I recently spent a week up north with my family at a place on Lake Huron--same spot I've been going to since I was a boy. Just a couple hours away, it's in vast contrast to life here in Detroit. Driving north on M-13, which splits off from I-75 just north of Bay City, you enter some kind of agrarian time warp. Driving through these towns--Kawkawlin, Linwood, Pinconning, Omer, Au Gres--my nostalgia mingles with all the recent changes.
What this economy has wrought on these small towns. Twenty years ago these were towns filled with small factories, mills, farms and small services. Back then, there was just a hint of the encroaching exurbia, a gentrified, touristy, more cosmopolitan northern town. Now these towns show only traces of the old order--farmers still raise a fine spray of silt behind their tractors on summer afternoons, and manufacturers still empty a few workers out to roadside bars at midday. But not like they once did. M-13 is now like a traveling flea market; boats, cars, furniture, clothing–everything is for sale on lawns for miles. I noticed that even the homes themselves are often for sale.
The core of life is now about entertainment and lifestyle enrichment; we all seem to be consumed with enjoying enjoyment. The farms are smaller, the mills and factories are largely gone, and every little ranch house has a satellite dish. I'm certainly a part of the entertainment culture, but I'm also resistant to change. I like it the way it was--which is of course now only in my memory.
In the middle of our week, we drove up to Tawas, a gleaming resort town rimmed with cottage motels right on the water. On the road to Tawas, there are several square miles of chalky white hilltop quarries. The town in the middle of all this, Alabaster, is little more than the home of the U.S. Gypsum Company, a business founded in the 1890's by some guy named Daniel Houghton. Gypsum is actually a derivation of alabaster, which has been used to make drywall for most of this century. The entire setting sits like a bleached ghost town, hazy and surreal, with water towers, silos and quansut huts that recall an earlier, more productive time. The white dust shrouds the entire quarry. But the Gypsum-works stand as a testimonial to this time of transformation, this move from making things to making things fun.
Evidence of the old way of doing things, and how that's all come to pass, is everywhere. The most haunting fixture is a two mile aerial tramway that stands, eerily immobile, on cement based towers that run well into Lake Huron. This method of hauling Gypsum from the water looks antiquated, even sinister. I'm told it still runs, with its huge, conical containers swaying above the icy blue water. The company still employs workers, though not like it once did, and far away from this old site. At the gates of the Gypsum works sits The Alabaster Bible Church, a ramshackle house with one cracked stained glass window and white soot on its steps.
I love looking at a corn field or wheat field in the wind as much as I do the ocean. I guess that makes me a Midwesterner through and through. If you're reading this, you're most likely a Midwesterner too. You know and understand the obligations of being a Midwesterner. In the true Midwest, we rarely deflect this obligation. We place the value of living in loyalty to a few friends and family, maybe one or two chosen institutions, and finally in a deep trust with the land and water around us.
Small AM radio stations are sprinkled throughout this part of Michigan; in the summer you drive through them, a crackling aural gauntlet, leaning into the plain talk and forgotten songs as if into a lucid warmth. Removed from the radio wars in Detroit, these stations simply play what they think sounds good to the people around them--presumably without focus groups, person by person marketing, and demographic surveys. I like hearing a crop report with my music.
My friend Pam Rossi had her wonderful weekend radio show on WCSX, Over Easy, cut in half time-wise recently because her programmers cited a new kind of Arbitron rating, where barely a fraction of Detroit's 4 million people report on listening and viewing habits. Over Easy is a show devoted to real music, with real musicians--many of them regional artists, like yours truly, and it has a large and loyal audience. It's been a Detroit institution for nearly 20 years, first with Carey Carlson as host, then with Pam. It's been something the music community can agree on and celebrate...I mean, what makes "us," us? Things like Over Easy. In our growing technology-based, bottom-line-driven culture, shows like Pam's are considered expendable. It's hard, however, to justify many many things just based on their economic value. Rural AM radio may be the last place to find random radio programming in the form of traditional Top 40.
I try to avoid playing cds while driving because popular music is still, for better or worse, found on the radio. And it's still largely concerned with love and its losses, digging back into childhood or extending far into life for its romantic inventions.
While driving late one night last week on M-13 I heard, among other things, both the terrible and the transcendent: Bocephus's new "Forged By Fire," his father's (Hank Williams) "Kaw-Liga," Kenny Chesney's Summertime," Sam & Dave's "Hummin'," Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds' "Don't Pull Your Love Out," and Sam Cooke's gorgeous "Nobody Knows The Trouble I've Seen." Unconcerned with mega numbers and musically-hip perceptions, these stations provide for a listener an emotional autobiography, playing songs that fall between the fading of the big bands and the beginning of rock, or between what's now classic rock and what's new country.
At the time I made little point of these observations, outside of noticing the pull that popular music still has as it guides us toward a way in which we want to live. But that suggestion is enormous. It’s the notion that these aren’t merely old songs on rural radio, but instead brief illuminations of the contrast between what's simple and what's sophisticated in America, between what's popular culture and what is high art–at times even between what's bad and what's good. American culture is a beautiful mess, dependent on a conversation half-heard and talked over, yet somehow still well received. So there--now I feel much better enjoying "Delilah" by Tom Jones as it sizzled across the wires just outside Au Gres, followed quickly by the okra bean report.