Rebecca Parker

Rebecca Parker is a Virginia native with a penchant for moonlighting writing sessions, drinking craft beer, and investing in the local music scene. She attributes most of her inspiration and faith to rock climbing, Annie Dillard, her community of sincere friends, and Bob Dylan- all of which she writes about on her blog: raisondetre.tumblr.com.

The Lost Art of the South

A gift from my musically esoteric boyfriend, my record player has been my proverbial time capsule to the American Southlands I call home. I load dusty albums from the past–kings and queens of country–on the record’s arm and they drop by themselves. So I stack up five of those melancholy discs, and listen to the A-sides. They play through, drop down, and I flip and start with the B-sides. Sadness, coated with betrayal, layered with loss, all held within the grooves of the black vinyl. These artists sing a different tune than the post-millennial country. They sing about dusty clay roads, but they also sing about the lowest lows of desolation and the prayers of the darkest night. They sing about prison and adultery, tragedy and comfort. Their words are not contrived and sometimes not even catchy–slow and dull and long–dragging on one continuous chord. But they come from a place exclusive to the South, a place that the South could be forgetting.

I was raised in and by the hills of Virginia so I am acquainted with bluegrass and the bucolic banjo pluck of the Appalachians. Life in the South to me has meant mountains and magnolias, bourbon and a sauntering pace of life. But until recently, I did not know the darkness of the deep musical movements coming from the South less than a half century ago. In this place, in the acapellas of low sadness and the hymns of wandering, I have found camaraderie with the land that hemmed and honed me as a young woman and as a contributor to family and place. The deeper I listen to Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and the like, the deeper I enter the old South; a place where despondency, pride, and revelry exist within each other. Ever since the needle scratched and crackled through that first disc, the open space between me and my homeland, and all her past sins, triumphs, and profundity, has sealed.

Emmylou Harris was quoted recently in Garden & Gun magazine saying that she has given up on present-day country radio. “It no longer has that washed-in-the-blood element,” she said. And she’s right, alluding to this spiritually infused land where God is seen more with dirty shoes holding out redemption, rather than a glowing halo bestowing blessings. Some present-day artists–Gillian Welch, Patty Griffin, David Rawlings in particular–hold fast to the tenets of powerful, bleeding and vulnerable music of the South, but these artists are rare. The influence of the South is too often watered down to an occasional mechanized twang, girls who wear dresses with cowboy boots, and cheap beer cans. And behind the barbeque and pickup trucks, we have lost, or are at least losing, our edge.

William Faulkner at work.

It’s the same edge that the writers of our Southern fiction have made famous. The place of darkness which honed the literary voices of Flannery O’Connor’s grotesque, Edgar Allan Poe’s nightmares, and William Faulkner’s pontifications on death. The South provided a backdrop unmatched by other geographies, fostering art that feeds on our ability to make the worst of our lot.

This land of moonshine and muskets belies a deep disenchantment. O’Connor wrote that since we lost the war in the 19th century, we have ‘had our fall’–the type of fall that keeps the whole populace awake to their potent inability to pride themselves on themselves. We are aware that we can believe deeply and still, with sweat and blood, lose everything. The artists who embody the South do not wash worries in whimsy, but attempt connection amidst isolation, loss, and disillusionment.

Flannery O’Connor herself said that we may not be Christ-centered as much as we are ‘Christ-haunted.’ And these ghosts, as much as they keep us fearful and frightened, keep us wide-eyed and questioning. We have been the “Bible Belt” for decades, a symbol of centrality as much as corporal punishment. And we Southerners have been beaten by our own faith. We are holy tormented and wholly sanctified.

The South has created from this fallen place and offered the nation a voice otherwise unheard. A perspective cast through an interminable mix of searing nostalgia, bated hope, and a weighty present balanced between the two. For decades, artists let this land mold their perspectives. It was the Southern zeitgeist, and it is this curious mix of hope and sadness.

More recently, the blurring of state and cultural lines has come as a detriment to artists. We lose our senses and loosen our allegiances, as we drift above the lands. As O’Connor said, when we cease to create from the reality of our place, this Southern place, we have lost ourselves, and we have lost the South. Makoto Fujimura has said before, we have a language for the waywardness. What the South is beginning to miss is the language for the ties that bind. So the challenge for Southern artists now is to stay connected–to keep the ankles in the mud and the fires smoldering. To be a product of the palpable senses, and to let the sights, sounds, emotion and memory of your place build your reality and your platform. We need to reorient our perspective to move beyond what we do in the South, beyond fishing, hunting, and cooking with butter, and enter into who we are, in joy and in trial.

And perhaps, optimistically, we can find ourselves anew in the people who understand and channel this spirit, regardless of their geographical upbringing. Because in the end, what the South did was connect in the darkness. It is the invaluable voice of a fallen community that still echoes from my record player, and is still found within my pages of “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

Johnny Cash sang that he wore black for the sick and lonely, for the reckless, and the mournin’, for the poor and beatin’, and the prisoner and the victim. And as artists create today, perhaps it is our duty to take on the strands and fringes of black both to honor and connect us to the spirit, land and people of our place. So we take from the fragmented pieces of our community’s collective conscience, take the black, and take the blood, and in doing so, create an enduring piece of work, reminiscent of this old melancholy.

Feminine Failure

I usually kill herbs, despite my most fervent efforts at watering and pruning. I rarely cook my boyfriend dinner, and am consistently the token girl to bring the 6-pack to the potluck instead of a side dish. But still, I live to eat and am passionate about food. I take great joy from meals together, fresh ingredients, and an intelligent cheese and wine pairing. And thus it follows, that like many citizens of this modern world, I subscribe to blogs that teach me about this subject of interest. Actually, food blogs are but one of the many categories of blogs that I have faithfully tracked over the years. Personal blogs, photo blogs, design blogs, fashion blogs, culture blogs; all have taken residency in my Google Reader for significant amounts of time.

Photo by Maggie Stein.

The rise of art, décor and design blogs has brought unprecedented accessibility to art. Be they visual artists, photographers, master DIY crafters, or writers, we are no longer distant observers to their artistic contributions. We walk alongside them- feeling intimately acquainted with their inspiration and processes, and even their pets or favorite mojito recipe. Blogs inspire art in the daily and mundane, and fellowship for the journey.

Like most women, I aim to be well rounded. And like all women, I have talent, strength beyond the size of my muscles, and some odd idiosyncrasies. But recently, creeping remorse follows my expended energies, whispering for all that I can do, there is much more that I cannot.

With the proliferation of web forums, a new competition has been born, particularly amongst women. We have begun believing that we can maintain a comprehensive aesthetic over every sphere of our life, and do it economically and organically. Blogs today show us that we can, and should, become masters of accomplishment in our crafts, gardens, kitchens, homes and wardrobes, and do so with thriftiness and an effortless and innate artistic touch.

So can we bake, assemble, and frost our three-tiered cakes and eat them too? Can we pursue careers, and still be artists with our homes, activities, dining palates, and musical tastes? The emerging idea that is caught amongst many young women is that modern American womanhood– a life lauded for our opportunity for independence– is yet contrarily bound by expectations to be completely nested at a very young age.

Recently, I’ve found myself justifying my action, or more my inaction, on the domestic front. Then the inevitable happens– I collapse. I read about how any given blogger threw together a dinner of fresh vegetables from the garden, local grass-fed beef, herbs picked that morning, and topped with a simple but elegant multi-berry tart for dessert.  All served on her vintage thrift-store-find china, the food was framed with a display of lush, fresh wildflowers, no doubt in a mason jar. Apparently this exhibition only took her a short 30 minutes to complete, not counting the time it took to snap and upload these casual photographs to share with us.

I watch this show from my living room, knowing too well that I do not do this, and could not do this with such ease and flippancy. My palms begin to perspire, the screen shrinks rapidly from my eyes, and I slam my laptop closed, all as if the Gestapo of femininity has uncovered my façade and now knows I’m failing. I read decent books, shop at the farmers’ market, and frequent great concerts, and yet the strange invisible hand that governs the expectations of my gender possesses me to feel that I am not enough.

Inherently, the blogs I follow are not at fault. It is only my interpretation which predicates their perversion. When I overwhelm my mind with calculated photographs and quippy captions of posed stories, I fall almost subconsciously into the assumption that these lives are real and attainable, and that these paraders seem much happier and more beautiful than I am.

In this age of internet remoteness and social media connectivity, blogs are but shadowy alternatives to conversations and physical interactions. As comparisons arise, between my life and the woman within the monitor, I lose– because I am competing against a manipulated image of an idealized persona. I am Sisyphus, and Femininity the mountain I climb to no avail.

The real detriment here is that creativity, the original intention behind most blogs, will soon be lost to human degradation. As blogs become the means to achieve our ends, whatever those ends may be, fame, wealth, happiness, we create from selfish aim, and we observe from a deficit. Blogging is, or can be, after all, an art form. And like all art, there is a certain subjective level of commercialization that brings the corruption of the creation. At these points, when art quietly panders more to sales, we must ask ourselves: to what end are we creating? For it is in the striving of insecurity towards a nebulous standard that every artist will fall, lost in the adulterated purpose of his act. There is always difficulty in creating, and a willful determination required to be an artist and to live an art filled existence. But this is not born from a sinking inadequacy; no, it springs from an acknowledgment of your call to create.

Because in the end, the height of my Womanhood is not measured by what I do, but who I am. The quality of my character is not measured with a yardstick, nor by the height of my tomato plants. The real fruit of life is not found in traffic numbers or tutorials, but in the qualitative depth of living in love.

For men and women alike, the day we believe our very identity to be defined by our abilities and duties, we become an idea, a drape of fabric hung loosely without grounding or foundation. We are a mirage of realness, running towards a fantasy built on impossible expectations. We lose ourselves and thus lose everything.

So please take me with my 6-pack and my inability to sew. I am fully woman, capable of bearing the emotions of the world within my heart, though my herbs still wither. And take every other woman as the same.

The Listening Room Speaks

The history of Richmond, Virginia, my beloved hometown, is not one of collaboration. If anything, our dark past has quieted us. We live honest lives of looking forward, never looking back. We have been branded with a forced forgetfulness of our history as the capital of the Confederacy, fearing our pride will disrespect. So over the past century the suburbs have crawled and crawled, scratching the long fingers of subdivisions over the hills, across the borders of the town. And the city ever so slowly passed away, as the ominous cloud of fear and regret swept over the blocks. Buildings vacated, trash uncollected, industry dissolved.

Birdie Busch performs at The Listening Room. Photo by Rob Jefferson.

Only over the past decade or so, has life returned to the city. Revitalization efforts bring cross-sections of the populace together for a common hope. A turn is happening in my city, one where not only the college students inhabit downtown, eat downtown, listen downtown. The divisions of the city are beginning to blur, lost in commonality and community; supported and purported by events and people that know no bounds.

One group of people in the city, named The Foundry, have formed to do just this– bring people back to appreciation of the independent music scene. This powerful, yet quiet, collaboration has created one event in particular, called The Listening Room, that has been drawing all corners of the city together. Every third Tuesday of the month the Foundry organizes a show, much like any other music show seen in any other town, except there is one very important rule: no talking during performances. Yes, you can talk before the performance, you can talk in between and after performances, but when the music is playing, there is silence, and there is respect.

Silence means, of course, that the audience is hushed. Unlike the background music wailing at a bar on Friday night, where the band is nothing more than a stage to young peoples’ plays of drunken fraternization, silence means listening. I believe it was the first grade when my meek elementary teacher extolled the purpose and necessity of active listening. “Really listening,” she would say, “is not just sitting silently.” And only now have I learned it is a process of intake, and also, digestion, and occasionally, explication.

So to be one of the listeners, you must uphold your charge with the utmost seriousness. We listen intently to three acts, each punctuated by a fifteen-minute break, where we mill about, sigh at the impressiveness of the previous performance, grab at quartered donuts, and pour the free coffee. Being a listener is exhausting. For the caliber of performers that play, your heart is placed on the whims of the artist. We swell in their joys, we cry in their sorrows. For the few minutes that each artist plays, we parallel their songs. We are a diverse audience, representing generations and upbringings incongruous with homogeneity. Yet together we are a whole, and an audience in the fullest sense of the word, attuning our very selves to roll with the undulations of their music.

It is the musicians, though, who hold the most difficult task. In a world where independent artists grasp at the elusive attentions of the apathetic bar folk screaming ‘Free Bird’ yet again, they are instead met with silence. With a crowd ranging anywhere from one to two hundred people, their very admiration and reverence weigh in the balance of the performance. The artist has much to lose. In this rare state, when respect actually can be won, where their message can be heard, when their style can pervade– the artist stands before the crowd. Usually with sweat on their brow, and a guitar slung across their shoulder, they stand making quaking jokes, fully understanding the severity of listening, even if they are before the most gracious of an audience.

The vulnerability required to play The Listening Room is a serious trial, and not to be demeaned. The audience can hear inauthenticity, just as they can hear a misplayed chord. Performers do not just muster their strength; they muster their humility. For without pretense, show, or guises, they have to be fully human. And the audience reciprocates, providing a happily supportive and safe fan base: individuals eager to hear and accept this artist as yet-another great.

In the end, The Listening Room is not just a musical venue. It is a concept that brings the vitality of music back to the musicians and the audience. It is a gathering that has breached gaps unprecedented by the people of Richmond. It represents something far greater than the sum of its parts. It reminds musicians and listeners alike that music does indeed have the power to weave lines of connection between hearts, span audience divisions, and foster a common culture where it did not first exist.

I now have a rhythm to my Tuesdays. A dinner with close friends before, then an early arrival through the doors, we briefly greet the welcomers, where my hand is stamped with an iconic imprint of a gramophone. I meet friends new and old, and I again witness a group of people giving their time and energy to create arts that matter– arts that change people, because they connect people.

The lighting is always low and warm, and the pastries are always soft. Souls slow down as they enter the room, dragged backwards in the irrelevance of worry or apprehension. You drift into the larger whole, a congregated body come to respect and support artists. You become an integral part in this momentous concept.

The Listening Room will go on, spurred only by donations and hope, as long as there are willing artists and quiet attendees. And not just for this city of fractured history, but for all people to remember the function and power of art, this type of gathering is absolutely necessary.

If you are ever in the area, we welcome anyone and everyone to join us on the third Tuesday of every month for The Listening Room.