Playlist for a Road Trip Home

There are no guarantees in life—but I learned this: Music was my lifeline, and I would be OK

(Photograph by Twenty20)

Four years ago, I left my home in Portland, travelling the winding curves of Lolo Pass in the pleasant company of my old friends, John Prine and Bonnie Raitt. But I was careful to advance to the next track on the CD before I heard Bonnie singing "Standing In The Doorway." It was too soon.

As dusk fell, I slowed my speed to watch for deer, before turning my attention to Norah Jones. "Come Away With Me" and "Turn Me On" soothed me, but, of course, made me feel things I didn't want to feel so soon after leaving my husband and our long marriage. Life is too short to be unhappy for such a long time—we both agreed—but it doesn't mean there wasn't plenty of pain to go around.

In the bright autumn that followed, I plunged into the welcome distraction of a lovely man who introduced me to Bob Dylan. Of course, everyone thinks they already know Mr. Zimmerman, but this guy had every CD and every vinyl album Dylan ever made. During my month-long course in the bard's musical wonders, "Nashville Skyline" became my favorite album. Its salubrious tunes invited me to dance in the kitchen while cooking something warm and delicious for the two of us to enjoy—to the sound of Dylan, of course. And when that lovely man held me in his arms to the naked vulnerability of "Emotionally Yours," I felt something in my soul that, even today, I can hardly describe.

But I wasn't ready, and it didn't last. When Montana's arctic winter sank its cold teeth into me, I allowed myself to feel all of the pain and grief and loss that had yet to be released. A little late-night Van Morrison opened up the floodgates. "The Philosopher's Stone" and "When the Leaves Come Falling Down" helped me cry it all out. And then, this long, painful year was finally over.

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In the spring of a new year, I learned about bluegrass all on my own, without the influence of a man in my life or in my head—because Missoula is a bluegrass kind of town. Bluegrass is distinctly American, but it's come a long way since its origins, slide-stepping into newgrass, stompgrass, and even jamgrass. Mostly, bluegrass, in all its forms, is about the music: that wailing fiddle part, that high, melodic mandolin, that thumping string bass. I educated myself. I dug out my Old Crow Medicine Show CDs and listened to every new band I could find on the headphones at Rockin' Rudy's. I bought tickets to see The Infamous Stringdusters, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Railroad Earth, progressive bands with roots in bluegrass. Listening to the infectious enthusiasm of fiddle and banjo, mandolin and bass, I found little moments of joy.

This was also the breakout year when I learned to dance, in my living room, wearing thick, woolen socks—first, to Van Morrison's "Goin' Down Geneva," and later to Guy Clark's "Rita Ballou" and "Sis Draper." Temporarily captivated by my new dance partner, I spent many pleasant afternoons deep in Guy Clark's archives, listening to songs like "No Lonesome Tune" and "Ain't No Trouble to Me," but I was careful to avoid listening to "Forever, For Always, For Certain." There are no guarantees in life—but I learned this: music was my lifeline, and I would be OK—as long as no one sang any version of the words "Come On Home." Even now, it's hard to listen to a single song on John Prine's album, "The Tree of Forgiveness," without weeping. Effortlessly tugging on my heart strings—music has always played me.

At year's end, I drove to Lincoln to meet someone on Christmas Day. Just two lonely souls with nothing better to do than eat a mediocre meal and lay on a lumpy bed listening to Guy Clark all night. I basked in simple human warmth, his gravelly voice tickling my ear, and the warmth of the woodstove. Then came an unexpected connection, through music: He played me the song that helped him the most through his own divorce, "I Wish You Love and Happiness." I guess I wish you all the best. Prine, again. Listening to that song at the foot of the Bob Marshall's frozen fortress was an omen, I suppose, and, soon after, I took the first real steps toward allowing my own icy walls to begin their slow melt.

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While the melting progressed, I explored the enormous wilderness that is Montana. And I began every drive with the Dixie Chicks "Wide Open Spaces," written by Montana songwriter Susan Gibson. In Missoula, I spent a lot of time hiking in the hills that loom protectively around my new city, popping in a CD and listening to Alison Krauss sing "The Lucky One" on my frequent drives up Pattee Canyon. And for the first time, I was beginning to feel that I was lucky. I am lucky. I went down to the river to pray. I laid my burden down.

On July 13th, 2017, Lyle Lovett and his big band played the inaugural concert at the brand new Kettlehouse Amphitheatre. Rugged canyon walls soaring above the Blackfoot River, the sun hanging low to stage right, it was an awesome night. It's a wonderful thing to be happy where you are. And it was music that led me home. The smell of smoke drifted along the river from the Lolo Peak Fire a mere dozen miles away, but it didn't matter. Music made everything alright.

Tags: music