Still in Rotation is a guest post feature in which talented writers tell Midlife Mixtape readers about an album they discovered years ago that’s still in heavy rotation, and why it has such staying power.
Peyton Price is known around the Interwebs as the genius behind the Twitter handle Suburban Haiku, a poetess who wrangles the existential angst of suburban life into 17 neat syllables across three short lines. (For example: Good pumping, baby. No, don’t stop! Keep it going! Moms near the swing set.) Today’s she’s unshackled, syllabically speaking, and talking about the man who saw her across the divide into her present day life.
Crossing Muddy Waters (2000)
by Peyton Price
In the early 2000s, I was a working mom with two little kids in two different child care locations, and an hour commute each way. Those two hours were glorious because they were the absolutely only time I wasn’t responsible for anyone but myself. Those two hours were also the most panicky and stressful—maybe in my life—because I wasn’t where I needed to be and I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to get there on time.
I had a couple of albums on regular rotation in the CD-changer, but the one that cut through the buzz in my head was John Hiatt’s Crossing Muddy Waters. I didn’t realize at the time—in fact, I didn’t realize until much later when my well meaning husband took me to a concert—that the album was a departure from John Hiatt’s style. He’s written songs you know, like “Thing Called Love,” made famous by Bonnie Raitt and “Have a Little Faith in Me,” a Joe Cocker classic.
But Crossing Muddy Waters is sort of a concept album. It’s an acoustic story of yearning and loss told through songs—a series of vignettes really—in which the hurt is crystal clear but the details are hazy. A man is abandoned by his lover, left with their baby daughter. A couple wakes up the morning after a car accident. A husband and wife debate whether to fight for their relationship.
John Hiatt gives an incredible vocal performance with his strangely affecting regular guy voice, accompanied simply with only a couple of instruments. He sounds like an open wound.
Lyle Lovett is beside the point.
Do you remember Holly Hunter’s character in the movie Broadcast News? She schedules a daily cry into her routine. Tears on. Tears off. Looking back, I was doing the same thing with Crossing Muddy Waters: fitting a catharsis into a logistical nightmare of a day that I had little control over. I had one hour to get to my next shift and before I parked the car I needed to experience my own humanity. Releasing the valve meant I could show up—all the way up—for work and kids. POW. I’m here. What do you need? I’m on it.
Eventually I wanted to get off it. I became an at-home mom. I listened to other people’s music, never for more than a song or two at a time. Little people have short attention spans. The years passed.
Last summer, I had a new commute, driving my teenage son back and forth to day camp. A half hour drive seemed reasonable when we registered, but when camp started I realized I had to drive there and back and there and back. Two hours. I went digging for my CDs and found my old friend John Hiatt.
Listening to the album again, driving back and forth again, I was as absorbed in the music as I had been 14 years earlier. But this time I was surprised at how catchy the songs were, how smart and funny the lyrics—how had I missed these clever rhymes and turns of phrase? From “Only the Song Survives,” that song about the couple who’d been in an accident:
She said, well don’t you remember they put a patch on your eye?
Like Dread Pirate Roberts, you looked so unplanned.
They cut off my wedding ring and you started to cry,
a one-eyed Niagara Falls man.
Or in “Take it Back”:
Take back all those kisses that you stole from me.
Take back “Mister and Mrs.” to your family.
Can’t take broken dishes when we fight all day, hey!
Take back all best wishes, did I hear you say.
And John Hiatt’s voice, still evoking real loss, somehow also sounded rascally and free.
Which I suppose is a fair description of how I felt about myself all those years later, with the time and inclination to drive my teenage son to a fancy camp. There was no boss waiting on the other side of this commute to serve me a steaming hot plate of urgent. No babies crying at the sight of me because I was too early or too late to pick them up. Only work I wanted to do and people I wanted to be with.
Doesn’t that mandolin sound sweet?
Peyton Price is usually much more concise. She’s the author of Suburban Haiku: Poetic Dispatches From Behind The Picket Fence and the proprietor of suburbanhaiku.com. You can find her complaining about the good life on Twitter and Facebook.