This is the twelfth installment in our “Conversations with Death” sub-series.
My spouse had cancer 14 years ago. She’s fully recovered. I’m still not sure I am. When I think back over the complex set of interests and experiences that drew me to create this blog, it’s hard to dismiss this particular brush with mortality from the group. The vulnerability introduced by this traumatic period took me from one kind of blissful ignorance into an unwelcome and surprisingly thorny awareness. I’m still untangling it.
The experience had, among other effects, the propensity to turn many later moments of solitary parenting into reminders that this is what my life would have been like if she hadn’t made it. Despite the many things to celebrate and be thankful for about her healing and recovery, part of my mind inevitably drifted to the “what ifs” and the disaster that felt all too narrowly averted. I probably had an over-cultivated sense of tragedy to begin with. This episode made it all the more difficult to dig out of it.
“If We Were Vampires”
My introduction to Jason Isbell‘s work was through radio play of “Hope the High Road” of The Nashville Sound. That track was the song of the year for one my favorite local DJs last year. After that, I stumbled across Isbell’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert, which included a well done suite of “Chaos and Clothes,” “Molotov,” and a pleasantly participatory “Last of My Kind.” Isbell’s lyrical facility grabs you by the collar.
Not long after I saw this clip, GQ published an “Epic Conversation” between Isbell and author George Saunders. Isbell discusses in that conversation how his writing sometimes overwhelms him. Following the song all the way through to where it needs to go can lead to some tough places. He explains that he couldn’t get through a first, private performance of “If We Were Vampires” without breaking down. I had to take a break from the GQ clip to hear why.
This is why:
Conversations and duets
“If We Were Vampires” just won a Grammy for Best American Roots Song for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. It is certainly now one of the less obscure songs we’ve explored here. As Isbell acknowledges in the Saunders interview, the title is misleading. What sounds like an imaginative flight of young adult fiction is a devastatingly serious reflection on love and death.
Isbell’s songs are generally pretty accessible to play–not a lot of fancy chords or convoluted lyrics. “The art lies in hiding the art,” says Horace. I’ve added a few Isbell songs to my regular “playing in” repertoire. When Isbell talked about not being able to get through it, I heard what he was saying. When I first attempted to sing it myself, I understood. I couldn’t get through it, either.
“If We Were Vampires” is, in our parlance, a “Conversation with Death.” It was a conversation that was too difficult for me to have. It was not only my death that the song contemplated and conversed with, but another’s death as well. I’m challenged to identify another song that unfolds that vulnerability of “wearing your heart outside your body” more effectively.
I still can’t imagine how Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires, could get through this performance of the song on Jimmy Kimmel.