg recordings of live performances and unreleased tracks and interviews from classified ads in the backs of magazines and catalogues from all over the world. Because I happened to live down the hall, I, too, came to know all the album titles and accompanying bizarre cover art by heart, burned in my memory even today, though I can’t name all the students in a class I taught last year. Kiln House, Bare Trees, Then Play On, Future Games, The Pious Bird of Good Omen. She had the Buckingham-Nicks album and the solo album by Christine Perfect (Christine McVie's real maiden name) and tangential things by Chicken Shack and Walter Egan and John Mayall. I knew about how Jeremy Spencer got brainwashed by the Children of God, how Peter Green went crazy from too much LSD and on one tour refused to play anything but “Black Magic Woman” (of which he was the author), and about the brilliant but fragile Danny Kirwan, whom Bob Welch called “one of the strangest people I’ve ever met.” Now, of course, all of this—the trivia, the discographies, the bootlegs—can be found in five seconds on the Internet. In the '70s, my sister was the Internet.
At the time, I just wished she were normal. I was mortified by her weird hobby, her tentative, “sensitive” way of speaking, her uncombed and unfeathered hair, her failure to wear makeup to cover her acne. She was making me look bad by association. Did she not notice that nobody wore bell bottoms anymore? In our family, I was the only one who cared—panicked, actually—about what others thought of us. My nerdy parents were frantic about my sister’s academic problems, but social uncoolness was like a badge of honor to them, a sign that one had good values. They practically bragged about how they themselves had never been in the “in crowd”; when kids teased or bullied us, they suggested we respond with clever puns.
Most teenagers would rather die than be seen with their families, I know, but I am ashamed now by how deeply ashamed of my sister I was then. Recently I realized that seven of my iPod's “Top 25 Most Played” tracks are Fleetwood Mac songs from the 1970s—four of these in the top ten—and by way of penance or apology reported this to my sister, who seemed neither surprised nor especially interested. But then, I’ve always been slow to catch up with her. (The only thing keeping “Second Hand News” out of the number-one spot is my obsessive playing of Santana's 1981 hit “Winning,” which is somehow simultaneously plaintive and triumphant and thus seems like the perfect anthem for both the best and worst moments of my life, not that I ever noticed this in 1981.)
Despite the hand-wringing and dire warnings, my sister made it through high school and through four years at a Midwestern state university, from which she elected not to graduate. She had moved on from Fleetwood Mac by then and turned her attention to Broadway, and was writing letters to the actress Mary Gordon Murray—who coincidentally (or not) played a country singer on the soap One Life to Live—and Betty Buckley and other stars of the stage, many of whom responded with kindness and encouragement. When a couple of my sister’s theater professors turned out to be less encouraging, she did an end run around them, skipped town during finals week with a few hundred dollars and two suitcases, and moved to New York City.
In between endless, hopeless cattle-call auditions and temp jobs, she hung out at a bar in the East Village that had a forgiving crowd of regulars and a country-heavy jukebox she liked to sing along to, maybe to let off steam, or maybe just to practice her singing, which wasn't getting her very far in auditions. “The jukebox was loud so I could kind of let it drown me out if I couldn't hit a note,” she recalls. Sometimes other regulars joined in and sang harmony, or bought her drinks, or put in quarters for her. One guy who always sang along with her on Loretta Lynn's “You Ain’t Woman Enough” later turned up on the front page of the New York Daily News, identified as one of the top drug dealers in Washington Square Park.
I remember silently wincing on the phone when Rachel told me, rather excitedly, about her new jukebox hobby. Why couldn't she just be normal? Yet as I write this, probably twenty or thirty of my graduate students, not to mention several fellow professors, are down at Martha’s Karaoke Lounge in Wilmington, unironically and quite competitively belting out Patsy Cline and Hank Williams and Tammy Wynette, taking photos to post on their blogs. When was it ever cool to care so much what people think? I wonder. What the hell was my problem? Of course, now that karaoke’s cool, my sister’s not particularly interested in it. “I sing better than I used to, but not well enough to do it for anyone but myself,” she says. “I sing because that’s where I can express myself musically.”
It was in New York, riding the LIRR back into Manhattan with a friend after an Emmylou Harris concert, that she wrote the song about the ghost of Emmylou’s tour bus. “We were just being silly and trying to write something melodramatic,” she says. “It was never supposed to be serious.” She doesn’t understand why I am suddenly so interested in this song, and despite my repeated entreaties, she insists no record of it survives, not even the title, which she claims not to remember, even though I’ll bet money she can cite from memory every musician who played on each of Emmylou’s albums. All she recalls about the tour-bus song, she says, is something about the “taillights disappearing into the night.”
The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.
I have noticed on The Bachelor that you can always tell which girl the bachelor is going to pick by what he doesn’t say, what he can’t find words for. If he rhetorically lists positive traits—“She’s warm, she’s athletic, she’s great with kids”—it’s the death knell. About the girl he loves (forgive my loose usage of the term), he’s like, “I don't know, whenever I see her, I just feel like—I don't know!”
The same goes for music, I’ve always thought. However well-schooled or personally impassioned, even the most genius critics aren't much better than Amazon.com’s “personalized recommendations” at predicting what music you, or anyone, will love. What happens between you and the music in private, in your head, or soul, or wherever music is truly heard, is finally impossible to articulate.
When I ask my sister why country has outlasted her other musical obsessions, she mentions that it incorporates many different influences, that the industry is more accessible, the shows generally more intimate, than, say, mainstream rock—but then she adds, a little helplessly, “I don’t know, maybe because it has more horses in it than any other kind of music?”
Certainly nothing in our heritage predisposed her toward the South. Our parents listened exclusively to classical, jazz, and the occasional Tom Lehrer album, and never so much as turned the radio dial to a pop station, let alone country. As kids, we owned a single country record, a K-Tel “Best of” LP that someone had given us as a gift, featuring Donna Fargo and Buck Owens and Roy Clark; we laughed at the cartoonish accents and melodramatic lyrics, made a game of hilariously acting out “I Fall to Pieces.”
By way of explanation or testimonial, it is easier, and perhaps more accurate, for Rachel simply to cite her favorite country-music memories: sitting on the banks of the Ohio River in Owensboro, Kentucky, for sixteen hours straight, listening to bluegrass under the sun and stars; seeing John Hartford and Mike Compton perform on a midnight riverboat cruise: watching the Tashians from backstage the first time they performed on the Grand Ole Opry; seeing Emmylou perform with the Nashville Symphony at the Summer Lights festival one day, and Guy Clark play at some smoky, low-lit little club the next. Love is always greater than the sum of experiences, but those experiences are all we can see or touch or hear, the only part of love anyone’s ever been able to chart.
Sometimes I think my sister and I haven’t changed at all over the years: I’m still the annoying, hyper one, she’s still the dreamer. Living in the South has helped me to see her in a different light, the region having always accepted and celebrated its eccentrics—it’s practically a requirement, a point of pride, to have one in the family. But I’m not so sure I would even call my sister eccentric anymore. Somehow, by internal radar or smarts or simply following her heart, she has always known how to find her way to the places that feel the most to her like home, places where being a music freak is considered anything but freakish, her own little dreamworlds on earth. We all should be so blessed.
1 Brian Wilson’s song by the same title was released in 1963, coincidentally the year my sister was born.